Welcome to the Parsley blog in which Tom Parnell shares his opinions on design, copywriting and communications with anyone who cares to read 'em.

How to write for foreigners – and write better for non-foreigners too

[By 'foreigners', I mean people whose first language isn't English. But that made a rather clumsy title.]

I’m currently partway through writing the copy for d’Overbroeck’s College’s international student prospectus. That sounds hard, doesn’t it? Harder, you’d think, than what I do most of the time – writing for people whose first language is English?

Yeah, it’s hard. But all copywriting is hard.

You could be writing for any audience under the sun, it doesn’t matter. It’s hard.

If you are writing a piece of copy and it’s not hard, you’re probably not writing very good copy.

Sorry to break that to you.

Writing for an international audience is no harder than any other

In fact, writing for people who aren’t fluent English speakers only seems hard because it forces you to do the things you should really be doing every time you write copy. For anyone.

It forces you to simplify.

You see, it’s very easy to be a lazy writer. To throw lots of crap at the wall and hope some of it sticks. To phrase your sentences exactly as they come out of your brain – and rely on your readers to get your point.

But when you’re writing for an international audience, you have to do 3 things:

  1. Keep the amount of text to a minimum.
    When you have to translate each sentence laboriously, you want to get to the point quickly. You aren’t going to want to wade through superfluous verbiage.
  2. Use very simple, direct language.
    Chances are you realise this instinctively. ‘At our College you will get excellent results’ is clearly more understandable than, ‘A quality for which the College is justly renowned is the excellent results achieved by its students.’ Every message you want to put across must be delivered directly and simply. Even the simpler of my examples above could be improved: I might put ‘excellent results’ in bold, for instance, so that a reader who’s really struggling can zoom to just the barest essential.
  3. Organise your messages clearly.
    It’s easier to understand a sentence if you already understood the title under which it is printed. So a page that is organised into chunks, clearly signposted with simple ‘headlines’ is much easier than one that is undifferentiated.

By now you’ve probably worked out what I’m going to say next.

But humour me while I say it, anyway:

Each of those points above doesn’t just apply to writing for a non-fluent audience. Each point also applies to writing for the most fluent native-speaker you could imagine.

That’s because the above points are three universal principles of good copywriting.

Here’s why.

Every time you are writing for an audience that isn’t your friends/family, you need to remember: these people aren’t going to work hard to get my drift. They have no reason to care and every reason to be indifferent.

They don’t want to do my work for me, and they won’t.

They don’t have all the time in the world, so they have limited patience.

They don’t want to be bothered ‘translating’ my rough draft into a sensible summary.

They want to get the message quickly and with a minimum of effort.

So that’s why you should start off writing every piece of copy as if it’s for an international audience.

Why graphic design is like teaching trigonometry

An old fashioned school room with teacher and class

First, shall I let you into a secret?

I couldn’t teach trigonometry if my scrawny white ass depended on it.

(By ‘scrawny white ass’, I of course mean the malnourished albino donkey that turned up outside my back door yesterday. Poor fellow.)

Anyhow, yeah. Teaching and design. Not two fields you’d immediately put together. But I’ve done a tiny bit of teaching, here and there – and, more importantly, I’ve spent two years working at a school and observing some truly great teachers at work.

And I’ve noticed: they are often trying to do the very same things that I find myself trying to do as a designer.

So, without ado, here are three reasons why graphic design is like teaching trigonometry.

1. If you don’t have their attention, nothing you do is worth anything

As a teacher, it doesn’t matter if you can explain trigonometry in the most simple, scintillating, memorable way – if you can’t get your class to shut up and listen while you do it.

There are plenty of ways to do this, of course. Humour. Charisma. Hell, pure animal terror, if you must. In fact, it almost doesn’t matter how you get their attention (um … just stay within the limits of the law, right?) so long as you get it, and you get it good.

Then, once you have it, you can do your trigonometry jazz.

The same’s true of design. You could be designing a poster or a flyer, a web ad or a billboard. It’s all the same: if they don’t get attention, your carefully-honed messages and selling points have about as much value as a thimbleful of Piers Morgan’s saliva.

(For those of you who ascribe value to the mucus of repugnant celebrities, get off this blog right now. We don’t want you here.)

The first thing a design absolutely MUST do is engage its audience. I can’t stress this enough. It is the most important thing about your design, because without it, all else does not just fail; it doesn’t even have a chance to fail, because it hasn’t registered.

2. You have to do a hell of a lot of refinement

How do you teach someone about trigonometry? Where do you begin?

How do you decide which aspects of this fantastically complex subject your lesson should focus on?

In what order do your students need to learn things for them to make sense?

What pace should you adopt to allow a smooth flow of information that neither patronises nor leaves people behind?

How do you make the whole lesson fit together as a story?

… Tough, eh?

We’ve all been given a lesson by a teacher who fails to get all the above right. The teacher who leaps into a subject at a detailed level and leaves us floundering to grasp the point or context; the infuriatingly pedantic teacher who concentrates on minutiae; the over-optimistic teacher who crams so much into a lesson that our brains are overflowing by the halfway point.

And it may not even have been that these were bad teachers.

It probably just meant they hadn’t been selective enough, and hadn’t come up with a realistic structure for their lesson.

Because any subject is by default a chaotic, confusing mess, with more complexity than anyone could ever grasp. And the more familiar one is with a subject (our trigonometricist, for instance, who’s spent 30 years up close and personal with COS, TAN, SIN and the boys) the more of this complexity one is familiar with.

And the harder one has to work to remember that most people don’t share our level of familiarity with our subject.

A great teacher has to be phenomenally good at refining a massively complex subject down to its accessible essentials. Then structuring those essentials into a path – a ‘narrative’ – that leads their students gradually and gently into the complexities.

Exactly the same as a designer.

Imagine you’re designing a school brochure (yeah, I don’t have to imagine this). You’re likely to be dealing with the Head/Principal, and probably a few of the senior management team.

Many of these people have been at this school for years. They work long hours. They love this place. It’s their life.

They’re like the trigonometry professor. They know its complexities.

And that’s good. It’s their job.

Your job, though, is to take them away from those complexities. Because complexity is not a good starting point for a brochure.

Your job is to sift through all that complexity and work out how it can be fashioned into a simple, accessible narrative.

This is no less true of a poster than it is of a brochure; it’s just that your narrative is going to be played out in fast-forward, because it’ll only have seconds to do its job. But it’s no less important that it leads your audience on a journey that makes sense to them and doesn’t leave them confused or indifferent.

This is something you’ll achieve with good use of hierarchy. Something I’ll post about more in future. And it can be very hard indeed.

3. Judge yourself by what they leave the room with

If you’re teaching a bunch of schoolchildren, the only really important thing is what your students leave the room with.

(Hopefully not your wallet and mobile phone.)

… What I mean is, you can teach any way you want. A great teacher can achieve her goals by any number of methods. And the only decent way to judge her success is what her students take away with them. The effect that her teaching has produced.

If 20 students leave that classroom buzzing with enthusiasm and knowledge of trigonometry, the teacher has succeeded. IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW SHE DID IT.

The same is true of design. If your website redesign causes more visitors buy stuff from your site and keep coming back to buy more stuff, YOU HAVE SUCCEEDED. It doesn’t matter if the CEO’s wife doesn’t like the orange background. It doesn’t matter if you look at the flyer you just designed and recoil in horror at its tastelessness – not if that same flyer gives your client a 500% boost in enquiries.

Teaching and design are not, at root, about process. Sure, you need to think a LOT about process. But never loose sight of the fact that the only really important thing is not process, but effect.

Graphic design tip: use bold contrast

There are a few central principles that good graphic design tends to be based upon.

In the future, you’ll hear me banging on a lot, for instance, about ‘hierarchy’ and ‘rhythm’ (both stories for another day).

Instead, today, let’s talk a bit about another of those principles: contrast.

Strong and confident use of contrast (and I don’t mean the button on your TV/monitor) can be the difference between a piece of design that looks average and amateur and one that looks stylish and professional.

What does contrast mean?

Contrast is about differences. Most commonly, in design, people think of it in terms of colour. Two colours that are very similar (deep orange and primary red, for instance) have much less contrast than two colours that are very different (dark blue and yellow).

But your contrast doesn’t have to be all about colour. It could be about size. A strongly contrasting design might incorporate very large elements and very small elements. Or it could be about shape: smooth curves set against jagged edges.

You get the idea.

Design is about making bold contrasts in a controlled way

Most people are afraid of contrast. If you try and put two very different elements together, there’s a chance you’ll fail, and fail very conspicuously. On the other hand, if you put two very similar elements together, there’s not that risk.

(And this doesn’t just go for graphic design. Who except a master of food design would put ice cream with bacon and egg?)

Big contrast = big risk.

This is because people notice contrast. The flip side? People tend to ignore things that exhibit low contrast.

But designers take risks

If you want your work to look designed, start using contrast. Sure, it may not always work out. But how much better to learn through failure than to stagnate through timidity?

This doesn’t mean everything has to be dramatic or unsubtle. Not at all. And you need to be strategic in your use of contrast: don’t make every part of your design contrasty, or you’ll have a crazed maelstrom of competing elements.

Here’s an example of how you can use contrast strategically

d'Overbroeck's College Garden Party invitation design

… It’s an invitation I recently designed for the d’Overbroeck’s College Summer Garden Party. Not a high-profile piece of work, and also a job that I had very little time to carry out. But I turned to my guiding principle of contrast to give me a quick solution.

So where’s the contrast? I guess there’s contrast inherent in white text on a dark background. But the contrast I’d like to focus on is that of typeface.

I’ve paired a beautiful script font – all fluency and curvaceous lines – with stolid gothic capitals. There is huge contrast, here: large vs small, flowing vs blocky, classic vs modern, lowercase vs capitals.

This is confident contrast. It reflects the ethos of the organisation I’m designing for (modern, bold) and also the nature of the event (a ‘traditional’ garden party). So it’s not just gratuitous contrast-for-contrast’s-sake.

But I know that people will see that invitation and will respond to it as if it’s something proper, something high quality. Because the invitation looks designed. Nobody would expect that kind of contrast from an invitation that someone’s PA had knocked out on the office printer and cut on the guillotine.

Therefore, looking at this, they’ll (probably subconsciously) think: ‘They got a designer to do the invitations? This is going to be a stylish event.’

Holistic design vs tacked-on design

An illustration of a blackbird

The Shiny Forager has written a great blog post about the crossover between content and design. And she (correctly, in my view) takes issue with the idea that content and design are separate things.

The idea that one can do the content bit, then do the design bit. Or vice versa.

Her example is a presentation with slides. Should one do the talk first then create the slides as backup? Or create the slides first and write the talk to narrate and link the slides together?

But she concludes that one should do neither. One should conceive of the two in tandem; work on the slides and narrative together, organically, allowing each to feed into the other.

Absolutely right.

All great designs – be they presentations, websites, products – started off with a blank page. This has always been my problem with the notion of design-by-customisation. Handy though design-by-customisation may be – say in adapting another’s WordPress theme to make one’s own site – it unavoidably narrows your horizons.

Prejudices you to accept the status quo. To take the easy route. To imitate. To do what is conventional.

If you want to come up with something different, something that stands out, it’s probably not the best idea to take as your starting point somebody else’s framework.

Because it’s only the blank sheet of paper – the brainstorming stage at which anything goes – that allows true innovation.

And true innovation comes from integrated thinking.

This is what I’m calling holistic design. It’s what Apple’s Jonathan Ive did, creating the iPod: a product that wasn’t just a better mp3 player, but was a reinterpretation of an mp3 player. An mp3 player designed from the ground up, no preconceptions.

Great design demands that the designer be involved at all stages of a product’s conception – whether that product be a brochure, a website or an electronic device.

In the same way, great ads were created (typically) by a designer and a copywriter. In tandem. Not a copywriter doing the content, then handing it over to the designer for some visuals. Not the designer making a great image, then giving it to the copywriter to come up with some words.

But holistic design.

Why I designed this site the way I did

If there’s one overriding message I want to communicate about design, it’s that there is purpose behind it. That making something look nice is just part of the process. A fairly small part. Honestly.

Design starts with your audience, with your goals, your problems. And tries to speak to, achieve and address those things, respectively.
And I thought I’d start off illustrating this by writing about the recent redesign of the Parsley website.

HAVE A REASON FOR EVERYTHING

A standard design portfolio type site tends simply to showcase a variety of projects. But what I think is important about Parsley’s approach is this idea of deliberate strategy. Having a reason for everything.

So, for us, a portfolio is not just an opportunity to get people looking at the results of your work; it’s also an opportunity to explain why that work looks as it does, how the process worked and what the thinking was behind it. So that a prospective client can browse through the projects and get a sense not just of how our work looks, but also what it might be like to work with us, and why we work the way we do.

The work should obviously stand alone (not everyone will want to read the text) – but I wanted to offer the curious a bit more insight into each project we feature.

To this end, I wanted a portfolio style that incorporated text as well as images. I also wanted each portfolio item to be Google-friendly (through having its own, keyword-led page, avoiding use of technologies such as Flash that block search).

I wanted a clean, non-gimmicky look. Because a portfolio website is about the work it features, and I didn’t want the design template to compete with the portfolio pieces. I chose clean lines, coherent colours and a minimum of distracting clutter.

SO WHY ISN’T THERE ANY PARSLEY?

Sorry, herb-lovers, but parsley’s just in the name.

Some of the other design variants involved graphics/photos of parsley. But I don’t really want people to focus too much on vegetation. Otherwise we start looking like a gardening centre.

And that’s not one of my goals.

Good day, and welcome

Today sees the launch of the newly redesigned Parsley site. You’re on it, right now.

What do you mean, you didn’t notice?

Well. The inclusion of this blog is one of several additions to the old site, which was looking somewhat tired.

Soon I’ll blog about the site redesign and the thinking behind it – as well as populating this blog with opinion, critiques, news and work. But, for now, I merely repeat: welcome.