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.
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 Post, Wired and The Manifest-Station and she is writing a memoir about parenting, illness and hope. Follow her on Twitter at @abbys480 or visit abbyaltenschwartz.com