Designing The Words: Why Copy Is A Design Issue

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The relationship between copy and design has been covered1 many2 times3 on Smashing Magazine. Working in a content-focused industry, we need to keep this issue pretty close to heart; creating great copy is pointless if it is visually uninspiring or unreadable. Likewise, if the content doesn’t deliver, then even the most attractive page won’t hold the reader’s attention.

Yet much of the discussion so far has concentrated on issues such as microcopy — the small bits of text that instruct the reader on how to interact with the website — and the minutiae of user experience. This stuff is essential, of course, but in this article we’d like to broaden our focus to look at some of the fundamental mistakes behind bad copy.

We’ve chosen to do this for two reasons. First, we hope it will help budding writers out there avoid the most common pitfalls of the job. Secondly — and perhaps more importantly — we want to stress the importance of content as part of the user experience mix.

A while back, Elliot Nash discussed the responsibility of the designer4. Designers “want control of the entire user experience,” he said. “We want to ensure repeat use, and high engagement — and to do so, we want to design every little piece of whatever it is we’re working on. After all, we are largely responsible for the performance of the result.” However, he argued, “most of us don’t want to own the work it takes to execute this full scale implementation.” For us, leaving the copy out of the equation is a fundamental error.

In practice, design is a process that should happen with content, not just for it, and the practice of creating a page full of lorem ipsum and getting the copywriter to fill in the blanks just doesn’t cut it anymore. The cross-discipline approach of using design as a way to clearly communicate information, known as communication design5, is growing. However, no matter how clearly laid out a design is or how elegant the infographics are, our number one visual tool for relaying information to the audience is well-written text.

The Importance Of Editing

Bill Beard has written about the importance of using techniques such as multivariant testing to optimize microcopy6. With large bodies of text, this becomes more of a challenge. Fortunately, authors, journalists and copywriters have been wrestling with this challenge for years, which is how we came up with the concept of editing. The main difference between editing and testing is that, rather than observing an average member of the public navigate your copy, you enlist someone who has a wealth of experience in working with the written word.

A lot of editing is nuts and bolts stuff: fixing the grammar and punctuation, removing repetition, and making text easier to scan. However, like many user-centered design practices, it also means delving into the fundamental assumptions behind your writing, addressing how you think about the words, your audience and yourself. It is this process that will turn a precocious but essentially terrible teenage poet into a good writer. Yet, looking at so much of the copy online, in magazines and on billboards, we can see that plenty of professionals out there haven’t yet mastered it.

Below are the three things that every writer and copywriter must learn to avoid:

1. Self-Importance

Of all the mistakes new writers make, this is probably the most understandable. When you begin writing, you want, first and foremost, to make your mark. Your writing isn’t just another entry in the world’s growing collection of largely unread manuscripts; it’s a definitive text that future scholars will paw over for hidden meaning for years to come. You’re the voice of a generation, damn it!

Copywriters face the same problem. By now, probably about half the words ever written were penned for marketing purposes, and you don’t want your work to be another drop in that increasingly deep ocean of marketing blah. You want to stand out, to be something special. That’s why you end up writing copy like this:

“It’s not a journey. Every journey ends, but we go on. The world turns and we turn with it. Plans disappear. Dreams take over. But wherever I go, there you are. My luck, my fate, my fortune.”

Believe it or not, this wasn’t written in the Moleskin of a sensitive teenager. It was written by professionals, advertising a globally recognized brand with a budget big enough to hire Brad Pitt to read it like so:

Both the poor souls behind this crime of an advert and the 15-year-old who writes poetry about how everyone is superficial except himself have the same problem. They both want to stand out, to draw prestige, to be memorable; however, whether due to youth or the fact that they sell scented liquid, they don’t actually have much to say.

So, how do you avoid doing this yourself?

One of the most common pieces of writing advice in the world is “Write what you know.” Conversely, it’s a good idea to know what you’re writing about. You will often save yourself a lot of trouble simply by asking, “Why would anyone want to read this?” The answer could be “because it’s useful” or “because it’s funny” or any number of other reasons, but you should be able to answer that question before putting words to paper. I’m sure no one asked why anyone would want to hear “The world turns and we turn with it.”

It’s a line that doesn’t actually tell the audience anything. It’s the sort of vacuous line that sounds meaningful but contains no information. You can argue that it’s making the case for Chanel No. 5 as a constant in an ever-changing world, but the portentous tone and the layering on of hilarious faux-meaningful truisms, such as “Every journey ends, but we go on,” drown out any point the text could have conceivably made.

The teenaged poet is likely to get better as they get older because they will learn more and will have more to write about. By the same token, if your copy is to carry weight, whether for an advert, marketing copy or a company website, then you’ll need to know what you’re trying to communicate and why anybody would want to hear it.

2. The Wrong Tone

Young writers are a lot like magpies, happy to steal anything that looks shiny and put it to use in their own creation. Studying Shakespeare in school? In it goes. Read Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven and thought it sounded cool? You’re having that. Enjoy the teenaged banter in Buffy the Vampire Slayer? That goes in, too.

The result is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of a writing style. And you know what? That’s fine. As with most things, imitation is a great way to learn how to write, and, with time, copying the good bits of others will mutate into something that conceivably sounds like your own voice.

The same is true of professionally written copy. When Barclay’s heard of cash machines being described as “holes in the wall,” it liked it and took it. World of Warcraft liked the Chuck Norris jokes7 (or facts) that were getting passed around a few years ago and so got Chuck Norris to appear in an advert based on them8.

But if you don’t take tone into account when writing copy professionally, the results can come out a little on the weird side.

For example, check out Kingpin Social9. This company offers courses in social interaction. Fair enough — plenty of people out there find it difficult to talk to others, and a company that offers techniques and training to help you overcome that difficulty would be welcome. The problem is that the website uses phrases like, “We will teach you to utilize proven social methodologies that will provide you with success in your personal, career or corporate relationships,” and “Every person deserves the confidence to achieve the optimal result in every social situation.” Imagine somebody using phrases like these in conversation; what opinion would you form of them?

A course like this needs to appear inviting to people who are worried about coming out of their shell, while also demonstrating that this company is made up of people who are good at speaking with others. Using words like “utilize” and “optimal” achieves the exact opposite effect.

The only reason anyone uses those words in marketing copy is to appear clever, and using words to appear clever is what bad teenage poets do. Never say “utilize” or “optimal” when you can say “use” and “best” instead.

Sometimes you end up with a patchwork effect — for example, using a simple, effective phrase like “What We Do10,” and then following it up by telling readers that you are “a performance-based retail marketing technology and analytics company focused on helping retailers deliver relevant advertising that converts.”

In user-centered design, one often speaks of “personas.” A persona is a fictional character who represents the typical person you are designing for. You would think about their needs, their wants, the knowledge they will bring to your design, all of which will help you to construct a design around them.

A good way to avoid this pitfall in your own copy is to try the reverse. Think of your client’s business as a character you’re writing dialogue for. What sort of person is this business? What are their likes and dislikes? What sorts of things are they likely to say? Read the copy out loud. Does it sound like the sort of thing your imaginary person would say? If not, why not?

A particularly good example of this is the Scottish craft brewery Brewdog1311. Everything, from its website to its packaging, is written to sound like somebody you wouldn’t mind going for a beer with — passionate, funny and just a little surreal.

brew dog_2_mini12
Brewdog1311 — passionate, funny and just a little surreal…

The Dead Pony Club14 drink is introduced thus: “Being shot from a Hoppy Howitzer beats the hell out of trotting round a submissive paddock. That’s why the internal combustion engine got mounted onto two wheels.” But it avoids the territory of “The world turns” by adding, “This pale ale is chopped, tuned and ready to roll. Fuel up and hold tight, this little thoroughbred kicks like a mule.” However unpoetic the language, there’s never any doubt that the copy is talking about beer.

3. Self-Awareness

This is perhaps the hardest and most important thing for any writer to learn. It’s why many of us just don’t bother. We all dive in at the start without hesitation, enjoying the sheer joy of creation for its own sake and assuming that we’re producing pure written gold merely because we’re the ones doing it — until one day, it suddenly occurs to us, “What if I’m not any good?” Yes, I know, it was a surprise to me, too.

Some writers simply shake this thought loose and carry on as before. Many others stop right then and there, too paralyzed to ever dare setting down another word. However, every writer has to go through this step before they actually start being good. It’s when they start asking the question mentioned at the beginning, “Why would anyone want to read this?” and they start working to come up with a good answer. It’s when they start trying to read their work with eyes other than their own; and if you can’t do that, then copywriting really isn’t where you want to be.

Writers who struggle to overcome this obstacle are often so focused on selling their product that they forget the advert will appear in a wider context — with disastrous results. This is probably why Sony produced a series of incredibly racist billboard15 ads for its Playstation Portable. It’s also likely why American Apparel16 thought Hurricane Sandy was in any way an opportunity for social media marketing. At the time of writing, the Royal Bank of Scotland has just hit a marketing disaster because its campaign, which tells people to “Search RBYes,” doesn’t take into account that Google autocorrects “RBYes” to “Rabies.”17

Sadly, teaching someone to “be more self-aware” is not really possible. Most of us learn to do it by making a lot of mistakes. But, more than anything, it takes a bit of imagination, the stuff that both copywriters and designers are supposed to have in droves. Of course, this doesn’t mean that designers now have to be fully proficient copywriters who can proofread and redraft words while setting layouts. Nor does it mean that copywriters need to be wizards with design software (although a little knowledge of the basic tools and concepts wouldn’t hurt). However, it certainly means that copywriters and designers need to work more closely together than ever before.

Conclusion

If you would like to learn more, we strongly recommend reading The Craft of Words, Part One: Macrocopy18 by the Standardistas, a great exploration of how design and copywriting intersect. All too often, design and copywriting take place in their own little bubbles, with each practitioner unaware of what the other is doing. But for the copy to be of any use, the writer needs to be aware of the context in which it will appear.

Front page image credits: Sean MacEntee19.

(al, ea, il)

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Sam Wright is the founder of Norwich-based agency Robot Mascot and head of content at Sims Designs.

  1. 1

    All I could focus on in this article is the fact that Chuck Norris Jokes will somehow hang on forever.

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  2. 2

    I think there are some good points in this article. I agree that there should be more of a consistency with great design that is accompanied by great copy and vice-versa.

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  3. 3

    “It is better to be thought a fool, than to copywrite, and remove all doubt.”
    —Confucius… but, er…updated so as to relate to this article.

    We really have to be careful with our words. One of the primary concerns in copywriting is that is doesn’t always have solid context (compared to speech). Many times, text can be taken the wrong way if we don’t watch our wording. That’s how I got wrangled into this car payment that I can’t really afford…

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  4. 4

    “As the world turns, we turn with it”…

    While I agree that in relation to the product it doesn’t tell us anything useful, the message itself is very powerful. In this day and age the average person has the perception of being on this earth, not of it. We tend to focus on how to concur our environment and assert our will.

    It’s important to hear the message underneath our surface interpretation of this poetry. We are not small little individuals roaming the earth, we are part of it, and the deep understanding of this is powerfully transformative when applied to your daily outlook on life.

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    • 5

      Hi David. I see your point, but what I was trying to say that the message is lost because of the delivery. The tone for me, and I suspect many others, is pretty alienating and seems false. That kinds of buries any message.

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  5. 6

    Good article. Truest thing I read?

    “In practice, design is a process that should happen with content, not just for it…”

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    • 7

      That’s true even it caught my attention towards this point “In practice, design is a process that should happen with content, not just for it…”. i agree with this !!

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      • 8

        Hear hear. While this article offers excellent advice, folks who don’t get “Why Design Is a Content Issue” are a bigger problem in my life.

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  6. 9

    Videos above not responsive while browsing with galaxy s3

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  7. 10

    This is a very good article. This is the kind of stuff I come to Smashing to read.

    All three major points are so valid. I feel point 1 (Self-Importance) carries the most weight of the three. For me, this is area where I see writers complaining about “dumbing down” their writings.

    This comes from the feeling of intellectual superiority (look at how the W3C’s specifications are written). If you cannot read and understand such writings, then you are lacking in education. Of course, on the web, this perspective is not only unprofessional, but in error.

    As you stated, copy will appear in “a wider context” than often expected. Reading comprehension is not about deciphering words only. You must consider cultural context as well.

    All this puts me in mind of plain language principles and what you talk about in this article.

    I am a culprit of point 2 (The Wrong Tone). I am constantly going back and reminding myself of the needs of my target audience. This is why your point of creating a persona for your own business is particularly useful to me.

    Again, very good article and keep up the great work.

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    • 11

      Hi there – thanks for reading! Happy to give you some pointers for your own copy if you like. Just tweet me at @blinkseo.

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  8. 12

    While I find this article enlightening and informative; the title seems a bit misleading as the majority of the content is about copywriting itself, and less about it actually being a design issue.

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  9. 13

    I’m so glad and relieved to read this article. I have very recently pitched to my team that we include copy at wireframe stage because I realised how crucial good copy is to a great user experience. As well thought-through and beautifully designed a piece of work is, bad copy will always let it down.

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  10. 14

    Sam,

    Appreciate you bringing this perspective to Smashing Magazine, particularly the line:

    “However, no matter how clearly laid out a design is or how elegant the infographics are, our number one visual tool for relaying information to the audience is well-written text.”

    It’s our belief that designers should be working with real words, not a page full of lorem ipsum. In other words, the words serve as the starting point for the design process.

    By no means is the initial draft etched in stone. But the back and forth framed by this approach seems to bring about greater harmony between the words and design.

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    • 15

      Thanks Lou! I couldn’t agree more. The back and forth is essential, but on smaller projects it’s often left out of the picture. I often used to get sent a lorem ipsum-filled site by a designer and then have to prepare it for launch. Mostly there’s no time to have a detailed talk with the client, and there’s been no thought to UX. The pressure is on me to get everything straight quickly so the client can be billed too. On bigger developments it’s less of a problem, but it’s not a question of resources at all, just using them smarter.

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  11. 16

    “written to sound like somebody you wouldn’t mind going for a beer with”

    I wouldn’t drink beer with someone who sounds like that much of a douche.

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  12. 17

    About bloody time someone wrote a good post about copywriting. You’d think we’d see a lot more of it, given what we do.

    I agree with a few others above. Copy and design shouldn’t be created in isolation. If they’re to tell the same story, they need to work together.

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  13. 18

    Cheers Glenn, glad you liked it!

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  14. 19

    This article is gold. I downloaded The Craft of Words, too. Perfect reference and validation for the voice and tone guide I’m writing. Thanks for the insights.

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  15. 20

    Would-be copywriters often ask me for advice. Now I can simply direct them here.

    Thanks for summing up everything I think, so I don’t have to.

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  16. 21

    I agree with your opinion. I learnt many new thinks from you. It is very useful to know about the copy writing and design. Thanks for your information.

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