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Where Are The Copy Designers?

Mark Mzyk | October 3, 2009

The web is full of designers: visual designers, graphic designers, interaction designers, muppet designers.  I threw in muppet designers to see if you’re paying attention.

Designers on the web are experiencing a bit of a revolution that is summed up in a few words: measure everything.  Led by the likes of Google, every click, every eyeball movement is tracked to see what the user does next, all in an attempt to answer the question: what works best?

Design no longer is the purview of instinct and feeling; it has become more analytical.  My characterization here is crude and not wholly correct.  There are shades of gray, as instinct has its place and measurement can’t tell us everything.  Since I am not a designer, I’m not enmeshed in the design world and can’t speak to everything that happens.  I only follow along from the outside as a curious and interested spectator.

I don’t think most designers would argue that design has become more and more about measurements, conversions, and click through rates.  And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

However, all this focus has fallen in the visual design and user interaction arena.  One place that still gets neglected is that of copy design.  For those of you not aware, copy is the term used to refer to the written part of a website or a magazine, as opposed to the images and layout.

The web is more words than images, although Flickr and YouTube are doing their best to change that.  Day in and day out, you get around the web by reading.  It stands to reason that what the web says is as important as to how it looks.

Typography gets a lot of attention and for good reason, as fonts matter.  A font can catch your eye or set the mood.  Often fonts are compared using the pangramThe quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”.  This is great for evaluating the font, but if a font isn’t used to say anything, what use is a font?

Shouldn’t copy – what a website says – be given as much attention as how it looks?  Changing copy can quickly fix problems that otherwise would be difficult to deal with, as Joshua Porter shows.  Copy can affect conversion rates.  Dustin Curtis tweaked the words that pointed to his Twitter account and saw a measurable difference in click though rate: a 173% difference.

The design world already knows the work of Edward Tufte.  It should also know the work of his wife mother, Virginia Tufte. She wrote the book Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style.  It’s a book that does nothing except examine sentences.  The fact that this can be done speaks to the richness of language and suggests that we all should pay more attention to it.

So I ask: where are the copy designers?  I expect that over the next few years we’ll see them appear.  If they don’t appear explicitly, current designers will add copy design to their repertoire.

Words matter just as much as looks.  How much opportunity is your site passing over just because your copy lacks power or style?

Two sentences highlighted by Viginia Tufte in Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style:

I feel – and the anxiety is still vivid to me – that I might easily have failed before I began.
– V.S. Naipaul, Literary Occasions, 195

The desire to move on, to metamorphose – or perhaps it is a talent for being contemporary – was given to me as life’s inevitable and rightful condition.  To keep becoming, always to stay involved in transition.  It was all she and my father had ever known.
– Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life, 4

Thanks goes to Jason Rudolph for the conversation that sparked this post.

Filed in: Design.


  1. Comment by Jason Young:

    I think they exist as copy editors today and the web hasn’t quite learned that there’s a need for them – and perhaps many of the copy editors themselves have never made the transition to content management systems.

    I have a bit of bias, as I married one (though my own rambling treatises don’t reflect it) – but I’ve watched what she can do with words. I love that term copy designers I think that’s a perfect term to what it really is.

    October 3, 2009 @ 19:56
  2. Comment by Mark Mzyk:

    I agree Jason in that I do think copy designers exist – but they don’t yet exist on the web. I think that while most organizations have figured out a website is important, they haven’t figured out how to maximize that investment. Visual media is striking, which makes its impact easy to see. Words can be brushed away and filled in with lorem ipsum and other gibberish, which makes it easy to ignore the impact they have.

    The web will catch up, in time.

    I also have to admit to a bit of bias, since I hold an English degree with a concentration in creative writing. I’ve played more with words than most and perhaps I obsess over them too much but it is the way I am.

    I’m glad you like the term copy designer. I doubt I’m the first to coin it, as it just flows naturally from the other types of design.

    October 4, 2009 @ 12:02
  3. Comment by Dawn Finley:

    Virginia Tufte is Edward Tufte’s mother, not his wife.

    October 14, 2009 @ 19:12
  4. Comment by Mark Mzyk:

    That was an embarrassing mistake. Thanks for the correction Dawn. It’s been fixed in the article.

    October 14, 2009 @ 21:41