First things first: let’s clarify what we mean when we say “design skills,” because that can apply to anything from humility to InDesign. In this case, let’s define “design skills” as “the skills that will enable you, as a writer, to succeed in a design context.”
One of the most critical skills — one that I’m forever working on as a designer — is taking feedback. When you’re writing something for school or print, you expect feedback from a specific person such as a professor, editor, or that really well-read person in your life. In design contexts however, many folks (and maybe even more so in tech) love that old chestnut of “feedback is a gift.” Unfortunately, this ill-fitting sweater doesn’t come with a gift receipt. With feedback coming from all directions, you’ll need a complicated algorithm of product knowledge, rationale, and a degree of power (perceived or actual) in the company, among many other factors, to weigh and filter through it all.
For example, just because someone with a fancy title has a strong opinion about a term (and they will, I promise) doesn’t mean that their opinion is more valuable than the customer service rep who has heard confusion around that term from 327 customers. But that exec could also be coming from a vantage point that you lack, so it’s always helpful to ask them to explain their feedback. Is it to avoid legal risk? Totally valid feedback. Is it because they hate words that start with the letter P? Thank you, next!
A related but no less important skill to master: responding to feedback. First, a reminder that criticism of your work (no matter where it’s coming from) isn’t criticism of you as a person, even more so if the feedback comes from an anonymous tweet. My feelings still get hurt from time to time, but assuming good intent and separating my words from my value as a human being have helped a lot. Simple, right? Now that you’ve found peace, start by letting the feedback-giver know that they’ve been heard. You may have changed the content as a direct result, or ignored it completely for myriad reasons, but it’s usually helpful to, at the very least, acknowledge the feedback. Feedback is integral to design, and you want to make sure you are fostering open communication. Keep an open mind and ear, while craftily filtering out the unhelpful bits.
Don’t make your team imagine your copy in a flow. Use Figma or Sketch to actually put that copy in a mock-up.
In terms of more hard design skills, focus on the design skills and expertise your team values. One of our favorite product principles at Slack is, “Don’t make me think.” And that applies to your skillset. If your team values prototyping, make sure you know how to at least edit simple prototypes. If your team relies on formal presentation decks to get buy-in, brush up on your Keynote know-how. As a writer, we use words — naturally — but no one wants your plain text in a Google Doc. Sure, it can be the fastest way to get your work out there, but sadly, lots of people suffer from a lack of imagination. Don’t make your team imagine your copy in a flow. Use Figma or Sketch to actually put that copy in a mock-up. It makes your work easier to connect with — people will be able to contextualize the work instantly, and they’ll be able to offer better, more grounded feedback quickly, including how the UI helps (or hurts!) your copy. (Between you and me, sometimes even I don’t know how I feel about my content until I see it in situ. We’re only human after all.)
And lastly, for you writers at a company with any sort of design system: learn that system! Writers are sometimes filling in the boxes of a design that has already been completed and handed off to them. But what if your words just aren’t working, and you find yourself bending over backwards to fit the pre-existing flow? By knowing what pieces are available in the LEGO set of your design system, you can be a more effective partner by suggesting other UI patterns or components that work better and are already part of the design system.
Beyond that, there is no design skill that can impede your success as a writer. If kerning excites you, and you find yourself in a YouTube rabbithole for hours, embrace it! The more skills and vocabulary you develop, the better collaborator you’ll be. Design partners will love working with you, and who knows? Maybe you’ll dazzle a few dinner party guests, too.
Read more from TJ Lee on Twitter @titojuan