Design by writing

20 February 2023
6 min read
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Writing is the most powerful generative tool

What you can do with writing

In the 19th century, tablets engraved with a mysterious script, rongorongo, which has not yet been deciphered, were found on Easter Island. What we do know is that people probably read by rotating the tablet as they proceeded to read. And so maybe reading meant using the whole body, in a sort of dance

Rongorongo is proof that you can do different things with writing than we are used to. Not only on Easter Island, but also within companies, as shown by an interesting comparison between two books about idea submission processes adopted by Apple and Amazon

Apple Demo vs Amazon Memo

In his Creative Selection, Ken Kocienda - a software designer at Apple for 15 years - chronicled the idea development and selection processes used by the company in the golden age of Steve Jobs. If you wanted to present an idea to Jobs himself, you needed to create a prototype that showed how the idea worked. There was no way to see a project advance other than putting it into action. 

Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, in their Working Backwards, relate that, in order to bring an idea to the attention of Amazon's leadership team, it was necessary to write a report of at least six pages. No slides, no powerpoint files, no diagrams and figures - just the written account of the idea. Before starting the meeting, all participants had to read the six pages in silence. Then discussions could begin. 

A working prototype on one hand, and writing on the other. The first way is not surprising, knowing Apple’s style and design culture that the company has built and cultivated. The method Jeff Bezos wanted instead is surprising, almost counterintuitive. From a company like Amazon, one would expect speed, agility, compressed communications. Instead, all ideas came through the "slow" and reflective filter of writing

High fidelity 

Putting ideas to the test of writing generates several benefits:

  • It creates a more careful selection, because the effort of writing blocks weak ideas or unmotivated people at the source;
  • It makes meetings more productive and less dispersive;
  • It trains the ability to argue, detail, define ideas;
  • It averts the danger of a person with affable skills being able to sell a bad idea through a brilliant pitch. 

In general, writing is a high-resolution, high-fidelity technology: when conveying an idea, the amount of information that is lost is almost irrelevant. And it is precisely this characteristic that could make it a powerful design and organizational tool, serving design and not just artistic creativity. 

The horses of London

It is amusing, and even instructive, to retrace from time to time the prophecies gone awry, the dead ends of history. In late 19th-century London, city planners predicted that the big problem for the city's future would be disposing of the excrement of the thousands of horses pulling the carriages used as transportation. Then, someone invented automobiles, and horse poop was no longer at the top of the emergency list.

A century later, toward the end of the twentieth century, the prophecies of communication experts focused on writing: as we will increasingly use images to communicate, we will lose the habit of writing

Audiovisual technologies exploded in mass culture, and presentations, PowerPoint addiction, and the hegemony of visual languages began to proliferate even in organizational culture. 

In this context, writing seemed destined to go back to its origins, when it was invented: an activity reserved for a few super-specialized technicians, like Egyptian scribes or medieval monks. Something to be entrusted with the secret laws of community, or the isolated activity of some slightly mad genius, busy inventing worlds or speculating on human existence through literature or philosophy. 

Then, the "London poop" effect happened once again: texting, emailing, blogging, chatting, instant messaging, social networking. The beginning of the 21st century is perhaps the era in human history when written words have prevailed. Everyone, everywhere, by any means. 

Writing, like all knowledge, has also become democratized, has become within the reach of more and more people. As is often the case when the user base increases, quality and correctness decrease, become diluted: we write a lot, and we write in a less structured way. Faster, often less attentively, more casually. In a more ‘popular’ way, less tied to the idea of "genius" creativity.

Yet, if writing is everywhere in our lives, why not try to harness more of its ability to convey ideas in high resolution and high fidelity

It is not a matter of everyone becoming writers, it is a matter of turning writing into a functional and design activity, in a widespread way. 

Generative writing

As we were saying, texting, emailing, blogging, chatting, instant messaging, social networking. And now generative artificial intelligence systems. Tools that not only do not just write for us, but stimulate us to write even more. We write to get answers from them. We write to ask them to write for us. We write to generate images, which is the exact opposite of prophecies about the end of writing!  

Our relationship with artificial intelligence systems can help us better understand what a preferable future means, in which we will use writing as a design and planning tool. Writing can become - and already is becoming - a tool through which we organize work, shape our ideas, test them, discover something we do not know. 

Especially since writing, just like artificial intelligence systems, is a generative tool: when we entrust it with our thoughts, it does more than just organize them, put them in order, and put them "in good copy." Writing modifies thoughts, clarifies them, pushes them forward. It creates new thoughts and reveals to ourselves thoughts we didn't think we had.

Writing = Demo + Memo 

In this idea of writing, the prototype method (Apple) and the report method (Amazon) merge: writing becomes a way to create more precise, more detailed, more concrete prototypes. The challenge will be precisely to bring the high definition of writing inside the culture of prototyping and creating actionable ideas. 

The idea of functional and project-based writing does not stifle creativity.; on the contrary, using writing to design means bringing its generative power, its ability to create meanings and transform everything it touches into powerful stories, in all areas. Thinking of each one of our projects as a story, as an adventure, could help us get a fresh point of view. Heroes and heroines, antagonists and sidekicks, trials to overcome and territories to be explored, psychologies to be probed and bonds to be forged, a grand final confrontation, and then - every once in a while - a happy ending.

On Easter Island, the rongorongo was perhaps read by dancing. We could do something equally far, creative and different: design by writing

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