A Few Words About Words – For Designers and Artists

Huffman is one of the professionals and professors who spoke at the first Designing for the Divide conference at West Virginia University in Morgantown, sponsored by the Art and Design department with support from the School of Journalism. Presentations at the two-day conference in late March focused on design’s role in bridging social divides. Part of Huffman’s message was about the need for clarity and simplicity in reaching and keeping an audience – new and diverse audiences – on any platform or device, and he offered these tips as a handout:  

Headlines. Display type. Captions. Text in a copy block.

Each is a form that helps tell and sell readers about the message you are trying to communicate. They’re directional (telling someone where else to look, giving you a hint of what’s worth going to the next page for) and they’re informational (giving you what you need to know now.) Each block of type is a prominent entry point, an opportunity to grab a reader. What must the words (and the art) do? To be successful they must: Sell and tell. That’s their function. Be energetic. Use verbs. Propel readers to action. Persuade them to take action. Notice how every sentence in this paragraph starts with a verb. See what I mean? Sound omniscient but never use such a big word. Text must let the reader know the piece’s right hand knows what its left hand is doing. Words must know it all. Be simple. Simple sells. Sometimes the best way is the straightforward way. When in doubt, don’t try to be clever. Instead, use facts clearly and directly. Facts persuade more quickly than opinion does. What words are functional and essential? What words are decorative and optional? (Ask these two questions about art elements, also.) Speak authoritatively and distinctively but use the language you use in conversation. (Polite conversation.) Words must talk to readers. They must be conversational no matter the topic. Read the text aloud. If you stumble, readers will stumble, too. Attract, invite, intrigue, encourage, evoke, promote, promise and inform. Simultaneously. Concisely. Occasionally take the opportunity to be witty. Clever. Playful. Avoid ‘funny’ because humor is subjective and easily misinterpreted. The words can play off a popular catch phrase, for example. But be careful. If the cleverness obscures the topic, the value of the wit is lost. When in doubt, use the non-clever. ‘Get it.’ Make sure you are not the only person who “gets” the connection to the cultural reference. Ask a colleague (preferably a coworker who doesn’t look like you) if she gets it. Not everyone shares all your life experiences – even in this information culture. Reinforce content. Readers try to connect the main headline with the main art on any layout. They try to connect the words and the pictures. The type must reinforce its image; its image must reinforce its type. If not, the reader misses the connection and the communication fails. (Communication is about making connections.) Involve readers, not staffers. “We” in text does not include me, the reader. Rather than write “We explore the latest research . . .” instead tell the reader what the research says. Sell the content, not the source. Readers don’t know if “we” is the editorial we or the Queen. ‘We’ can seem arrogant and can exclude. ‘You’ includes. Spell it right. Misspelled words, lousy grammar and poor punctuation make an otherwise professional piece lose credibility and look amateurish. Use a dictionary. Proofread. Copyedit. Then proofread again. If you don’t know when to use its or it’s, their or there, your and you’re, to and too, then you’ve been reading too many Facebook posts. Ask somebody who knows the language to edit your work. She can hardly wait. (Not “She can’t wait to edit you’re work.”) Seek an editor with eyes and ears outside your immediate world. (Not “outside of” your world. One preposition suffices. “Outside” stands on its own. Not it’s own.) Read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and then read it again. J. Ford Huffman was design editor of the first two prototype editions of USA TODAY and was a deputy managing editor when he left the newspaper in 2007. (Circulation has since gone down.) He has worked with The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and Hindustan Times (India) and is a Visual.ly advisor.

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