Sharpen Your Writing: a Designer's Guide

Sharpen Your Writing: a Designer's Guide

A designer's guide to communicating in written form
Alex Gallafent
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Writing sharpens our thinking. And as human-centered designers, we rely on it to communicate unspoken human needs. But the craft of writing is itself somewhat hidden; it can seem like a secret art, all furtive fingertapping behind the screen of an open laptop.

We wanted to change that, and in the process, to help our community learn how to do it better by paying close attention to how great writers wield language. So we invited our colleagues to take a close look at powerful opening sentences, all drawn from novels.

The invitation to participate in The Sentence Gallery.

We called it The Sentence Gallery. Inspired by writer, editor, and friend-of-IDEO, Allan Reeder, the project takes to heart a quote by journalist William Zinsser that Reeder shared on his blog: "Writing is learned by imitation. I learned to write mainly by reading writers who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and by trying to figure out how they did it."

Senior Communications Designer Sera Koo unveils a new sentence.

To bring The Sentence Gallery to life, communications designers Jason Baker and Sera Koo built a wall out of foamcore and mounted it in our main community space. Over a few weeks, they showcased a series of sentences, writ large. They also laser-cut thought bubbles from Post-it pads and invited people to reflect on what made each sentence effective. The sharp point of the bubble operated as a marker that allowed passers-by to draw attention to whatever effect they’d noticed, placing their comment at a specific moment in the sentence.

What’s the effect of this word followed by that one? How does the rhythm and pacing of a sentence make the reader feel? Those were the kinds of question we wanted the Gallery to provoke.

IDEO designers picked out the sentence’s filmic qualities, too, making an allusion to The Wizard of Oz and even sketching out the emotional effect of Cather’s writing.

At IDEO, great writing emerges from an admixture of instinct, craft, inspiration, learning, and unlearning. That’s likely true for most any design artifact worth our attention.

As designers, we treat sentences like any other prototype. We get them out quickly, and then we get to work on them, refining our writing until it takes us where we need to go.

Comments draw attention to Alice Walker’s use of rhythm and vernacular, and the sense of threat her choices generate in the opening sentence of The Color Purple.
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Alex Gallafent
Senior Design Director
Alex is a senior creative leader at IDEO. He counsels global leaders and organizations by helping design extraordinary brands, experiences, products, and services. Recently, Alex has helped shape IDEO's stances on design for the Climate Era and on human- and planet-centered applications of emerging technologies.
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