One of the HOW Conference presentations I really enjoyed was “Write More Good: Copywriting for Visual Thinkers” with Wayne Geyer. A designer-turned-copywriter, Wayne gave a great presentation about how we can improve our writing skills as designers. Aside from providing us with some really great tips to incorporate into our work; he also put on an entertaining presentation on a topic that could have easily gotten dry. (I think you’ll see what I mean as you read on.) Recently I asked Wayne if he would answer a few questions in order to get a bit more background on how he got to where he is now, as well as some more specific advice about writing, design and business; and he was nice enough to oblige.
1. Can you give us a little background about your switch from design to copywriting?
It was a two-step process. Step One occurred on February 16, 1998 — the day I left my last job and started out on my own as a freelance designer. Step Two came approximately four days later, when I was driven to near insanity over the process of designing a self-promotion. I literally said out loud, “If I never designed another thing in my life, I’d be happy.” And that was it. I told myself that if I was going to do one thing every day, I wanted that thing to be writing. So I trashed the logo promotion, asked my office-mate and mentor to design my first copywriting promo, and never looked back. The longer answer involves the fact that I’ve always been a closet writer. In fact, if I had it to do over again, I might have been a copywriter at a big ad agency. I just didn’t know enough about how the industry works. For me, it’s the purest part of the problem-solving process. I’ve never been able to design for design’s sake. There has to be a message. Even as a designer, I would start brainstorming on a logo project with a legal pad and a ball-point pen. I still love, appreciate and respect design. There are just parts of it that I don’t want to deal with. Annual reports used to make me nuts. Once the problem was solved and the concept was bought, I would completely lose interest.
2. Any advice for designers about what to do (or what not to do) when working with a copywriter?
Q: How many copywriters does it take to change a light bulb? A: “I’m not changing a f**king thing.” I don’t think copywriters are prima donnas by definition. I think every creative has the potential to be one. As designers, we know what kinds of criticism / direction is helpful, and what makes us roll our eyes. So, I guess I’m saying, “Do unto your copywriter as you would have your creative director do unto you.” I can’t speak for other writers, but I encourage everyone in the process to just jump in and write in the Word document if they’re not seeing what they want. The only thing I ask for is what I call a “final pass” at the entire document — just to make sure that it all reads like it came from the same person. I only get my feelings hurt when I submit what I believe to be final copy, and then I see that the words have been changed in the printed piece. Makes me think, “What did I do wrong,” or, “Gee, I wish they would have let me try to solve that.” It’s the equivalent of a client or a printer getting into your InDesign file and changing the typeface before the brochure goes to press.
3.You definitely have a clear voice when you write. Did that develop over time or does it just come naturally? Any related advice?
I hope that people see some wit, a dry sense of humor, and a very direct approach. I can do “fluff” with the best of them. But I’m so driven by the need to have an assignment — and a purpose — that I tend to make even the “pretty” stuff very direct. For better or worse, I think deadlines have a lot to do with the style. If I procrastinate enough, there’s no time to mess around. I have to get to the point. Also, I’m a bit of an underachiever, but also a perfectionist. So in my mind, my style is a carefully planned, methodical approach to, “I give up.”
4. One thing I really like about your site is the “words that cost extra” section. I think most designers would really benefit from having a “design elements that cost extra” section on their sites. So the question is, despite being up front with prospective clients about what to expect (and not expect) when working with you, do you still run into situations where a client insists upon something you know is not right for the project? How do you deal with it? Fun stories?
If I see any more “vector doilies” (all that visual noise with vines, swirls and whatnot), I’m going to puke.
There are some instances where “biz-speak” has become ingrained in an industry. I recently wrote for a hi-tech consultant, and I deliberately replaced every instance of “implemented” with words like “built,” “delivered,” or “set up.” I was told that “implement” or “implementation” were, in fact, very specific terms for this client and their audience. If their prospects couldn’t verify that this company could implement things, then the prospect wouldn’t think the company was legit. To me, it sounded too formal and detached. I don’t want my plumber to implement a best-in-class thermal solution around the hot-water needs of my home. I want him to change the dang water heater. But in the end, I implemented the right solution for my client. And then I cashed their check.
The best client story (and one that may or may not answer the question) involves a naming assignment for a financial planning company. My first round of name options included some abstract, “conceptual” names — and even a few made-up words (Think “Xerox” before that was a word.). They were so afraid of choosing a new name for their company, they actually asked me what would be involved in buying the rights to one of their competitor’s names — or just using it! By the way, the competitor’s name was something terrible, like “Aspen Glen.” It had nothing to do with anything. But they liked it, and they couldn’t visualize a new name on their door unless they first saw that name already out there in the world. These are the people who buy their suits at the same place as their co-workers — not because they necessarily like the style, but because they don’t want to make a statement, and they’re terrified of looking different. It’s the same with words. Corporate America has developed a common syntax. On one hand, it makes things easier. We can create world-class synergies and best practices when we are all on the same page vis-à-vis our verbal communications. On the other hand, it makes every company homogenous. It’s as if Corporate America suddenly adopted Helvetica as its universal typeface. Oh, wait. That was the Seventies. And I guess now, it would have to be Arial. But you get what I mean.
What was the question?
5. And now for the fun one. Tell us your favorite:
- Typeface: Helvetica (all-time); anything from Typography.com (of the moment)
- Book: For a writer, I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t read enough. But Ray Bradbury had a profound impact on me. I read “The Martian Chronicles” in the third grade, and it really sparked my imagination. And I read “Fahrenheit 451” at just the right time in my late teens.
- Word: This is a cop-out, but it changes. Although it’s hard to beat “D’oh!”
- Common grammatical mistake to correct: I have a string of posts on my blog called “Good Grammar Costs Nothing.” It deals with all of those pesky little things that spell-check won’t catch — and that people miss if they’re not paying attention. So they’re more pet peeves than favorite things to correct. Next post: It’s “a lot” (two words), not “alot” (one word). Think about what you’re writing, people. Biggest pet peeve: “Supposably.” It’s actually “Supposedly.”
- Local colloquialism: Funny. I’m a native Texan, but I don’t have a drawl, and I don’t often say “Y’all” (at least that I’m aware of). It might not be an exclusively Southern thing, but I enjoy saying (and hearing people say), “Preciate-cha” (translation: “I appreciate you,” or, “Thank you”).