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5 things I learned about design writing and research

Lessons from the 2021 SVA Design Writing and Research summer intensive

In June 2021 I spent 2 weeks on Zoom on an intense but rewarding online course. Here are 5 things that I learned.

1.Design criticism is about being bold[1]

Have a point of view. Don’t cede your power to an interviewee. Don’t hedge, be bold. All of this advice may sound obvious. But as someone working in digital government, it was a shock. I realised that when I interview people to do user research, I try to disappear. And when I write as a designer in government, I try to gently influence. This may be correct. However, if I ever write and interview outside of work, I may have to unlearn some of my work habits.

2. You can say a lot in 500 words[2]

My general word count when I blog has been between 800-1300 words. So when I read that our course expected us to write articles of 500-600 words I thought, “how easy”. I was wrong. The shorter word count forced me to focus. For one class, I challenged myself to write a first draft of 500 words. This was extremely helpful. I had to be ruthless in my first draft, but then had a buffer of 100 words to use to address any feedback.

3. Be careful of assuming knowledge, even within design

In one class, a tutor told us that who we pitch an article to affects assumed knowledge. For example, in an architectural magazine we could just write “Frank Lloyd Wright”, but in a more mainstream piece we might remind readers that he’s a famed American architect. However, our diverse class of students highlighted that this mainstream approach might be needed even across design disciplines. One memorable example was when a classmate started a profile with “What more is there to say about [designer]”?. I admitted that I’d never heard of them. I realised that people outside of government have likely never heard of Lou Downe.

4. Write for the ear

As a designer, I’m used to seeing the big picture and then zooming in. However, several tutors reminded our class that writing is about leading a reader along with us, carefully revealing details. And the best way to check that we’re doing that? Reading our work out loud. Every day we read our work out loud. We heard where we stumbled, and changed it. Now when I read articles, I can’t unsee—or is it unhear?—just how many are clearly never read out loud.

5. Write in your own voice

I coveted the writing styles of many of my classmates. One wrote with effortless city cool, another with hypnotic David Foster Wallace-like flow, another like a surrealist comic. Luckily, a book I’d read before the course had warned me against this temptation. The writer Mary Carr had noticed that writing students often resist showing themselves as they actually are, and instead try and do the opposite.[3] Armed with this knowledge, I learned what I could from their work, but stayed true to my own voice, which is concise but playful.

_The SVA 2021 Summer Intensive magazine will be available on Medium in August 2021. For more about the SVA Design Writing and Research course, go to Summer Intensive – SVA MA Design Research

  1. People in UK government may recognise this phrase from prominent digital leader Janet Hughes. The irony does not escape me ↩︎

  2. 500 words is downright luxurious compared to some writing formats. Our exhibition review tutor pointed us towards The New Yorker’s “capsule reviews”. They’re a mere 150 words at most. ↩︎

  3. Mary Carr, on Memoir, 2014. Her book also includes a good set of questions about what your writing style actually is—how would your friends describe you? What would they say that your strengths and weaknesses are? ↩︎