Why do so many designers view copy simply as one element in their design rather than the focal point of the communication?

I suspect it is simply a matter of priorities to the average designer. He or she is employed to organise everything and lay it all out so that a brochure, website, poster or advertisement (or whatever other item is being created) is striking and inviting. Their priority is to create a cohesive whole, and if you work with a good designer, they will hopefully recognise that in most cases the design is a means to an end, and it is the words that carry the message to the reader. But this is not always the case, and I have worked with countless designers over the years who have viewed copy in much the same way as they view illustrations, photographs or tables – they need to fit in, be attractive and not spoil the overall aesthetic balance of a piece. But they can be cropped and sliced up, with blocks of copy being distributed about the piece at random.

To a writer, it is frustrating to have one’s copy cut up and littered around in the name of making an ‘attractive’ layout. If one’s eye is not led on a comfortable journey from start to finish, reading anything can be a bit of a struggle, so it is vital that a designer treats the copy in a way that invites a reader to travel along that journey. Similarly, it is just as frustrating to be asked to change the way a sentence has been written, just because a single-word ‘widow’ is being caused on a screen, and the designer wants a more convenient line length. It would be like a designer being asked to delete the righthand third of an image because it contained yellow, and the copywriter on the project hated anything yellow in colour. It doesn’t make for a really compelling reason.

Clearly, there are a lot of particularly good examples of design where words are not important and where a message is conveyed purely by an image. Icons are the most obvious example. But in most commercial situations where a message is being communicated – perhaps on a product’s packaging, a pension scheme’s literature or a telecoms provider’s website – the information is contained in the words, and it is the job of the designer to ensure that a reader quickly and easily takes on board the informaton being conveyed.

The bottom line is that a good designer understands words and recognises the importance of guiding a reader on a journey. A poor designer is one who thinks design is all about layout and impact, or aesthetics. I am pleased to say that nowadays I work with some particularly bright designers who treat copy with the respect I feel it deserves.