Writing is a valuable skill for product designers, especially in distributed teams. Besides its inherent use for async communication, it’s a valuable tool for critical thinking and also develops long-term life skills.
☕ Why writing matters for designers
For a long time, I was convinced one of the important skills to train designers and researchers in was presenting. This is useful in a lot of situations, like when showing things to stakeholders, telling a narrative for products, or convincing team members. It’s a long-term life skill, more seniors should be better at it. So I designed some of the team processes and my coaching around this, for example asking designers to present their work weekly.
In recent years, however, I see writing as a more important skill to develop. Presenting has still its place, but written communication seems to be more generally useful.
One clear context for this is distributed design teams. Both when team members are distributed geographically (remote teams) and when they are distributed organizationally (embedded in product teams). To make communication efficient across these boundaries, people need to master async communication, which for the most part is writing.
Everyone should make sure, they are conveying their message how they intended when the audience is not present. Getting better at writing helps with this. Finding better words, formulating ideas clearer, creating stronger and more precise statements, and making concise explanations all help others understand better what the poet meant.
One often overlooked and hidden super skill that goes along with writing is editing. Even with staying close to how someone would speak (we don’t write academic essays after all), don’t save time on editing your sentences. For example in a channel read by 10 people, it’s already worth spending a bit of time rewriting messages, so the others spend less time digesting and the message has a higher chance to go through.
Writing goes beyond the communication aspect, however. It’s also a thinking tool. By writing more, ideas become clearer, thoughts are more organized, and critical thinking improves. Written words allow for less vagueness and writing uncovers the gaps in the train of thought, shedding light on misty ideas.
Words also shape our thoughts. When we try to express ideas with writing, new connections form, and we find better words to describe what things mean. Indeed certain ideas can only be thought of once we have the words and expressions for. Writing more helps explore these.
In the sometimes messy product design process, finding clarity even for ourselves, but also for others brings things forward. This is the value writing gives designers.
Designers are a special case, however, as we have another skill to express ideas and to think with, which is visualizing. They have different strengths and weaknesses.
Visualization is more for communicating complex ideas and concepts. It helps to see the big picture, identify potential problems, and come up with creative solutions. Visualization can also be used to test and refine designs, and to communicate them to stakeholders.
Writing is for clarifying and organizing thoughts. It can help designers to articulate their ideas, identify gaps in their thinking, and to make connections between different ideas. Writing can also be used to communicate with stakeholders and to document the design process.
In short, both visualization and writing are valuable thinking tools. The best tool to use in a particular situation will depend on the specific task at hand. Visualization and writing can be used together to complement each other. For example, using visualization to brainstorm ideas and then using writing to refine and communicate those ideas.
Writing can be used in a few specific ways for practice and as part of the design process:
- Journalling is a great way to explore your thoughts and feelings. It can help you to identify patterns in your thinking, to work through problems, and to develop new ideas. Keeping notes about your work is also a way to keep track of your wins.
- Brainstorming with free-form writing is great to generate new ideas. I’ve used it for brainstorming both mindmaps (helps establish relationships between concepts) and narratives (develops ideas by framing them as a story).
- Reflective writing is a type of writing where you reflect on your experiences and what you have learned from them. This can help you to make sense of your experiences and to develop your insights.
- Project design logs are similar to journalling, but instead of general design practice, they are focused on a specific project, written collaboratively with team members, and are focused on keeping track of design decisions.
When practicing writing, any of these can be done on a daily or weekly basis, as they provide a good frequency to get better.
On a team level the same methods apply, but to be effective, common spaces for safe practice are needed. With one of my teams, we did a weekly write-up of what we did. To make these work well, it needs a clear goal (describe what each of us did), a space to do it (we created a recurring calendar reminder), and some feedback (comments and reactions on Slack). This made writing a regular part of the team’s process too.
There are additional benefits to writing, as it helps develop personal skills, besides communication and critical thinking, which mostly relates to using it as a note-taking and a journalling tool:
- Improves self-awareness, as it can help to better understand oneself, thoughts, and feelings.
- Can be a great way to relieve stress and healthily express emotions.
- Helps you to improve memory by forcing you to recall and process information.
- Writing can give a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when a project is completed or a goal is reached.
🥤 To recap
- Writing is a more generally useful skill than presenting for product designers, especially in distributed teams.
- Writing is useful for communication in distributed teams.
- Writing is a thinking tool that can help you clarify your ideas, organize your thoughts, and make better decisions.
- Writing can be used for personal development, as well as professional development.
- There are many different ways to practice writing, such as journaling, brainstorming, and reflective writing.
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🍪 Things to snack on
With the rise of generative AI tools, writing is challenged as an important activity - why write when you can generate? As Why Write? describes writing is more about the act of generating text, it’s also about exploring ideas, that cannot get easily replaced by tools.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff focuses in the thinking aspect in detail in Writing as a thinking tool. Writing helps in curating content to consume, better understanding topics, remembering relevant points, creating unique content, and receiving feedback, if writing in public.
Why consistent writing makes you a better designer by Eugen Eşanu has a few points about how exactly writing helps: influences your thinking (and makes it more organized and logical), will help you grow (by tracking progress and encouraging listening), it will clear clutter (within the design process), will help you become even more creative (by keeping track of and connecting ideas), and will help you become a better leader (by developing reasoning and arguments).
Writing is also useful in the design process. Melody Quintana has some great tips in Designers who play with words, along with exercises to do. Writing helps in organizing your thoughts, crafting your story, and designing with words.
I liked Tim Casasola’s Why writing matters in remote work, since it not only makes a clear argument why writing (and async communication in general) is a must in remote settings but also gives a few tips how to improve one’s writing with some easy to apply tips.
While the argument goes for managers in Good Managers Write Good, since all designer position is a leadership position, it goes doubly for design managers. The four reasons the article lays out are writing is thinking, writing shows commitment to durable and transparent ideas, writing requires humility, and writing requires handling ambiguity.