Mission: Unwritable

[July 2, 2011] 

Site maps and content outlines, those venerable staples of Web manufacture have been around just long enough to take on a patina of tradition. For reasons practical, political and ideological, we have sanctified a process in which the bones of the beast are laid down first and then “fleshed out” with content. It’s a process desperately overworked Web designers depend on to make every stroke of the tablet stylus count. 

I sympathize. I do. But in most ways that matter, this process has become so ossified as to be obsolete.

To understand why, imagine how a benign being might set out to create animal life to inhabit a newly formed blue-green planet. Like a site architect, such a being might also be aware of the need to give each creature a solid structural underpinning. 

And yet, on our own planet, bone and flesh evolve and grow together, simultaneously, in an interdependent relationship. Plus, they always come together with an eye to function. That’s why equine bone structure differs from human bone structure—and why ancient mythological images depicting horse-bodied warriors, or similar monstrosities, are biologically untenable. 

It’s also why so much that passes for information architecture is essentially unwritable.

Writable architecture? Exactly. A content outline and the architecture that supports and amplifies it, are only as good as their potential to be realized as viable, living creatures. Creatures, that is, with enough vitality, charm and personality to motivate, entertain, and reward your audience. Yet, at the end of the decade-long codification of Web site code, many aspects of site architecture have become the ritualized components of an agency’s “house style.”

About…uh, give me a moment.
Consider the ubiquitous About page. If the only function of your About page is to rattle on about “the finest ingredients” or “leading-edge technologies” such a page is unwritable. 

Why? Because it can’t be filled with meaning; it can only be filled with words, design elements and brand-sanctioned stock art—that depicts a diverse array of grinning crash dummies on the road to Personal Fulfillment. 

Sure, you can hire a writer to write such nonsense. You can give the unenviable drone a sheaf of “back up copy,” sanctioned by your legal department. But such pages are only empty calories, the first among many destined to make your site hopelessly obese.

You want to rephrase that?
No less unwritable are pages requiring so much legal qualification they can only deliver the verbal equivalent of elevator music. Needless to say, this applies to thousands of pages of pharmaceutical copy currently straining the servers at the W3C, but they’re not the only offenders. Such pages stand as a reminder to everyone mapping out a Web site: A content strategy’s sole purpose is to convey a single, clear message. 

Web pages that cavort awkwardly on a razor’s edge of credibility, veracity or manipulation are more than useless. They do as much damage, or more, to your brand as any shocking indiscretion by your CEO—considering they lack the glamour attached to steamy revelations on the evening news. 

In such cases, no “word-smithing” exercise can save you. Nor can words conjure life into another iteration of the ritualized “advice and tips” pages that blemish many healthcare-related sites. Believe me when I say no one facing a potentially fatal illness has room in his or her heart to download your Nutrition Tracker, much less pin it to a refrigerator. 

Besides, if you think a proactive, disease-Googling user doesn’t already get the bit about “eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of rest and taking steps to reduce stress,” you need to look up from your iPad more often.

Copying the copy of the copy a copywriter copied before.
Week in and week out, writers are asked to crank out unwritable drivel and make it fun, positive and empowering. How much better if a fraction of that effort went into creating a coherent brand message, and a fresh tone of voice to deliver it. By consigning writers to the drudgery of writing the unwritable, you’re wasting one of your most valuable resources: A creative mind capable of bringing your brand—and your business objectives—to life. 

Instead, in an obsessive compulsive bout of Marketing Anxiety, many brand managers can’t rest until every copy check-box has been checked. And while we still rattle on about “the clutter,” it never occurs to us that the most cluttered thing of all is our own bloated, obsolete site map.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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