Readability vs creativity: a false choice?

You can be readable or you can be creative, pick one. Wait…what?
A road junction with a road sign pointing in two different directions, suggesting two opposing choices

A while ago, I spoke at a content design meet up about why brand voice matters and how to build it. The other speaker was Lizzie Bruce who shared Content Design London’s brilliant project to create a collaborative, evidence-based style guide. See it here: Readability Guidelines.

I dug into things like the importance of defining an authentic personality, having a spectrum of tones to reflect the different needs of your audience, playing with rhythm to enhance your message, and choosing the right vocabulary. Meanwhile, Lizzie spoke about clear language, simple sentences, capitalisation, where to place links and plenty more ways to make sure your writing is easy to read, understand and use.

When it was time for questions a few people highlighted an interesting tension between the two talks. While I was emphasising the need for creativity and to do something different to set your brand apart, Lizzie was providing evidence-based rules to follow to serve your users. To many people listening, it may have felt like a clash in ideology. Pick a side: brand-first vs user first, marketing vs user experience, creativity vs readability.

It got me thinking, because I don’t see tension or a clash. What I can see is a gap in how I talk about brand voice at the moment.

What I’ve neglected to say is that a brilliant brand voice isn’t brilliant if it isn’t readable and accessible to all.

Take a luxury car brand known for exceptional engineering. Someone might argue that its audience is wealthy, highly educated, knows about cars and wants to see the brand use technical, specialist terminology in a rapturous way. What that ignores is that wealthy, highly educated people who love cars can still be skim reading because they’re in a hurry or distracted watching TV. They can still have dyslexia.

A great voice and a readable voice aren’t mutually exclusive, they’re the same thing. If the guidelines you set for your voice to make it unique or authentic make it unreadable, you need to pull it back.

Think about brands that really nail it with their voice — the likes of Innocent, Slack, MailChimp, IKEA, BrewDog. They all have a distinctive, unique, creative voice that’s completely readable.

Readability vs creativity is a false choice. A great brand voice is built on a foundation of readability. I’m going to make sure I say it more often.

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