Start Designing In A Text Editor

Text-to-visual-design transition

Starting a new design means looking at a blank page. It's usually a piece of paper or a frame in a design tool. From there, you sketch a rough first draft, visualize a few initial ideas, and fill the empty blank space.

I like to start a design in a text editor.

It allows me to quickly dump all my ideas, thoughts, and questions about the new “thing” I'm going to design. It frees me from making any decisions about form. It forces me to focus on the story and on the communication the design is supposed to do.

It's the first step in my design process.

Telling A Story

After opening a new text document, I start with a simple brain dump. I write down everything that comes to my mind about the thing I'm going to design. That can be facts (or things I think are facts), questions, ideas, or just random thoughts.

After the initial brain dump, I try to bring some sense into it. I try to explain what this thing is and why anybody should care about it once it exists. What is it supposed to do? What problem is it going to solve and how?

In essence, I am trying to explain the ”thing” (product, app, website, service, whatever) to an imaginary reader who knows nothing about it. Usually, that's where I realize I don't know much about it, either. That's a good thing. You want to know what you don't know, so you can start to figure it out.

To further improve and structure the text file, I try to tell a story. That tends to work well because it usually fits the thing I am designing. A website tells a story. A product, service, or app communicates with the user. Every screen, process, flow, or journey is communication.

If, for example, I am designing a website, I can later on usually use my text file as a base to structure the text on the site. I can use the same wording and tell the same story.

Plain text is the most bare-bones version of what you—the designer—are trying to say. It is also the most bare-bones version of the thing you are designing and what it is trying to communicate.

Fast Feedback

At this point, my text file contains a written explanation of the thing I want to design. It also contains a lot of questions, ideas, and notes, but I try to keep those separated at the bottom of the document.

This is a great point in the process to get feedback. You just wrote down what the thing you are designing is and what problem it is going to solve. You wrote down why people should care about it.

Give the text document to colleagues and stakeholders. Let them read it and get their feedback. Nothing is easier to share than a text file and everybody can read a short document and give some feedback. You wrote an explanation of the thing, how do others understand it? What questions and thoughts do they have after reading your first “sketch”? Would they tell the story in the same way and with the same words? Do you have the same understanding of the thing?

Even better, you could already give this to potential customers. Do they understand it? Does it seem like something that could help them with the problem you think they have?

The feedback you get can be directly incorporated into the document. You now have a much better understanding of the thing you are designing.

Story And Form

Around this point in the process, I start another “blank page”, this time either on a sheet of paper or in a design tool. I don't think that story supersedes form, at least not always. They inform each other and thus you will go back and forth between the visual design and the story (document).

By starting with a plain text document, you can not only get everything out of your head but you are also forced to explain the thing you are designing in the simplest way possible. While writing it down, you force yourself to think through the design. That brings up questions, issues, and ideas.

It's also a flexible starting point. Maybe you are designing a small website. You can write it down in the text document, as some sort of “wireframe”, but with text only and turn it into a design quickly. Maybe you are designing a complex product, then you can turn your initial text file into a fully-fledged design document. This document can contain all the necessary details like the scope of the project, requirements, and research.

It's not about where you are going during the process, it's about where you start. Why not start with a text file?