Writing’s gift? Better design

February 6, 2024 in Product design

For years, I’ve been trying to highlight that I think more designers should start their project by first writing, rather than jumping head first into Figma. And, for years, people have been wanting to find out more about my process and how it ACTUALLY works… not just in theory, but in practice. So today I wanted to share two updates on the topic.

Writing helps me organize my thoughts

There was something that Nathan Barry - the founder of Convertkit - wrote in a recent email newsletter that resonated with me. He pledged to write every day for the month of January and people have asked him why a busy founder and CEO would want to spend that much time writing when he could easily delegate it to someone else.

“So why would I ever spend hours writing when I can spend minutes speaking and get the same result? It comes down to whether the goal is to clarify or amplify: To the degree you want to clarify your thinking, write. To the degree you want to amplify your thinking, speak. Then delegate the dissemination of your ideas.”
Nathan Barry

There’s a quote that says, "Writing is the process by which you realize that you do not understand what you are talking about. Importantly, writing is also the process by which you figure it out." I think Nathan’s reasoning is along the lines of what I’ve said (and written!) before, that writing is the process that helps me understand what I know - and more importantly - what I don’t know. In order to succeed with a design - making sure our design is solving the right problem in the best possible way - we need to be absolutely clear in our thinking around the design challenge at hand. If designers jump straight into Figma, they may not have the deeper understanding of the design that the process of writing facilities and, unfortunately, run a greater risk of confirmation bias.

Creating a design system… in Notion

One design task that might seem obvious - one you actually could jump straight into Figma to do - is creating a new design system. There are literally thousands of templates and boiler plates you can download, tweak, and be up and running in matter of hours. But this isn’t always the best solution. I find that I often discussions (and debates) with founders/teams that they need to create a design system that is unique for them and their needs.

You see, a design system, like most things, isn’t necessarily better the bigger it is. It’s easy to think this might be the case because, after all, doesn’t it make sense to have all the tools ready for when you need them? No, not really. Just like your wardrobe only really needs to have the clothes you actually wear, your tool kit needs to have the tools you use, not every tool available. It’s easy to add something when you need it, but it is wise to limit our design system to our recurring components. It’s why you’ll find a suit in my wardrobe, but not a smoking jacket. I HAVE a use for the suit. It’s a needed ‘tool’. Side note: I also HAVE a use for my almost embarrassingly large collection of t-shirts. :)

So I recently started the process of creating a new design system for a startup. I’m beginning the work by auditing their tools and files to identify which components we’ll need and in which variations and states. This is pretty much the same process I followed a year ago when I updated the design system for Loom!

Sure, it would be easy for me to jump into Figma and start creating useful components, but what I really do is compile everything into a Notion doc. I’ll then use that doc to outline what components I need to create and which states they’ll have. Even though it might look a bit repetitive, it’s crucial to outline the states to make sure we’ll create a design system that’s not just useful - but also accessible! This way, we’ll get a design system that helps the organization save time and create a more cohesive product while making sure all users and customers can access our product. I also take the time to list out what variations each component should have. This outline process reduces the risk of creating multiple components when I do jump into Figma, i.e. a variation of a button rather than creating multiple button components.

Once the list of components has been created, I’ll continue on to listing out patterns. A simple pattern could be a search bar, consisting of an input field and a button. A more complex pattern might be a card or a table. I use Notion’s tagging feature to index which components are needed for each pattern, all before I’ve started designing.

I’m not a fan of lead magnets so I’m not going to ask you to sign up for my newsletter to get my Notion template, even though it’s arguably what I should do if I want to build an audience. Here’s a peek at what the Notion doc looks like! If you like it, go ahead and sign up for my newsletter :)

Beyond Figma: how writing sharpens design thinking

Now that I’ve shared my process and the tangible steps I take, I hope it's clear that writing is not just a preliminary step, but a foundational practice in design. This methodical approach ensures that by the time we open Figma, we're not just ready to design; we're primed to solve the right problems in the most effective way.

This journey from the written word to the visual design underscores a crucial lesson: great design begins with clear thinking and clear thinking is often best achieved through writing. Whether you're crafting a new design system or embarking on a complex digital product, the clarity gained from writing can be your guide.

I encourage you to try integrating writing into your design process. See how it transforms your approach, sharpens your focus, and leads to more intentional and impactful designs. And, if you're curious to explore more about this process or share your experiences, let's continue the conversation! Sign up for my newsletter to stay updated on this topic and many others. Together, let's discover how we can make our design processes not just more efficient, but deeply meaningful.

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