Posts Tagged ‘hierarchy’

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

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

[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

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

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.