“The designer or the copywriter. Which one do we need?”
Last week we published an Open Access feature on Melbourne-based copywriter Sophie Beard. It proposed the idea that, as more design studios offer copywriting services and communications consultancies tack design onto their offerings, the creative industry is becoming attuned to a necessity for both. Despite this, we hear the same arguments made against hiring copywriters that, as designers, we’ve spent years defending.
The value of copy to the design process seems to still be a dividing topic. It shouldn’t be.
Writing is design. They cannot and should not be considered separately. Quite simply, if you’re working on a project that involves words in any capacity, you should hire a copywriter. If you’re a branding agency, big or small, you should hire a copywriter. If you’re a design studio working on branding projects, even if it’s just the occasional outsource, you should hire a copywriter. If you’re trying to persuade an audience to feel, buy or do something to do with your brand, you should hire a copywriter.
But let’s take a step back. Copywriting, like design, is notoriously murky in its definition. Outside of the industry and Mad Men fans, it’s not a widely-known line of work. Not all that long ago, I didn’t know what a copywriter was, let alone that it would become my profession. I’m not alone here. I’m often asked what copywriting involves, what copywriters do, whether I’m the person who puts the little C in the circle on important documents – you know, a copyrighter. Homophones, huh? So what exactly is copywriting?
“In a nutshell, copywriting is written communication that is compelling and persuasive. It’s usually for the purposes of marketing or selling a product, an event, a service, even a person,” says freelance copywriter and editor Sarah Halfpenny, whose skills have worked their magic across a number of jobs, including T-world and Vivid Sydney’s upcoming STREETS AHEAD event.
It’s now expanded beyond traditional print media like billboards and press releases, to encompass everything – blogs, eDMs, radio and TV scripts, social media and websites. Copy is everywhere, every day, and is integral to a brand’s success.
“It’s effective marketing, which is what every business aims for, but not everyone achieves,” Sarah says.
The same argument can be made for why you should hire a graphic designer, yet that’s an ongoing battle, too. So in a field all too familiar with the struggle to prove its value to clients, it’s surprising to continually come across this attitude towards copywriting from designers themselves. Because anyone can write a few sentences, right? Sure. Just like anyone can design a logo. Poaching a decent egg doesn’t make you a Michelin-starred chef.
“In this digital age, I find that clients need several versions of copy written that are tailored to different platforms,” Sarah explains. “It’s not just a case of cutting words here and there to reduce the word count – the skill lies in being able to deliver the same important details, using significantly fewer [or more] words, but keeping the same tone.”
But in this age of the “slashie”, where creative professionals armed with multi-disciplinary skill sets find themselves working to small studio budgets, it’s understandable that we don’t always outsource expertise. And sometimes it pays off. Take Melbourne’s Motherbird for example. As a follow-up to their identity design for Melbourne’s Chapel Street Precinct, they were approached to design a street press and supporting promotional campaign. It turned out to be as much a copywriting project as it was design.
“The original intention of the campaign to promote the street press wasn’t meant to be a heavily copy-driven piece, it sort of just evolved that way,” explains Motherbird Creative Director Jack Mussett.
The project was a lot of fun to work on. Days were spent crafting and refining taglines that were then shortlisted to the ones that went to print. Several of the original ideas really pushed the boundaries – “perhaps a bit too cheeky for public viewing” – but the fun was in the discipline of breaking the rules and reigning them back in again. Despite the project’s success, it was definitely a learning curve for the Motherbird team.
“I have always had a passion for words, but this project made me realise the words in a design are as important as the typeface,” says Jack. “Gone are the days when designers design beautiful things and that’s it – we are now strategising for our clients and building their brands from the ground up.”
“If designers can work together with copywriters from the beginnings of a project, stronger brand language will be developed.”
“We talk about brand personality, we talk about tone of voice and language… all of these things need design nuances to bring them to life, but the words need to be designed too, and that’s where we can bring it all together.”
It all comes back to collaboration and problem solving. Reactive’s Tim Buesing touched on it at last year’s Sex, Drugs & Helvetica conference in reference to his work on The Most Powerful Arm project. He said collaboration is important because, quite simply, it makes the work better.
“You have to work together to get to another level of creative excellence,” he said. “You can gain a lot by reaching out and getting in the expertise you don’t have. Open your mind for copywriting as much as design.”
Senior copywriter and content strategist Tait Ischia is an example of a positive symbiotic relationship between designer and writer. He leads the content strategy and copy on all projects at Studio Thick, a Melbourne-based design consultancy. He’s the clownfish to their design studio anemone. While he makes the final call on word choice and grammar, he says the words can come from anywhere – especially designers. Tait says a good designer will know when a headline works or not. They’ll also know when you’re waffling. Just as design is, copywriting is a collaborative process.
“Art directors and copywriters have been working together since the 50s, but it feels like designers and copywriters are only just starting to work together closely,” he says. “Working alongside a designer always produces the best results. There’s nothing worse than sending copy to a designer and having it jammed into a layout without much thought.”
Gone are the days of the relationship between design and copy simply subscribing to the ‘headline, subheadline and body copy’ framework of the magazine layouts and ads. Tait says that, while it was once easy to send copy to a designer and have a reasonable idea of the layout and hierarchy of the design, that’s no longer a realistic expectation with the influx of digital platforms.
“I think now that writing and designing for the web takes up so much of our time, working collaboratively matters more than ever,” Tait explains. “I don’t expect designers to know what hierarchy I had in mind when I wrote the copy [for web].”
“A designer might even use 12pt type when I thought it would be 30pt, shifting the meaning of a paragraph just enough to make it redundant. If you’re a designer, expect to work closely with a copywriter, trying out multiple drafts in your design, and making your own suggestions. The work will be better for it.”
It’s a sentiment that Sarah certainly echoes.
“Partnering copywriters with an art team or a designer makes the perfect combination,” she says. “Coming up with the concept might be the responsibility of either the designer or the copywriter, but a collaboration between the two (especially when they’re on the same wavelength), usually produces the best results.”
We are now living and working in a time where design thinking and effective UI design are king. As stated in 37Signals’ (now Basecamp) Getting Real, “If you think every pixel, every icon, every typeface matters, then you also need to believe every letter matters.”
Copywriting is design. Every button, every menu, every header. That’s copywriting. The difference between “submit” or “save” or “update” or “enter”. That’s copywriting. Speaking the same language as your audience is copywriting. Saying what you need to in the simplest way possible is copywriting. Words are powerful, they can affect and move people. And words and language are the one thing that can connect with and give almost anyone an understanding of what designers actually do.
So, in the words of Joan product designer Nick Hallam, “If we truly want to give ourselves the best opportunity to solve the really important problems in life, designers and creatives of all expertise need to share their desks.”
Image by Antra Svarcs