Can design communicate as much as content? And what does it mean to combine the two? Matthew and I met with a couple of editing experts, and the conversation turned to the resurgence of the power of layout. Here's how writing and design work together.
The way it used to be
Back before digital and online, newspaper and magazine editors would not only tweak copy to improve its linguistic prowess, but also to ensure it looked right on the page.
Old-fashioned typesetting meant optimising the column width for maximum absorption of information. Editors needed to ensure there were no orphans or widows and that the right verbal clues were given at the end of each line. Words could be changed or cut not because the writing demanded it, but because the design did.
Writing for the web
Then came online publication and digital typesetting. What editors had to worry about in terms of maximising effective communication, altered radically. Attention spans, eye-tracking and bullet points all came into play. Knowing how to write for the web is vital if you want your website to attract, entice and retain.
Design is context
Both then and now writing had to be well-designed, but the power of design to aid communication goes beyond that. With so much rich media surrounding us on our phones, on digital billboards and in so much of the content we see online, we have come to expect more from the design of writing. Take for example the website Co. Design.
They recently went through a carefully thought-out redesign. They talk about making their images bigger and introducing a better slideshow in order to highlight the focus of their publication: design. They also changed the way comments were displayed to suggest the type of relationship they wanted with their readers. All of this design took place around the written content, but is just as important in communicating what it has to say.
Rich media is travelling back offline
This development in design as context is taking place in print as well. Take the Harvard Business Review. For their monthly Spotlight section they now include a 'Spotlight Artist', explaining:
We hope that the lively and cerebral creations of these photographers, painters, and installation artists will infuse our pages with additional energy and intelligence to amplify what are often complex and abstract concepts.
No matter the medium, content cannot be left until last and nor can design - it's not a bolt-on, go-faster extra. They have to be built together to get the most effective means of communication. That said, one combination does not suit all mediums.
Design in context
Whilst design can work to effectively convey the context of a written article, it must also take into account the reader's own context. Someone sitting at their desk, or swiping their tablet will be in a different frame of mind to one settling down with or flicking through a print magazine.
It may be the same words, but what the design communicates before you even begin to read has to relate what is in the article to what is around the reader when they encounter it.
I'm a big fan of Fast Company's websites (including Co. Design). They are attractive, I keep reading and I click on suggested articles. For that reason, I thought I would enjoy the print copy as well. Wrong. Although it used similar boxed-out quotes, powerful colours and other design features, on paper it simply put me off. The combination only worked online.
An emerging edge
There's so much content bombarding us now that any point of differentiation that will grab one extra reader, or hold someone's attention for ten seconds longer is worth investigating. Designing with intent, constructing a visual context to aid written communication is not an easy task, but when it's done right, it certainly seems to be worthwhile.