Fatimah Kabba on The Other Unicorn Skill: Writing

Fatima Shabba

Photo credit: Aundre Larrow

This is an extended post based on ideas I suggested and compiled for the 2017 Design in Tech Report, “More than Design: Code is not the only Unicorn Skill:” (pg. 27)


In a world fascinated by the unicorn designer that is a coding savant, I want to call on designers to pay closer attention to something else: words.

The case for writing in design has been made by people far more articulate than myself, a few of whom I highlighted in the Design in Tech Report released at SXSW. It’s a perspective I think is worthy of continual discussion and one I don’t often see being advocated for by designers themselves, so I’d like to raise a few more points.

What does design have to do with words?

I like to think of design as a language, it’s a construct of meaning, intentionality, learning, and thought. A core form of communication. Whether in the form of coded transmission, gesture, or color, our means of effective communication are rooted in our ability to comprehend and express in a form of language. Therefore whether classical or computational in form, the pretext for an execution begins when language is used to assign meaning.

Long before I make my way to Photoshop or Sketch, my process begins with an articulation of the problem in written form. I have to assign meaning to the problem and understand its implications before I can begin to imagine a solution. Design is a language that is greater than the sum of its visual parts.

Design begins with words.

Design isn’t just visual. Say it (or write it) for the people in the back.

As a designer, especially one that’s spent the majority of my career in startups, I know that our position can be nebulous to navigate. You’ll find your role influencing various departments, and at the same time you’ll notice that you’re often trapped in positional constructs that keep you from more impactful contribution. I’ve often found myself forced to reactively create visual executions, with research and comprehension (the crux of a good design process) either condensed or overlooked.

Even in orgs that tout design as a core influence, there is still a confounding disconnect between what people understand “design thinking” to be and what they perceive as the role of a design team. Most organizations idealize the notion of creativity and value aesthetic outputs, but don’t understand how design integrates into their structure, or that it’s a process and not just a result.

I’m not extensively trained in writing nor do I have a degree in it, but I can say that independently developing my narrative writing skills and researching rhetoric has taught me a way of seeing that has totally nuanced the process of how I understand and set out to solve problems. In obvious ways it’s changed how I interact and communicate on a team and cross departmentally, and in less obvious ways it has reshaped the way I ask questions, as well as parse and organize information.

Leveraging writing as a skill can help our individual creation process by shaping richer characters, developing clearer narratives, and telling more inclusive stories. It also allows us to more effectively convey our processes to others and represent the true functionality of design as we develop solutions. Writing is not a magic cure, but coherent communication is the fastest way to gain mutual clarity, and it empowers everyone to be better at their jobs.

A final case for writing in design.

The world is moving fast, and there’s no doubt that design has a stake in how it all unfolds. From bound pages to binary code design helps us navigate spaces, access information, and deepen bonds. Evolving technologies like AI and Machine Learning are being applied at a ubiquitous scale to power the next generation of bots, driverless cars, and natural language processes, and design, at its most effective, will serve as a sanctuary of humanity amidst automation. This is perhaps design’s integral role: to help define narrative. I’ve often heard designers refer to themselves as “storytellers”; let’s not forget that the best storytellers have a way with words.


❔ Whois

Fatimah Kabba is a designer and brand writer focused on the interplay of design and technology. She’s previously worked as a senior creative at companies such Walker and Company Brands, Isobar and R/GA. She is currently working as an independent contractor on projects between Boston and NYC.

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