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Readability is accessibility

Posted 4 years ago by Linh Nguyen

When I think about what it means to know, I find myself going back to language, to words. I wonder, for example, when I’m looking at a website, how do I learn about it in order for me to use it? I don’t believe the senses are enough to really understand what’s going on – we’re just simply aware that things are happening. What the written word does is inform us on what something is about, to give identities to things.

If we think about it, the majority of the web is still typebased. It’s never enough for a website to just look pretty. Designing for the web means we have to think about the content that will be on there and the information we want to communicate. If we want to be better communicators, we must be better writers.

Writing is deeply connected to design. Writing is thinking, and we should all learn how to think. When it comes down to it, all work should be about solving problems for people first before we start thinking about colour codes and typefaces etc,. Writing before designing cultivates brainstorming, reflection, the maturing of an idea. Jonas Downey, product designer at Basecamp, praises the writing-first approach to design:

“A quick way to measure a designer’s maturity is to watch what they do at the beginning of a project. Inexperienced designers are often smitten by the allure of new tools and quick results, so they’ll jump into Photoshop or Sketch and start messing with layouts and style explorations. Seasoned designers know this can be distracting, so they might start by doing research or drawing in a paper sketchbook instead.”

Before design can happen, the idea must be explored and developed. Eric Karjuluoto, founding partner at smashLAB, notices that “a whole generation of designers compromises the strength of their ideas by jumping to a computer too quickly.” “Design” he asserts, “is not solely visual. Those who believe it is make an unconscious decision to confine themselves solely to the craft. This limits these individuals from growing and taking on more complex and broad challenges.”

It’s always interesting to ask someone how they define their work, because it determines the process of how they work, which in turn determines their goal. Job titles can restrict us in that way because everything is seen through a lens. If we neglect words we tend to neglect the message. And when there’s no message, there’s no impact.

Writing can help us to be more self-aware, to take into consideration the tension of things around us, to understand the views of others. A lot of us fear we can’t write, but it’s not so much about being able to write well (there is no pressure to be the next Tolstoy), than it is about having a conversation with ourselves first.

There’s actually a lot of similarities between design and writing. The process of placing one word after the other is like the process of placing one line after the other. There are grammar and guidelines to which they both adhere. Designers and writers are also natural observers, questioning why people do the things they do, why things are the way they are, and how they can be improved. It’s no surprise, then, that both craft share the characteristic of empathy. Designers care about how users interact with visuals. Writers care about how readers interact with words. When joined, design and writing are like a (sensitive) powerhouse couple.

In the context of branding, copywriting is design’s partner. “Designers and copywriters do not hold mutually exclusive roles” writes Gemma Church for Creative Bloq. Lorem Ipsum isn’t enough anymore, and never really was. Form without substance is just make-up without the human smile behind it. People who get content understands context and that’s where copywriting comes in. Thinking about copy early is “intrinsically linked with information architecture” she adds, and “key messages determine how users should flow through the website.”

Copywriting is interface design. In their book Getting Real, the founders of Basecamp assert that “great interfaces are written:”

“If you think every pixel, every icon, every typeface matters, then you also need to believe every letter matters.”

The words we choose, the order they’re placed in, the typeface they’re cloaked in, will determine how effective that message is. For anyone visiting a website, visual and text communication ultimately falls into one browsing experience so it’s important to make sure both writing and design work together to strive for clarity, engagement and meaning.

Don Norman, designer and author of the popular book The Design of Everyday Things, says that design is the communication between objects and users. Products are optimised around how users interact and experience the product. But it’s his other book, Turn Signals Are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles, that I want to reference. There’s a chapter in it called “Writing as Design, Design as Writing”, in which he touches on the importance of considering the audience and keeping the message clear:

“What I find most peculiar about this business of writing and design is that these activities are presumably done for the benefit of others, so shouldn’t the needs and abilities of those others be considered? A good writer and a good designer share many things in common. They need to understand the needs and abilities of their audience, and they must consider just how the product will be used.”

This book was born out of a discontent after observing how people struggled to interact with badly designed technology with no regard to the needs of people. Powerpoint, for example, is more of a barrier towards great communication than it is service. Powerpoint makes everything too available, which means we’ll inevitably make messy slides that others won’t get. It encourages us to add too much: bullet points, charts, slides, without informing us on a better way to do it. The struggle is actually real; because if we’re depending on these signals to help us through life, we need to understand what they’re about.

It takes a lot of hard work to make things easy for people to understand. Good design is invisible. Easy reading is damn hard writing. The writer Kurt Vonnegut was often criticised for his easy-to-read writing – people called him lazy and stupid – both of which were far from the truth. Good writing for Vonnegut was about being revealing, present, and getting right to the heart of the matter. They say simple writing reflects a simple mind, but it’s more so a mind that thinks clearly.

If the intention is for users to interact with what’s in front of them, the message can’t be obscure, it can’t be difficult. It’s our responsibility to put in the legwork by making things simple and accessible. At heart, design and writing are both sides of the same coin: deep down they’re both about communicating.

Why, hello there! I’m the word-generator at Marvel with a background in the humanities. I also like walks, talks, and…rhymes. You can contact me on good ol’ email.

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