jan’s thoughts

Designing Words

I just came across this really interesting article, “How to Design Words” by John Saito, on Medium. John mostly writes for apps and websites. In his article, he gives great examples of effective copy in different user scenarios (system notifications, web copy etc).

While I was first dazzled that a writer openly admits that he hates reading, I felt quite relieved when he explains that he actually hates boring, wordy texts. And, apparently, his apathy for unnecessary information actually helped him become a better user interface writer:

It’s a style of writing where brevity beats brilliance, and every character counts.

Good web copy is short, easy to understand and to the point. Sounds simple, right? Why do so many websites still look wordy, bloated and work ineffectively?

John’s article got me thinking about some possible reasons for ineffective web copy. In webdesign projects, I’ve often encountered these key problems over the last few years:

  1. Writers and designers seem to live in two different dimensions.
  2. To outsiders, writing for the web looks easy, but it’s not just copy and paste.
  3. Agencies don’t understand SEO and still create worthless copy to satisfy search engines, not people.

Web copy - a victim of project politics?

Poor web copy is often not the result of a lack of writing skills but project politics (Dear copywriter, this 600-word ode to our CEO is very important and must be on our landing page!1!!1).

Clients believe that print copy (from catalogues and brochures) simply works on the web. They don’t understand the medium. As a result, copy might “look nice” but it doesn’t do its job and becomes ineffective.

During a redesign, the website structure gets a complete overhaul, yet existing content is carelessly recycled and stitched together.

In the worst case scenario, content is considered low priority and delivered last (this still happens!).

Bad copywriters write bad copy

Simple as that. Instead of hiring knowledgable writers, content production is outsourced to abysmal SEO copywriting agencies, who hardly know the design or product. This should be obvious to everyone, yet cost pressure often leads to quick decisions. Copywriting budgets are usually slashed first.

Different browsers, different users

Words are unpredictable, especially on the web. There are different devices, operating systems, resolutions and browsers. Creating good web typography can be a pain in the ass (but it’s worth it).

Lastly, there’s the user component. Every person reads, or rather scans, text differently. What designers think is blatantly obvious can be invisible to many people.

Encourage Communication between Writers and Designers

Both writers and designers have to deal with constraints in their arts, but they need to collaborate closely at every stage of a project.

To eliminate some of the issues addressed above, copywriters should make word design an integral part of their drafting process. Simple mockups (check out Balsamiq), as John Saito shows, are a great way to find out whether or not copy works in its environment, the web.

Text prototyping will make you a better writer, because it shows you “design flaws” early on in the process. And your client will be happy because you create more effective websites.

On the other hand, designers should always look beyond aesthetics and - if possible - request early drafts from writers. Even if the draft is not 100% perfect, it’s better than using blind texts (the infamous lorem ipsum, or even bacon ipsum). Blind texts are called blind for a reason; they don’t see their environment. As a result, they will never give you the look and feel of the final product.

Creating effective web copy is easier in a collaborative project environment, where clients value copywriting, copywriters value design, and designers value copy. It could be that easy.