Good web design has a signature style: It’s approachable,
it’s easy to understand, and it packs enough punch to catch the
roving eye of even the most mercurial user. Web designers know this
doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of a finely
honed process that asks—and answers—important questions
about a site’s intended audience. You might call it “visual
language” or “design vernacular.” Either way, what
you find in a truly good design is a unique perspective. A point of
view. A voice.

It’s no accident that we use such
language-based terms to describe effective design on the web. The web
is all about communication—from the position of a navigation
element to the size and shape of a button, every detail furthers the
conversation. So how is it that the very foundation of the web, written
text, has taken a strategic back seat to design?

You do
research. You devise tack-sharp strategy. You sweat the details. All to
create a design that truly speaks to your user. Does your copy do the
same? Apply a design process to your words as well as your images and
you just may find your voice.

Say it, don’t display it

It’s one thing to write copy that fits on a website. It’s quite another to write copy that fits in
with a website. You wouldn’t try to force an incongruous visual
element into a carefully considered design. Same goes for written
content. Even if you’ve wisely designed a site around the content
it delivers, written copy may fit neatly physically but still ring
false to the intended audience.

Ideally, you should work
with a writer from day one to design the voice of the copy in
conjunction with the visual language of the site. And getting a writer
involved early can help you solve lots of other problems—from
content strategy issues to information architecture snags. Remember
that writers are creatives too, and they are, in many cases, the
keepers of the content your design ultimately serves.

you simply don’t have the resources to hire a writer,
you’ll have to keep an ear on the language yourself. This is
where the user experience research you did way back in the design
concept phase comes back into play. It helps you design your words.

Make personas more grata

remember those burning questions. The ones you ask yourself every time
you kick off a new project. They probably go a little something like

  • Who’s visiting this site?
  • What does she want to know?
  • What does he want to do?

you’ve ever worked with them before, you know how invaluable user
personas can be to answering these questions. Maybe they’re not
of the fake-name-and-glossy-headshot variety, but even the most
rudimentary personas (i.e., “my mom” or “the
skeptic”) transform your audience into real human beings. Human
beings with day jobs, complicated espresso beverage orders, and no time
to waste looking for things instead of finding them.

In a
sense, you create characters from these personas. Establish what your
characters will respond well to, build in contingencies for second- and
third-tier players, and you move closer to an effective design. Not
coincidentally, effective storytelling works much the same way. It
demonstrates how different characters respond in different ways to the
same situation. The only thing missing from this analogy is a narrator.
Time to write yourself into the story.

Call me Ishmael

people why they love the stories they do, and you often hear the same
response: “I really identify with the characters.” Create a
persuasive voice for your website by giving your users someone to
identify with: A first-person “narrator” with a distinct
yet welcoming personality. Developing this personality shouldn’t
be too difficult. You did the heavy lifting when you created your
original user personas. Now you just need to create one more.

First, try adding these to your list of questions:

  • How do I want to make this user feel?
  • How would I carry on a face-to-face conversation with him?

imagine your target persona’s peer. Someone who shares her
interests and speaks with her, not at her. A professional video editor.
A fellow foodie. A sports car enthusiast. That’s who you’ll
channel to find your voice during the next step in the design process:

Sing in the rain

Ah, that
magical moment when Moleskines reach capacity, people pass out from
dry-erase fumes, and there are no bad ideas (except for that
one…). The time-honored brainstorming session (even confined to
one brain), helps you build design concepts around strategy. No reason
your copy can’t come along for the ride.

you’re sketching designs, jot down a quote or two. Collect tear
sheets of words as well as images. Shoot rough video of someone you
think would make the perfect spokesperson. Remember that by introducing
your narrator persona, you’re creating an expert peer your users
will come back to for advice, information, and inspiration.
That’s worth spending some time on. It also makes the actual
business of copywriting much easier. Learn the language, then tell your
story—not the other way around.

Work on your dialogue

a voice for your site and you do more than make words and images play
nice. You engage your users in a discussion you both want to carry on.
So if you find yourself laboring to craft the perfect written sentence,
improvise. Speak what you want to say, then write it. Email it to a
colleague. Chat it. Text it.

Great web design reflects the
way we interact, and the primary vehicle for that interaction remains
text. We share, we chat, we comment, we tag, and we do it all via the
written word. The web is One Big Conversation. Let’s talk.