How I write for design

November 6, 2023 in Product design

I know I’m at risk of sounding like a broken record, but I want to - once more - express how important I feel writing is to my creative process. Avid readers of my blog know that this is topic I come back to again and again - most notably on why I write, how to get started, and why I think designers should write. Repetition expresses importance, right? I sure hope so.

** Before we get started with how I write though, I wanted to highlight something that I feel is important to understand. I try to be careful of giving much advice around “processes.” Not because I don’t want to share, it’s quite the opposite actually. But in today’s “instant effect” society, it’s so easy to see things recommended to you as the way to achieve progress and, ultimately, success. Instead, I want you to consider that my thoughts on a subject - in this post and among the rest of them - are simply thoughts that provide options or other things to explore. Rick Rubin is on to something similar in his book The Creative Act;

"Nothing in this book is known to be true. It's a reflection on what I've noticed. Not facts so much as thoughts. Some ideas may resonate, others may not. A few may awaken an inner knowing you forgot you had. Use what's helpful. Let go of the rest. Each of these moments is an invitation to further inquiry: looking deeper, zooming out, or in. Opening possibilities for a new way of being." - Rick Rubin - The Creative Act

Your request

You’ve asked for it! I’ve been getting more and more emails and DM’s from readers (fun!) asking questions and sharing feedback about what I’ve shared and the journeys they’ve been on. Reading these is by far my favorite thing and without writing, hearing, and reading from all of you, all of this would be less fulfilling. One common thread shared lately is that designers are eager to try to incorporate writing into their process, but are unsure of how to actually get started. I believe this to be a common stumbling block as, after all, we’ve been conditioned to jump head first into Figma and start exploring different executions.

Jaroslaw reached out after reading my latest post about product principles:

“Thank you very much for writing. I've read your texts for a while now, and some books too. But after this post, I've FINALLY seen something new in myself a new way to "design" yes not in Figma but in writing. Not only did I see it, but I started right away and boy did I have fun with it, I mean writing-designing, I could write-design for prolonged periods of time.

I think it should work like this: Write about the design I'm working on it so that I know it's ready in my "mind" and only then open Figma to make it visible. I have not yet tried to visualize the concepts and things I've written, but the process feels right.”

This brought a smile to my face as I visualized Jaroslaw writing with new-found eagerness and passion about how writing is serving them. The best part? I’m fairly confident their designs will be even better as a result! So better process and a better result - what’s not to love?

My process

Trying to formalize my process ahead of this post has been… difficult. How do I actually approach writing before designing? Is there a pattern? I’m afraid there isn’t. What I begin by writing is dependent on two things:

  1. Consider what kind of project / design task I’m facing This step isn’t very surprising, but absolutely key to getting started. If it’s a design system or an app, what I write down first is going to go in completely different directions. I think this is a good time to mention as well that not every design task needs to begin with writing especially if you are familiar/embedded in the project as a whole. Example: I’ve worked with Summer Health for more than a year now so when designing a new screen for something, I will often just jump into Figma because I already know what the main principles and characteristics are. The writing is done and the goal is clear.

  2. How I feel This one is may be more surprising to you, but I’ve noticed that the best initial writing happens when I don’t think too much about what to write, but instead just begin to write and see where the words lead me. Some would call it free writing, but I find starting writing from an open mind doesn’t limit my design decisions later as if I had come at it with a more rigid view of what needed to be produced. You allow yourself to not just look at the umbrella (a proposed solution), but consider the rain (the complex problem).

How or what

When I was studying at Hyper Island in the very early 2000’s, a large part of my education focused on the balance between how and what. Being a 20-year old, studying at the world’s best institution focused on digital media, I really wanted to learn tools like Flash and create overly animated websites that ended up on k10k, not to take precious time studying how to give and receive feedback. The how and what they were focusing was much more important than I could fathom at the time. It allowed you to not just concentrate on the goal (the what), but on the process (the how). It shows that the journey is as important as the result. Now it’s more than 20 years later and I’m forever grateful for the thinking that was gifted to me at the time. You see… the what doesn’t really matter if you’re not happy with the how.

This concept evolved into how I approach writing early in the process. Sometimes I choose to focus more on the practical side of things, how I think they should work (the what). Other times, I make sure to focus more on the emotional side of things and how I think they should make you feel (the how).

For eobuwie, it was very much about thinking about some of the practical side of things. I knew they had a massive inventory of products - and being an avid online shopper - I know the pains of browsing through a seemingly endless selection of products. This was the very first initial writing I did:

Navigation goals

  • Easy to find a specific item, fun to explore all 50.000
  • Go from 50.000 products to a curated, personalized list of 20
  • Know where you are (and how to get back and forward)
  • Help user and encourage (and reward) engagement

You’ll see that this kind of writing isn’t hard to jot down, yet it’s very guiding in the process that followed. It’s not specifically limiting, but it offers any designer (me or someone else), directional cues to adhere to - both in mechanics (the what) and the emotions of interaction (the how).

Working with Summer Health provided an opposite approach to writing. I had a pretty good idea of what the product needed to do. I recently worked on R&D in space and text messaging with a pediatrician feels very straight-forward. Instead, I focused on something similar to what later became some of our product principles. Because Summer Health, at the time, also mainly focused on urgent care (whereas now on everyday care) it wasn’t a far stretch to think about the user-first and consider their anxiety and concern when interacting with our service or a service like ours. So some of the first words I selected to guide me in that process were:

  • Simple interactions, simple language, simple patterns Swipes, pinches, and parallax scrolls can be fun, but this isn’t the time nor place.
  • Human interaction Even though AI can already often give surprisingly accurate responses to medical questions, people prefer to interact with another human. The design needs to highlight that there are actual human doctors at the other side of the screen offering real care, support, and compassion.

It’s about understanding what you know, and what you don’t know

Simply put, design’s purpose is to solve a problem. Writing allows me to better understand what currently I know about the problem, but just as much as what I don’t know. Michelle Claessens put’s this more eloquently than I ever could:

"To write, most people will jot everything down, then finesse the points into a coherent narrative. This is a lot like how I design, where I start by outlining the content and components. If you can’t finesse your brain dump into a coherent narrative, people won’t understand what you’re trying to say — and, when it comes to your designs, they won’t be able to use your product."

  • Michelle Claessens

So what if you follow Jaroslaw’s lead and just try to begin by writing and see where you end up? Who knows, you might be surprised!

It’s honest, authentic, and accessible.

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