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What Does a Writer Do at a Design Company?

May 16 2018

When people ask what I do, I say, “I’m a writer.” If they ask again, I say, “I use language to nudge people toward different ways of thinking.” In the world of design, language becomes a tool for sketching possible futures, for testing and understanding behaviors, for telling stories about people—and for good old-fashioned copywriting!

In other words, the life of an IDEO writer is super variable. One day, I might be interviewing a founder to help them articulate a vision. Another day, I’m on Sketch mapping out a conversational UI flow.

For my latest project, my team worked with a special education school in the Middle East to design a game that helps kids with cognitive disabilities learn how to speak. We had a running start with months of ethnographic research, family interviews, and a working prototype that was testing well in the States. But there was still much to design. Which characters would resonate with these kids? What should our game world look like? And how should the venture brand speak to families from vastly different cultures? It was time to hit the ground in the Middle East and find out.

7:30am: Breakfast with the team

Ditl Ideo Writer 730Am C

We wolf down a local breakfast at the hotel buffet and head out to meet our driver. We’re visiting a conservative part of town, so all the women on my team wear traditional dress and headscarf.

Our team is big—made up of interaction designers, a researcher, business designer, visual designer and me. I work closely with Brian, my visual design partner in crime, to develop the brand, characters, and game world. Together, we have created character prototypes, story ideas and singalong songs to test with families today.

8:30am: Arriving at the home of Dara and Yazi

Ditl Ideo Writer 830Am

Dara and Yazi* are twins with the same cognitive disability. Their mom offers us sweets, coffee, and big, juicy dates while we pull out our character puppets and sit down on the floor, legs crossed.

We’re curious about how verbal tone affects engagement and focus, so we prototype different character archetypes: the “sweet, loving grandmother”, the “fearless big brother”, “the barrel-of-fun trio of goofballs”.

Typically, character development is more art than science, but we’re designing characters for learning so we take a more empirical approach. We look out for behaviors that indicate Dara and Yazi are both interested and listening—are they sitting quietly? Are they trying to take the puppets? Are they singing along or mimicking dance moves? We make lots of notes and take all this data back for the next round of character design and script-writing.

10:30am: School in session

Ditl Ideo Writer 1030Am

We recite stories, animated by puppets, to a classroom full of four-year-olds. Afterwards, we take a tour of the school. For a writer, these tours are invaluable. Inspiration can come in all shapes and sizes, and for me, it often comes in the form of “found language”—snippets of passing conversation, idioms and anecdotes, the back of shampoo bottles, funny verbal habits, graffiti, marginalia, signage, silly little words found in unassuming places—it’s all gold. You should see my iPhone notes.

As we’re walking, I spy three singalong posters on the walls—the teacher says they begin every day with a song here. That becomes a core part of our game design. Every lesson will begin with a song.

12:00pm: Very important pita-stop

Ditl Ideo Writer Noon

Alas, one cannot exist on dates alone. We stop at a teahouse for hummus.

1:00pm: Writing, sketching, writing

Ditl Ideo Writer 1Pm

Traveling with teams is loads of fun, but it can be exhausting—especially for the introverts among us. I make sure to carve out decompression time where I can. This afternoon, I spend a few hours drafting scripts for our characters.

After such a positive response in our research, we’ve decided to give our characters a starring role, guiding the child through each lesson and nudging desirable behaviors like listening, looking, and speaking up. We sketch out some screens and I write new copy. Later, we’ll enlist voice actors and get into the studio for recording, but right now it’s all about getting puppet-prototypes out there for testing.

3:30pm: Hosting a design workshop with the client

Ditl Ideo Writer 330Pm

Showtime! For our game to survive in the wild, we’ll need to design the brand and a venture to sustain it. That requires thinking through what change we hope to create in the world and how that might be communicated through the brand. Are we down to earth or all buttoned up? And who do we hire to realize this vision? Are we looking for skillsets or mindsets? Earlier, I'd crafted a series of brand stories to help us envision the many possible futures our venture might explore, and we use those to start the conversation.

6:00pm: Sunset naps in the park

Ditl Ideo Writer 6Pm

It’s been a long day. We watch the locals come and go in the park, before heading back to our hotel, eating a lazy dinner, and passing out before 9. Tomorrow, we’ll do it all again.

The magic of language and storytelling is that it allows us to concoct things that don’t really exist—like Harry Potter or talking hedgehogs. But writing at IDEO is not all silly songs and fairytales. We also spend time exploring big, intangible things like values, social and political contexts, or what the future might look like. And the art of getting those stories right is what makes being a writer at IDEO so satisfying.

*We've changed the name of our research subjects out of respect for their privacy.

  • Leesa Gallaher

    Communication Designer (Writer), IDEO San Francisco
    Leesa is a writer, design strategist, and armchair anthropologist from Sydney. She is interested in the idea of language as a tool for good, and is concerned about the sixth extinction.

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