Thinking Like an Art Director Can Make You a Better Writer

September 1, 2021 § 21 Comments

By Abby Alten Schwartz

Before I became a marketing copywriter and, more recently, a freelance journalist, essayist and memoirist, I worked as an advertising art director and graphic designer, following in the footsteps of my dad. In the creative department of an ad agency, you are one or the other: artist or writer. Though hired as an art director, I often veered into the writers’ lane.

In brainstorming sessions at my old agency, I competed with the copywriters to come up with winning headlines and often approached campaigns through words before visuals. Later, when I launched my own healthcare marketing business, I added writing to my list of services, and I’ve happily worked both sides of the creative fence ever since.

Designers use images to communicate a concept and add dimension to the copy. Writers use words to paint a visual and conjure a feeling. I’ve discovered that many of the principles of good design apply to writing as well, and offer these five design practices to enhance your writing:

1. Embrace white space

As an old perfume ad once advised: If you want to capture someone’s attention, whisper. White space in design adds elegance. It spotlights the focal point and gives an idea room to breathe, spatially and metaphorically. In writing, white space translates to clean prose. A brief chapter. A sentence that packs a punch.

2. Feed the compost bin

I went to art college in the late 80s, before personal computers. A habit from school I carried into my professional life was what I called ‘feeding my head.’ At the start of a new project, I would comb through my dad’s collection of art books, from design annuals to photography and illustration directories, armed with a sketch pad and sticky notes. Interesting color palettes, typography, concepts and layouts went into my mental compost bin to become rich, fertile soil for new ideas. The key was staying open to stimulation from unexpected sources. Today, I find inspiration everywhere: TV titles, package designs, textiles and Instagram feeds are all fair game.

Feed your writer’s brain by consuming a wide variety of voices and genres. Fill notebooks with sentences you’d kill to have written, bits of overheard conversation, funny things your kid says, unusual names. Sift through the words around you and pluck out the ones that speak to you.

3. Focus

Make the headline larger, bold the opening section, box this part, increase the font size overall and make the logo bigger. If you want to get on the wrong side of a designer, request edits like these.

A good designer knows if you emphasize everything, nothing stands out. I have a bag of tricks to help me capture a viewer’s eye and direct how they navigate the page. I can play with the scale of objects, eliminate fussy details, juxtapose elements in a fresh way, and yes, deftly deploy white space.

I often freewrite by hand before tackling new pages of my memoir. It helps me excavate the meaning behind what I want to say. Like a designer, you can direct the reader’s attention by utilizing surprising contrasts, varying the pace, zooming in or out to get close to a scene or reflect from a distance the way a photographer switches lenses. If you emphasize everything in a story, nothing stands out.

4. Get tactile

I was lucky to learn old-school, manual layout techniques before the industry transitioned to digital. When I was a kid, my dad helped develop my eye by bringing work home and enlisting my help. He’d spread photos, headlines in various sizes and fonts, and blocks of mocked up copy over our ping pong table. There’s nothing like holding these elements in your hands and physically moving them around, to create a composition that’s unique and exciting.

I was reminded of this recently. I love writing braided essays — coming at a topic from different angles and piecing everything together like I am working a puzzle. I was struggling to wrap my mind around one essay, though. While I could rearrange sections by cutting and pasting, my visual brain couldn’t process the whole in its digital format. It was only after I printed it out, cut it apart with scissors and physically laid out the pieces, that it all came together. I was able to spot gaps and make connections I simply couldn’t grasp when my writing was two-dimensional on a screen. I’ve since added this technique to my toolbox, next to the index cards and post-it notes.

5. Read your work out loud

Okay, this isn’t a design tip, but it does come from advertising. I’ve written radio spots and video scripts and it’s always necessary to read the work out loud, not only to time it with a stopwatch, but to hear the pacing and sound of the words. Will the voice talent run out of breath because my sentence is too long? Is there a tongue twister to trip them up? Did I begin two consecutive sentences with a subordinate clause?

Pacing, phrasing and word choice matters on the written page, too. Readers may not be saying your words out loud, but they are gliding across them. Make sure you don’t leave anything they will stumble over unconsciously.


Abby Alten Schwartz is a Philadelphia-based writer who also works as a copywriter, designer and healthcare marketing consultant. Her work has appeared in The Washington PostWired and The Manifest-Station and she is writing a memoir about parenting, illness and hope. Follow her on Twitter at @abbys480 or visit


§ 21 Responses to Thinking Like an Art Director Can Make You a Better Writer

  • Abby- these are great suggestions! I especially love this: “designers use images to communicate a concept and add dimension to the copy. Writers use words to paint a visual and conjure a feeling.” It goes to show that creatives should not box ourselves into a particular medium.

  • This is all such excellent writing advice.

    “It was only after I printed it out, cut it apart with scissors and physically laid out the pieces, that it all came together.”

    When I was coaching high school seniors through their lengthy (12-15 page) research papers, one technique I urged them to try was to print out their entire essay, tape it together into a single page (several feet long), read it through and cut it into sections, and then rearrange the sections. This approach was often a game-changer, allowing them to revision the structure of their argument that they clung to on screen, but were able to fully understand and re-envision on paper.

    • I LOVE that you taught this to your students! I’m someone who just works better analog sometimes. I can’t achieve the same spatial recognition on a screen. I’m so glad this resonated for you. Thank you!

  • rachaelhanel says:

    I love the intersection of graphics and art. I teach a design class for writers and it’s my favorite class. I will distribute this essay to my students!

  • Linda Gerber Schreiner says:

    Abby, I am so impressed with how these design practices so uniquely fit for creative writing! I have a better understanding of why your writing has that gorgeous element!

  • Joanne says:

    Love these parallels. I can’t wait to point my students toward your post.

  • Great advice! I too love braided essays. I learned about them for the first time in a college course called “Creative Nonfiction Writing”. When I learned about braided essays, I realized that it is one of the best writing styles to express my creativity.

  • […] Thinking Like an Art Director Can Make You a Better Writer […]

  • Danny Mack says:

    Abby Alten Schwartz: I am going to take this to heart. Such universal issues, but simplified…great service journalism.

    1. “Did I begin two consecutive sentences with a subordinate clause?” RIGHT? i cannot break this habit. I think the “reading out loud” part is going to be a big help in curtailing this.

    2. Also RE “reading out loud.” I just read a biography of Redd Foxx, the late great comedian who did this too. He practiced all of his stand-up or scripted material by rehearsing out loud. He agreed with you – he would run through rough scripts and see if he repeated himself, or get the right flow. You’re in good company, he had a productive career much like you.

  • Great piece, Abby. I especially love the section on Get Tactile.

  • Laura V. says:

    I really appreciated this piece, Abby! I’m a copywriter and editor by day, and I’ve long described the rare breed of designers who can write really well as unicorns. That is an extremely special combo of skills I deeply admire. Looking forward to reading more from you!

    • Laura, thank you so much for this! I feel fortunate to be able to dip into both areas. I’m leaning way more into the writing these days but will always identify as a designer, too, and cannot separate the two when I work. Much appreciation for you reading this and commenting.

  • […] author platform and her anti-huckster brand of self-promotion. Abby Alten Schwartz’s essay about thinking like an art director and Brenda Miller’s case study on the hermit crab form inspire me to see my work in new ways. But […]

  • […] writing is like working out—the more you do it, the stronger you get. Expanding that analogy, drawing inspiration from other art forms is akin to cross-training. You’ll challenge muscles that are used less often and avoid falling […]

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