Writers vs. designers: strategies to bridge the gap

Writers vs. designers: strategies to bridge the gap

Writers are word people. Designers think in pictures. It’s no surprise that they often have difficulty communicating with each other. When these folks aren’t in sync, problems have a domino effect. I reached out to Centerboard’s extended family of writers and designers to get their thoughts. In addition to some war stories, they had valuable advice for how project owners and clients can bridge the communication gap and help them deliver their best work. This is what they said:

1. “The vision is not clear to all parties.”

Too often project owners treat designers and writers as functional components of a project and don’t share enough information about overall goals. Designers are handed copy and asked to “make something pretty.” Writers are given pre-formatted text and told to “punch it up.” Neither party can do great work this way.

Marketing writer Deborah Brody explains the impact:

I did a project where all I did was write the content for a website without having any contact whatsoever with the web designer/developer. The website ended up with lots of issues, such as images that didn’t reinforce the message, fonts that were too small and inconsistent throughout, and blank spaces that weren’t used well. You can’t be working on a content project without knowing what the other party is doing. The best way for two separate parties to deliver a good product is to use a detailed creative brief as a guide. It’s always a great idea to clarify what the client wants and to give input as to target audience and messaging.

How to bridge the gap
  • Bring together all parties involved in a project early with a kickoff and keep the lines of communication open.
  • Develop a creative brief that outlines the ultimate goals and priorities of your project. For example, what are the most important messaging points you want to convey? What do you want user to do, and when?
  • Develop a style guide that includes voice, tone and visual identity. Define the personality of the organization. Share how you want visitors to feel when coming to your site.

Clear direction on these points not only helps the writer shape style and tone, but also helps the designer choose colors, images and layout.

2. “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?”

The writer says: “I can’t write till I see the space to work with.”

The designer counters: “I can’t design until I have some real copy.”

The writer and designer both have an uphill battle if they are starting with a blank page. The creative process is not linear. They each need the other to move forward.

Kristin Walinski, owner of Scribe on Demand, explains:

A designer’s feedback can help me see gaps that need to be filled and stimulate my creative processes. The more information we share, and the earlier we share it, the better our collective perspective throughout the project, and the more likely we are to achieve high-caliber results.

Crumpled paperWhat happens if a designer gets too far ahead?

Web projects often underestimate the amount of time it takes to create, edit and approve copy. Often web designers are handed copy well after design has already been nailed down, sometimes just before a site is ready to go live. They often turn to the dreaded Lorem Ipsum copy as a placeholder.

Here’s the problem with fake copy. It may be the exact size and shape to look awesome in a design. But, it doesn’t always match real marketing needs. GatherContent provides some excellent examples of how overeliance on Lorem Ipsum leads to big problems in web design.

What happens if a writer gets too far ahead?

I always advocate for starting the content creation process early. That doesn’t mean writers can hand in their work and call it a day. They need to stop at the draft stage for key content and share it with the design team. Then, they must trim and rearrange to fit a design. If the writers have already raced ahead to the editing and final approval stage, they may need to go back, hat in hand, spending more time and money.

How to bridge the gap 
  • Get initial ideas for design and content going at the same time and let writers and designers see each other’s work.
  • At the very least have rough copy ready to plug into design templates before final approval and before programmers start to code.
  • Set the expectation with writers and designers that there will be iterations.
3. “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”

Both writers and designers hear this type of thing a lot. Many marketers and clients in general are non-technical folks. They don’t necessarily know what can be achieved with design or coding so they don’t know what to ask for, and the designer or developer has to guess. Typically, clients find it easier to react to something tangible rather than imagine the finished product. That can mean multiple rounds of work, taking some of the steam out of the creative process.

Designer Kristen Cox of Hudson Collaborative describes it this way:

I do understand that it can be hard to do the deep soul searching for what you really want in the beginning of a project. I’ve had clients say, ‘We want to really innovate and do something different,’ until they see something that is too different. Lots of time is wasted scaling back until it’s the same old thing with one new color. Sometimes the client just needs to see the work to decide if “new” is what they want. I’m all for showing pictures and examples to try and smooth that process.

How to bridge the gap
  • Early on, share examples of design, writing styles, and websites you like (and those you don’t) with both the writer and the designer/developer. Include them in your creative brief.
  • Once again, real-life examples of content will help you judge if a design is what you expect.
  • Test future scenarios. For example, take a site that has a grid of six boxes, one for each product. Consider how the design would look if your business changed to add a new product. Will you like it as much?
4. “Don’t call my baby ugly.”

Writers and designers care deeply about what they do. They spend countless hours on a project before they share what they believe is their best work with a client.

Stephanie Gildea, a marketing manager for Gannett and freelance graphic designer, puts it this way:

Designers are visual people and will have a vision for the project. They never want to attach their name to a piece of work they do not believe in or can take pride in as their own. When they produce a piece of work, it’s like making a baby. So when a developer, writer, or client critiques their work in a negative way, it’s like calling their baby ugly. Keep their feelings in mind, and be sensitive with the feedback. Provide the critiques, but provide them in a delicate way. Conversely, graphic designers must put their egos to the side. If a writer, programmer or client critiques the work, the designer must not take it personally… even if they are asked to change it a million ways to Sunday.

How to bridge the gap

Project owners can improve the quality of communication with both writers and designers by providing constructive, sensitive feedback:

  • Give the writer an opportunity to weigh in on the designs and let the designer weigh in on the text.
  • Consolidate feedback and have one person deliver it.
  • Give feedback face to face whenever possible. If you can’t meet in person, jump into a video call.
  • Acknowledge the work they have put into the project.
  • Be as specific as possible when you request changes and explain your reasoning so they can refine their approaches to match your goals.
  • Give them a chance to respond, and listen to what they have to say. They know their area of expertise and have solid reasons for what they recommend.
  • Make it clear who has ultimate decision-making authority, and don’t wait until the final moment to provide that feedback. Nothing kills the spirit of a writer or designer more than hearing the CEO saw the work and demands extensive changes that were previously approved.

Though writers and designers may be in conflict at times, they share many frustrations. By recognizing their needs, clients and project owners can improve collaboration and deliver successful projects.

Would your network of writers and designers agree with this list?  Share this among writers and designers in your network to see what ideas they can add.

By Margie Agin, Centerboard Marketing Chief Strategist