Crossing the divide and learning lessons

Words or design

I’ve recently been on an interesting journey.

For more years than I care to remember, I’ve written for websites, and have worked with a wide range of web designers. And I have to admit, there have been times when it’s got a little tense – as the often-conflicting needs of copy and design have been debated back and forth.

But we’ve always worked things out in the end, as both web guru and wordmeister recognise that words and layout are entirely complementary.

Design can hobble even the best copy, as the reader navigates obstacles to pick up the message. And words – too many or too few, with too much or too little detail – can get in the way of  a clean, visually appealing web layout.

So compromise is always necessary, and a little diplomacy never goes amiss. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve opened a sentence with “I don’t want to tread on any design toes, but…”

Except this time, those toes were mine.

And that felt very different indeed. 

The view from the far side

For some time now, I’ve been delving ever deeper into the wonderful world of web design.

As a barely closeted techie, I’ve always been interested in what goes on under the hood of of websites. Over the years, I’ve acquired enough HTML, CSS, JavaScript and PHP skills to maintain my own site.

Hot on the heels of my website relaunch earlier this year, a friend asked me if I could get a site up and running for her.

She’s launching a new consultancy business, and needs a web presence. Could I help her with the design and the words? In exchange, she promised a lifetime supply of tiramisù (and believe me, she makes a mean tiramisù). 

How could I say no?

So I said yes. And that’s where things got interesting.

Because now, I was thinking about how the strapline would sit on the jumbotron, and whether the lead-in would read properly with the cover photo below.

Should we open with an intro paragraph below that, or simply dive right in and give an overview of the areas she operated in? Maybe we should have summary boxes for each area with a short blurb, leading through to a dedicated pages. But if we did that, would we have enough text to justify those pages? 

And even if we did, would we simply be writing copy to fill an available space? Shouldn’t we be ‘writing like a reader’ instead, which is what I’ve always advocated?

More is never more

There was also the question of whether we should we include animation, or other advanced CSS effects. But although they’re interesting to learn and master for the designer, they’re often an unnecessary distraction for the reader.

In a past life, I was frequently on the receiving end of impatient looks as PowerPoint animation did its thing. What had seemed like a good idea in my office pod didn’t feel quite so good in front of a live audience.

So I restrained myself when designing the site, and quickly dismissed the idea of sliding carousels and auto-playing videos. All I had to do was imagine a virtual audience rolling its eyes heavenwards. 

Keep it short and simple, I said to myself – and I didn’t just mean the copy.

Each design element had to serve a purpose, otherwise it was out. Just like words: if they don’t add something, they’re taking something away (the reader’s time and attention) and so need to be cut. 

I almost fell into one trap I’ve often called designers out on – ‘pouring words into boxes’, where you’re writing copy to fill a design element that needs copy. So you write copy, whether you need it or not.

Copy shouldn’t be written to fit a design – but it also doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so it needs to take account of how it’s going to be laid out. Being in charge of words and design has given me a new appreciation of how the two have to work together, or they don’t work at all.

Words and pictures

I’ve always thought visually when I write, imagining how the copy will sit in the finished web page. And without treading on those sometimes sensitive toes, I’ve often dropped into my copy what I tactfully call ‘stage directions’ – aka what goes where. 

But now, having seen life from the other side, and laboured to make sure that words don’t overwhelm layout and vice versa, I have a newfound appreciation for the importance of a holistic approach. 

It’s been a fascinating journey, and it’s not over yet. We should launch in the next couple of weeks, words and design permitting, not to mention the translation (it’s going to be in both English and Italian). If you’d like to see it, you’ll find a sneak peek of the website here.

It looks like it will be the first of many, as the word spreads that I’ve crossed that divide. 

And you know what? I like the view from here.

I’ll think I’ll stay a while.