DOC vs. PSD

Top 4 reasons copywriters need better tools (and the training to use them)

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I’ve been an in-house copywriter for about 7 years now, having worked at several very diverse companies. But one characteristic that unites them all is the limited range of tools they provide their copywriters. No matter the business type, no matter the target audience, companies seem to think copywriters need nothing more than a functional (read: woefully outdated) version of Microsoft Word and whatever fonts come with the operating system.

Here’re a few reasons why they’re wrong.

But first, the backstory

The other day, after working at Esurance well over a year, it finally occurred to me to ask the design manager if I could get Esurance Bryant, the brand font, installed on my machine. I’d made a few half-hearted attempts to install it myself from the network drive and always met with failure in the form of some IT-instituted block. And having no idea who to ask for help, I carried on, reluctantly resigned to the font’s inaccessibility. Until that day.

The design manager, being a highly reasonable chap aware of my fascination with typography, said it was no problem at all and laid out what I needed to do. Long(ish) story short, I was quickly armed and ready to write with the brand font at my fingertips.

Geekily (but also rightfully, as I’ll argue) pleased with this development, I cheerfully set to penning print ads and composing content page copy in our curvaceous font—which, while woefully bubbly in the bold weight, achieves some limber elegance in its lighter manifestations.

And then, a couple days later, I received an email from our producer asking what, exactly, I planned to do with the font.

The tone of the message was somewhat … arch … as if he doubted I had a really good reason for wanting the font. (Don’t get me wrong: he’s a good guy too, and was probably just asking because he has to cover his bases for the cost of licensure. I get that.)

And what hit me in that moment was that the value of a copywriter having the brand font at his disposal is to me so obvious that I was actually challenged to articulate my reasons. But I have my reasons, and they are as follows.

1. The copy should (as much as possible) match the deliverable

As any copywriter who’s worked with a variety of media knows, the amount of copy a writer can fit into a given deliverable varies in accordance with two sets of dimensions and one less-tangible element:

  1. Font size (and often, this is two or more sizes, given the usual headline + body copy approach … and don’t forget those disclaimers!)
  2. How large the deliverable is to be, and
  3. How hard the “creative” needs to work to grab attention, and what, if any, form conversion will take

And within those two first two criterion are a plethora of other considerations! For instance, a legible size for a given font varies depending on the output: in the digital environment, most fonts aren’t all that easy to read at sizes lower than 12 or 14 pixels. (Obviously this varies widely: I’ve seen 8px Verdana look fairly—if not ideally—legible; 8px Arial though? Not a chance.) In print, on the other hand, you can get away with as small as 7 or 8 points pretty easily—so long as the font can handle it … and believe me, Esurance Bryant cannot. So, while a designer can tweak font sizes to fit the copy to a certain extent, there are breaking points.

Especially when the product is digital. (And not a full-page ad in a digital magazine.)

In the digital advertising space, your ad is generally relegated to a third-rate role, buried below (hierarchically speaking) the main content, sidebar content, and often, other ads. You’re basically typecast as that annoying kid always waving his arms and shouting while other children are dutifully giving their book reports or doing show-and-tell.

It’s not the same in  print, where, if you’ve got a full page ad, you’re already benefitting from at least a moment of attention while the reader decides whether or not to thumb on by. A print ad’s always-already visible; a digital ad, not so much.

Which means that, in the digital space, the type’s gotta be BIG. And the character count, consequently, small.

And given that the amount of horizontal and vertical space a given amount of copy consumes varies dramatically with the font used, I, copywriter, can have a much better idea of the amount of copy I can write if I have the font that will be used in the final product.

Makes sense, non?

2. Making edits is (far) easier when the copywriter has the same programs as the designer

Have you ever watched a culinary genius loom over a talentless cook’s shoulder while the latter makes one of the former’s prize-winning recipes?

No?

Well that’s probably because such a scenario would be pure comedy.

And yet—I’ve done essentially the same myriad times. (No insult meant to my dear designer friends out there, I promise. It’s just that correcting a text issue in a print ad or online banner over your shoulder is probably just about as frustrating for me as it would be for you to watch me fumble around in Photoshop.)

I love to create layouts and text treatments in the Adobe Creative Suite. But I know I’m no professional. I wouldn’t dare throw up a design next to that of any member of my employer’s design team. But I would dearly, dearly love it if, instead of having to explain the difference between a prime and an apostrophe, or simply replacing a few words of copy, over your shoulder, I could just do it.

Would really save us all a whole lot of time and (no doubt) frustration. Even if you had to go back in and tweak some letter spacing issue I had inadvertently created. And in most cases—especially if I’d taken or been given appropriate training in the software—that wouldn’t be a problem.

Plus, I think every copywriter has experienced a moment when his or her vision for a how a layout would recapitulate the rhythm and message of a block of copy simply isn’t reproduced in a draft design. The work of honing then begins, and is a vital part of the design-copy collaboration. But wouldn’t it be faster if I could simply do a basic layout so the designer knows what I was thinking from the get-go?

Indeed, Adobe has gone so far as to create a Creative Suite application designed specifically for copywriters and editors working closely with design teams: Adobe InCopy. And when the company that basically recreated graphic design—granting their various fumbles, such as Muse—perceives a need for improved workflows between design and copy, I’m inclined to agree.

I mean, the “tagline” for InCopy is “Enable smooth collaboration between design and editorial.”

Need I say more?

3. The brand halo reason

Finally, there’s a less-tangible reason for granting copywriters access to the brand font (if not Creative Suite programs): brand immersion.

If a brand has been thoughtfully and artfully developed in all aspects, from fonts to colors to photographic styles, then the brand font and the brand voice are inextricably linked. In fact, at least one vital consideration of the selection of the brand font should’ve been: does this font speak the brand language? Can I believe the brand voice if it’s visually expressed by this font?

If the answer to both those questions is “Yes” (as it should be), then the question of whether or not the copywriters have access to the brand font should be a literal no-brainer. If they have it, then speaking in the brand voice and seeing the brand style become feedback loops, with the visual and semantic experiences feeding into one another seamlessly. That’s how it should be; if copy were able to effectively convey a brand message and voice without the support of on-brand graphical treatments—all the way down to the font—then brands wouldn’t bother having bespoke fonts made for them.

Think of a well-known brand and their font. For me, one of the first to spring to mind is The New Yorker. I simply cannot think of that brand without thinking of their quirkily sinuous, eccentrically refined font, Irvin. As Print magazine contributor Emily Gordon put it, “All typefaces have personalities, but few say ‘dandy’ as confidently as the one on the cover of The New Yorker.” And Gordon goes on to quote the magazine’s current art editor, Françoise Mouly, who says of the font (which is the logo, if you didn’t know): “The minute you put the logo on it, it becomes a New Yorker cover.”

That’s some pretty heavy juju packed into a font. And it’s not as if copywriters are immune to that juju. I’ve experienced it since getting Esurance Bryant installed on my work computer: somehow it’s just that much easier to speak in the brand voice. And more concretely, how much I can make the brand voice say in a given amount of space.

4. Content writers (and editors) need to know HTML—and at least how to properly apply CSS

While the above points have been all about how ad copywriters need better tools, it’s not at all uncommon for we brand-voice-champions to develop web content as well. And as much as modern web development is all about separating content and presentation, that distinction is illusory from a brand perspective. (As noted above.) How a brand writes its HTML and CSS is part of the brand too.

Plus, more and more companies ask their content people—writers and editors—to actually post their work on the web themselves. And to do that, you have to understand how content gets presented on the web. After all, most writers bother to learn the ins, outs, and eccentricities of the content creation tool, Microsoft Word. Why wouldn’t you put the same effort into the tools of content presentation?

Of course, many content management tools have WYSIWIG interfaces that allow a lot of control in an entirely visual, code-free environment. And often, that’s enough. But not always. Sometimes problems arise that  you just have to jump over to the code to fix. If you don’t know how to do that, your only option is to bug the production guys. And don’t they have enough to do?

For more on this point, check out Mandy Brown’s article “Markup” on her fantastic site, A Working Library and The Guardian’s UX and AI lead Martin Belam’s tip for future journalists (scroll to end of article).

Do you think copywriters need better tools and the training to use them?

Let me know in the comments!