Designing Thoughts on a Page

Following the news that the Dark Angels collective’s latest book has hit it’s funding target, I caught up with contributor and Dark Angel Gillian Colhoun for an insight into her chapter, exploring the links between design and writing.

In a nutshell of 26 words, what’s your chapter about?

For 20 years, I’ve written in the company of designers. I noticed early on that, while the outcomes of their work change massively, their methods and mindset follow a systematic pattern – a pattern they articulate, use and in some cases even trademark. I also speak to ridiculously talented writers all the time, who, after completing a sizeable project, say, “I’d never do it that way again.”

There are countless books extolling the wisdom designers can learn from writers. Rightly so, writing is important to design. I wasn’t entirely sure I could add to the canon, so my chapter isn’t about that, nor is it about pretending there’s a secret sauce or rigid formula. It’s about being open to a different perspective; observing the ways we, as writers, can adapt from the world of design to make our methods more harmonious and our thinking more original. Above all, I believe that design is good at two things all great writing needs – insight and empathy.

What inspired you to write about this?

I’m properly obsessed with the notion of creativity. It’s such an elusive thing, so personal and often unconscious. Intuitively, we feel there’s a difference between when we’re being creative and when we’re not. But how do you know the difference? And how do you replicate those circumstances, which can be wickedly chaotic, to produce something worthwhile? I think that’s an interesting  question whether you’re writing a novel or a business pitch.

And that’s really what my chapter is about; exploring a different way to open up the creative mindset. For me, when I’m in that flow, ideas seem to spring from everywhere. And of course, just like writing, the more you do, the more natural that process becomes.

And why now? Have you always approached writing in this way, or has this grown with time and experience?

When I started, I was really learning on the job. I followed the work of designers, like Alan Fletcher and Harry Pearce, the way other people followed rock stars. I also think I have my postgraduate studies to thank for the introduction to design thinking. The course is no longer available, more’s the pity, but it was the most invaluable learning experience.

The course was called Writing for Creative Industries. Advertising executives, copywriters, designers, illustrators, editors – we all of us studied the same modules. Together, we learned about conceptual thinking, how to engage audiences, we were even taught how to design and make a printing plate. What made it so transformative was seeing how my individual work usually trebled in quality when it went through the spin cycle of a multi-disciplinary team of peers. It feels quaint writing about it now, but industry leaders would come and critique our work. At times it would be brutal, but there was also a feeling that they were there to nurture the flowers so we could get to the worms. That lesson in resilience has proven very useful throughout my career, but so has keeping an open mind to what’s being said in the critique. I’ll still grab any and every opportunity to be better at what I do.

I love your analogy of ‘creative cross training’, any tips for warming up or is it a case of diving right in?

Everyone is different. My advice would be to try lots of things and see what works for you. That’s one of the reasons I was attracted to Dark Angels in the first place. Space to indulge in creative playfulness with no judgement and no commercial consequence? That felt like sheer bliss to me and one of the reasons I wanted to get more involved in the courses. The exercises have a magic of their own that prompt creative adventures that are singular to each person. We’re developing them all the time to include components from other creative disciplines like photography and painting. The experience is as much as an experiment in creativity as it is a writing course. So I guess, that would be my tip. Sign up for a Starter Day, or jump straight into a Foundation and discover what works best for you.

Do you think designers are more natural collaborators than writers? Or does that all come down to circumstance?

When I’m working with other writers, it’s an absolute rush. And yes that may be because we’re working within a process that has provided room for us to bounce off one another, divergent thinking, but also time for us to do our specialist thing, convergent thinking. I would say though that productive collaboration needs more than a good process, it requires rapport and mutual respect. As a kid, I adored the A-Team series. It’s probably why I’m such a big fan of the crack team model, where everyone has different skill sets and performs them at an all-star level. Actually, now I think about it, that’s more than respect, that’s about belief.

Towards the end of your chapter you say  ‘Every human being is a designer’. What would you say to anyone who disagrees with that statement? 

Ha, I’d imagine there are designers out there who would absolutely disagree. Let me contextualise that. First of all, professional designers are highly trained people who dedicate a lot of time and labour to their craft. When a client employs their services, I recommend they listen very carefully to what those designers have to say.

In this chapter, when I say that every human being is a designer, I’m asserting that all human beings take millions of decisions that affect their work, their life and their environment. We are each of us the architects of our own lives. Does everyone need all the skills of a designer? Of course not. But when it comes to friendships, romance, politics and creative endeavour, our thoughts and how we express them have real power. I guess I’m saying we all of us have the capacity to be more mindful about how those decisions and choices affect the final outcome. In that sense I believe design, or at least design thinking, to be a democratic activity; an enriching process that can make the world a little or whole lot better.

And lastly, for anyone who hasn’t already pledged for a copy, why should they be putting in an order for the book today?

Good question. Writers love reading. It comes with the territory so I imagine the 26 membership’s bookshelves are already heaving under the strain. Lots of books draw the lines between business writing, fiction, poetry and so on. But this book is different. It’s based on the need to allow emotion and personality into writing, then to shape it with a writer’s craft. Twelve unique perspectives present fresh and original approaches to different aspects of writing. There are chapters on how to tell stories, on what your readers really want, and on how good writing makes a big difference. We’ve also included some special guest contributions, so there are bonus sources of darkly angelic insight that are lyrical, practical and emotive. Who wouldn’t make room for all that on their bookshelf?

It’s not too late to pledge for your first edition copy of Dark Angels on Writing. Think of it as a little post Christmas gift to yourself – you’ve earned it.

– Sophie Gordon

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