Text Versus Visual: The Web Writer's Conundrum

Visual Art and the Writer
Visual art, design, graphics and the freelance writer. Getty Images/Ikon Images Collection/Nanette Hoogslag

My son was recently tickled by one of the quotes I’ve got hanging on the wall of my home office. It says “Writing is designing with words. Designing is writing without them,” and is attributed to Robert Hoekman, Jr.

The quote suggests a kind of balance that’s appealing to us, as people whose very careers lie at the mercy of people needing more and new “words” for their products, websites and publications.

It seems to give an equal nod to both our forte—text, composition, communication—and the visual and artistic elements of the world.

But is that balance an illusion? Is it perhaps precarious? Modern times might make us think so.

Web-based writing has been and continues to be one of the most lucrative genres available to freelance writers. In fact, I entered the field just as the Internet moved into the realm of a household necessity, and that is likely a partial reason for my career success. The fact that everyone needed text (remember, Google doesn’t “read” pictures) opened the door to an easy way to make a living as a writer.

Like many of you, I produced a variety of text in different genres at the beginning of my career, such as investigative magazine pieces and ad copy, in addition to web-based content. I admit that the web content has always been comparatively easier, as well as readily available and well-paying, as mentioned above.

Is Visual Design Our Enemy?

But the reason I write today is that I was perusing a gorgeous website for a friend and fellow web worker (this UK-based website called 888Ladies) and I was positively impressed with the graphics and design. The creators of 888Ladies have taken the visual elements in the site to a whole new level.

For example the way the maps, tables and measurements on the "Top 10 Emotions Whilst Playing Bingo" infographic appeal to the eye and caught my attention was absolutely delightful.

It was obvious to me that the design of this website far outpaced the messaging. And this website isn’t unique. Little by little, year by year, I see websites like my friend's using less text, less word-based messaging, and more splash. And it scares me, as a wordsmith.

Why?

In a Word, Mobile

People most often visit the Internet on their mobile device or tablets. You and I, as freelance writers who work online, may be some of the few exceptions to this worldwide statistic. However, my work laptop lives in my upstairs home office. When I visit it, it’s to work, not to surf. Surfing is more and more often a mobile undertaking.

But that smaller mobile screen may be the reason for the slow demise of words, and ultimately of our career prospects. Mobile rendering favors prettier displays with less text. The website creators of 888Ladies are on to something on this page and on their entire website, and they’re not alone. The sparse text, big images and a vision-based flow like in this example is what’s hot on the net right now.

Another reason the move to more visualized information scares me, as a career writer, is that it reflects the readers need for fast, discrete, digestible information, now.

What gets read on mobiles?

Quick answers in simple text. The less text the better.

Even as I’m typing this piece, I’m watching the word count in the bottom corner. Would anyone ever deign to read an angst-y 600 words from a freelance writer lamenting the slow death of her career on an iPhone 6?

Not if it’s not in infographic form.

So, Are We Doomed or Is There a Solution?

Actually, the lovely copywriter at my friend's site inspired this post as much as their visual artists and web designers did. As the slow panic over the death of the “word” sank into me, I continued to peruse the site, and was met with a hallelujah moment.

Adaptability.

Adaptability is why I believe my freelance career took off over a decade ago when I entered the arena just as the Internet was maturing. I dabbled in many genres but I didn’t limit myself to just one. When print publications imploded in the midst of the recession, I wasn’t negatively affected. I simply took on more web clients.

I adapted.

The Perfect Pair

As writers, we’ve got to adapt in this exact way. We’ve got to work with design, not against it. Design, visual art and graphics are not our enemies. Even the shorter, more succinct and simple text needed for mobile users is not an enemy. Instead, we’ve got to accept the challenge of proactively using these two elements for our intended audience and clients, just like they do in the example above.  

So, how to adapt? The solution may include further education, such as taking a class. This section of Freelance Writing covers community education and online learning options for writers. Of course, you could also read up on your own. I’ve personally been inspired by the appealing approach to design and creativity pioneered by David Kelley, who wrote the book Creative Confidence  and started the OpenIdeo project. As a writer new to visual design and creativity, these were great places to start learning how to dovetail my text with visual design.

My point here is that we need to have the vision to see where our field is heading. When I varied my projects between print and web a decade ago, it boosted me into an extraordinary freelance writing career beyond my wildest dreams. At this juncture in history, freelance writers must not become complacent nor discouraged, but should instead calculate their next step with forethought and confidence.