Magic Words: Editorial Values and the Future of Design

I’m very excited to join Uncorked Studios’ Semiotics Practice as its editorial director.

After a career in publishing, I’m now working at a full-fledged product studio, which calls for a little reflection.

We writers view designers as strange cousins. We speak in similar terms but don’t always understand each other.

I remember watching Basecamp’s Jason Fried—a writer—give an audience of designers at SXSW some advice years ago: “Before you redesign, rewrite.”

It was good advice: pay attention to what works immediately. Let the words do the heavy lifting. Revise until you get it right.

It felt good to have a room full of designers nodding at a simple tenet of my world.

Fast-forward a few years, and the growth of bots and other elements of conversational user interfaces has brought writing even closer to the forefront of design. James Cooper, the head of creative at Betaworks, the company that brought us Poncho the Weathercat, recently told an audience, “the digital creation ecosystem has been dominated by design. You’re going to need more writers.

Meanwhile, presenting this year’s Design in Tech report, design luminary John Maeda suggested that writing, along with knowing how code works, is another “unicorn skill” for designers.

All this is a long trip around the garden path where I enlist people smarter than myself to help answer the big, obvious question: “Why’s an editorial director joining a product studio?”

How to Do Things with Words

What is it about words that contain such great potential? Here’s an even longer detour, a question to help answer our original question.

Some would argue it’s their inherent power to compel without additional equipment or apparatus.

In 1955, the philosopher J.L. Austin gave a series of lectures at Harvard, compiled into a slim, dense blade of a book, “How to Do Things with Words.”

His title is an incredibly simple and lucid condensation of his ideas. Austin specialized in de-abstracting both the language of philosophy and the philosophy of language, taking what people wrote and said at their word at a time when philosophy had become obsessed with interpretation.

The lectures chiefly focus on a certain type of speech Austin called a “performative utterance.” When you’re getting married, for instance, “I do,” in the right combination, starts the marriage.

If you’re a gambler, “I bet” creates a wager.

If you’re in the right place and given the authority, “I christen this ship,” confers a name and an intention onto many people’s hard work. (And if you’re lucky, sets a honking big boat splashing into the water.)

As product and experience designers working in systems—where services have now superseded objects—our ability to put these words in people’s mouths gives us just as much magic power as a Celtic bard, or the soprano finding the resonant frequency of a wine glass.

As one reviewer of HTDTWW put it, “services are not constructed in the same way that clocks and automobiles are constructed. They are not things. They are social constructions, built in networks of requests and promises, and in trusting relationships between people speaking and listening to each other, today increasingly through electronic media. This is a book about the language of service.”

Editorial Values as a Zebra Feature

Going back to our big question: “Why’s an editorial director joining a product studio?”

Here’s news for Maeda and the Exponentialists (how’s that for a band name?): it ain’t to raise unicorns.

Over the last 15 years as a writer and editor, I’ve crewed on publications and projects big and small, representing everything from a street-fighting tabloid to a white-gloved strategic partner.

I’ve seen how the power of words can be multiplied in combination with advocacy on behalf of the reader, whether it’s in a high-level strategic direction or solely in providing color to bring a research setting to life.

This social elements, the values become antibodies, enabling and protecting great, meaningful work. It’s actually a similar concept to the principles of user-centric design.

For example: A strong firewall between editorial and business departments prevents the creep of advertorial or “native advertising.” Consideration of a reader’s time and attention stops clickbait. A commitment to truth, accuracy, and context makes “fake news” impossible. All these form a great publication.

Beyond the power of words themselves, these editorial values add a layer that can be applied other places. The design world is having similar conversations about ethics, using design principles (always written, mind you) to keep designers honest about intent.

In the vein of J.L. Austin, we’re now deploying language as a service across projects, guarded by these ideals, activated by designed structures.

For Uncorked, these values are aligned with studio values. We seek to amplify ideas that matter, apply knowledge to diverse facets, encourage change, and build meaning into everything we do, all while making really cool stuff.

Maeda and others might say writing and editing are themselves a unicorn skill. A more holistic approach, adding in editorial values, signifies a step up, a commitment to something better.

In the words of Jennifer, Mara & Astrid, it’s a zebra quality. It’s something we’re making a bet on here at Uncorked. We’re playing the long game. As zebra-fanciers, we’re looking to build products and services that can do the hard work of balancing profit and purpose, championing democracy, and putting a premium on sharing power and resources.

And building a deeper understanding of how service-oriented language functions across the studio allows us to delve into areas of the future with true boldness of voice, matching the studio’s existing mastery of craft in code and design.

Pentagram’s Michael Beirut once wrote, “the great thing about graphic design is that it is almost always about something else. Corporate law. Professional football. Art. Politics. Robert Wilson. And if I can’t get excited about whatever that something else is, I really have trouble doing good work as a designer.

Looking at the breadth of important concepts that are relevant to our work—from strategic insights and illuminating research to a compelling product narrative and flawless execution—they all rely on a mixture of stimulating ideas and practical considerations as well as a fair pinch of pixie dust.

If you’re interested in hearing more about what that might look like, why not drop us a line?

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