Guest Post: Get Into Shape and Bring Your Colour Up (by Caitlin Watson)
Posted 16th December 2014
Can visual thinking helping you write better copy? Are colours and shapes the keys to more creative ideas? Guest poster Caitlin Watson shares her thoughts. . .
As a medical writer rather than a copywriter, I’m a bit of an interloper here, really.
I am, however, almost evangelical in my desire to get people thinking more visually. To me, the key to an engaging story/portrayal of the facts (which, ultimately, is the aim of both professions IMO) is the marriage of words and pictures.
I love words. It’s why I left the lab – as much as I liked planning experiments, etc., I derived much more enjoyment from finding a stimulating way to discuss the results, including graphs and pictures. I used to leave the diagrams til last; firstly, to allow my thinking on the matter to crystalise…but also because finding a neat visual way of explaining something is a fun game. It’s a similar satisfaction I feel when I find an every day analogy for explaining a complicated scientific concept.
The scientific part of me is most likely responsible for my levels of organisation, and some people can be a little intimidated by my colour-coded systems etc. What they don’t realise is that these approaches are actually pre-emptive laziness (or efficiency, if you want to use kinder language). If I work out a good way to do something once, why would I waste my time thinking of it all over again?
It’s fine to revisit ideas with a view to improving them, but starting from scratch each time uses up time that could be spent in other directions. A great diagram or visual concept has the same effect – you don’t need as many words, as things become self-explanatory.
Brave and effective writing
I think we’ve all read bad copy, where you feel the person doesn’t have a clue what they’re talking about, and is just throwing lots of big words at the page in an attempt to cover it up. Braver, more effective writing is concise and to the point, and can really be boosted by a great figure <wolf-whistle, cartoon eyes on stalks>.
Decisions I have to make most frequently, such as determining the best type of graph to show data are perhaps less likely for copywriters deal with, but there is plenty of cross-over where both could benefit from flexing different parts of the brain to think in pictures, particularly when it comes to presentations.
I did a bit of research into visual thinking a while back, and unless you’re willing to spend a lot on some books, most of the stuff on the internet tells us about not having more than 5 bullets on a slide, not to just read the slide out yaddah yaddah. But what I’m really interested in is to dissect how one could start thinking in a more creative way.
After sitting down and having a bit of a think whilst looking back at previous effective diagrams/presentations, here’s a few points that struck me:
1) Are you struggling to describe a concept? Is the paragraph you’ve written meandering and dissatisfying? A sure fire clue that you either need a diagram to figure out how you’re going to explain it, or that the diagram should actually go into the piece
2) Are you discussing a few different elements? How do they relate to each other? Is there a way to visually represent this?
3) Might seem like a bit of a shortcut, but have a look at the “smart art” options within PowerPoint – they show a few different ways of representing lists, hierarchies, flow diagrams etc. that might inspire you
4) This is definitely a cheat (within reason; plagiarism is not on, yo)– have you worked up an idea before that wasn’t used, or that worked well with another client? You could easily use this as the starting point, rather than going back to the beginning of the process. Why go from scratch when something done previously might give you a leg up? (told you I was lazy)
5) It’s important to remember that diagrams shouldn’t be MENSA tests. Sometimes something more abstract is called for, but if it’s too obscure, it’s going to detract from the copy. Run them past someone, and if it requires too much explanation, you might need to think again
Experiment with colours
Finally, colours and diagrams can also make running projects easier – don’t save all the fun for your deliverables. If there’s a project with a few looming deadlines, taking the time to create a quick table/spreadsheet by week (or day if the timescale is shorter), colour coded in a traffic-light system means you can see at a glance which bits of the project require immediate attention internally, or which bits are the client’s responsibility, rather than yours.
This type of status sheet can also make client calls go more smoothly, as long as you keep it fairly simple. Too many colours and you might feel trapped in a kaleidoscope, equally unclear as to what’s going on.
Hopefully these ideas might provide a starting place for livening up your copy – I’m always looking for new ideas and would love to hear other people’s tips for thinking pictorially.
Thanks for reading.
Caitlin is a medical writer with a special interest in thinking more visually. If you’re not doing so already, you can follow her on Twitter here.