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Writing Tips for Visual Thinkers

Writing is integral to designing or any visual practice, and the more experience you have using writing in your work, the more confident you will be. Andrea Marks, author of Writing for Visual Thinkers: A Guide for Artists and Designers, 2nd Edition, offers some tips for how to integrate writing into your visual practice.
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If you are a visual thinker, you are probably someone who is more comfortable processing ideas and information through images rather than words. The challenge for some visual thinkers is finding creative ways to use writing in their process and work. In an age where words fly through cyberspace in milliseconds, it can be useful to pick up a pen or pencil, find your favorite notebook and take some time to write each day. The following tips touch upon three different areas designers may use writing:

  • Writing to help generate ideas
  • Writing to define yourself and your work
  • Writing to communicate what you know

Writing to Help Generate Ideas

Most everyone knows the value of verbal brainstorming when trying to come up with a creative solution, but here are some tips for bringing writing into your creative brainstorming sessions.

Mind Maps

A mind map gives visual form to ideas. It is particularly helpful for initiating ideas in a project. For visual thinkers, the diagramming of words in a visual, intuitive manner takes advantage of the more nonlinear, associative way that our brains naturally generate ideas. Like many brainstorming methods, mind maps needn’t be questioned until they are completed. The goal is to develop the diagram quickly, then synthesize possible connections and directions. It may be useful to construct mind maps during particular phases in a project, when new connections and ideas are needed. Larger projects, which involve complex systems of information, also benefit from using these techniques. A mind map about the idea of community could look like this:

Figure 1 (Click image to enlarge.)

Figure 2 (Click image to enlarge.)

Figure 3 (Click image to enlarge.)

Figure 4 (Click image to enlarge.)

Concept Maps

In many ways, concept maps are similar to mind maps. They too make use of associative relationships in a diagrammatic format. The main difference between them is that concept mapping allows for a more thorough investigation and analysis of conceptual relationships and meanings. With the addition of propositional links, indicating relationships between two concepts, concept maps focus more on systems thinking. An example of a propositional link might be the words or phrases, “can be,” “determines” and “comes from.” A concept map about the idea of community could look like this:

conceptmap (Click image to enlarge.)


Freewriting is an excellent way to get your thoughts down on paper. It can be used in the preliminary phase or throughout the course of a project. The key to freewriting is writing (or typing), without re-reading and editing. Allowing your thoughts about a subject to flow on paper, without any judgment, promotes an energetic discovery process. Freewriting can occur at any phase of a project and can be structured (for example a timed, focused freewrite about an aspect of a project), or more open-ended (such as a write down everything that comes to your mind about the word community).


Brainwriting not only takes advantage of the group energy that traditional brainstorming sessions bring, but it is also a way to include those who are less comfortable expressing themselves through speech. A basic template, such as the one below, helps small groups focus on a problem or question to be explored. Once each member of the group writes down ideas, they can regroup to discuss them.

Brainwriting (Click image to enlarge.)


Much of what designers do is to distill a given problem down to its essential elements. Word lists are concise, and the quickness in creating one allows a variety of associations to develop in a short time. Lists group words in distinct categories and enable a divergence of ideas to occur. For example, you might make a list of different types of communities, a list of metaphors for communities and a list of descriptive words about communities.


A thesaurus and dictionary are great tools for finding new words and meanings to ideas/words/concepts you develop in your written, brainstorming exercises. A quick look at a thesaurus shows a range of words from populace, citizen and collective to clique, faction and region.

Writing to Define Yourself and Your Work

There are both experimental and pragmatic methods for defining yourself and your work through words or a combination of words and images. Self-initiated projects are a great way to explore connections between text and images in freer, more expressive ways. Designer, book artist and educator Warren Lehrer tells stories that thread words and images together in visually rich ways. His project, Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America is a book, performance piece and traveling exhibition. Examples of practical, business writing include résumés, cover letters, project descriptions, and design briefs.


Résumés give a one-page overview of your skills and experiences. Keeping the résumé succinct but filled with the most relevant information is crucial. A résumé for a designer should include education, work experience, clients, skills, publications and awards.


  • keep the résumé simple; one or two colors
  • keep a logical and clear hierarchy
  • keep all information relevant and true
  • write in specifics, not broad generalizations

Cover Letters

Think of a cover letter as an introductory page to a well written and well designed package. It should accompany any professional correspondence. The letter can expand on points in your résumé and should end with what specifically you are including in the contents of the package.


  • keep the design simple
  • pay attention to details
  • keep the letter succinct (typically one page)
  • address a specific and correct name in the salutation
  • follow the format of other communication pieces sent

Project Descriptions

Although the portfolio is primarily a vehicle to show off your visual work, close attention should be paid to all aspects, including the writing. Make sure your project descriptions are clearly written and proofread. Go further than describing your work by giving the viewer some insight into your concept and your way of thinking and working.


  • keep descriptions clear and proofread
  • have someone who does not know the project read over the descriptions
  • describe goals of the project and concept succinctly

Design Briefs

The purpose of a written design brief is to define the strategy, specific details and goals of a project between the designer and client. The most effective briefs are really a collaboration between the designer and client and may take several back and forth rounds to get it right. An excellent source for understanding the details of a design brief is the book Creating the Perfect Design Brief, by Peter Phillips.


  • keep the brief clear and concise
  • include a project overview or executive summary
  • include a description of the target audience
  • include goals/strategies of the project
  • include a budget and schedule

Writing to Communicate What You Know

Digital technology and the Internet have changed the way words and images are communicated and the opportunity for writing and publishing is greater than ever. The democratization of voice, including website, blogs, videos, and podcasts, has afforded numerous outlets for publishing. As designer and educator Jessica Helfand states, “Today there's an opportunity to be an author as well as a maker. They are not mutually exclusive.” Whether you are writing with a pencil or tapping on a keyboard, writing can be a creative outlet to communicate what you know about a topic. And like anything, it takes practice.


Blogs are a good way to write your thoughts and opinions to something you have seen or read. Try contributing to an existing blog or start your own blog. Though there is generally little to no editing of writing in a blog, it is still good practice in writing.


Developing a website involves organization of a lot of words and pictures. Before you embark on designing your own website, spend time online looking at websites that you feel are written and designed clearly and take note of why these are strong.

Digital Presentations

A strong visual presentation combines just the right wording, compelling images and the ability to tell a story. It doesn't matter if it is five slides or fifty-five, The presentation needs to have some kind of narrative structure that the audience can follow. Fortunately, designers are in a great position to create both beautiful and meaningful electronic narrative presentations. As visual thinkers, their understanding of both the formal and theoretical framework of narrative structure puts them in a unique situation.


Proposals are common to most design projects and range in length from a simple, one page, bulleted list to a more lengthy narrative, or a combination of both. There are many components to a proposal and all involve organization and clarity in writing. Typically, the proposal comes at an early stage of the project, and words may be better to use than possible design examples. With words, the client can imagine designs the two of you will eventually create. With pictures, they may just think you don't get it. Strangely enough, words—not pictures—may be your greatest ally in getting design work.

As you can see, writing is integral to designing or any visual practice, and the more experience you have using writing in your work, the more confident you will be. You may have been drawn to your career choice because of a passion for the visual. You may see verbal expression as an unavoidable obligation. But writing is more than a burden—it is a critical component of your work. From the experience of writing in the process of learning to the experience of writing as a business tool, writing is essential to nourishing your creative life.

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