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Great writing for design: How to write with clarity

In the lead up to next week’s D&AD Festival, Katie Ewer continues her series looking at what makes great writing for design. Katie is part of the 2016 jury for Writing for Design.

What’s the purpose of language? Communication. What single thing is vital for communication? Clarity.

In our delight at the way language can help us build personality, we sometimes forget that writing is primarily about communication. Sometimes simply delivering a message quickly and simply is more important than linguistic trickery. There is great skill required to untangle and distill complex thoughts into easy-to-understand ideas. The problem is that it’s just not that sexy. Writing plain English doesn’t make for amusing back of pack copy or cute headlines and usually doesn’t get much attention in portfolios.

As a marketer, it’s hard to resist the temptation to use every possible trick available to you in order to assert your brand’s distinctiveness. But the truth is, sometimes verbose or chatty packaging, point of sale or communication is counter-productive. Injecting some personality into your brand’s tone of voice can make it more human. But it can also put friction into the way a consumer interacts with your brand. Narrative may engage us emotionally, but reading requires brainpower. Sometimes, we just want to book a flight, buy a loaf of bread, or order a pizza quickly, easily and confidently. Always, the brand and the experience should be one and the same. Too often, the brand gets in the way of what we’re trying to do.

People often remark that design is something you only notice when it’s bad. The same could be said of writing. Clear writing makes for seamless experiences. Bad writing slows things down.

None of this means that clear writing is boring writing. It’s still possible to express nuance through your choice of words and the way in which you put them together.

If you’re looking for an example of a fantastic writing for clarity, look no further than the UK government website www.gov.uk, the result of a synthesis of multiple social services into a single portal. What a tangled beast that must have been to work with, and what a great result: clear, logical and intuitive. It’s absolutely fit for purpose and an example of truly great writing. It won a D&AD Black Pencil in the Writing for Design category in 2013.

Perhaps Nathaniel Hawthorne summed it up best: “Easy reading is damn hard writing."

Katie Ewer is strategy director at JKR. Read part one of the series: How to inject personality into your branding without becoming irritating

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