The Importance Of Words In Design

Vintage typewriter and a blank sheet of paper

Design isn’t just about colours and shapes. Words play an important role too, and in this opinion piece Chris Round, copywriter for design agency Hulsbosch, argues they’re the ill-forgotten aspect and why they shouldn’t be.

B&T Magazine
Posted by B&T Magazine

I’m not quite sure how much heated discussion there is nowadays about the role of writing in design – the old ‘what comes first, the design or the words’ question. But to me it’s mostly a pointless discussion, because the two are inextricably linked; words are always part of great design.

Chris Round

Chris Round

The first thing to consider is that great design always starts with a great idea. And, more often than not, a great idea is born out of great strategy, preferably one that’s articulated using clear and concise language. Even designs that don’t include words in their execution will have been born out of a clearly defined strategy or vision. An obvious example of this is architectural design; Churches convey the ‘written word of God’; banks project the message of power and wealth; the skyscrapers of Shanghai express modernity and China’s economic rise.

The same applies to any decent strategy behind graphic design. For example Rolls Royce will use words like ‘exclusivity’ and ‘refinement’; Diesel clothing will use language like ‘provocative’, ‘irreverent’ and ‘daring’; McDonald’s will talk about ‘happiness’, ‘family’ and ‘surprise’. This strategic writing feeds into the creative executions. Therefore, even before the first ideas are dreamt up, words have played a vital role in the design process, and in defining a brand’s language.

Another point to consider is that designers are not just image-makers; they are first and foremost communicators. And, more often than not the best communication includes a combination of words (type) and visuals. These two elements must work harmoniously in order to be effective; the right combination of words and visuals create powerful and effective messages.

These elements also create personality, one that speaks to, and emotionally engages with, the audience. We all know the most effective form of communication is via word of mouth: a message from someone you trust and listen to. And in the absence of an actual human voice, brands must create their own. So, building brands through design requires having a clear and defined tone of voice that sits together with the brand look and feel. Words and language provide that tone.

As people, we all have our own tone of voice, our own idiosyncrasies. One person may be comedic and light-hearted, while another might be serious and erudite. Someone may speak slowly and clearly, while another might be energetic and fast-paced. Either way it’s distinctive, recognisable and unique. The same applies to a brand’s voice. Are they formal or informal? Do they use jargon or technical terms? Are they lively, fun, down-to-earth, self-effacing or rebellious? If humour is used, is it sophisticated, subtle or slapstick? These types of things must be considered and, once decided upon, be consistently adhered to for a brand to be believable. And, if the audience believes the brand, they’ll be willing to converse with them for many years to come.

The importance of words in design cannot be overstated. Words are not only the catalyst for great design; they’re the glue that holds great design together, by forming and maintaining a clear and consistent dialogue with a brand’s audience. So, next time you’re having a sophisticated conversation with Lexus, a simple and precise chat with Apple, or a bit of a laugh with Old Spice think about if these brands are being true to their word.