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Designing Meaning Through Writing

For the past year, word design or UX writing solidified itself as a legit part of digital design, namely UI and UX. The request for a clear and concise copy has always been out there and in different periods of time, it reflected the social realms of its time.

Designing Meaning Through Writing | Shakuro

This puts UX writing into a dynamic perspective – words and our perception of words change over time. Just like design trends affect the visual language, cultural phenomena bring in new words, tones, vernaculars, and the ways we apply them to our products.

Designing Meaning Through Writing | Shakuro

British emergency ration pack used in the Boer War. Image credit: Brittishbattles

Look at this instruction. “Extremity”. “Maintain strength”. And the whole clause “when two wins will be found…”. True history out there not only in the attrition of the package but also in the words used to provide instructions. Written in a theatrically prim manner, this is what a gentleman’s ration instruction would sound like, right?
Now, here’s a modern MRE ration instruction:

Designing Meaning Through Writing | Shakuro

Image credit: Flickr

“Rock or something”? Pictures AND words? Both rations were intended for the military which means the audience of those was supposed to be young middle-class men with no specific educational background. In this regard, today we are far more educated and aware than our late 19th century peers.

So why did today’s packaging dumb down its audience? Was there a specific reason? Save time reading? Save effort comprehending? None of those. I believe it’s just because at some point people started sounding differently. To speak to the people who sound differently, you need to speak to them the way they do. And if you speak that way – you write that way.

It’s not that our language changed drastically. It’s just more people got the ability to have their voices heard. More data channels secured us the abundance of information about users, consumers, manufacturers, promoters, etc. However, this flow of data brought a bunch of dangers with it including validation problems, manipulation, false ideas, decision fatigue, and so on.

It became extremely challenging for us to define which voice and tone to use to address our diverse and versatile audience.

Let’s see how word design shapes, which variables have to be in place, and whether this process matters at all.

The wordboard

Before any design begins, it has to originate from somewhere. UI/UX designers use artboards just like they would a real sheet of paper on a desk. What do writers use? Well if we are talking UX writing, microcopy, content writing, copywriting, and all sorts of digital text delivery media, we have no choice. It’s been made for us. We either get lorem ipsumed, or text boxed.

Designing Meaning Through Writing | Shakuro

Image credit: Jeff Hilnbrand

Our common job often times is squeezing our copy into those boxes of counting the letters to fit the lorem ipsum paragraph. John Saito said it best: “When you write words for an interface, seeing the full context is so crucial. You need to know how your words are going to look next to everything else around it.”

Safe to say, writer’s wordboard is the design itself.

The grid

Designers use grids for multiple reasons including balancing elements, organizing content, and most importantly, maintain consistency through multiple pages and layouts contributed to by different designers at different times.

Designing Meaning Through Writing | Shakuro

Image credit: Bethany Heck

If we are apply that same logic to word design, consistency can be reached through narrative anchors that a writer chooses to permeate across the entire product writing.

Narrative anchors

Narrative anchors create a grid for written content to grow upon. It’s important to have them as pillars of quality writing in the situation where you might lack information on a topic or have a hard time prioritizing. I consider the following narrative anchors to be the benchmarks of a stylized written content:

Don’t stick to one style

Mass digital production is by default, an intersection of high technology and culture, or science and art. Being able to speak the language of both worlds is what makes the content relevant.

Sentence structure

Literary lace won’t work on the users of digital products in our age of anxiety and ADD. Let your pencraft shine in your Medium articles. Keeping your writing in check by observing simple syntax structure, will eradicate the resistance a lot of people have towards convoluted sentences. #tldr

Consistent grammar

The internet made a lot of grammar rules secondary. One of the attributes of any active language is its amazing sensibility for the spirit of time. This means if a rule is violated so many times, it stops being a rule. For example, it’s very common to use lay instead of lie (laid instead of lay) nowadays, even in publications after editorial revision. Language is a moving target and it’s better to move with it in sync. It’s better to follow the general rules and branch off to the contemporary usage cases.


Text units in interfaces consist of several entities like headings, bodies, paragraphs, lists, and so on. The heading is an icon for a paragraph and operates on the specific terms often referred to as microcopy. Paragraphs themselves, as put by the great William Strunk Jr., “may be of any length — a single, short sentence or a passage of great duration.” Lists work fine with brief and equal form content, which is great for scanning.

Designing Meaning Through Writing

Image credit: FΛNTΛSY

The pallet

Designers use different color schemes to create a certain flow, mood, and hierarchy.  If colors can do that, words can do that as well. All we need to do is differentiate the types of meaning. Each word has a lexical and grammatical meaning.

Lexical meaning is usually given by a dictionary. Lexical meaning unfolds in syntagmatic relations holding between particular lexical items (bird:fly, blond:hair), as well as paradigmatic relations between words which have a similar meaning (red:blue). In contrast, grammatical meaning includes the meaning of grammatical items (e.g. function words and inflectional affixes), grammatical functions (e.g. subject and object), and different sentence-types (e.g. declarative and interrogative).

On top of those, Geoffrey Leech defines several other stylistic meanings:

  • Referential meaning (a.k.a denotative meaning, descriptive meaning, conceptual meaning, or sense) refers to the logical, cognitive, or denotative content of an expression.
  • Connotative meaning (a.k.a associative meaning) denotes the associations and secondary meanings the expression evokes.
  • Social meaning (a.k.a stylistic meaning) is the information that the linguistic expression conveys about certain social characteristics.
  • Affective meaning is the emotive or affective component of the expression.
  • Connotation is social meaning and affective meaning together.
  • Reflected meaning refers to certain associations with another sense of the same expression.
  • Collocative meaning (a.k.a collocation) is conveyed by characteristic word combinations.

Some of the meanings may not even be familiar to the native speakers of English let alone, foreigners, which presents a challenge for international content writers. If we have the English language as the acknowledged global language, does it mean we have to be intricately sensitive to all the meanings of all the words? Or does our authorship allow us to utilize the Humpty Dumpty approach to expressing ideas?

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.

In my opinion, using a fraction of the language means bringing out a fraction of emotions in your users. How many hues of yellow-ish do you see in this amazing artwork? I believe that’s what a writer has to be able to see in not only literary writing, but any type of writing where more than just lexical meaning is applied.

Designing Meaning Through Writing | Shakuro

Image credit: Timothy J. Reynolds

The hierarchy

Design elements are positioned in relation to different variables, like gestalt theory and law of proximity. The main idea behind the gestalt theory is understanding the laws behind the ability to acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions in an apparently chaotic world. Gestalt theory, it is proposed, allows for the deconstruction of the chaotic whole into its elements.

Usually, UI/UX designers start with broad brushstrokes and gradually move towards the more specific aspects. This theory can also be successfully applied to writing. Whenever a digital product requires a textual wrapping, it is represented by nothing but a chaotic mass of information with no evident prioritization.

Deconstructing the information into useful bits to build upon is where the gestalt theory knowledge can be applied.

As for the law of proximity in design, it works a lot like gravity. Larger elements magnetize the smaller ones while the outside borders act like black holes with gravities of their own pulling the objects to the outermost borders.

In this regard, meaning has proximity principles as well. In linguistics, it’s called agreement a.k.a concord. It happens when a word changes form depending on the other words to which it relates. Agreement based on grammatical person is found mostly between verb and subject as those are the most significant parts of a sentence. Proximity agreement is the practice of relying on the subject that is closest to the verb to determine whether the verb is singular or plural.

As stated in the American Heritage Book of English Usage, “Sometimes syntax itself makes it impossible to follow the agreement rule. In a sentence like Either John or his brothers are bringing the dessert, the verb can’t agree with both parts of the subject. Some people believe that the verb should agree with the closer of the two subjects. This is called agreement by proximity.”

Douglas Biber, Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English: “In addition to grammatical concord and notional concord, the principle of proximity sometimes plays a part in subject-verb agreement. This principle is the tendency, especially in speech, for the verb to agree with the closest (pro)noun, even when that (pro)noun is not the head of the subject noun phrase.
For example:

  • Do you think (any of them) are bad Claire? (CONV)
  • (Not one of the people who’s auditioned) were up to par. (FICT)”

Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor’s Handbook: “Grammarians have also observed that certain constructions ‘sound right’ to educated native speakers of English, even though the constructions defy formal or notional agreement. Such expressions exemplify the principle of attraction (or proximity), under which the verb tends to take the form of the closest subject:

  • For those who attended the second day of the annual meeting, there was an early morning panel and afternoon workshops.”


Designing Meaning Through Writing | Shakuro

Image credit: Steve Semanchik

The valedictory

Design is there to solve problems in a way that appeals to our monkey nature. We are not robots and we’ll never be (hopefully). That’s why user interfaces will always have a human touch to them right until the point when AI wipes out UI. If that does happen, word design will stay.

Before we master biochemical communication or telepathy, language will remain our main media to pass our experience. If we design words, there is definitely someone who’s mastered it. While visual design leaves a lot of space for subjectivity, it’s the words that we carve in stone. The pen is mightier than the sword, they say and meaning surrounds us. Passing the meaning is vital for us to make sense of the world around.

Designing Meaning Through Writing | Shakuro
Even though I don’t think I did a good job providing an easy read with all the above, I believe there is room for depth and immersiveness …at least for the wordsmiths.

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Written by Moses Kim

April 04, 2018

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