The Nature of Writing as Design

After discussions with a writer friend, in which he considered design and writing to be different, I realized it would be prudent to put my thoughts on the subject to paper

The nature of design

Design is used to describe a great many things, from the creation of toys and software, to the construction of aircraft. All these things might be considered “designed”. However, there is no universally accepted definition of design. The way it is used differs from field to field. So, first we need to attempt a definition that strips away the differences of medium and technology.

For the purpose of this discussion, I am going to define design as: the process by which we make decisions that shape the world around us.

I can already feel you recoiling in horror at such a vague definition, but the alternative to the ‘keep it general’ definition is to become sucked into specifics - using the word to mean either the aesthetics of a certain entity, or more generally, its architecture.

This might then lead you to conclude that writing isn’t as much like architecture design as it is art, aside from the fact that it follows some syntactic rules. However, you find that the latter definition breaks down in the scope of a few things that are clearly designed but are not clearly aesthetically or architecturally so, such as behavioural processes and choices of how to respond to various stimuli.

It would be pragmatic to view the physical outputs as just another facet of the core of a thought system (regardless of which one it is). Otherwise, you need to section off different so-called design processes for each and every output of this thought system: one for writing, one for cooking and so on. Those seem like artificial constructs, because of the human need to compartmentalize.

Writing as design

In 1999, Mike Sharples, a University of Birmingham professor penned “How We Write: Writing as Creative Design”[1], in which he describes writing as “a conscious and creative communication with and through materials to achieve a human effect” - a description with roots in a book on design. He goes on to discuss Bryan Lawson’s book, “How Designers Think”, drawing parallels between his words and how they apply equally to writing. To get a feel for these, I have altered his declarations, making the simple substitution of “writing” for “design”. This leads to obvious thoughts such as: “writing problems are open-ended and cannot be fully specified”, “the writing process is endless”, “there is no infallibly correct process of writing” and so on.

Writing is communication and communication is design. Taking design as the process by which we make decisions that shape the world around us, it is clear that we weave words and worlds with an intended effect on observers. You write a few carefully chosen words with an intended effect on the reader. You inform, delight, elucidate facts and open new opportunities. In the particular case of writing, you use a different device, the human mind, to perform computations.

A short diversion: Design as it applies to the web

When we begin to view product design on the web, for example, as a special thing, there is the risk that we might confine ourselves to the known limits of a nascent field without relying on the wealth of knowledge on the subject of creativity that has been built up over centuries of philosophical thought.

Even when attempting a narrow definition of design in the context of the web, there is clearly some frustration to be found. “Let’s call it graphic design” declares Mark Boulton [2]. However, this ignores the other facets of design that are in no way “graphic”, such as the impact of sound, haptic feedback, all of which could contribute immensely to the overall experience of whatever we create. Rather than doing so, we are reduced to shiny gradients and “user experience design”.

Such brutal narrowing is risky, as it perpetuates a model that does not evolve, one that is set upon the two-dimensional. It would be remiss to do this, but that is not the focus of this discussion and we return to how design is reflected in the medium of the written word.

Bridging the gap

A friend of mine once said, “The design of ideas is not the same as the design of things”, but I would have to disagree. There is no apparent difference beyond the physical limitations of one manifestation. Thus, it is evident that some of the lessons of one medium might be useful when applied to the other.

In Don Norman’s classic, The Design of Everyday Things[3], he describes the seven stages of action which include a model of perception that could be perfectly usable for the written word. This model describes a range spanning the gulf of execution to the real world, and ultimately, the gulf of evaluation.

Walking across the spectrum from the material to the immaterial, you arrive at the very same point. All things, even ideas are as perceived by the observer. The observer’s knowledge of things determines his response.

Regarding the inverse, it is fairly common to come across expressions such as “poetry in motion”, “colored words” amongst others. This would suggest a yearning to bridge the gap. In the act of writing, you create an environment, with an intended response by the reading audience to what is written. This is design.

In conclusion

Just as the chair might be designed as a means of sitting down - words are designed to aid the thinking process, and there is no debate as to which is further reaching.

All this serves as a reminder to avoid limiting one’s thoughts to what is accomodated by the medium of expression. Ultimately, we are all in the business of creation – the lessons learned by each facet are just as relevant in others.

And of course, I’d like to thank the friends who helped structure this piece and read early drafts. In particular, Swizec Teller, Thomas Petersen, Tolu Oloruntoba and Ziyad Basheer. Their suggestions were invaluable.



Tom Morris wrote a well-considered response to this journal entry, in which he warns of the extremes of “design thinking”. It is well worth reading, as with all other things, one must strive for balance.

[1] Sharples, M., 1999. How we write: writing as creative design, Routledge.

[2] Boulton, M., 2011. Visual Design is not a Thing, The Manual (Issue 2), Fiction.

[3] Norman, D.A., 2002. The Design of Everyday Things, Basic Books.