Can designers teach writers anything much?


4/22/20053 min read

Ok, so we are used to thinking of designers as people who sit around stirring pixels on screens to make things look pretty enough to buy. In fact I own a pair of glasses that make me look like a designer - but hold on, I make a large percentage of my living as a designer not a writer. I've earned my designer glasses, damn it!

So being a person who is eternally curious about how things work, and constitutionally biased towards finding communality, I wondered if there were any lessons I could take from my day job back into my writing.

First - what is design thinking?

Design thinking is a way of looking at design that takes in the entire process of bringing something into being. So taking the example of a chair, here are some of the things a good designer would look at:

  • How it functions

  • Intended role (dentist chair or dining chair)

  • What environment it will be used in

  • The 'human factors' involved (ie leg length, spine position)

  • How it will be made and the costs involved, monetary, environmental and so on

  • Promotional material

    This much should be obvious, but it can go further...

  • How the thing is marketed

  • The competition

  • The financial structure of the business making the chair

  • Reputation management

  • Disposal of the chair

  • Ongoing customer relationships

    And so on. A good designer gets all of that, from the craft of working with the materials the chair is made from to the nature of the market the chair is launching into, and applies BOTH an empathetic and business sensibility to it. That is they are creative AND businessey. A bad designer (or a good designer hired for the wrong reasons!) just makes it pretty.

    In my day job I help organisations look at their websites from their clients point of view and to articulate what business goals the site is trying to achieve. Often this means crossing over into looking at how the organisation operates, their communications practices, IT depts and so on. And the websites that result from my work are a balance between functionality, marketing, brand and all the rest of it. And yes I make them look good too - but what 'good' means is also carefully understood.

    There's plenty of evidence that 'design thinking' is a profitable game. Just think about Apple, and then if you are skeptical, visit the [DesignCouncil website](

    So what can we learn from this?

    Well it's kinda obvious isn't it? Particularly for film the writer has to understand the complete process - from idea to finance, to shooting to marketing. Whether your idea is indie flava or multiplex buster then you need to understand (and possibly even get involved in!) the complete cycle.

    The idea here is not to understand it enough to be able to do it (You want to be a grip or a focus-puller? Are you insane!?) it's understanding it as part of the writing process. For instance if you understand the financing and development model of an American Sitcom you are going to be able to write it from a point of understanding rather than just as a set of artificial restrictions - and you are much more likely to transcend them than be frustrated by them.

    In practice this will mean addressing some gaps in your knowledge one way or another. Some writers just go and make a short to learn all about it (and what a good idea that is). I consider myself very lucky to have been an actor for a decade or so and worked on all sorts of film and TV sets, from the very small, through TV series, to the very large (The Frighteners). So I know what happens on a set. It's mostly waiting. But I also know what it's like to have the big eye of a camera staring at you and the strange, deep silence that suddenly falls when someone says 'Action'.

    So my gaps are to do with finance and marketing. I think the way into a useful take on those most dark fields is to really understand the notion of genre, but that's another post...

    And theatre?

    The same thing applies, but there is a deeper historical understanding of this in theatre. There used to be these things called 'A Man of the Theatre' (sic!) which meant someone who could pretty much do anything. Most writers I know (at least in NZ) actually studied acting at Drama School before continuing to write. And people like me often have at least a background in student drama if not professional acting. My money is on actually doing things over merely studying them, but that's not always possible.

    Plays nicely with others (even producers).

    So if you are thinking that you can't be bothered knowing about production, or lighting, or all that messy stuff then I think you are missing a trick. Remember that a big part of the game is not just writing well it's working well with people to realise something together than you could make on your own.

    And yes this does mean understanding producers. Sure there are some shiesters out there but the ones I know are honest, direct, not exactly wealthy people who are in it for the love of making movies. And the producers I know also have a VERY good understanding of writing - isn't it a smart idea to know as much as you can about their game so that you can work with them?