A couple weeks ago, we hosted a workshop at the AIGA Design Conference called Design Writing 101: How Writing Is a Lot More Like Designing Than You Think. When we started planning for the event, we had lots of ideas around what that statement meant. At their core, both writing and design are about storytelling  — they are about forming ideas and giving ideas form, though those forms often take very different shapes. What we were less certain of is how the intersection of writing and design manifests in working designers (and writers’) lives. What does it mean to consider yourself both a designer and writer? What hurdles must you overcome to claim both titles? And what tricks or tips could someone who bridged that gap offer? To answer those questions, we sat down with three people to find out. Below, you can read the transcript from our conversation with designer and writer Aggie Toppins, design journalism Anne Quito, and writer and educator Molly Heintz, where we discuss their path to design writing. 

What is your relationship to writing?

Aggie Toppins:  I’ve been practicing design for about 20 years. About half of that time was in the industry, and half of it was in the academy. Writing about design is a newer development in my career — I’ve been consistently publishing for a little over a year-and-a-half. But I think my relationship with writing began a long time ago when I worked at an agency in Chicago called Simple Truth. I worked with amazing copywriters there, who were just great conceptual partners on the work. And I started to see how effective visuals and effective writing make for really great design. But I also worked with super talented copy editors who, just by watching them work, I learned a lot about the craft of writing. 

I didn’t take a writing course until graduate school, and I had a couple of classes with David Barringer at MICA. And he was just really great at teaching writing to visual thinkers. And so now that I’m in an academic career, I find myself writing as often, if not sometimes a little more often these days, than practicing design. And I do see them as compatible languages and compatible forms of inquiry. There are things when I write that I can explore differently than when I design. And even though they’re so compatible, I do think that they’re different head spaces for me still. I have to admit it, it took me a long time to feel comfortable calling myself a writer, but I do feel like I think natively in that language now. 

Anne Quito: I am a journalist and design critic at Quartz, which is a little offshoot started by Atlantic media. I’ve been there for about seven years. In a previous life, maybe very few people know (I rarely divulge this to graphic designers I interviewed because it’s a little secret power), I used to be a graphic designer, and I founded a design studio. Before being in the SVA program that Molly runs, honestly, I never thought about myself as a writer. The teachers, they’re all great editors, gave me confidence to write and then, lo and behold, soon after graduation, I got an invite from the editor of this publication [Eye on Design]. And it was a nice nudge—or shove—into journalism. And I am still here.

Molly Heintz: I run the design research, writing, and criticism program here at SVA. It is a two semester intensive MA program that uses the lens of design to write about the world and think about design’s context and consequences. A lot of the people who come to our program are designers or have some sort of design background. But it’s also a mix of people who might be coming from more arts and journalism places, too, and are interested in writing about design. But how I got into all of this — I was actually in a Ph. D. program in the history of architecture, studying the ancient world and medieval topics. I was working on my dissertation one day and the stacks, and I was just like, “Man, I’ve got to get out of here, I need to be connected to contemporary culture.” I needed a break, and I ended up working in fashion and lifestyle publications on the side just for fun. And it was a revelation because I realized I could bring the same level of rigorous research to the table, but then use that to write for broader audiences. 

It’s interesting, Aggie and Anne, you both talked about being uncomfortable calling yourself a writer. Can you talk a little bit about that journey and how you came to feel like, you know what, maybe I can put “writer” in my bio?  

Quito: It took me a year into my graduate program to realize that it was a writing program. I thought it was design criticism, sort of like chewing on design and learning about history. And then one, one of our teachers, Karrie Jacobs, the founding editor of Dwell, just said “I think you’re ready.” And I was like, “for what lady?” Maybe that validation gave me a little confidence.  

And then my thesis from D-Crit got featured on NPR. I was curious about what the biggest graphic design project any designer can get is? And my answer then was like, maybe it’s to design a country from scratch. So I found a way to get to the world’s newest country, which is South Sudan, and I wrote about it. Suddenly, I’m talking to Scott Simon on a Saturday morning, and I guess the editor of Quartz heard that. Honestly, it was their belief that sort of gave me confidence. I also realized that people are so curious to learn about what designers do. There’s this joke that designers can never explain what they do. And I’ve embraced that charge to demystify and explain how design is capable and culpable. 

Toppins: For a long time, I thought of writing as someone else’s craft. My training wasn’t in that world. And even if I did write, that didn’t necessarily make me a writer. I think I started practicing my voice, so to speak, because I made a bunch of zines. It was an unofficial way and a not precious way to kind of initiate my skill in this world. It was a process for me of not just building my skill in the craft, but also figuring out what I wanted to say, because there are two parts to writing: there’s the writing, and then there’s having something to say. And that second part came more for me when I started to advance in my academic career. When I’m doing design, I’m sort of thinking through design. And when I’m writing about design, I’m looking at it. Something about the process of thinking through words and analysis in language helps me look at design differently than if I’m using the language of design itself. 

I think eventually I just did it enough that it started to feel like I’m more comfortable. I have processes now. I feel confident that I can achieve something in writing. And I think just like designing, it takes time to build your ability to do it. Now, if somebody asks me to do it [write something], I think I know how to do it. 

“There are two parts to writing: there’s the writing, and then there’s having something to say.”

Gif of a moving piece of paper
Illustration by Laura Thompson

Somebody told me that every time they’re asked to write something they read the last thing they wrote first to remind themselves that they know how to do it, before they start doing it. Are you willing to share any of those practices or processes that help you?

Toppins: When I first started writing, I remember sitting down and thinking I’m going to write and as a way of finding my argument And I still do that sometimes. But It’s a lot less efficient because it takes time to meander your way into your argument. And sometimes I still write that way, because that’s just where I am in the process of making the inquiry. I remember writing a 900 word essay, and it took me six days of long hours just because I couldn’t wrangle the language. Now I can write so much faster, and I think it’s a matter of being comfortable with the tools of knowing how to wrangle language a little bit faster but also developing processes. I have an annotation process that I use when I make a bibliography so I can find my quotes fast. It’s just really practical things. I use an outlining process that helps me to get to the point of my argument a little bit faster. I picked up some of these skills from the design incubation fellowship, which I highly recommend for those who are early in their academic careers. I also think there’s one other part of it, which is that I started to attend to it daily, more like one does a design practice. I have a sketchbook for my design practice, and now that sketchbook might have bits of language, or ideas for turns of phrases, or maybe an article I might write someday — sketches for things I might write just like I would for a design project. So it’s a combination of developing the skill, learning shortcuts, but also cultivating a practice.

Molly, I want to ask you basically the same question, but from the other side because you mentioned that a lot of your students at SVA are designers who are now coming into this writing intensive program. How do you walk them through the process so they get to the level of comfort that Anne and Aggie are talking about?

Heintz: I mean, there is a certain sense of terror in front of a blank page or blank screen. And so a lot of what we do is figure out how do you cope with that? And our answer is research. The kind of writing we do here is researched writing; it’s not journaling, per se. And I think that’s really the key to kind of getting momentum behind what you’re doing. Anne was talking about having just a certain sense of curiosity about the world and going out and trying to find out more about something that has grabbed you. That’s where we start. You go out, cast a wide net about something you’re interested in, and then using that fodder start to play around with it. We often start to do mind mapping, and that’s a really constructive way to deal with a lot of research-oriented information. It’s a really basic process that is really just a matter of saying, okay, here’s my subject, and here are these offshoots of things that relate to my subject, and then there’s branches off these ideas. It’s really about organizing information in a way that’s logical to you. In terms of thinking about ways to compare writing to design, you can think of mind mapping as almost like the concept designer schematic design phase, and the outline as the design development phase where you’re creating a blueprint. 

“There is a certain sense of terror in front of a blank page or blank screen. So a lot of what we do is figure out how do you cope with that?”

How has writing changed the way you think about your design work or design?

Toppins: That’s a great question, and it’s something I’m actively thinking about right now. My training is very traditional in terms of graphic design as a service industry. And I’m very comfortable practicing in that way when I come to the table, I’m the person who knows visually how to do things. Other people at the table have their skills, and we collaborate on some kind of outcome, etc. That’s a role that I know how to play. But as I become a writer, I’m finding that I’m asking questions, and directing my responses through writing in a way that I kind of want to do with design, I’m becoming more interested in the visual essay form. And I’m wondering: how can I use graphic design language and writing together in a unique way? I’m finding that it’s changing the way I think about design language and what I might be able to do research-wise, as opposed to just thinking about my work as a designer in terms of service.

Quito: Writers and designers have something in common in that they think of an audience. And they’re not designing for everyone, but for a specific audience. For example, when I’m writing for a general publication, like Quartz or CNN, I know that the reader doesn’t quite know what a typeface is, so I can’t throw in jokes that maybe graphic designers might know when I’m writing for Eye on Design or Architectural Digest. I think designers do that, too. 

Heintz: One thing to keep in mind if you’re a designer who’s reaching out to a writer or editor about your work, is that that writers and editors’ first allegiance is going to be to the reader. You have to do some convincing. You can’t assume that because you’ve been working on a project that you personally have been really into means that everybody else is going to think the same thing. We do that here with our students on their research projects. We are constantly asking them the very rude question of, “so what?” And I think that’s a handy way to kind of interrogate yourself when you’re going out into the world with your own work. Have you answered that question of, why should anyone else care about this? Because that’s really key.