Gavin Wray

Book review: 'The Craft of Words'

The Craft of Words is a 49-page guide by Christopher Murphy and Nicklas Persson, the tweed-clad duo 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 for digital designers who want to improve their understanding of how tone of voice and clear communication enhances visual design. Instead of designing content blocks as placeholders in an attractive layout for clients to put words into later, Murphy and Persson bring words front and centre.

Good. Words and language are fundamental to communication online. As the core of most websites’ function, words:

  • impart information on subjects you do not already know
  • enable you to use an online service through buttons, labels or other user interface elements
  • influence or inspire

Yes, entertainment is a significant reason to use the internet, with video and audio a large chunk of this area. I’ll stick my neck out though and say that online information mostly communicates through text.

Words as the web design

One passage 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? 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.

I’ve thought a lot about accessible web content in my job recently while revising a guide on practical examples. The question “Do words then become the design?” is 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 become the design. This motivates me to work harder on the language of my own web content.

Word banks

Practically, where do you start?

Murphy and Persson mention copywriter Mark Shaw’s suggestion of making a word bank or brand dictionary at the start of the design process.

Visual designers use mood boards to gather examples illustrating a particular style, feel or attitude. As a content person, you can use the same approach with words that convey the particular tone of voice you want to achieve.

A word bank to start developing tone of voice in a university context could include:

  • direct
  • helpful
  • clear
  • neutral
  • serious

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

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

Check, revise, iterate and improve.

The book

I enjoyed reading The Craft of Words. It’s a neat, compact guide that’s short enough to read in a lunch break yet with 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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