If you've written an email today, you're a designer


This past December, I had the pleasure of facilitating my first design-thinking session for a group of about a dozen project stakeholders. When I first took on this task, I felt intimidated. Who did I think I was to mess with this trendy design-thinking stuff? I don’t have a black belt in user-centered design or any kind of credentials in journey mapping. So what had I let myself in for?

But, to my great delight, as soon as I dove into the facilitation methodology, I found myself able to swim with ease. These were familiar waters. In fact, I’d been swimming in them for 20 years—ever since I read Mark Sharples’s 1999 book How We Write: Writing as Creative Design.

Sharples changed the way I thought about mundane business writing because he enabled me to appreciate it as an act of creative solution-finding. He opened my eyes to the value of constraints, which can spark creativity. And he, along with Donald Norman and others, focused my attention on the way a piece of writing creates “affordances” for meaning—clues and cues that suggest how the writer wants us to interpret their message.

After reading Sharples, I started paying closer attention to my own writing process and to the processes of clients and students. I became intrigued (okay, obsessed) by different methods for getting into the headspace and heartspace of the target audience. I even went so far as order a deck of IDEO Method Cards, which show different techniques the famous design firm uses to view the world from the audience’s perspective.

If memory serves, some of the IDEO techniques involved physical gymnastics, such as getting down, or climbing up, to view a situation from the audience’s level. While I haven’t yet had to use such acrobatics in my audience analysis, viewing the writing process from the vantage point of a designer turned some of my previous assumptions on their head.

For instance, before understanding writing as design, I believed that:

  • Writing was essentially about packing content into a right-sized container

  • Great writers produced great first drafts

  • More time would enable me to produce better-quality documents

  • Logic was my leading strength as a writer

Now, with an appreciation of writing as design, I get that:

  • The content and form of a piece of writing must evolve together

  • Great writers iterate on their first drafts, which may or may not be great, depending on the day

  • Constraints empower us to unlock our creativity

  • Emotional intelligence is the secret to creating a written message that makes as much sense to the audience as it does to me

My favorite Design Guru, Donald Norman, said it best in a 2018 essay:

Writing is like design: design is like writing…. To be successful at either task it is important to be able to take the other person’s point of view, to understand their background and interests, and to make the work fit the powers and limits of human cognition. A good designer and a good writer have to share certain characteristics, the most important being “empathy.”

So if you’ve written an email today—or a report, a proposal, a slide deck, or any other kind of document—consider yourself a designer. And embrace the opportunity to improve your writing process by exploring design-thinking and other techniques for creating innovative solutions.

This week (on July 23), I’ll be giving a free lunch-and-learn workshop for Engineers Nova Scotia: Engineering Effective Emails. Join me to pick up some practical tips that will help you streamline your writing process and design email messages that deliver results.

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