This week, I was lucky enough to be on the D&AD Writing For Design jury. There's a whole post that needs writing about how slick and fantastic the day was, and how smart, fun and incredibly nice all my fellow judges and the D&AD team were. But that's for another time.
There were lots of great bits of work that made the grade. But there's one in particular that I felt strangely wowed by. I say strangely, because at first look the GOV.UK website hardly takes your breath away. GDS's new portal for all of the UK Government's services is clean, understated and fairly neutral. The words were simple, considered and effective. But it only took a little clicking around to quickly see that something quite special had happened here.
The size of the task was one thing. But when it came to the sheer craft of the writing job, I don't think I'd seen anything better all day. Here's my Great British Sewing Bee inspired analogy to explain what I mean.
The craft of a suit is in its structure, its integrity. The way it's put together, the way it fits its wearer and fits its purpose. Quality of fabric might take it to the next level. But underneath it all, it's that craft, or lack of, that makes the difference. No matter how fine the cashmere wool is, the suit will still look shit if the craftsmanship is shoddy. Great writing needs meticulous measuring out, precise cutting, beautifully logical structuring and invisible stitching. If that's not there, the fancy bits don't matter. It might be entertaining, but it will rarely be satisfying. It will rarely be exceptional.
In this way, GOV.UK shows up the link between great writing and great thinking. To write well, to express things clearly, a huge amount of effort and talent has to go into checking the rigour, relevance and logic of what's being written down. When you apply this to the nature of the information that's on the GOV.UK website, the scale, importance and influence of this particular piece of writing becomes clear. The writing on GOV.UK is impeccably structured and organised which means the thinking must have been put through its paces too. Who knows, but maybe in some backroom in Whitehall, some of the more bureaucratic oddities of the system might be being called to account because they just couldn't be written in a straightforward, clear way.
The tone of the language is natural, to the point and refreshingly straight. There's no poetic brilliance. There's no rhetorical flamboyance. There doesn't need to be. It's job is to make an extraordinary amount of potentially life-changing information crystal clear.
Soon after we nominated GOV.UK, it was also announced that it had won the Design of the Year award too. I've read a few interviews and tweets claiming that it's a victory for content strategy. I think that plain and simply it's a victory for writing. I'm probably splitting hairs here, but thinking of it as content strategy feels like it limits the impact of Design Museum and D&AD's acknowledgement that THIS IS A GREAT THING.
'Content strategy' runs the risk of making it seem a bit specialist and not all that relevant to most people. Actually, GOV.UK is a shining beacon for great everyday writing. If we all took on its principles every time we started scribbling or keyboard tapping, our emails and briefs would be clearer and our love letters would be lovelier. Misunderstandings would be fewer, problems would be solved faster and the end results would be better.
And yes, I'm well aware that I should have taken my own advice with this post. There are probably much better ways that I could have structured it. Perhaps I should have based the whole piece around my suit analogy. Or realised that actually it was a bit dodgy, and taken it out all together. Undoubtedly, I could have spent a lot more time in figuring these things out, using some subheadings, getting rid of repetition and altogether demonstrating more craft.
But that right there is why this blog doesn't deserve a D&AD award, and why GOV.UK does.
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