designing ebooks and other fun things

Ask a designer: words and images


This post is part of the Ask a Designer series. You ask me questions, I answer them to the best of my ability. The questions can be about design process, branding, software, technical things – or even completely unrelated. Want to play? Leave me a comment here, or use the contact form.



Do you see the words and images as separate things or is it all one unified whole?

by Silver Magpies


To me, words and images are inseparable. It’s one of those cases where the whole is much, much greater than the sum of its parts.

Of course, I don’t always come up with both – on the contrary, quite often, I already have the words to build from. (This is why I’m rather selective of the words I start with. It’s highly unlikely I’d accept a project that builds off a loud headline with no wit or background story — not unless tweaks and edits were welcome.)

I  think of both those elements when working out the most effective concept. If the words are perfect, images flow. If they aren’t, it bothers me until I find the right substitute. In fact, I will often suggest tweaks to phrases, headlines and calls to action. Too often perhaps, considering that this isn’t really part of what I do. I can’t help it. Concepts come most often as a package, of both words and images.

It could be due to my advertising background. The belief that words and images must work together to communicate a concept, to make a lasting impression, to have that instant spark of understanding is too deeply ingrained. There is no way you can do this with just images, or just words. Not with the same punch, in any case.

Words and images should complete each other, not compete with each other.

This isn’t easy, but the results are certainly worth it.

I could be slightly biased here as a big fan of those simple yet genius concepts in the era before photo retouching and special effects made their way into every single printed piece , but I still think that the old print ads are a perfect – and instantly understandable – example of this.

Try taking the words away. Or the image. The whole meaning is changed, isn't it? You can't take away either, not without changing the meaning. That is a perfect example of completing each other. More than that, there is a promise of a story. We are left hanging. I don't know about you, but I simply couldn't resist reading the copy.


Of course, print ads are a unique example. This kind of execution isn’t applicable to all projects. But the ones where I get to play with the concepts and details are my favorite ones. ( This is why I love working on books and ebooks. It’s a given that the words will carry a certain power. All I have to do is let myself be inspired and carried by it, and find the right images to complement and enhance them.)

In a subtler way, this is also true with logos. Logos where the name plus the icon takes on a slightly different, or slightly stronger meaning than just the name — or the icon — itself. This is a very subtle play, and not possible with all names and concepts — but when it works, it is the most memorable kind.

It is generally assumed that designers are visual people. However, if you look at any of my notes, sketches, brainstorming sessions, you will see a roughly equal amount of words and images.

My goal is always telling your story.

And it’s a rare story that can be told effectively without words. So of course words play a major part in the process.  In the case of ebook design, or logos based on an existing name, the words shape the visuals, they give that unmistakeable vibe that the design should follow. It’s often enough for me to read a page and clearly see it in my head all laid out with colors and images that are just right. Without words, it’s much harder.

This is also why I delight in working with copywriters. When there are two of you exploring the visual and verbal direction of a certain concept, the possibilities take on a whole new dimension. (it is not uncommon for a copy to come up with the idea for a certain visual, or for an art director to come up with the theme the words should follow. It’s the further development that is best left to each professional but in the beginning, in the brainstorming phase, it is often impossible to separate the two.)

To me, powerful words are a prerequisite to powerful design pieces.

There is simply no way I can consider graphics separately from the words. And that’s the way it should be, since this is exactly how your audience sees the final piece – words and images working together.


1 Comment on this Post.

  1. Lisa –

    You always take such care and thought to answer these questions. Thank you so much, I think it helps me as we work together to understand your magical process a *little* better.

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