Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Writing Like a Designer or A Thousand Wordsworth's are a Picture.

Okay, aside from the horrible title, I really do have something to say in this post.

As some of you may know, in my real life, I'm a graphic designer with mad skillz. Okay, maybe not so much mad, but skillz, none-the-less. Those who know me well, know that my favorite graphic designer is Paul Rand. Rand, like many designers of his time, was very Swiss School, but sometimes with cool little twists. He was a firm believer in "less is more" and "form follows function." You may know him only through his design. He did some pretty cool stuff: UPS (the old logo before the crap-tastic new shield they have now), Cummins, IBM, Westinghouse and the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to name a few.

Why do I bring this up and why do I point my pen at Rand's work? Simply put, writing holds many similarities to graphic design. Graphic design, in its purest form, strips away the non-essentials and focuses on the essentials and arranges them in a coherent manner so that it solves a problem, tells a story and evokes an emotional response from the viewer. In my opinion, the goal of writing fiction is identical.

When you compare masters such as Hemingway, Twain, Strunk, Bradbury and a plethora of others to designers like Rand, Saul Bass, Milton Glaser or Ivan Chermayeff, you'll find that the theories behind their designs and writing dovetail quite nicely. Let's look at some basic principals of design and writing as presented by the masters of their crafts.

1) On Simplicity

Hemingway - "Use short sentences." or "I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket."

Twain - "Anybody can have ideas - the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph."

John Carmack - "Beauty is the ultimate defense against complexity."

Paul Rand - "He [the designer] unifies, simplifies, eliminates superfluities. He symbolizes ... abstract from his material by association and analogy. He intensifies and reinforces his symbol with appropriate accessories to achieve clarity and interest."

Paul Rand - "Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations."

Mis van der Rohe - "Less is more."

2) On the Strength of Writing and Design

Hemingway - "Use vigorous English."

Strunk - "Vigorous writing is concise." This one could also fall under principle number one.

Twain - "To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worth to rank as a prize composition just by itself."

John Tanedo - "Design to express, not to impress."

Saul Bass - "Design is thinking made visual."

Massimo Vignelli - "The life of a designer is a life of fight: Fight against the ugliness."

3) On Showing and not Telling

Anton Checkhov - "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

Twain - "Don't say, 'The old lady screamed.' Bring her on and let her scream."

Wouter Stokkel - "It's art if it can't be explained. It's fashion if no one asks for an explanation. It's design if it doesn't need explanation."

Scott Hanselman - "The difference between a designer and developer when it comes to design skills is the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing it."

Shawn Leslie - "Good design means never having to say, 'Click here'."

4) On Surprises

Stephen King - "Good books don't give up all their secrets at once."

Paul Rand - In reference to the "Next" logo. "Splitting the logo into two lines accomplishes several things: it startles the viewer and gives the word a new look, making it easier to separate from common usage."

5) On Removing the Superfluous

Stephen King - "The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

Twain - "As to the adjective: When in doubt, strike it out."

Hemingway - "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the $10 words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use."

Adrain Shaughnessy - "Graphic design has been likened to a wine glass. When we drink wine, we barely notice the glass it's served in. It wouldn't be true to say that we dont' care what glass we drink out of -- we wouldn't choose to drink a rare vintage out of a Tupperware mug, for example -- bit it's the wine that matters, not the vessel it comes in."

David Craib - "Design should never say, 'Look at me.' It should always say, 'Look at this.'"

6) On Why We Write or Design

Twain - "This is the love of your life. It's what I want to do when I wake up. Nothing feels so absorbing, so fulfilling."

Stephen King - "Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy."

Paul Rand - "Design is everything. Everything!"

Colin Wright - "Art is like masturbation. It is selfish and introverted and done for you and you alone. Design is like sex. There is someone else involved, their needs are just as important as your own and if everything goes right, both parties are happy in the end."

Saul Bass - "The fact of the matter is, I want everything we do, that I do personally, that our office does, to be beautiful. I don't give a damn whether the client understands that that's worth anything. It's worth it to me. It's the way I want to live my life. I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares."

7) On Revision

Twain - "You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by."

Twain - "The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say."

Stefan G. Bucher - "Making good design is easy. It's polishing the half-assed stuff that takes time."

Gunnar Swanson - "Graphic designers find themselves in a role of visual dishwashers for the information architects' chefs."

Saul Bass - "They (students) are not privy to the process. They may have the illusion that these things really spring full-blown out of the head of some designer. This is a very unsettling perception for young people, because they struggle with their work. They have to go at it... They redo... It gets better... It slips... It gets worse... It comes back... It comes together. And maybe it's something that's pretty good, even excellent. But they say to themselves, 'Gee, it comes hard and it's so difficult. Am I really suited for this?'"

8) On Bad Writing and Bad Design

Twain - "The more you explain it, the more I don't understand it."

Stephen King - "Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule."

Santiago Borray - "Design is like a mom. Nobody notices when she's around, but everybody misses her when she's not."

Mieke Gerritzen - "Good design goes to heaven; bad design goes everywhere."

While writing and designing are two different processes, it's very obvious that the approach and results of the processes are very similar. As writers, we are designing good stories. We begin in our imagination. We ask "What if?" We begin hammering out an overview of where our story goes or maybe we sit down and fly by the seat of our pants and intuition plays heavily into our process. Either way, our process includes paring things down to the bare essentials and revising it until it bleeds. In the end, writing, like design, is what we do because we must.

That's all for now.

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