I’m a designer, not a writer. WRONG!

Mark Busse – 7 Comments


When I was a much younger man studying fine art in university, we spent a lot of time practicing how to interpret and describe artwork, its meaning and how it made us feel. Later, during my business administrations studies, writing essays, case studies and briefs emerged as a key component of a successful business professional’s toolkit. So why then is writing proficiency—even  very rudimentary grammar and spelling—such a surprise to so many young design students I meet?

While visiting China recently to attend Icograda’s World Design Congress, I was honoured to be invited to lecture at four of the top universities in the country, each with respected design programs. Not surprisingly, their emphasis on art and craft is without compare, and their technical prowess is reknowned, but their design curricula seemed lacking much training in business, strategy, or communication. There was no shortage of calligraphy training—a beautiful craft I adore and wish I could do—but writing (in English certainly) was not emphasized in their programs.

Following is an email I received from one of the 4th year students at China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing:

Hi Mark. My name is Sam, we met at CAFA in Beijing. I was at your lecture. You said something that I didn’t quite understand and I hope you can expand a little bit more on it for me. You said that we need to, as visual communicaters, articulate well, write well, spell well. My question is WHY? I’m not sure I understand. Could you just go a little deeper for me? Thanks. Also is there any book, especially ebooks (being in china and not being able to purchase english books and all), that you could reccommend that could help me in my studies? Thanks again.


I often see the fear in the eyes of young students when I explain the importance of writing to them as a designer, but I must admit this type of reaction always surprises me. Perhaps after 20 years in the business and 12 years running my own design firm, but it seems obvious to me that writing well is a crucial aspect of the business of visual communications. Success in the highly competitive design industry requires it.

Unless you fancy yourself an old school graphic designer, our job does not primarily involve drawing beautiful illustrations, picking pretty colours or choosing and setting beautiful typography. Rather, visual communication design is concerned with the creation of ideas and meaning through a variety of means—including words and language to a large degree. I hope all readers of this agree on that point.

The business community worldwide uses carefully crafted written communication as a cornerstone of its daily operation. I can’t tell you how much time I spend each day writing business emails, proposals, briefs or corresponding with remote clients in writing via Skype or instant messenger. If I didn’t write goodly, what would these often well-educated professionals think of me and my company?

In my experience, key decision makers (clients) often require clear explanations of strategy and meaning behind our proposed solutions as they often lack the visual language literacy we posses as trained designers. If we truly want to be respected and place designers in corporation boardrooms around the world, we have to use language they understand—at a competency level they’re used to.

I have found that those designers with superior writing skills are more often those enjoying the highest degree of success. Not do they use writing when developing winning project proposals, but offer this valuable service to their clients alongside visual design and production. Many designers offer illustration or photography as well as graphic design, but being able to write copy and edit content provided by a client is almost expected these days.

In terms of self-promotion, writing is a powerful tool when communicating the rationale behind your design solutions in presentations, case studies, and promotional materials. Too often I’ve seen beautiful (looking) work ruined by poor writing and what would otherwise have been effective portfolios and websites fall flat due to poorly composed written explanations.

Furthermore, our communication skills—both verbal and written—are a reflection of our work ethic and professionalism. As clients are most often found within the business community, then isn’t it imperative we demonstrate our superiority in an increasingly competitive industry? Having *pretty* looking work in our design portfolio isn’t enough anymore—clients want to know about strategy, approach and results. Uh-oh, that means we need to write again.

The reality though, is that a talented graphic designer who lacks advanced writing skills need not fail or suffer as long as he recognizes the need for excellent writing and collaborates with an experienced writer who understands design and the project at hand. At very least it’s the designer’s responsibility to make sure the copy is checked carefully by a competent (and briefed) writer before committing layout designs to production.

Just like some communication designers who admit they can’t even draw or code, it is possible to enjoy success by partnering with those who can, though I’d argue it’s always better if done by the designers directly. While outsourcing to writers is common and often required, it is also the old paradigm and writing should be, in my opinion, a key step in the design process itself.

It boils down to this: Words and message are a major part of what we use and deal with every day as communication designers, so we should be experts at using words ourselves—don’t you agree? Being a skilled writer isn’t as much about being a successful communication designer as it is about just about being a successful professional. Period. If you want to succeed in your career, regardless of the specific trade you specialize in, written and spoken communication will always be important.

I worry that so many young designers abandon any interest in composition, grammar, spelling, etc. once they start pursuing visual language. And to be honest, we design educators need to take some responsibility for this too. Design is hard work kidlings. And the business world is glued together by words, not pretty logos. Learn how to write and you will enjoy success. Fail to recognize this and it will hold you back.

This whole discussion reminds me of a Canadian designer, GDC colleague and friend, named Eric Karjaluoto of SmashLab, who wrote a good article on this topic called Designers Must Write arguing that being able to write was as important being able to draw—two skills he argues are critical for designers—both taking practice to master and keep up. Eric’s writing has become such a large part of his own design practice in recent years that he has just published his first book called Speak Human.

Blair Enns, author and founder of Win Without Pitching, has recently been preaching about the merits of writing as a communication designer, claiming that writing makes you smarter and gets you found—especially in the online age. As a respected speaker and consultant to marketing and advertising agencies and design firms around the world, Blair argues in an article on his site called Four Reasons to Write that writing is a powerful differentiator for communication professionals.

My response to the Chinese design student Sam was essentially what became this article, and I’m happy to report he fully understood and agreed, even deciding to take this to his teachers to ask them for help in this area. I didn’t really have many book suggestions for him, though there are a number of decent options available on as well as some suggestions from Google. I did mention the e-book Writing For Visual Thinkers from PeachPit which seems worth checking out. If you have any recommendations, please add them to the comments below.

Oh, one final thought: The international language of business and design is now English—although obviously Chinese is crucial for a Chinese student who pursues a career within China—so correct spelling and grammar in English has become another key factor in presenting yourself as a professional to potential clients and the public. Lucky for those of us who were taught English as our first language, but I have a warning for you all: China is not far behind us. They are all learning English at an early age and they are working hard to become the next global design superpower. There was a lot of talk about the dynasties in China’s history while I was there, but when I left, after witnessing an impressive show of support by the Chinese Government for its burgeoning design industry, I felt like I had been present at the dawning of a new era in Chinese history: the beginning of the Design Dynasty. Soon we won’t be seeing “Made in China” on products, but rather “Designed in China”—and the writing that accompanies them will be as impeccable as the production quality.

[Thanks to tnarik for the photo]