Sunday, February 18, 2007

Designers beware: 10 tips on writing emails.

If there’s one thing a designer cannot afford to be is sloppy. Ever. And we designers tend to be a bit sloppy about communication and we tend to believe that whoever doesn’t speak “design tongue” is kind of dumb.

But think again, as I’ve exposed before, it is we, the designers, that need to start expressing in the language of the people we serve.

One of the most used tools of communication for designers is of course, email. Numerous versions of blueprints and projects are sent every day, iterations, discussions about budgets, deadlines, look and feel, corrections, revisions…

It is crucial that we manage email effectively in order to not drown in our own sea of email and communicate a clear message that will help design processes run smoothly. So here are ten tips to effectively handle email:

Tip 1: Be smart about subject lines.
The subject line should provide as much information as possible about the content of the email. Be descriptive and avoid laziness. Include if applicable, the name of the customer, the project, the specific part of the project, the version, if any action needs to be taken. For example:
Nike Running Shoes Ad blueprint, version 04. Comments are expected by tomorrow noon.

I’ve literally received emails with “design” or “strawberry” in the subject line.
Another thing is to update the subject line every time you reply. As the message evolves, so should the subject line.

If there are emails that you constantly send, that have the same structure, come up with a nomenclature for them. For instance, if you send a budget update every two weeks, your subject line could be: "Nike Campaign, Budget Update for February 20th, 2007", where you would only change the date every time you send it. This makes it easier for you and your readers to archive.

You could even come up with some abbreviations to add at the end of the subject line, inside the organization. For example: AR=action required; EOM=end of message; CE=comments expected. This will help other people know up front if there’s something they need to do about it.

Tip 2: Be brief and to the point.
Bottom line up front, state the purpose of the email and the actions required in the first paragraph. This will allow the reader to decide whether they need to continue reading or not. If the emails is more than three paragraphs long, it’s better to call and follow up with a summary email.

Tip 3: Be clear on what the next step is.
And include this information in the subject line or first paragraph if possible. Tell the reader if an action is required of them and state a deadline for that action to be taken. If no action is required, inform that also. You could start the message with “fyi” which means that the email is sent only as information.

Tip 4: There are no urgent emails.
If something is urgent and needs immediate attention, call, and then follow up with an email.

Tip 5: Present ideas in a simple, easy to understand way.
As I said in a previous post:
“This is particularly important when sending emails and explaining design issues in writing. It is very easy for a customer to get confused when he receives an email and it’s not well written. Revise how much detail you want to go into when discussing matters with your clients. Little detail and you won’t be able to convey your message, too much detail and it’s likely that your counterpart will get confused.”

Also help the reader with visual aids whenever needed. Highlight issues with different colors if you need to draw attention to them. Use bullets to list things. Another thing I like to do is take a picture (JPG or PDF) of a given design and use Photoshop to circle the areas I want to discuss. I assign a number to each area and then I explain each of the numbers in writing.

Make sure your emails comply with IP Standards (Idiot Proof Standards, that is, meaning that anything that needs a manual to be understood, is not well designed).

Tip 6: Mind your spelling and grammar.
As I said in a previous post:
“Grammar and spelling do speak about your professionalism, so be aware of the image you’re presenting. Check emails for errors or typos before sending them and make sure your staff does the same.”

Tip 7: Never forward junk or chain emails.
It’s plain unprofessional and goes against the trust customers and people in general, have in you.

Tip 8: Use a signature.
One that includes your name, position and contact details. If you’re part of a design organization, standardize it and make sure everybody uses the same. This reinforces your brand and it looks professional.

Tip 9: Be professional about email.
Do not use email to solve disputes. It is always better to use personal communication first.
Don’t use email to tell on other people.
Don’t use it as a mechanism to track actions.

Tip 10: Archive your email.
In a business where there are so many subjective issues, it’s a good idea to follow up discussions and agreements with something in writing. Come up with a good archiving system to file your email and make sure you can locate it easily afterwards. Use email client rules to help you file more quickly. I’ve talked about filing systems before. Some of this principles apply to archiving email.

I look forward to receiving some comments!
All the best.

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