A Year of Writing for Designers

Print and ebook editions of my book Writing for Designers.
Print and ebook editions of my book Writing for Designers.

My first book, Writing for Designers, was released by A Book Apart one year ago today.

Personally, much of the past year has been a blur. I experienced a profound loss in December in the death of my mother, a scant 68 days after the book was first released. Reflecting on a year since the release of Writing for Designers has been investigative for me, in a way. I barely remember being some of these places, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten others.

But the book has brought many wonderful people and experiences into my life, and I’m grateful to have had it as a bright spot, however dark the background.

Here’s what a year in life of the book looks like:

  • October 16, 2018 – Release day. The ebook becomes available for purchase.
  • October 16, 2018Content Strategy MPLS/St. Paul meetup webinar. Delivered my first iteration of How to Get the Writing Done, the talk I reverse-engineered out of the book (and previous workshops) to make the lessons appeal to an audience of more than just designers.
  • October 16, 2018 – Release party. I bought some food and drinks and hosted friends and a few strangers at the Stray Dog restaurant in my neighborhood in Northeast Minneapolis.
  • October 18, 2018A List Apart article goes live. They published the introduction chapter to Writing for Designers as a preview, and lots of nice folks tweeted links and quotes.
  • November 13, 2018UX Book Club Chicago meetup. To my knowledge, this was the first book club to feature Writing for Designers. I popped down for an in-person presentation and Q&A at the very cool headquarters of Solstice.
  • November 28, 2018 – Recorded User Defenders 059. Had a chat with Jason Ogle on a special edition of sorts of his excellent User Defenders podcast. It was released a few months later.
  • November 29, 2018 – UMN Technical Writing presentation. Shared How to Get the Writing Done in a webinar with folks involved in the technical writing program at the University of Minnesota.
  • January 29, 2019Print edition released. A Book Apart put together a way to order ebooks from the Briefs series as print-on-demand paperbacks. This was a lovely surprise not long after the ebook release.
  • February 7, 2019IxDA presentation. Delivered a breakout session of How to Get the Writing Done in the Cinerama theatre at Interaction 19 in Seattle.
  • February 19, 2019Gather Content webinar. Part book promo, part Confab promo. Lots of great Q&A after an updated presentation of How to Get the Writing Done.
  • March 3, 2019AAF CRIC meetup. One of my first road trips after bringing the truck up from Arizona in January! Shared How to Get the Writing Done with a crowd of folks in marketing, advertising, PR, and tech. (And came home with a great bottle of Cedar Ridge whiskey!)
  • May 5, 2019Prime Academy presentation. Been dropping in to visit the UX cohorts with some regularity at this educational bootcamp, and this time I brought in How to Get the Writing Done (and lots of free copies of the book in paperback).
  • June 6, 2019Content Design NYC meetup. Shared How to Get the Writing Done and a few copies of the book with this rad and fairly new content design meetup at Kickstarter’s HQ in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn.

And next week, I’m heading to PUSH UX in Munich to present a full-day workshop based on Writing for Designers and an updated version of the How to Get the Writing Done talk on the main stage.

The book has an acknowledgments section, to which I will now say “ditto!”. I also shared a thread (or tried to, anyway) of quotes and reviews and other nice things folks have shared since the release this morning on the @DesignersWrite account.

At the top of this article, I called Writing for Designers my first book. That’s on purpose. I don’t know what’s next for Writing for Designers, but I do know that another book is next for me. I was glad to learn that I could get something like this done, and I learned a lot from doing it (from various difficulties and failures as much as any successes).

On to the next one.

The map in your head

I’ve written four articles now about content ecosystem mapping. I’ve coached clients through producing them, I’ve led workshops on them, and I’ve given many talks about them (and their big brother, concept models).

A point I stress over and over, but is hard to make stick, is that the activity of making the map is more important than the map itself. This article brought it to mind again for me recently:

In Inuit tradition, the act of making a map was frequently much more important than the finished map itself. The real map always exists in one’s head.

Being able to make a map means that you understand something well enough to map it. Much like writing, mapmaking reveals where you don’t understand things quite as well as you thought you did. I encourage organizations to map their content ecosystems because, very often, there are many different maps in many different heads.

Mapmaking is effortful, and requires a different set of skills than organizing information into lists and spreadsheets. So I run into many people who are dismissive, even rudely so, saying things like “I just don’t get how you would use this thing.”

“How to use the thing” is something I cover in detail, and is also something that the mapmaker needs to decide for themselves. But it’s also just kind of the wrong question. The point of a content audit is to understand your content better, not to make a giant spreadsheet. The point of content ecosystem mapping (and organizational modeling in general) is to better understand your current state, and to better align on the truth of that shared reality with others.

The Inuits of Greenland primarily used their maps as storytelling devices:

[They] used carvings in a certain way—to accompany stories and illustrate important information about people, places, and things. A wooden relief map would have functioned as a storytelling device, like a drawing in the sand or snow, that could be discarded after the story was told.

I love that so much. Imagine carving a whole damned map just to tell a story and then saying, “well anyway, enough about that” and throwing it on the fire. You can always make another; after all, the real map is in your head.

I’m not looking at you

A new post I wrote for work went up on the Brain Traffic blog yesterday. Continues the series on ecosystem mapping. I knocked this one out quickly, albeit late (sorry Bailey), but only after a lot of hemming and hawing. Sometimes I forget my own advice and just stare stubbornly at a blank screen, then get distracted by social media and forget that I’d even been trying to write. No good.

But I did get it done, thanks to my longtime thinking companion MindNode. Dumped some ideas there, quick, so I could see where I was trying to go. I’m more effective as a writer when I have a reference point. I think the habit started in school, when I didn’t really know anything about writing and would improve my papers by printing them out and then just rewriting them from the beginning as I looked at the original.

If I don’t have anything to reference, I’ll look at nothing. Really. If I’m just writing a journal entry or something, or doing some warm-up writing, I’ll stare off into space as I type. (This gets me odd looks at the coffee shop.) Looking at the keyboard trips me up, and watching what I type makes me want to edit it instead of continuing, so I just don’t even look at it.

The mindmap I made bears only a vague resemblance to the finished piece, but that’s not really the point. It was the just grease to unstick the wheel.

Unambiguously mine

My book is in print now. Available in print, anyway. Print on demand. I have a printed copy. (I don’t want to get “you wrote a text”-ed about my book and its relationship to paper. But I digress.)

I did not know this was going to happen when I agreed to write for the Briefs series, so it’s been a delightful surprise. I’m glad it happened relatively soon after the original release of Writing for Designers, too.

I’ve been sharing my thoughts on writing and content and design with the broader UX world for almost a decade now. Long enough to see ideas from my talks and tweets and blog posts get … upcycled, let’s call it … into other people’s talks, tweets, even books. Not maliciously, often not even consciously, I imagine. But it happens. So it’s been nice to be able to look at a thing I’ve made and say: “Yes. This is unambiguously mine. I made it and it exists and it happened and here is the proof.”

A lot of things I’ve done are kind of…squishy. Spaces. Events. Programs. Campaigns. Concepts. All things I’ve enjoyed, but not things I can stick directly on a shelf. I’d collect trinkets; a DMMC lighter, a Gross Domestic Product poster, a Market Day button, “Speaker” badges from umpteen conferences. But trinkets get dusty, and untidy, and they aren’t the thing, just a reminder of it. My dad always talked about how satisfying it was to look back after a day of laying brick and be able to see your labor. (He also liked to take circuitous routes through Omaha so Mom and I could see his labor, too.)

So this is what I’m brainstorming now. How can I render and represent my labors? I’m getting more photos printed, for starters. Even hung a couple up in my apartment. Vain? Sure. Inspiring? Also yes.

I’m incredibly grateful to everyone that’s ordered a paper copy of the book, especially those who already bought the ebook back in October. If you’re one of them, please consider sharing a photo of it on your desk, bookshelf…hell, even on top of your toilet tank. It’s very motivating, and I can always use a bit more of that.

Talking to myself to others

The recording is up from my How to Get the Writing Done webinar this week for Gather Content. I think it’s a good one.

Leading a one-to-many webinar is a strange affair. Me, alone in my office, wearing a headset, talking out loud at what I hope is a normal volume to an audience of unseen someones in unseen places all over the world.

I’ve done a half-dozen or so of these things now. It’s getting a little easier. I have to be extra-attentive to my pacing and energy on a webinar, as there’s basically no feedback. Am I talking too fast? Too slow? Am I speaking in a normal register? Normal volume?

A few things that seem to help:

  • Standing. If I can pace a little it feels much more natural.
  • Gesturing. No one can see me, but I still move my arms around and point at things as if I’m on stage. I think this helps with the energy level.
  • Pausing. This is a hard one; if you’re not talking nothing is happening. I have to remind myself it’s important and good to pause, to breathe, to let important points hang in the air a little.

Now I just need to stop asking “right?” so much. Right? It’s crazy.

Lorem Ipsum is fine (but you might be using it wrong)

I used this video of a deflating Pikachu as a placeholder while building out the landing page for my book, as I had not yet uploaded the video I’d recorded. (I might switch it back, this video is way better.)

Writerly sorts are frustrated when content takes a backseat to the visuals in a design. And for good reason: Most sites and apps may well as not exist without the words. I fear, though, that in an effort to champion “content first” design processes, many are sending the wrong message about the role Lorem Ipsum and other placeholders can play in a designer’s personal workflow.

Consider these headlines:

  • Death to Lorem Ipsum
  • Lorem Ipsum is killing your designs
  • Why designers should never use fake text
  • Lorem Ipsum is a crime

It’s easy, but wrong, to decry a given design tool as universilly good or bad. Tools can be useful in one context and harmful in another. While the broad sentiment of these and similar articles is good, an important nuance is being lost.

I would put it this way: A designer should never pretend that fake text – squiggles, boxes, Lorem Ipsum, Hipster Ipsum, or otherwise – is real text. A designer should never pretend that fake data is real data. And a design team should never engage in the shared delusion that designs with fake text are done and ready for review. The reason, as I shared in Writing for Designers, is this:

Everything left unwritten is a mystery box of incomplete design.

Which is to say: if you haven’t done the writing the design isn’t done. If you didn’t use real, user-generated data in your design, you didn’t really test your design. But placeholders aren’t the problem – lying to ourselves is the problem.

How I use Lorem Ipsum

Form is the shape of content. – Ben Shahn

Form and content both contribute meaning. The shape of a thing is critical to understanding the thing. Invoices tend to look like invoices, sign-in screens tend to look like sign-in screens, newsletters tend to look like newsletters. Square green stop signs aren’t especially effective, and texting someone “I Love You” isn’t the same as writing it in the sky.

Using fake text like Lorem Ipsum helps me get a feeling for the impression the form of my content will give to my reader. It’s the pencil sketch before I lay down ink, the hummed melody before I write the score.

Importantly, I have to have a rough idea of what I’m going to say for this to work. That’s where the “death to Lorem Ipsum” people get hung up. Placeholders are not the place to start, true, but they’re a perfectly reasonable intermediary step as you iterate through the words and visuals in your design work.

I also use Lorem Ipsum in tandem with protocopy. Protocopy is lo-fidelity writing — quick dashes of text to capture your intent without worrying about making it perfect (or even good). You might find something like this in my comps:

explain when user will get first bill after subscribing and monthly rate ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Etiam consectetur mollis urna sed lobortis!

Or I might rough out the text of a wireframe with Lorem Ipsum and put quotes and bullets and inputs alongside it that I know I want to reference to do that particular bit of writing, using the placeholders as a to-do list of sorts for any given comp.

Lorem Ipsum is also helpful when I’m exploring constraints. If an area has a 500-character limit, for instance, I can drop in 500 characters of Lorem Ipsum to see what’s possible. Is that a paragraph? Two short paragraphs? Can I make a bulleted list work in 500 characters? And so on.

No approvals on placeholders!

If you do use Lorem Ipsum, caution is warranted. A good rule of thumb for a team would be that no design no design is done until you’ve done the writing. No words = no approvals. Having a rule like that in place gives individual designers and writers more flexibility in how they approach their work on the way toward done — including, if they like, using Lorem Ipsum.

UX Book Club Meetup at Solstice

My friend Michael Metts came out and snuck a few nice photos.
My friend Michael Metts came out and snuck a few nice photos.

Recently back from an overnight trip to Chicago to speak with their UX Book Club. My book Writing for Designers was the featured book, and they hosted a Q&A style event with the author, who is me! This was the first time I’ve been at an in-person event specifically because I wrote a book. I thought I’d be more nervous about it but I never really was, just excited. Blind dates and conference talks are more stressful.

Getting to Chicago

When I first started speaking and embarking on my current career in earnest, around 2012, I was always looking at events like this and wondering: how does that work? Logistically and financially, I mean. Are authors getting paid to do Meetups? (LOL, no.) Are publishers paying to send them there? (LOL, no.) Are authors making enough on book sales from these appearances to justify the cost? (LOLOLOL. No.) For my niche industry book and where I’m at in my career, none of those things were the case. Turns out it’s just a lot of asking people nicely for a bit of help.

As part of the pre-launch marketing for my book, I sent lightly-customized emails to several hundred people (about half of my LinkedIn connections) to say a bit about the book and ask for help. My friend Cate Kompare, a lovely human that I coincidentally met at a different UX book club in Champaign-Urbana many years ago, replied to say that her employer Solstice has been hosting more events, and asked what it would cost to get me out there. I quoted a modest appearance fee for a private event, and said that I could also do it for just travel reimbursement for a public event. They were able to do the latter, and Cate coordinated co-presenting it through the UX Book Club Chicago. Kristina and Brain Traffic have been very supportive, and were happy to handle invoicing my expenses and giving me the time to get down there.

I smashed the trip right into my work schedule. I had a conference call Tuesday morning up until I needed to leave for the airport, and did a bit of work in the afternoon at Solstice before the Meetup started. I was back in the office around 11:30 the next day, and right back to work.

They had a desk set aside for me with some goodies and I got to play-act working at a big company for a couple hours. Someone even came up and introduced themselves thinking I might be a new employee, which was sweet.
They had a desk set aside for me with some goodies and I got to play-act working at a big company for a couple hours. Someone even came up and introduced themselves thinking I might be a new employee, which was sweet.

The flight was about $250, the hotel about $175, and three Lyft rides totaling around $80. I paid for food on my own and took the light rail and bus home from the airport to land closer to the $500 in travel expenses estimate I’d given Cate. (And if I’m not in a hurry, I prefer taking the train home anyway.)

Being the author

I have to admit I was pretty delighted to see this pop up on Google while grabbing directions to the office.
I have to admit I was pretty delighted to see this pop up on Google while grabbing directions to the office.

A couple of days before the event, Cate asked if I’d want to set up a merch table or other sort of display. A totally smart question that caught me off guard. Shit! It’s an ebook! I don’t have, like, a thing! Luckily I still had some A Book Apart buttons and stickers from my launch event in Minneapolis. I made a little display of them and some of my Brain Traffic business cards next to the pizza laid out for the meetup. I’m thinking I might want to get a little poster in a photo frame and a newsletter sign-up sheet on a clipboard, maybe some postcards, for future events. It’s not all that important if people even sign up or take your card, but it does help to make things look more “official” and put together.

Years of Confab experience has made me good at not acting like my picture is being taken while very aware that my picture is being taken. I really enjoyed the conversations during and after the event as folks were genuinely interested in UX writing, not just content strategy.
Years of Confab experience has made me good at not acting like my picture is being taken while very aware that my picture is being taken. I really enjoyed the conversations during and after the event as folks were genuinely interested in UX writing, not just content strategy.

Cate and Shane (one of the Meetup organizers) prepared some excellent questions. There were also great ad-hoc questions from the audience. I tried to stick to my guns of only answering questions I felt like I could really answer, and saying “I don’t know” for the rest, but I did feel a pressure I haven’t really felt before to be the expert. I don’t think this was a good instinct, necessarily, but I did feel liberated to speak with a bit more passion and conviction than maybe I have in the past. If people don’t like my answers they can yell at me on Twitter! I know I turned around at least one question about content testing that I don’t have as much experience with to the audience.

Ten times more

On Back to Work, Merlin has talked several times about the “ten times more” metric. The gist is: look at something in your life and ask if you’d want ten times more of that. For instance, I had a bit of fun buying and selling vintage clothing at pop-up markets and filling orders on Etsy, but not so much fun that I wanted ten times more of it. Realizing that made me it easier to let go of when it became too much.

So that’s what I’m chewing on now, after an event like this. Do I want ten times more writing books, going to meetups, talking to people who care about this stuff as much as I do? I’m leaning towards yes.

Extremely grateful to Cate, everyone else at Solstice whose names I’ve already forgotten (sorry!), Shane and the Chicago UX Book Club, and everyone who came out. Let’s do it again sometime!