Advocating the craft of words in design

Cover of 'The Craft of Words' pocket guideThe Craft of Words is a 49-page guide by Christopher Murphy and Nicklas Persson (a tweed-clad duo also known as The Standardistas).

They advocate words and language – both their meaning and visual form – as the starting point in any design process, before things like colour and aesthetics. Tone and voice play a critical role in communication. When you craft words with as much care as visual elements, the effect you achieve with your design is greater than the sum of its parts.

I should mention the authors don’t explicitly say their guide is about the craft of words in the context of good web design practice, though the guide is most suited to designers working in online communication. Indeed, the authors’ exemplars are all digital:

  • Apple‘s rejection of technical terminology in favour of human language.
  • MailChimp‘s emphasis on adapting tone for different content types based on feelings, as defined by their Voice and Tone guide.
  • Hiut Denim‘s website language demonstrating simplicity, honesty and hard work.
  • GitHub‘s focus on a human voice to explain difficult and potentially dry concepts (programming and social coding).
  • GOV.UK‘s focus on clarity, directness and trustworthiness, as defined in their style guide.

The Craft of Words is aimed at (digital) designers who want to improve their understanding of how tone of voice and clear communication can enhance visual design. Instead of designing content blocks as empty containers within an aesthetically attractive layout, left as placeholders for clients to pour their words into later, Murphy and Persson bring words front and centre.

This is good.

Words and language are fundamental to communication online. They are at the core of most websites’ function:

  • To impart information you don’t already know (eg news, education, travel, subject-specific websites).
  • To enable you to use an online service through buttons, labels or other user interface elements (eg purchasing, booking forms, social networking).
  • To influence or inspire you (eg campaigns, storytelling).

Yes, entertainment is a significant reason to use the internet, with video and audio a large chunk of this area. However, I’ll stick my neck out and say online information is largely reliant on communication through text.

Words as the web design

One particular passage in The Craft of Words grabbed my attention:

What happens when our visual layer isn’t available, for example for a visually impaired user using a screen reader? Do words then become the design? [My emphasis] Even visually unclothed, the words we choose as designers paint a picture in the mind. Of course, the formal design decisions we make – our use of typography, hierarchy, colour and layout – enhance these words; but, at the level of the words themselves our message and meaning should still remain.

Christopher Murphy and Nicklas Persson, The Craft of Words

I’ve thought a lot about accessible web content in my job recently, while revising a guide on practical examples. The sentence “Do words then become the design?” really got me thinking. It’s a great point. If you remove colour, typography and the visual impact of a website’s surrounding containers, words are the only device you have to communicate with this audience. Tone and style do become the design. This is a great motivator to work even harder on the language of my own web content.

Word banks

So, practically, where do you start?

In The Craft of Words, Murphy and Persson mention copywriter Mark Shaw‘s suggestion of making a “word bank” or “brand dictionary” at the start of the design process. Just as visual designers use mood boards to gather different visual examples illustrating a particular style, feel or attitude – you can use the same approach with words that convey the particular tone of voice you want to achieve.

I quickly jotted down a few words for an (ideal) tone of voice in a university context:

  • Direct
  • Helpful
  • Clear
  • Neutral
  • Serious

This might serve as a foundation word bank for you to build on with audience-specific word banks, say, tailored to mature students, schools, funding bodies or industry.

When you’re writing content further into the design process, reference your word bank. Does your content communicate the characteristics you defined in your word bank?

Check, revise, iterate and improve.

The book

I really enjoyed reading The Craft of Words. It’s a neat little guide, nicely packaged into something short enough you can read in a lunch break yet giving you plenty of ideas and inspiration to take further. I love the blend of theory with practical application, rooted in good, simple design practice – the common thread running through publisher Five Simple Steps‘ other books. Highly recommended.

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