Monday, March 27th, 2006

Designers must write

Designers must write
Email to a friend Comments (69)

Early in my career, I was involved in a strange and completely unnecessary rivalry with one of my coworkers. She and I were like oil and water. After years of chilly interaction we actually managed to engage in something that had the semblance of a civil conversation. During this chat, she somewhat reluctantly noted that she held no drawing skills. To state it candidly, I was aghast. How could a professional not have a handle on what I perceived as the absolute basics?

Even that early on, I knew that design was about more than getting funky glasses and flipping through type magazines–It had everything to do with the idea. How could you effectively explore or begin to develop an idea without first scratching down some thumbnails and messing about?

No one asks us to be Bruegel

Strangely, upon entering the industry, I learned that a large number of designers had decided that the pencil was simply a relic. As such, they were limiting themselves to creating comps and developing ideas solely on a computer. I’d often end up in arguments about the idea that avoiding the process of putting pencil to paper simply resulted in weaker work.

My conviction in this is unwavering. A whole generation of designers compromises the strength of their ideas by jumping to a computer too quickly. I’m certainly not promoting the idea that we have to aspire towards being remarkable illustrators; however, we do have to be capable of getting our ideas down on paper, both to explore effectively and to help convey unripe ideas and directions.

Earlier this month a young student considering a career in design asked me if drawing was a necessary skill for a designer. I emphatically responded, “Yes.” It was sort of confounding to think that one could seriously ask the question, kind of like, “If I join the NBA, will I have to run?”

There’s no shortcut or excuse. To be a designer, your hand must posses the necessary chops to practice your craft. Let’s all get this one off the table and be done with it. Drawing is a prerequisite. If you can’t do it, learn to.

What does our job require?

I think we generally limit the scope of our work as designers and see only partial aspects of the job as part of our responsibility. For example, we know that we’ll have to select typefaces and correct photographs; however, the amount of time most of us end up spending on these tasks is in my mind relatively unequal to the effort we expend on tasks not acknowledged as part of the job.

I believe that my true job description would begin with this phrase, “Write and respond to email.” That’s what I do all day. I send notes to designers, clients, and suppliers, and then I task manage the fallout from these messages. I send persuasive emails, abrupt emails, congratulatory emails, friendly emails, and so many others. In fact, I’m even composing this blog article in… You guessed it, my email application. Although I may not open Photoshop on a given day, my email application is never inactive.

At our studio, we spend a great deal of time creating plans, researching both concepts and execution methods, and in preparing documentation. We talk a lot, discuss concepts, make sales calls, organize folders, and try to refine our method of working. We also empty the trash and take turns at sweeping up the place.

I often wish that my job was like those designers in the movies–they pick colours from swatch books, go to big meetings in fancy boardrooms, and are invited to nice parties. What a happy life! At smashLAB, we seem to be stuck in the real world, and simply can’t get out.

Words are a part of our arsenal

As much as email has become one of my primary communication venues, it has also become the place where I often design. I use this tool to give direction to our designers, convey ideas to clients, and often sort ideas in written form: making lists, sequences, and plans.

When we worked on a website for a law firm in Vancouver, we began with a series of stakeholder feedback meetings. They understood this, and this part of the process seemed to be embraced; however, they were almost baffled when we arrived for our first creative meeting without comps. They asked whether we needed a projector or wanted to show print-outs of our work. We explained that before we’d even build a wireframe, we would have to share and discuss the observations, insights, questions, and challenges we had documented.

When we finally did reach the stage when visual exploration was presented, we had their buy-in, as we had already addressed their needs, and solved some of their challenges in a format they understood: written language. Our ability to articulate ideas in both a verbal and written fashion allows us to earn the buy-in of clients, on projects that may be out of their realm of expectations. And really, how often does a client receive exactly what they would have expected prior to entering the design process?

Language = Power

Sometimes I feel as though the right selection of words coupled with careful enunciation and timing is as graceful as a surgeon’s hands keenly manipulating life as though it were not complex in the slightest. Well, perhaps that’s a bit of an overstatement, but I don’t expect that many would argue that even a few well chosen words can wield more power than our most brutal weapons.

I did not make a conscious choice to write as much as I do. It was something I learned to do out of necessity. When you run a firm, there’s never a shortage of situations in which one must write. I spend a large part of my day either writing briefs, rationales, proposals, general correspondence, or even copy for one of our projects. I will likely never be a writer, but at very least, I am not afraid of using language as my work demands.

I find that as my ability to shape both written and oral communication improves, I am better equipped to direct the work of others. I can uncover a verbal method of responding to what I feel emotionally when I view a project. Additionally, I find that these skills allow me to better explore and sort ideas.

I’m finding that ideas run on many of the same principles, whether in the form of word or image. It’s interesting to learn that a task which I perceived as a nuisance at times has in fact made me a better designer.

We should never squander this gift

Not using language efficiently is negligent and wasteful. It’s something a professional designer should never willingly do; nevertheless, I find that many of us shy away from these tasks, as we don’t feel that they are pure design. It’s sort of that attitude of, “that’s not in my job description”, that seems to keep us from strengthening this capability.

I expect that in a number of studios, the Creative Director writes the brief and passes this on to the design team. We first did this; however, at one point it seemed so contradictory in nature. Why were we taking this part of the process away from a designer, who could own the project from the beginning? Although most of those who work with us find this quite overwhelming at first, after a few campaigns they generally find it a logical and straight-forward part of the process; nevertheless, some have felt very differently.

One of our past designers felt almost slighted that he had to waste his time writing briefs for projects. He often reminded me that he wasn’t a writer, and that this was far out of the realm of a Senior Designer’s duties. I must say that I found this horribly frustrating and difficult to comprehend. In my mind the greatest benefit a designer earns with experience, is the opportunity to be more highly involved and responsible for a project. That’s where the choices are made and the fun seems to begin.

A higher-level designer

Our designers are accountable for their ideas. The applications they use are simply their tools. They know this, and are aware of my disdain for a “fix it with software” perspective. They go home with headaches, because we demand so much. They also are the kind of people who are becoming the kind of designers we all dreamed about being, way back in art school: Those who develop functional design that truly solves the problem at hand.

In my mind, designers fall into one of two categories. The first is a craftsperson. These individuals can utilize the specific tools of their practice with precise skill, and enjoy a very highly specialized knowledge of their craft. I would classify type designers as part of this category. I have the utmost respect for their craft. It is fraught with complex challenges and requires a master’s eye to command.

The next, and in my mind more powerful (by this I do not mean relevant, but rather as one commanding greater influence) category of designer, is one that sees her/his role as a communicator and will go to any length to convey a message or idea.

Design is not solely visual. Those who believe it is, make an unconscious decision to confine themselves solely to craft. This limits these individuals from growing and taking on more complex and broad challenges. If one chooses to do so consciously, due to a love of a particular aspect of design, I applaud their decision and clarity of vision; however, those who slip into being a software operator due to mental laziness are, in my mind, not the most remarkable practitioners our industry has to offer.

Pilates for design

Perhaps what we do is much like an athlete, and we all just need to exercise more. Maybe drawing is the “design equivalent” of stretching, while page layout is on par with strength training, and writing is like cardiovascular work. Although the analogy may seem a little thin, we need to take a holistic approach to our craft and gain a command of all of these aspects in order to practice efficiently. No athlete would say, “I only do sit-ups”; rather, we find that many athletes cross-train in order to build a better overall command of their body.

This is part of our evolution as an industry. If we want to be taken seriously, we had best approach all forms of language with the same reverence we bring to visual literacy.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. David says:

    Thanks Eric for the enlightening essay. I find that my ideas are definitely stronger when I've gone through the process of writing them down and drawing them out, all while keeping the conversation going with the client. Not only are they impressed with my genuine concern for their product/service, but in the end I have a trail of paperwork and sketches that I can document side by side with the final product. And that strengthens my portfolio.

    Emails have allowed me to politely decline certain ideas and encourage others from the client. Once I've coined a phrase that works best on paper, it usually ends up working well in person too.

    Thanks again.

  2. Excellent.

    After reading this, I want to have your baby. But there are laws against that sort of thing here in Texas. Thanks for sharing these thoughts and ideas.

    Kind regards,
    Andy

  3. PRQ says:

    Vital. The written word should be the first line of defence for any design. As an algorithm before implementation should be mathematically proven to be correct, so should a written defence of a design proposal be the key starting point in the design process. It's the only adequate way for the client to understand exactly why your pretty pictures are worth their money.

  4. You keep beating me to all the blog topics I have in mind!

    I'm one of those designers who can't really draw. By that, I mean that I can't create an attractive, accurate representation of a person with ease. But I do sketch my ideas, and create thumbnails, and plan a project on paper before I even start working on the computer. This is a necessary part of design and communication planning. I always tell other designers at work that design decisions made in the two hours spent creating comps will only come back to haunt you (now that the client has an expectation that their project will look a certain way), but two hours spent creating sketches can only help your plan better and leave your design options open.

    I'm also one of those designers who loves to write, but I suspect it's because I have a BA in English. I'm not afraid of words, and am shocked when I meet resistance to writing from other designers. We need to be able to articulate our ideas in words as well as images. If we can't do that, then how can we be effective communication professionals? I like to think that I'm more than just a design production robot, and that I am paid not only to push pixels, but also to think, write, plan, and stretch all my intellectual muscles on a daily basis.

  5. Wilson Miner says:

    Great piece. Very true. The processes of distilling an idea in writing is very similar to the design process and they inform each other very well.

    However, my drawing skills are on par with my handwriting - abysmal and legible only to me. But it serves. I scrawl handwritten notes and sketches all the time of ideas I'm working out in my head. But it doesn't look like anything to anybody else until I get it out on the screen.

    As a child, I had clumsy handwriting and Iwas too impatient to perfect it. I just wanted the words, I didn't care if they looked pretty. It wasn't a priority.

    Now I use the tools available to me to take advantage of my strengths despite my weaknesses. I think if you looked at my design style you could probably guess that I don't draw well. Clean lines, no organic shapes, few patterns. But that's my style, it's informed by what I'm drawn to and what I've prioritized. Different priorities, different strengths, different styles.

    I agree though, designers should write.

  6. Mike Doan says:

    Great article. I would change the title to "Humans Must Write". I am sure that a client with poor writing skills is frustrating.

  7. Mark Miller says:

    my design pilates: stretch daily

  8. Chris says:

    I agree and dissagree with the points you make in this well crafted essay.

    First off, I agree that a designer (or anyone wishing to suceed in the world of digital/print media) needs to be able to write. The written word is commonly the only way designers have of communicating with people who are using their website or reading their work. Thus, good written communication skills is a must.

    However, I disagree with the idea that a graphic designer must know how to draw. A designer does need to be able to sketch a basic design, but not draw (at least not in the classic, pen and paper sense). I'm in the same boat as Stacy, I sketch designs all the time but I can't for the life or me draw a human accuratly. This has in no way hindered my design abilities, however.

  9. Armin says:

    Like Chris and Stacey, I am no drawer, I can sketch and flush out ideas on paper like nobody's business but it is not my strength and I do not rely on it. I rely on my software abilities to create ideas and execute them to the finish. I have to say that it has worked out very well for me, so I would challenge this comparison, "If I join the NBA, will I have to run?”, with “If I join the NBA, will I have to hit the hook shot?” No, you don't, but it would be lovely if you could. As long as you can run (think), dribble (use InDesign) and hit your jump shot (fulfill a project) you have what it takes to play in the league. If you can do a blindfolded 360 dunk, god bless, you are the best creative in the world. But enough about basketball analogies.

    Writing is the most overlooked quality in a designer. It isn't a must-have for most designers, but most really great designers can write. Not only briefs but copy and headlines for posters, brochures and annual reports. Any designer who can complement his/her craft with some fine writing is extremely valuable. Those designers are rare. And design education should put a hell of a lot more emphasis on this skill.

    And, yes, work those e-mails as if they were the last e-mail you would send for any given project. Work on your exclamation points, avoid "I" and say "we", use emoticons just in desperate cases and finish with a nice closing, whether it's "cheers", "later", "tata" or "best". There is nothing worse than an e-mail without cordial closure.

  10. Clay Mabbitt says:

    For my own part, I know that I come up with my best work when I use a pencil and paper to sketch before ever sitting down in front of my computer. I'd even hazard to guess that's true of many (maybe even a majority of) designers currently working, but I wonder if that will always be the case.

    It seems that computers are growing ever more prevalent and children are being exposed to them at younger and younger ages. As a child, I was encouraged to tap into my creative well with a crayon in hand. Will we reach a point where children are doodling on a computer as early in there development as I doodled with a waxy stick of color wrapped in paper? When those children grow, will they have as much mental and creative agility on a screen as a pad of paper?

    My understanding is that learning a foreign language is easier as a child than it is as an adult, when so many of one's mental synapses have settled into particular grooves. Maybe the same principle applies here.

  11. Lea says:

    Great piece. Being a masterful communicator in every way beyond the visual, is often overlooked. I also agree with Mike Doan -- "Humans must write." It's really staggering how quickly your opinion changes on a person when there's a "miscommunication."

    However, I suppose this is what separates "good" designers from "great" designers.

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  13. Mary says:

    Great Article.
    I am always trying to push the importance of writing and design working Together. As a designer, I am often put into the position where the concept of my work is only in the design and the text given to me doesn't reflect that. Fortunately for me, I work in an atmosphere that allows me some room for suggestion. How I would long for an environment that concepted copywriting AND design all at the same time! But I agree with what Armin said about stressing writing within the design education structure. I actually plan on getting my master's degree in a writing/editing program that can be tailored for a graphic designer. I'm looking forward to it and I think it will be a very valuable asset.

  14. Valerie says:

    I kept relating the points of this article to discussions I had during my classes. Through out my graphic design courses professors were always stressing the importance of thumbnails as an essential part of design development, as they helped sort out ideas, explore possible directions and get the bad design out of your system. I agree that just because you can’t draw doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the thumbnails –it’s not like they’re going to be shown in a gallery. Fellow peers were always complaining when a professor gave a certain number of thumbnails that had to be done, they would say, “I don’t draw.” I noticed that usually those students who didn’t put the effort into those initial sketches always had some problem with concept or design down the road; it wasn’t working as they pictured it in their heads.

    Fine arts like drawing and painting can be a great inspiration for designers. It gives an appreciation for the fundamentals of design such as line, tones, shape and color. The basics of fine arts and design seem to go hand in hand.

    I agree with the idea of designer also doing copy, and then both the design and text work together on all levels to communicate a solid message. I rather put the extra work into writing the copy then to be given it and have it not mesh well with the design, then compromising the entire project.

  15. Chris says:

    Interesting idea, Clay. When I first started reading your post I thought it was going to be another "the children today are on the computer to much and this is bad because I never was, etc" but, refreshingly, it was not. It will be interesting indeed to see if the physical pen and paper skills today's adults learned as children will transform into on-screen manipulation skills in the future. Only time will tell I guess.

  16. andy says:

    If you can't explain your idea with the written word, what's the likelihood of your visual language meeting the clients requirements in both a functional and aesthetically suitable manner?
    I love what a computer can do for me, and by extension my clients, but as I constantly have to remind my students, its just an expensive pencil with microchips instead of lead and neither of those two tools can replace idea development.
    I ask students to use an online dictionary to research the etymology of key words contained within any brief to encourage the use of written language, they are generally surprised and pleased with the results. Literacy standards are low and a generation of people who research primarily on the web are missing out the joy that books provide and the development of language skills that they offer.

  17. clare says:

    interesting post.

    i just graduated wiht a diploma in industrial design.
    my lecturer commented that my idea generation process was too "wordy" and i needed to explore more "visually".

    however, i don't understand why we should start off drawing meaningless forms without truly understanding "why's" and "what" of our brief.

    i think it is important to devise a system for the designed object to work, and then the 'how' can begin to emerge; and finally, the form will start to appear by itself - a form that can encompass the user's needs.
    then it is just a matter of tweaking it so that it looks good...

  18. Excellent. Also, its notable how much time could be saved in a working day when the people you're communicating with can write well. I get way more done, much more quickly for clients who take the time to write out their requests concisely than those who garble and put 'does that make sense?!?!' at the end of each paragraph: if you have to ask, it probably doesn't! (Rant over!)

  19. Jonathan says:

    There is a danger here that your exhortation to "write" is confused with "use correct grammar and style" and not "express yourself in writing." Personally, I prefer written English that is grammatically correct, well punctuated and observes a good style. However, these are NOT prerequisites of good written communication. That's a different thing. You are just as capable of writing a very poor piece of communication that is entirely grammatically and syntactically correct as you are one that is full of errors. Some of the comments here seem to be having that confusion. Those people have not understood this post.

  20. Jon says:

    I will keep this brief, are you a designer or a project manager? In fact what I am writing here is the most I have written in a month. Sure I get emails all of the time, but if I sit down to respond to everyone of them, when would I be able to design? I have quit emailing and ditched the cell phone, my productivity and my creativity have been soaring ever since. Sure my grammar and my communication skills have tarried, but I wasn't hired for that I was hired to produce designs.

  21. Jeope says:

    I agree with most, if not all, of these points. About the pencil: one of my pitfalls, as a corporate in-houser, is a sense of shaming I get from using "valuable time" sketching with a pencil. As the computer-comp trend continues, more and more designers in my position may feel this way - that time with a pencil is viewed as time used inefficiently.

    About writing however, I think this could be viewed as equally key to designers as drawing skills. I spent the time in college learning both writing/editing and graphic design. And the ability to use both on the job has affected the outcome of projects I work on in only a positive way.

  22. P.J. Onori says:

    Great article - we need more of these nowadays. :)

    I completely agree that, as communicators, we need to be able to communicate effectively and efficiently in all forms - which includes writing. Some of the most talented designers I met in art school were those who had an English degree in prior education. They were able to bring another communicational dimension to their projects.

    While I personally agree with you on the aspect of drawing, I still am very cautious to push a particular process as absolute. I myself do my best work if I take a step back from the keyboard, but I also didn't start using a computer until college. For the next generations that grow up with computers from day one, this may be different...

  23. Huw says:

    The idea that the 'design process' is separated into the development of an idea, then the crafting of a visual, categorically ignores the fact that design is not craft. Not only does this categorically confuse what design is but I personally believe that products obtained via this method are usually visually derivative as well as superficial within their underlying concepts.

    What I believe you are overlooking is the development of a visual design process. Type designers are not type craftspeople, there is a visual design process that works within the medium the designer chooses to work within (pencil, computer etc).

    If I was to enter the process of production already knowing what I want to end up with (i.e craft not design) the only visual ideas that I would be bringing to the project would have been gleened from other sources (magazines, TV, websites etc) this form of 'appropriation' gives the final product the superficial derivative visual vocabulary that is based upon the 'designer's' latest visual whim and other sources of visual vocabulary. This form of crafted appropriation is something you will find within many products produced by the advertising industry (as this process of 'crafting design' is used extensively by advertising agencies).

    If you are not getting your visual vocabulary through a visual design process then the only way left for the visual 'designer' is to craft derivatives from other visual sources. Which will never deliver design of a high standard.

    Thanks for an interesting article Eric!

  24. Ricardo Cordoba says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful essay, which I found via a link on Unbeige. During my first year at university, my entire class was once told that knowing how to draw was not necessary to be a designer -- I always had trouble with that statement!

  25. Bakari says:

    I'm gonna have to print this essay out to give it a good read. But because I'm a beginning graphic design student, your thoughts about drawing skills resonate with me. I grew up in high school being able to draw basically what someone else drew. I never learned how to look at real objects and draw them myself. I never developed those skills. Now that I'm going into graphic design, I've been thinking seriously about taking a drawing and art class. It's okay to learn InDesign, Photoshop et. al, but I think it's even more important to constantly develop visual skills, and drawing certainly helps do that. I wish I developed those skills in my younger life.

  26. ftrc says:

    Interesting article and i agree with it. You must learn to write and use it everyday. Learn this and keep learning.


    =]

  27. Steven Woods says:

    An old boss used to send me e-mails containing:

    "Sort this"
    or
    "Problem?"
    or
    "Here you go..."

    Very infruriating - I always, always take time to craft a reasonably legible and informative e-mail back to people. I treat e-mail like writing a letter, even if it is:
    --
    Hi Jonny,

    [Content here]

    Cheers,
    Steve Woods
    ---

    It says "I respect you enough to write properly to you, and think about what I'm trying to say" instead of just banging out some nonsense.

    And don't get me started on using "u" (as in, "have u done this yet?") along with other SMS-type abbreviations ... arrgh! Actually, i don't even use abbrevations in SMS either.

    I suppose I feel that any idiot can bang out some rubbish, but someone professional would take the time to craft something nice. It's all about appearances and 'trust' either. Who would you trust most - someone who does the bare minimum, or someone who makes an effort?

  28. Gwyneth says:

    This article has really inspired me. I dont think students realize how important the written word is.

    I now thank my relentless English teachers I had in Catholic school, who always pushed for that "polished" essay.

  29. Jon says:

    I agree. I was so frustrated with the abysmal state of writing in the undergraduate courses that I teach that I wrote a paper about it for IDSA; you can read a copy of it at http://www.idsa.org/webmodules/articles/articlefiles/NEC05-Jon-Kolko.pdf

  30. svelte says:

    this is a great article worth to read and ponder. Frankly speaking, english isnt my primary language. prior to design any products, i will write down my plans, ideas and rationale on the paper (yes, i still prefer paper!) in english. it is easier for me to present my ideas in proper english communication skill as well. No doublt that article has motivate me to become a better designer with good command in english..

  31. Randy says:

    Writing, like reading, is essential in communication for everyone, designer or not. Drawing on the other hand may not be

    I grew up with the technology. I first designed on a computer before knowing what design was. Fortunately, I also had a very formal and intense drawing education in art school. That is not to say the I'm a great drawer, but having the confidence to draw has been a huge asset.

    One point I see missing here is that design is inherently iterative. Given that, rarely is my design process linear with it always unfolding drawing before computer. Many times I've started something on the computer only to come back out to explore with the hand.

    I am a huge proponent of working off of the computer though. This is not out of nostalgia or aversion to change. Remember, I started on the computer. Really it is out of experience. I've discoved through experimentation, that my thinking is consistenly stronger and my graphic inventiveness more interesting when I "play" outside the constraints of the computer. This is true when writing as well. At times, when I've backed myself into a corner writing and just can't make a move, I often write on paper. I tend to become more thoughtful and deliberate when it takes more physical effort (and uses material resources).

    I believe the problem is rooted in a subconcious filtering of ones throughts through what you know the computer to be capable of. For example, in exploring a logo design on the computer, I explore relationships between shapes that I know how to execute on screen using the tool, but by hand many other doors are opened. Anymore, this is rarely because of a limitation of the software but a limitation of my knowledge of how to use it. This being said, there are also things possible using the tools that I could never imagine and draw without happening upon them using the software.

    On a final note, as Michael Beirut says, "If it's not well written, it's not worth designing."

  32. marlo says:

    Actually I disagree with you. you do not need to draw to get your idea across. you can find other ways to get your origianal idea across. I have for 15 years and have been very successful. I am a creative director and have worked for the top agencies in the world. I have no problem getting my ideas across - if you limit yourself to only thinking ON the computer - i agree - but if you think outside the computer - then use it as a tool to get an idea across - it works.

  33. Matt says:

    Do you know any designers who can spell? (without a spellchecker)

  34. Just as the power of drawing helps with the art of observation, reading and listening to what others have to say about design is a great asset when you start thinking about design with words. It's such a cliche, but probably true that designers don't read as much as they should. I'm as guilty as anyone else out there for skimming, but articles like this help consider what your missing out on when you just look and don't think.

  35. Insightful.

    I think Frederick Goudy would beg to differ on the type craftspeople issue.

    Doesn’t poor grammer, like anything, strike at the heart of what it means to be a great designer? It’s that attention to detail that separates good from great work. Otherwise, once you start compromising, little by little, you end up with mediocre work.

    Interesting that advertising was mentioned. One of the things great advertising and design does, like any art form, is to strip away the layers surrounding a universal human truth and present it in its most simple form.

    Bad advertising and design does not.

    Design is not a layout. Anyone can come up with 30 different versions of a layout. If you haven’t made a connection with the brand, the product or the essence of whatever it is you are designing, then all you’re doing is just moving elements around on a page. The only thing this will likely accomplish is that you’ll satisfy a client who always feels a need to have variety presented to them.

    While not required, the ability to write well, to write persuasively is found in many great creatives. There are many art director/copywriter in agencies who share similar traits for being able to both create and recognize great work, often with both people switching roles.

    Why limit yourself to just being a visual person who doesn’t have to be bothered by all those ‘pesky’ little words? Shouldn’t designers be open to any and all solutions that address the challenge at hand, no matter what form they may take?

    I can’t see how you do that when you exclude the written word.

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  37. ptrdo says:

    I would question why a designer has chosen not to practice and develop drawing skills. Is it Too Hard? Frustrating? Distracting? I hardly think Unnecessary would be the answer, and if it is I beg to differ. Often times the modern design process can benefit from a quick sketch. The alternative could be an hour's long bout with application interfaces, stock assets and network searches -- the Idea spark can easily be snuffed in such a shuffle.

    Drawing can be learned. One doesn't necessarily need to be Good at it, but anyone can be Accomplished enough. I am certain of it. If the goal is to be able to relay thoughts and ideas, learning to draw is a lot more rewarding than if one will settle for nothing short of Picasso.

  38. Alvin says:

    I love this article. You're absolutely spot on about the difference between designing a visual for visual's sake or designing a visual to convey an idea and communicate a message.

    To make a design relevant to the material it represents take up more work and effort, while it's easier to just throw communication to the wind and make do with pretty. But I've always felt that a good designer, like a writer, is a communicator first, a good artist second.

    "Sometimes I feel as though the right selection of words coupled with careful enunciation and timing is as graceful as a surgeon’s hands keenly manipulating life as though it were not complex in the slightest. Well, perhaps that’s a bit of an overstatement, but I don’t expect that many would argue that even a few well chosen words can wield more power than our most brutal weapons."

    Language is power. You're spot on again. As a life coach (my sideline) and avid reader of therapeutic techniques, I've witnessed first hand the power of words and the impact they can have on the human psyche.

  39. Allen Ford says:

    If a designer needs to be able to draw in order to design, does an illustrator need to be able to design in order to illustrate?

  40. Paavani says:

    Absolutely rghit. After all designers have to communicate a lot to talk about the ideas, for excution of products & for business. They have to make design proposal and it's not simple to sell the ideas unless you are a good writer. Words play an important role. Thats why they are so many!

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  42. J says:

    There are a plethora of extremely versatile and talented artists working in a variety of media that cannot "draw" to save their collective asses. You make some incredibly valid points, but injecting your own, personal thoughts on the design process lessens the impact of your more valid statements. Drawing is no more a requirement for designers than use of the astrolabe is for sailors. Sure, it's useful under the right circumstances, but in the modern day it's not critical or predictive of success. It's somewhat ironic that the latter half of your article is concerned with communication, while the former predisposes a portion of your audience to a state of relative apathy. Not the most conducive method to expound your most sapient arguments.

  43. Dave says:

    Very good article. It's nice to see other designers feel the same way as I do about design. I agree that you should know the basics. By sketching and planning your ideas on paper and going through the design process before clicking a mouse is most definitely a time saver and you create a well thought out and good design.

  44. dale says:

    I'm almost positive that a person in your position has worked, known, come in contact with at least one designer that didn't include drawing in their design process. Then why would you say to a student of all people, that drawing is a requirement. A person in the role as an adviser should give personal experience and opinions, but to flat out say "yes" and imply that there is no room or exceptions is terrible. Look at the drummer of Def Leppard, having one arm didn't stop the rockin. Neither will drawing, ROCK!

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  46. trendoffice says:

    I like the description of the designer "as one that sees her/his role as a communicator and will go to any length to convey a message or idea" - the others should be part ot categories like craftsperson or artist - in the end our task is to make our life better with practical solutions for everyday activities. And I am convinced that writing is one of the most necessary tools to convey our ideas, in addition to sketching and other vissual methods.
    From my experience I have learned that no words alone can be enough to explain an idea, but often people need additional explanation to the visual presentation, so combining both methods gives best results.

    And another quote: "Design is not solely visual...those who slip into being a software operator due to mental laziness are, in my mind, not the most remarkable practitioners our industry has to offer" - this is a trend of our time that makes many young people accept mastering 3D presentation as the right to call themseklves designers.

    Great article, with great language! I am so happy to have found this conversation - so many interesting comments and so many similarly thinking people.

  47. Karthik says:

    Thank your Eric for an essay which perfectly addresses the issues going on in my mind.

    I am a designer who can write. Period.

    I see myself as a communication designer. I feel apart from designing print solutions as per my job profile, I do get more involved in the overall idea. I desperately want to toy with strategy, criticise the objectives, ask the questions - all this to communicate effectively.

    I have consciously tried to shift my skills to a specialist role - as in concentrate more on art direction and design. But on some level, I just go back to - Jack of all trades, (trying to become) master of all.

    For me, designing the message is more important than designing for a particular medium. Only when you are clear on desining of the message that you can actually design for the medium.

    Thanks again for making me realise that I have to learn to listen to my subconscious - Be a communication designer. I have that inborn gift and I should realise it to its full potential.

  48. cgmania says:

    Excellent. Also, its notable how much time could be saved in a working day when the people you’re communicating with can write well. I get way more done, much more quickly for clients who take the time to write out their requests concisely than those who garble and put ‘does that make sense?!?!’ at the end of each paragraph: if you have to ask, it probably doesn’t! (Rant over!)

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  51. rmcmahan says:

    You have to draw your sketches with pencil on paper before you can start drawing on the computer?!?

    This makes no sense to me. If you can put pencil to paper to come up with a sketch, why can't you put a stylus to a "drawing" tablet (or even a mouse on a desk) to put a sketch on computer screen? The only difference should be that one is tangible, tactile, while the other is virtual, electronic--the end result should be the same.

    I can put the same ideas on the computer that I can on a piece of paper. I can make the same two or three or dozen or however many different sketches want on the computer in much less time than I can on paper. If I find that I like certain elements of one sketch and certain elements of another sketch, I don't have to redraw them to see how they look together -- I can just copy the parts I like to a new sketch and go on from there. I can experiment more with colors, shapes, positions, etc.

    Finally, when I find a concept, a look, a style, a design that fits my needs, guess what? I may already be half way to the finish line. I flesh it out, clean it up, add the finishing touches, and finalize it without having to start re-drawing on the computer from scratch! Even then, I can experiment even more as I go as ideas come to mind.

    In fact, I can explore even more ideas in an allotted time for a job because I can work much faster (time is money, after all) on the computer. Plus, my ideas come to me quite fast so the quicker I get the idea into a visual format, there is less delay from initial thought to visual sketch.

    Sometimes I draw in Illustrator, sometimes Photoshop, somtimes Freehand. I have even been known to "sketch" up a bunch of ideas in InDesign. The only time I see a "need" to do a physical sketch, is if your design relies the texture of the paper it will be printed on or if it requires the "look" of the texture of a natural media, then go for it. But even then, there is software available that can simulate many natural-media textures.

    I am much more varied with my designs and more versatile on what goes on in my design; a much greater range of experimentation and what I can do on the computer than with a pencil and a piece of paper. But, hey. That's just me. More power to you however you choose to work. Just don't try to make me fit into your mold.

    BTW, I was a writer before I was a designer--been doing both for over twenty years. I definitely agree that effective communication is imperative in good design! Without effective communication, design is not good no matter how "pretty" it may be.

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  58. As being a design company we are always working with clients on the design jobs. We have experienced this that we often need to explain our design ideas in expressive way before implementing them, to get the client feedback. The better and stronger language we use to express our design philosophy, the faster we are able to get to the target.

    I really liked this blog post and think that its very informative for young designers to understand that communication is the key to success. No matter its design or any other aspect of a business. A well communicated issue is more likely to be worked upon.

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  64. Eric,

    I agree with your comments.

    Companies like Google call this role Interaction Designer and it is separate from the "Visual Designer" role.

  65. So completely agree - running the studio here I've noticed applications and interest from a lot of young designers who can't draw, can't write (or even spell - my pet hate!) and focus on how we should be using InDesign vs Quark or another vs another.

    Sadly I also got asked what I do by a cab driver a couple of years back, who in all seriousness asked if you had to learn Photoshop to be a designer, as he knew somebody who...and blah blah blah...

    I asked him if simply being able to press pedals made a taxi driver, or being able to hold a wrench made someone a mechanic? He said 'no of course not' and I responded 'exactly, those are just tools - all designers need to use their brain as their primary tool, they should research and plan and write and create - the tools and end processes are just that.'

    My design tutor at college told us to draw and sketch everything, even for quick comps, as you 'lose the energy' created by quickly doodling these things raw and small, as soon as you try and do that via computer. Being excited about the shiny new Macs, we initially didn't understand what he meant - but quickly discovered he was so right. I still sketch out even wireframes with a pencil, no ruler, in small roughs before I then sketch again and plan them out a little neater. The iPad is coming in handy as a quick on-the-go hybrid - I can sketch with stylus or finger in the same manner, but it's straight onto the computer. Still doesn't beat a great collection of beautiful pencils to get your hand on though :)

    Overall, the best advice I ever had from a tutor was 'study everything - NOT just design.' They instilled that we had to read, write, sketch, take heed of fashion, product and interior design fields, as well as technology but never displacing traditional methods offhand. We should research and take an interest in everything, as it will come in handy for what we need to pay more attention to - fundamentally understanding our client's business, and solving their particular need or problem as a visual communicator. Great advice (and I'd add to that, it's not just a visual communicator)

  66. Eduardo Ribeiro says:

    "The next, and in my mind more powerful (by this I do not mean relevant, but rather as one commanding greater influence) category of designer, is one that sees her/his role as a communicator and will go to any length to convey a message or idea."

    Loved this.

  67. Joanna says:

    Great article (as all of them)!

    I agree that all the designers have to draw. I'm sure that everyone can find their drawing style, even if you can't draw a proper human or other figures!

    I always had problems with drawings but I found my own way to put my thoughts on the paper.

    About writing, so true! After all our real job is to convert messages into a visual.

    Even thug my English is not perfect I always try to write blog posts and essays about my ideas.

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