Creating the Spark: Design and Creative Writing

| July 5, 2014

A percentage of designers, more than you might suspect, have a second life writing essays, poetry and fiction. For some reason, most of them elect to keep it a secret. My own writing seems to make my design work more vivid and lyrical: not just conceptually, but visually as well. As a culture we are somewhat suspicious of creative writing; at the same time, design’s incorporation of visual poetry, as we can witness from flipping through design annuals, seems to become more complex and sublime with each year. Today on reality TV the idea oft thought and ne’er so well expressed seems rare. Are we chasing other ideals these days? While mass culture seems to become less interested in wit, design is pursuing ingenious ideas, expressed to surprise, inform, delight. Much of the passion for exquisite ideas exquisitely expressed, once the territory of bibliophiles, now seems to be what the public looks for in design and advertising. Those complicated ideas, expressive oddness, artifacts of literacy and appetite for the unusual seem to reside even more in design’s amalgams of image and idea.

Writing is an essential ideation tool in the classroom and in the professional world. Some would say that writing is the most important stage in design research. Most often, when we discuss design writing, whether it’s a part of the design process or independent from one’s practice, we are talking about critical writing. Critical design writing provides an essential outlet for reflection and assessment that helps our profession to grow and become thoughtful and cognizant practitioners. But where critical writing informs our discipline through reflection, creative writing has the potential to inform and enrich process. In fact the design process and the creative writing process are very similar. Creative writing stimulates design because of this complimentary process. I find that writing poetry stimulates the production of those leaps of lyricism, the “visual poetic” which is the hallmark of great design. Creative writing is, furthermore, an effective way to teach students how to shape an idea’s meaning through the visual and linguistic vehicles that carry it.


I first noticed the relationship between creative writing and graphic design in the graduate program at California Institute of the Arts. We were lucky to be reading an eye-opening amount of design theory, but I found that when I began taking MFA poetry classes along side my design classes something changed profoundly in the way I approached both media. I was experiencing a Gestalt effect between the two processes. While designing, there would be times where I would need to open a file to jot down lines that came to me while I was solving visual problems, and conversely, I found that after writing, elegant solutions to stubborn design problems would be waiting at the end of a writing session. This wasn’t merely the “vacation effect” where when one moves to a new project and a solution appears. There definitely seemed to be cross-pollination between metaphor of creative writing, and visual metaphor of design solutions. I signed up for another poetry class, and encountered graphic design classmates who had found the same kinds of process relationships between the two.

Design is not art; it is not poetry. So why do the two fields share so much? Each one builds a “world”, a best-of-all-possible-worlds for the content it intends to impart, the best of worlds for reaching and influencing the hearts and minds of the intended audience. From the rules of this “world” all decisions about style, form, color, and tone logically follow to best express the intended message or idea. If design’s purpose is to inform and educate, we must consider the delivery of this educational, informational message. After the research is done, the creator of this “world” takes an imaginative leap and starts to Make. Most designers and creative writers would agree this initial sketching and experimentation stage is an expansive, intuitive step of the design process. In poetry, students are asked to write and write and write until they can’t write any more to produce many more lines than the final poem will contain. Writer Annie Lamott calls these “shitty first drafts,” where one’s subconscious editor must be turned off and the mind allowed to wander around the topic at hand. In this way we get all of our terrible, trite and tired ideas on paper and can now entertain more inspired ways of expressing the thought. Once it’s all on paper, we reexamine and reflect, testing the creative work for how well it solves the original problem. It’s the equivalent of making 100 thumbnails for a project to arrive at three absolutely amazing concepts.
I talked to poet Patty Seyburn about the differences and similarities between poetry and design, and she says it quite well. “The death of good poetry is knowing what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. What you consciously have to say is invariably less interesting than what you arrive at through process.”

Seyburn, a formal poet, points out that it is in this assessment step that each word is tested against the logic of meter and rhyme scheme. Seyburn states that she finds poems that adhere to an organizational template with structure and metrical obligations the most powerful and evocative. The structure implicit in meter and rhyme schemes remind me of the logical underpinnings of the grid. (See Note 1)

We can carry the comparison further: if poster design and its environmental constraints require the design to make an impression in a short period of time, then so must a poem of a few lines. In both, meaning must be condensed, and every word and visual move is loaded with tension/intention. In print design, which requires a longer read, the designer needs to accommodate the reader’s sustained concentration to help them to maintain “book-space,” watch for fatigue and consider readability of treatment. In prose, language is less compacted: the story follows a structure of exposition, conflict, climax, conflict resolution, and summary. Writers create rhythm by alternating active and passive lines, and altering line length and paragraph length to keep their readers engaged and give texture work interesting “texture” while allowing the reader to enter the story.

How can this connection between design and creative writing help us teach design in the classroom? This is a little trickier. Rhetorical devices borrowed from literature, terms such as “metaphor,” “connotation,” “synechdoche,” “metonymy” and “litotes” to name a few, are extremely instructive idea generators in the design classroom. Creative writing texts stimulate discussions on style and illustrate the use of different kinds of metaphor in my image making class. I have also asked my students to write compositions for use in their visual design work. In my motion class last semester I assigned students three poems and asked them how these pieces might influence their attack on an open-ended motion project. Though they resisted the assignment at first, the exercise produced fresh solutions.
Designer and educator Gail Swanlund uses creative writing exercises in a really meaningful way in her classes at CalArts. She asks students to write short pieces, and then asks them to analyze their work for style and voice. “It doesn’t matter what they write about; they can write about a face. But there are a million different ways to write about a face, and what they choose to write says something about them, and what interests them.” She then challenges her students to use this formal style, or “voice” they discover in the creative writing and translate its cues into a piece of design. “It’s a wholly different way of looking at design: it freaks them out.” (See Note 2).

This is really what our job is all about: introducing wholly unexpected viewpoints and idea generators into our student’s design process. Creative writing samples used in class, ones that pertain to the topic at hand or represent a radically different point of view, seem to reach students in a different way than traditional design materials. What’s important to say here is that creative writing and reading in the classroom are significant pedagogical experiences and practices, but this doesn’t mean the original writing must necessarily end up literally set into the student’s final design work to have an effect. I am careful to make clear in my classes that graphic design is not about self-expression. However individual creative expression using the written word can be an incredibly powerful part of a rigorous process.

End Notes:
1. Telephone Interview with Patty Seyburn.
2. Telephone Interview with Gail Swanlund.

Jennifer McKnight earned her BFA at Washington University in Printmaking and her Masters in Graphic Design at California Institute of Arts (CalArts) She is currently an Associate Professor in Studio Art at University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Her work is recognized in publications such as Print Magazine, :Output, and “Becoming a Graphic Designer: A guide to Careers in Design” by Steven Heller and Theresa Fernandes. Her design writing is published in the AIGA National Education Archives, Redaction Magazine, No Tasarim, as well as in Means by Which we Find our Way, edited by David Gardner and Andrea Wilkinson and Robin Landa’s Graphic Design Solutions 4th ed.

Projects include work for Touhill Performing Arts Center, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Saint Louis City Museum, Humane Society of Missouri, and Molloy College. Her posters have been exhibited nationally and internationally. Exhibits include the 2010 Golden Bee International Poster Biennial, Moscow. Her posters are and have been published in the Messages to the World exhibition catalogue, Shanghai, and the 4th and 5th United Designs catalogues.

I think the most empowering kind of activism is linked to education. My goal is to introduce students to new ways to make, new ways to think about old problems, new way to envision and actively craft their world. My teaching goals involve providing students with new learning experiences both inside and outside the classroom through a wide range of media and techniques. I aim to provide design students with new ideas for how to practice and think about, and take part in design from throughout the world. I introduce my students to designers practicing different specialties, expose them to the over-arching problems the design profession seeks to solve, and introduce them to related fields that can provide inspiration.
I developed the UMSL Graphic Design lecture series, to inspire our students and community, challenge them to think big, and create international links to our program that students can use to inspire research and design deaydreams.
Jen has lectured and taught workshops in design, new media, and printmaking nationally and internationally, as well as instigating alternative learning venues and opportunities for students.

Ed Fella Posters 2008
Through the AIGA student group, students and faculty were invited to collaborate long distance with Ed Fella to create four limited edition silkscreen posters for his opening at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

Dutch Poster Design: Trip and Traveling Exhibition 2011
Students from UMSL, Washington University, Webster University, and Loyola New Orleans traveled to Amsterdam to explore new ideas and approaches to design, culture and the arts. Upon return, students worked together to design and print 23 posters in one week! Posters were exhibited in UMSL Gallery Visio in fall of 2011 and will travel to New Orleans in 2012.

Category: Essays, Graphic Design

About the Author ()

Jen McKnight is an associate professor of art and art history at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Jennifer McKnight earned her BFA at Washington University in Printmaking and her Masters in Graphic Design at California Institute of Arts (CalArts). Her work is recognized in publications such as Print Magazine, :Output, and “Becoming a Graphic Designer: A guide to Careers in Design” by Steven Heller and Theresa Fernandes. Her design writing is published in the AIGA National Education Archives, Redaction Magazine, No Tasarim, as well as in Means by Which we Find our Way, edited by David Gardner and Andrea Wilkinson and Robin Landa’s Graphic Design Solutions 4th ed.

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