Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Designer Writing?

There is an irony when you identify design inconsistencies in a book discussing design. 

You’d think the author and publisher would try harder not to break the cardinal rule of having the illustration appear on the same page, or at least on the same double truck, as its first citation. 

You’d think the author and publisher would update a rather prominent acronym referring to an earlier title of the same book. 

And though it’s touted as a classic in the design world, it’s showing its age – particularly in the final chapters dealing with computers. There’s a treasure-trove of design-related complaints to be made in an updated version that I think the author should seriously consider. 

That being said, I still enjoyed the time I spent with Donald Norman’s “Design of Everyday Things.” 

His seven tenets of design still stand firm: 
  1. Use both knowledge in the world and in the head
  2. Simplify the structure of tasks
  3. Make things visible
  4. Get the mappings right
  5. Exploit the powers of constraints – natural and artificial
  6. Design for error
  7. When all else fails, standardize.
As I read, part of me kept wondering if I could use these design tenets to help my English students as they write essays. In a way, following these seven bits of advice when writing an essay seem to me as applicable as they do in designing objects – because it’s all too easy for the writer, just as it is for the builder – to come up with a terribly-designed object. 
So how could I apply this to writing? Maybe take them one by one. 

Use both knowledge in the world and in the head. 

All of us possess little bits of knowledge or opinion on a vast number of subjects. But when we go to write about things, we need to combine our internal knowledge and opinion with that from the outside world, not only to write a good paper but also to broaden and deepen our own understanding of the subject.

Simplify the structure of tasks.

Too often we see students over-reliant on the tried and true structures of what is expected in “good writing.’ While we want them to a point understand what makes writing good, we should also acknowledge that good structure doesn’t come in only a few rigid forms. I openly confess to my students that I rarely outline, for example. I use little structural tricks that work for me. We need to help them find the tricks that work for them. 

Make things visible.

Don’t leave things unsaid, the teacher says, or words undefined. If there’s a chance your audience won’t understand a word or a concept, find a different way to explain things. Use simile and metaphor as well as plain writing. Do what you can to make your subject visible to your audience. 

Get the mappings right. 

Writing to argue or to explain needs to end up with the thing argued or the thing explained. Writers should give clear direction for where they’re going, and then get there. If an audience expects something, take them there or have a damn good reason why you don’t – and explain your reasons to your readers. 

Exploit the powers of constraints – natural and artificial.

All writers have their weaknesses. All writers should strive to make their weaknesses their strengths. At the same time, all writers should know that if they struggle with spelling or punctuation, they – and their instructors – should not allow that struggle to overwhelm the underlying thoughts. Bad spellers can be good thinkers, and when we exploit our constraints to see where thought goes even when the eyes bleed, we’d be better off. 

Design for error.

Anticipate and analyze the weaknesses in your writing – and focus on those weaknesses as you revise. That’s a higher level of designing for error, going beyond the pedestrian grammar/punctuation. I’d rather see those kinds of errors, rather than errors in logic, which are much harder to fix. 

When all else fails, standardize.

Here, I mean voice. We want to hear you, the writer, present. We don’t want a formula. We don’t want a rote recital. Think about the best bits of writing you remember – it all has distinct voices coming out. Find your voice and standardize. 

This is, of course, just a rough-stab, off-the-cuff look. I’ll have to give this some more thought and revise, revise, revise. 

And a better question: Do we really need another x-point guide to writing? Probably not.

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