The oldest new thing in town, brand new again
Design Writing. Why it is hot, why it is old as the world.
As a writer myself, both advertising copywriter in the past as well as published author in the research and business context, it feels rather peculiar to elaborate upon the recent wave –or tsunami, should we say- of visionary insights and thought leading comments by the likes of John Maeda or John Saito on the synergy between design and writing, or the apparently novel opportunities that might emerge from Design Writing. It feels peculiar like a fish would feel peculiar in commenting the invention of water by others, at least for three historical reasons:
1) Since the time of Vitruvius or Andrea Palladio to their contemporary equivalents, Robert Venturi or Rem Koolhaas, architects, designers and artists who engaged in design projects ante litteramhave heavily complemented their practices with the written word. One might think of the likes of John Ruskin or Adolf Loos, whose essays established their vision as much as their realizations did. Or Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who established the whole Futurismo art, design and lifestyle movement on a series of powerful manifestos. For decades, the written word has sculpted the horizon and the landscapes of those worlds inhabited by objects and buildings drawn and built by architects and designers;
2) The fundamental impact of writers on design practice might also be traced back to the recent work of “design ideologists” like Vilem Flusser, Tony Fry or Ezio Manzini, who re-defined in their books the relationship between design and the planet and between design and the future. Connecting design with philosophy, philology or other humanities is fundamental to avoid the risk of the commoditization and bastardization of design as a mere marketing tool, and such ambition can only be realized through writing and printing essays of quality, both academic as well as visionary;
3) Ca va sans dire, before UX, “design” already existed in various forms of strategic and creative excellence. In advertising, for example, one might appreciate the relevance of creative direction by copywriters like David Ogilvy or Pasquale Barbella. The former is one of the “founding fathers” of modern advertising, with his book “Confessions of an advertising man” providing a compendium of XX Century communication. The latter, founding partner of Italian star agency, BGS D’Arcy, signed off international campaigns for the likes of Swatch, in the mid 1990’s, establishing a new standard for creative teams in Europe. In postmodern advertising, the complementary role of art director and copywriter enabled the merging of graphic excellence with cinematic storytelling, leading to the emergence of brands beyond products.
In the light of the above examples, “Design Writing” appears a much better rooted tradition in the creative and strategic practice of designers, than the 2017 fashionable wording of “UX Writer” in hip digital vacancies, of course online. A case of holistic integration of writing skills within a High Tech strategic design context is Philips Design under the tenure of Stefano Marzano, in the two decades between 1991 and 2011. Marzano, strong of his humanistic roots in Italian education, brought a passionate focus to the setting of visionary programs anticipating the future, to be reflexively recorded in milestone books. Furthermore, the emergence of a world class strategic design practice within the company naturally led to the presence of sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists within multidisciplinary design teams. This determined the need to link textual research insights with visual and modelling practices, by means of repeatable processes. Within this domain, the role of the written word, e.g. vision and mission statements balancing foresight and visual strategies, became key, bridging the worlds of futures research, brand strategy and visual communication.
One can only welcome the recent tsunami of enthusiastic statements about the value of design writing skills for digital teams. On the other hand, one must also be cautious and critical, in preventing that this enthusiasm might expire as the seasonal fashion designed to hype social media with fancy words without much substance. The difference that Design Writing can do in terms of thought leadership, strategic resilience and communicative power is paramount, and it was not born yesterday on the keyboards of UX design team leaders or digital design gurus. It is a potential that comes from our history as practitioners in the fields of world-making, sometimes a history of decades or centuries, and –when consciously adopted and managed within the appropriate repeatable process– it is a potential that will convert to a new level of solidity in the liquid age.