Writing and Design


Recently I discovered that the strength of my practice has been my interest in ideas. Perhaps this explains why, as a communication designer, I have enjoyed working across so many types of projects, mediums, and disciplines. This has led me to think more broadly about what constitutes design practice and what we do as designers. The intention here is not to critique design methodologies, but rather, to explore something seldom discussed in everyday practice, the importance of writing as a skill for designers. Here are a few observations from my own experience.

Relational design

As design shifts further away from purely form and function concerns, navigating context has never been more important than now. It helps us move away from the idealised user towards more appropriate solutions for the complex reality of diverse audience behaviour. As Akkawi (2017) notes, ‘the act of writing and designing are strongest when it comes to building context. Both require sensitivity to every plausible situation. Like writing, the design process considers varying levels of complexity in the context of use’. In my own work, writing has become an important practice for sense-making. It has allowed me to articulate what is understood, design with reflexivity, and work more collaboratively, effectively, and smartly.

Human Centred Design

When I made the transition to service and digital design, my focus shifted from communication to include how a design would function in a variety of probable scenarios. Writing high-level journeys and use-cases helps us to explore the service or product from different points of view and to understand what our audience wants. Writing allows us to contemplate design intentions over time, so we solve the right real-world problems.

Learning Design
Here at RMIT’s VE design team, our learning designers create learning experiences that engage students through activities, interactions, and narrative structures. In certain courses, our learning designers write fictional scenarios and narratives that make content more impactful and memorable. Realising these into a kind of virtual ‘real-world’ experience for students pushes our multimedia designers towards more creative and critical design practices.

Design as knowledge

Writing has also given greater authority to the design profession by encouraging the sharing, and debate, of good design principles and practise. Striving for personal and professional design excellence can stimulate new knowledge that would have been unlikely in client work. As van der Velden (2008) writes, ‘many graphic designers nowadays are writers and work extensively with forms of discourse and written exchange as part of shaping practice.’ Similarly, Burdick (1993) notes, ‘Graphic design is neither strictly visual nor strictly verbal’. It is the marriage of the two: fused, bonded, and inseparable. For Burdick, ‘by acknowledging this involvement and by actively increasing it through autonomous projects and analytical reflection, we strengthen our communication skills as authors and consequently as interpreters’.

Written ideas are as powerful as the corresponding visuals we create, but great writing does not always guarantee great design. Practising these two activities in tandem can help us think through complex scenarios and communicate our ideas with greater clarity. It helps us frame (and reframe) issues, break down problems, and find practical solutions. Balancing formal human-centred design approaches with the free-flowing nature of user-generated content challenges designers to ensure their work embodies ideas, values, and ethics. Design is no longer restricted to a medium (i.e., print, digital, or motion), but is about communication—mediated through language: written, spoken, and visual.


Blauvelt, Andrew. (2008). ‘Towards Relational Design’ in Design Observer. Retrieved https://designobserver.com/feature/towards-relational-design/7557

Burdick, Anne. (1993). ‘What has writing got to do with design?’ in Eye no. 9 vol. 3. Retrieved from http://www.eyemagazine.com/opinion/article/what-has-writing-got-to-do-with-design

van der Velden, Daniel. (2006). ‘Research and Destroy’, first published in Metropolis M 2, April/May 2006. Retrieved from http://readings.design/PDF/vanderVelden_research-distroy.pdf

About the author

James Ratsasane

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