What I learned about design through writing

After I finished my Ph.D, my brain was “done” with research and design. I wanted a new craft to pursue, and I decided to take up writing. After one round of NaNoWriMo I had written the most miserable, trite novel. And I loved it. I also had learned a lot of life lessons. First, I learned that all novels start off trite and miserable, but with discipline and hard work you can make them better. Then I realized writing and design are more similar than they are different (and that my brain wasn’t as done with research and design as I thought.) In this post I share three pieces of advice I learned on my brief foray into writing. These are mottos that all writers know, and designers could benefit from.


Kill your darlings

This is one of those infamous writing quotes that everyone knows but no one is exactly sure who said it. Many attribute it to William Faulkner, but others say it really came from a man named Arthur Quiller-Couch. Regardless of who said it, it is advice that writers of all breeds painstakingly adhere to.

Essentially, your darlings are the parts of your manuscript you have fallen in love with. They are cute scenes or witty phrases that made you feel very clever at the moment you wrote them. But as you develop any piece of writing, the adorable scenes and witty phrases often become distracting, useless, or down right damaging to the story. Even when it pains you to do it, you need to remove them. In the words of Stephen King, you must “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

This is also true in design. Whenever you feel particularly clever about a design it usually means it is too clever for everyone else. Or rather, when you are madly in love with a design you created it means you have designed it for you – not your users. So kill your darlings, even when it breaks your convention-bucking little artistic heart, kill your darlings.

If there is a gun in chapter 1 it better go off by chapter 3

This piece of advice is simply referred to as “Chekhov’s Gun,” because it was said, on multiple occasions, by Anton Chekhov.

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The moral for writers is clear: Only write what is essential. Everything else is a distraction.

This is absolutely true for designers as well. Every button, every icon, every menu, every text should serve a purpose. It should be essential to the “plot” of your interface, in that it should help the user get to wherever they need to go. If you find that something is not essential then there is really only one thing it can do: distract.

Another way to think about it is like this: We only have a finite amount of space in our brains for things like buttons, icons, menus, and text. If you fill a user’s brain-bandwidth with non-essential elements then they will be distracted, frustrated, and unable to accomplish whatever they sought to do.

Write drunk, edit sober

This is another one of those quotes that everyone knows but no one is quite sure who said. Many people attribute it to Ernest Hemingway (he was, notoriously, a man who enjoyed to drink). However, novelist Peter De Vries is actually the originator of this advice:

“Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”

For writers, this refers to the need to get over your inhibitions; to be daring and creative with your writing. Yet you also need discipline, high standards, and work ethic. This is absolutely true for designers as well.

I always find that when I first put my pencil to paper I feel a sense of inhibition. I want my design to be good. But you can never know what “good” means in the beginning. It takes multiple rounds of failed ideas until you actually know what a good design would look like.

One solution may be to design drunk. (I’ve honestly never tried it.)  Another is to set a timer for 5 minutes and force yourself to sketch 5 bad designs. They are going to be ugly and lopsided and not-quite-right, but they are going to tell you a lot about what works and doesn’t work. After you get some feedback, you start another round of sketching. This time you only sketch two designs and give yourself 10 minutes to draw, and the designs become a little crisper as a result. You repeat the process, again and again, and with each round you apply a little more discipline (and kill a few darlings along the way). You’ll find that with each round of design you come a little closer to understanding what “good” really means. And what started as a trite and horrible piece of work is better.

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