A quick way to measure a designer’s maturity is to watch what they do at the beginning of a project. Inexperienced designers are often smitten by the allure of new tools and quick results, so they’ll jump in to Photoshop or Sketch and start messing with layouts and style explorations. Seasoned designers know this can be distracting, so they might start by doing research or drawing in a paper sketchbook instead.

Sketching is great, but before I start sketching, I start writing. Writing first has lots of advantages, regardless of the project you’re working on. Here are a few examples.

Example 1: You’re making a simple website, and your client doesn’t have any copy yet.

Great! Here’s an opportunity to write it. Skip the lorem ipsum and start telling your client’s story. What’s special about this client? What problems are they trying to solve by having this website? How can you explain those ideas to people who visit the site? And why should the site’s visitors care?

Answering these questions requires you to gain understanding. You can’t write anything without knowing your subject. You’ll be forced to learn a lot about the client’s business, their history, and their audience. Having this information will clarify your vision for the overall project.

Example 2: You’re making a website, and the client gave you copy to start with.

Great! Don’t design anything yet. Put on your editor’s hat and think critically. Is the text arranged correctly? Does it have the right tone of voice? Is it too long or too short? Is it suitable for the web? Can you chop it up into separate pages and keep it coherent? What’s still missing?

Chances are, this handed-over writing might be lousy. Be honest and propose copy changes before you get much deeper into the design. Don’t be afraid to do a rewrite — treat writing as part of the design, not just an element on the page.

Example 3: You’re making an app or interface elements.

In that case, you’re likely designing affordances — communicating actions the user can take. These might take the form of explanatory copy, prompts, buttons, labels, error messages, etc.

Great! Hop into a text editor. Write out as many variations as you can. It’s easy to mock basic UI in text, like this:

Are you sure you want to delete that file?
[ Yes, I’m sure ] [ Never mind ]
Deleting this file will remove it permanently. Are you sure?
[ Yes, delete it ] [ No, cancel ]

And don’t be afraid to have a little fun with it:

That file will disappear completely and never be found. Carry on?
[ Indeed, ashes to ashes and so forth ] [ No, I can’t let go ]

Example 4: You’re making a graphics-heavy poster that has almost no writing at all.

Great! Write down what you think you’re trying to accomplish. Spend 5 or 10 minutes on it. The notes are entirely to help you clear your head and figure out what to do.

Putting writing first improves your chances of success in the final product. It’s good practice, and it makes the rest of your job easier.

Now, what does the overall creative process look like? I’ve found it works well like this:

  • Spend time writing until you’re happy with the first draft.
  • Sketch visual ideas on paper.
  • Open your software tool of choice and explore aesthetics: colors, type, imagery, and style.
  • Put it all together and try different layouts and arrangements.
  • Continue editing once you see everything in context.

Obviously that exact order is not always right for every project. There’s no right way to do things! But following this general process helps guarantee you’re putting horses before carts and staying on the right road.