graphicpush

Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Designers and Content

What are a designer’s responsibilities when it comes to copy? Should designers make an effort to read, understand and offer suggestions on text? Should we at least be responsible for proper punctuation and grammar? Or should we only have to make sure the rag is pretty and there are no widows at the bottom of the paragraph?

For the past several months, I have been working on a large, Flash-based CD-ROM for a marketing/promotions company. They work with fairly high-profile clients (car manufacturers, airlines, etc.), and have a library of case study documents detailing past projects. One of my responsibilities is translating these into Flash.

Unfortunately, whoever originally wrote the case studies was not a trained writer by any standard. There are spelling mistakes, inconsistencies in tense, terrible use of punctuation and an overall feel of crap, hurried writing. As I have been going along, I have been correcting obvious grammatical errors. In a supreme effort to control the editing demon within, I have let less critical problems like poor sentence structure and irreverent use of the tired buzzwords “leverage” and “implement” go untouched.

But the situation got me thinking. What are a designer’s responsibilities when it comes to copy? What level of involvement is acceptable/desired?

Should designers make an effort to read, understand and offer suggestions on text? Should we at least be responsible for proper punctuation and grammar? (For instance, “they’re” as opposed to “there,” or “its” versus it’s.”) Or should we only have to make sure the rag is pretty and there are no widows at the bottom of the paragraph?

My guess is that most graphic artists fall somewhere between “Wait, days of the week are capitalized, I’d better fix that” and “I’m a designer, I can’t read.” In other words, a minimal level of involvement, but still enough to impress the client when you catch an error.

I often feel I have an advantage over other designers in that I have been an active writer my whole life, and even studied English for two years in college. (It was my original major, before I got sucked into the black void of visual arts like a porn star getting hooked on cocaine.) Because of this, I have a firm grasp of commas, and I understand the difference between en dashes and em dashes. While I adamantly pursue proper spelling and punctuation, much to the delight of my English-impaired customers, I have on occasion written light creative copy.

But by no means do I consider myself a professional writer. I only offer creative copy suggestions if the client asks. One client—who is a particularly terrible copywriter, I might add—actively seeks my advice on marketing material, and that has made me all the more valuable to his business. Most don’t bother to ask; after all, it’s not my job.

To sum up this rather drawn-out entry, it seems that strong English (or German, French, Zulu, whatever) skills are just another service a freelance designer can offer, which is never a bad thing. Some print designers can build websites. Some HTML wizards can do some nice Flash work. Some Flash guys can do some amazing video and 3D stuff. Some freelance designers, like me, can nitpick and obsess over typographic details like a monkey picking bugs off another monkey’s back. And how much better of an analogy is that?

commentary + criticism

Sarah

wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

I would find it incredibly hard to overlook errors like their/there and it’s/its but ultimately it depends on the client.

I would mention that I’d spotted various problems with the text and ask if they wanted me to simply put it on the site as is or to proof it for them on the understanding that this would add time (and possibly expense) to the project, especially if they insist on approving all changes.

At one place I worked the marketing manager was so convinced of her infallibility when it came to copy writing that the company sent out calendars to all their customers with the word “calender” emblazoned across the front – even after one of the customers phoned up to mention it she wouldn’t accept it was wrong and insisted that it was an acceptable alternate spelling…

Patrick Cote

wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

I’ve run across this a few times in my practice.

It can be a very difficult situation, especially if the client was directly involved in preparing the copy.

As a result, my feeling is that you ignore spelling and grammatical errors. If you feel confident about it, you can mention to the client that you think the copy needs another run through.

Beyond that I do not get involved.

lynn

wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

I was originally a journalism major & my mom was an english teacher so this has been a constant battle of mine. I used to be very laid back & offer up my writing insights, but that spiraled out of control about 5 years ago when I was freelancing at an agency where the official “copywriter” was the boss’ wife. (It was an honorary title for her, really.) I’d be handed a brochure project & say, “Ok, where’s the copy? I can’t design anything if I don’t know what it’s going to say.” and she’d respond, “Well, just write something & put it in there for now & we’ll edit it later. You’re SUCHHH a GOOOOD WRITER!!!! We love your writing!” (Read: I’m the boss’ wife and I’m too busy shopping for antique ashtrays on e-bay right now.)

Since then, it is against my natuer but I force myself to think twice before I even point out typ-os. Nobody needs to know I can write if it means they’re gonna just take it for granted that they can get stuff for free out of me!!! No Sirreee.

By the way, thanks for linking to my site, The Patron Saints of Graphic Design (the creation of which was definitely helped by my journalism background!). Bless you, my child. ;)——-

lynn

wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

Funny… I wrote the above posting fast & made a typo on the sentence where I said I “think twice before I even point out typos.”

Alex Taylor

wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

I’ve come across this problem more than once. I usually fix it, since it’s usually something very small like a run-on sentence or a mispelt word. I’m actually thinking of offering copy work or editing in my services, because it’s obvious that people need it more often than not.

It’s better than having no copy at all, though. I constantly get e-mails from one client right now with just barely enough information to fill a page, with a note saying ‘Put this under xx page, something about our products.’

Pariah Burke

wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

It depends on the client and the project. On the one hand, even if I’m proud of the design challenge I solved with a given piece, I’ll exclude it if it has bad or grammatically incorrect copy. All of it reflects on the designer. On the other hand, it’s not my job to edit or proof a client’s copy. What I’ve usually done in the past is this: If the copy is short, I’ll fix it, even if it means a complete rewrite—proofed back to the client with side-by-side comparison and justification for the change, of course. If the copy is long or terribly, horribly in need of reworking, I’ll either leave it alone or fix a portion of it, then suggest the client hire a writer (or me) to fix the entire piece.

BTW: This story has been picked up on http://design.weblogsinc.com (Design Weblog) and http://magazinedesign.weblogsinc.com (Magazine Design Weblog)

Kevin

wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

Pariah—thanks for the links. I corrected them since the parantheses were throwing the URLs off. :)

Rick Blanton

wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

It’s hard to be proud of the paint job when the motors runs poorly. How would you explain to a potential client that “yeah I built that but the customer wrote the content”. It’s not an excuse I want to make. I have found that it’s one of the area’s that I can offer a quick service to someone for little or no cost and make them very happy.

Kevin

wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

True, the designers get the flak from some other guys copy and proofing work!

Eric Benson

wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

I have a copywriter that I barter work with. This is a great situation for me…there have been two recent projects where the copy I was given was very poor. One revision stepped on the client’s toes, one didn’t. Both have been very impressed with the response, and my compatriot now has a retainer with the company that initially didn’t like the change.

Has anyone else had experience with a setup like this? I find that if the project is large enough, the spit and polish really helps..