PJ Onori’s blog

Write like you design

I’ve been working on a post for the past few days (not this one) and it’s not going well. I have an idea, but it’s not forming into words. I’ll go to the grave saying writing is one of the most important skills a designer can have. That’s why I do it so damned much. Writing is a skill that doesn’t come easy for me. It’s a struggle. But, hey, what isn’t?

So, I grind away at this silly article, knowing I’ll figure it out. That was the big shift-knowing that with work, it’s a matter of when, not if. I know a lot of designers struggle with writing—because designers tell me. I decided to write this entry for two reasons. First, writing is critical-now more than ever. Think about how much time you spend in Slack writing to other people. Writing always was important, now it’s a deal breaker. Second, it was a good excuse to take a break from the post I’m struggling with. So hey, we’re both getting something out of this.

Many designers feel more comfortable drawing boxes versus typing letters. Because they spend a lot of time drawing boxes. Many designers also consider writing a different skill. It’s not. Writing is design. Both are a creative act. Both aim to communicate an idea; to lead someone towards a destination. Sure, if you pull out the microscope, there are plenty of differences. But at a healthy distance, those differences become unimportant details. Given both are creative acts, my suggestion is to treat them the same. Use the same style and process you use to design that you use for writing. That’s it.

What process should you use? Your own. You probably/hopefully already have a process that works for you. Apply it to how you write. If you’ve found ways to create something then you’re a long way to creating anything. The trick is to generalize the process(es) you use in design and translate it to writing. I’ll bet the farm you’ll find an analog.

What writing style should you use? Your own. If you’re design with precision and aim for simplicity, write like that. If you’re more casual/playful, do that. There’s a reason you gravitate towards that style-don’t ignore it. Work with what works.

Am I saying writing will immediately come to you? Were you a kerning machine at age 5? Likely not. There ain’t no shortcuts - it takes work. This advice won’t make you a better writer overnight. This should give you the structure to do the work.

There may be folks blowing a gasket that I’m oversampling the writing process. This advice isn’t intended to make designers intro Pulitzer writers. It’s intended to get designers writing. The best way to get started is to start with something you already know.

A lot of the things espoused as different aren’t that different. I’m strange, but I see more commonality with engineering and design than differences. The same goes for a lot of things, including writing. The common denominator in any creative act is making an idea real. If you’ve already found a process to do that… Do that.