Great writing for design: How to inject personality into your branding without becoming irritating

In the lead up to next week’s D&AD Festival, Katie Ewer will be looking at what makes great writing for design in a series of blog posts. Katie is part of the 2016 jury for Writing for Design. First, she takes a look at writing for brand personality.

Innocent Drinks has a lot to answer for. Ever since it created bottles of juice that transformed the humble back of pack into something surprising and creative, we’ve had to endure years of over-familiar products that want to chat to us ‘like friends’. Supermarkets, bars and restaurants are littered with boxes, bottles and coffee cups with ‘copy-led’ design approaches. So many brands are talking to me that I can’t hear anything at all. It’s all just words, words, words.

It’s not just packaging though. Even airlines are gabbing at you irreverently and joke about black boxes on their liveries. Not even a stay in a luxury hotel is safe from the ubiquitous ‘cheeky tone of voice’.

Take W Hotels, for instance. It shook up the stuffy hospitality industry with an iconoclastic positioning driven in no small part by its sassy brand voice. ‘Drink Up!’ the bottled water exhorts you. ‘Blow out!’ screeches the hairdryer. The spare toilet paper calls itself the ‘Backup Plan’. How refreshing it must have seemed on one’s first stay in a W. And how irritating it must feel on your fourth, fifth and sixth stays. Jokes just aren’t funny on the second telling. Neither are cheeky loo rolls.

Does this mean that you can’t build your brand’s personality using its tone of voice? No, but in my opinion you can’t do it using tone of voice alone. For a start, it’s almost impossible to create memorable visual distinctiveness when your identity consists entirely of words.

Writing needs to work hand–in-hand with visual communication, and getting the balance right is not easy. Great writing for design tends to come from great brands. That’s not surprising – when a brand has a clear point, it’s easy for designers and writers to create good work.

For instance, Mail Chimp’s automated error responses seem entirely fitting with its brand spirit (‘we can’t find what you’re looking for’ becomes ‘nothing to see here’), whilst the profoundly strange and memorable Old Spice tone of voice is as evident on its back of pack and website as it is on social media and TVCs.

Innocent showed us that writing for design doesn’t have to be stuffy, functional, or dry. Perhaps like a new technology, we’re just figuring out how to use it with nuance and discretion.

So yes, Innocent Drinks has a lot to answer for, but it helped put writing for design on the map. And that can’t be a bad thing.

Katie Ewer is strategy director at JKR

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