The Number One Secret Skill of Graphic Designers

Many of you know of what secret skill I’m referring to. I’m talking about graphic designers who write great copy, but keep their writing chops hidden in plain sight. Why do they do this?

Stating the obvious

Phyllis U., a subscriber to BonFX, wrote me today. She said that she enjoyed reading my recent article about how graphic designers should work at developing drawing skills. She then went on to mention that it made her think about how graphic designers also need to work on writing skills. As soon as she said that, before I finished reading the sentence, I knew what she was saying was self-evidently true.

But let’s back up. Yes, it’s true that graphic designers should indeed have decent writing skills. Writing is about a making a message clear, and graphic design is about presenting that clear message. So it follows that a design job is as weak as it’s copy. So what do many designers do when presented with weak copy by their clients? They fix it, because they want good portfolio pieces and they want the project to get done.

Writing as a means of getting paid for designing

Many graphic designers, most especially freelance graphic designers, learn to write using the trial-by-fire method, which usually goes something like the following:

  • A client, working on a limited budget, has no copywriter on their project.
  • They toss out mediocre copy to their designer and hope for the best.
  • Cnce they see their idea with some visuals, they go something like “That doesn’t quite work does it? How about…”, and then proceed to wash-rinse-repeat this process with limitless enthusiasm.

The problem is that the designer on the job doesn’t have limitless time for their client’s limitless enthusiasm. And here is where necessity, the mother of invention, rears her maternal head: the humble designer, wishing and hoping to get on with life and finish this project and get paid, sees a way out. “If I could help this client get some good copy nailed down, I can get this to the press sooner, or get this on the web sooner, and get on with the next project in my queue.” This internal dialogue becomes the repeating thought and sooner or later becomes a plan of action. All of a sudden, there is real financial impetus to get some good copy nailed to down in order to please the client and to make for a great portfolio piece.

Doing the write thing

And so designers, who are simply looking to get the design job done and paid, are in a sense forced to become copywriters. They often don’t include writing services in the scope of the project in the contract, and are simply being expedient!

It’s time for designers who practice, with great adroitness, the skill of fine copy writing in secret, to do so in broad daylight—and get paid for it!

So the next time you find yourself inadvertently backed into a corner with the only way out being your “free” copy writing services, think twice about what your “secret” skills are worth and politely let your client know you’ll be adding those hours to the final invoice.

Further reading:

3 responses to “The Number One Secret Skill of Graphic Designers”

  1. Phyllis

    Great post! :-) Glad you liked the topic idea. :-) And thanks for the suggestions of where I can learn more about copywriting! I’ll definitely look at those. You bring up a very good point that designers should get more credit for writing. I barely even mention that in my skill list but will definitely put more emphasis on it the next time. I even do some minor editing (in addition to our editorial department) but have never thought about how that has value too. Thanks!

  2. Rob Cubbon

    Indeed, this is a really, really good point. I’m always re-writing loose copy, correcting typos and punctuation and, like Phyllis, it’s not in my skill list.

    I really need to mention this to clients more often. Thank you!

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