What Writers Can Learn from Chefs about Cooking Up Good Design

Last night, I made dinner for my wife. We had chili. Nothing fancy about that meal. But you know what? I did my best to make the meal amazing. I set the table, used cloth napkins, put grated cheese in a bowl — the whole works. It wasn’t the Olive Garden, but it wasn’t bad.

Why go to all the trouble? Because people eat with their eyes first.

Chef Photo
Photo Credit: Olle Svensson (Creative Commons)

My dad (who owns a restaurant) taught me that. Every time he prepared supper for us as kids, he would obsess over how the food looked on the plate before we could eat it. He knew people connected the pleasure of an experience with the initial impression.

The same is true for your writing.

First impressions matter

Before your readers can digest your content, they’re going to “taste” it with their eyes. They’ll get an impression of your writing before they read it — this is inevitable.

They’re going to look at layout:

  • Is it scannable?
  • Easy to skim?
  • Full of subheadings and bolds?

In an age of distraction, this has never been more important.

They’re going to look at length:

  • How concise is it?
  • Can it be read in one sitting?
  • Should they read it now or later?

They’re going to pay attention to design:

  • How does your website/book look and feel?
  • Is the typesetting elegant or sloppy?
  • What kind of images do you use?

Everything around your words colors how people perceive what you’re saying.

As they say, the “medium is the message.” If you neglect this fact, you will make a serious error.

A recipe for disaster

Of course, people mess this up every day.

They write super-long emails that are one paragraph long. They settle for ugly, poorly-designed websites, because they don’t know better. And they sacrifice a great message because of a bad package.

It’s a shame, really.

Whatever you have to say — whether it be preaching a sermon or writing a book — I hope you pay attention to how you say it. This matters now more than ever before.

It doesn’t trump what you say (you need to have meat to your message), but it is the “appetizer” to a longer conversation.

If the presentation is a mess, people won’t stop and listen.

Bon appetit

So speak with care and sensitivity to how you’ll be perceived. Prepare and practice an excellent delivery. Invest a little money and time into building a quality platform.

Write in a way that will actually get you read. Pay attention to presentation. It’ll make all the difference. (To see what I use for web design, check out my theme.)

How have you seen design affect your writing? Share in the comments.

*Photo credit: Ole Svensson

55 thoughts on “What Writers Can Learn from Chefs about Cooking Up Good Design

  1. Oh crap, I better go back and re-present my latest blog post. I could see there was something off about it, but then thought it was missing images. Now After reading this, I see where I lost the plot. Thank you

  2. Great post here Jeff. I still like to go into book stores to
    shop for books and there is no doubt that the look and feel of the book is the
    first thing I check. What really drives me up the wall is when you see these
    books with thick pages and large type. When I see this I can’t help but think
    that someone was trying to make the book appear longer that it actually is. It
    drives me nuts. I see it all the time with the “Airport Fiction”.   The only thing worse may be thin pages with
    tiny words.

  3. Layout and design is now my top priority!  I’ve found my voice and I need to help it be heard.     I’m having a branding/design strategy session with a collection of talented people this very evening!  Can’t wait to see what good ideas and feedback they come up with.  Thanks for reinforcing how important this is.  You are a blessing!

  4. I couldn’t agree more with you, Jeff. I’ve been wanting to revamp my blog for some time, but even the most basic WordPress lingo causes a frown between my brows. Google’s design is the ultimate example of what we as a society are looking for. We don’t need distractions, we want the design clean. Presentation is everything. Good practical advice that I intend to put to good use.

  5. Wow! This post was priceless! I am in the process of reworking my blog and “reinventing” myself and I take this to heart, definitely. I will never forget this “you eat with your eyes first.” Wow! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Thanks, Jeff…great advice! I would love info on the nitty gritty of laying out a website (I use blogger) and adding gadgets, widgets, badges, etc. Or, a link would be appreciated…

    1. Hi Jarm. I’m not that familiar with blogger, but I had a blogspot site back in teh day. What’re you looking to do? I think adding those things you’re talking about are pretty easy (blogger has widgets). If you need more of the nitty gritty, I suggest checking out my friend Seth Leonard: https://sethleonard.com/ (Let me know if you need more specifics.)

  7. I would also say that the best cooks make terrible meals once in a while. A part of the learning process in cooking is experimentation and the inevitable failure. It’s the same in writing. Don’t be afraid to write something because you might fail, embrace the chance of failure knowing that even if you do fail, you’ll still learn how to do it better in the future. 

  8. This is great advice.  I will be blogging two years this month and I’m doing my 2nd re-design.  The hardest part is moving from blogger to WP but I hired an expert.  In this case you are definitely correct… whether it’s fair or not, people do judge the content by the cover.

  9. Your posts are very inspiring and informative.  I’m grateful to the writer who connected me with you.  Not sure how I am moving forward with blogging (I have 2) at this point but I’m less likely to throw in the towel after learning about you.

  10. Thank you for these simple (and elegant) words.  My motto is “keep it simple”.  When I blog, my intention is to take no more than 30 seconds of a readers time, use good images, include quality writing that’s of interest.  I love to cook and it’s true about eating with your eyes first.  As a reader, writer, blogger, cook, and designer, it’s important to me to not be visually overwhelmed by a post or newsletter.  In the spirit of brevity, I will close and simply say, “thanks.” – from a fellow red-head and Tennessee lover

  11. Congrats on growing this blog and your email list Jeff! I hope people that visit my site really enjoy my design, I have an awesome guy who designs my book covers and my website.

  12. Couldn’t agree more Jeff

    Every time i write a post i’m conscious about breaking things up, adding a sub title here, a splash of colour there. As someone who get’s seriously bored i assume everyone is like me.

    Sometimes i find my posts (when they are in a word document) are boring. And i wrote the damn thing. First impressions are SOOOOOOOOOO important!

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  13. I totally agree! I worked in ad design years ago, and I understand how important visual impact can be. I cringe when something has a bad layout. It is distracting fr ok m the content. I don’t stick with web sites and blogs that are poorly designed. I tried to incorporate good design into my blog, and I attempt to do so with every post too. I don’t have much readership yet, so I suppose time will tell whether or not I’ve done it right. I welcome any and all input!

  14. I read this in your email newsletter.  I noticed your website looked different – it figures Martyn is behind the awesome design.  Is it simple to customize?  

    And I agree with your message here.  I see so many talented writers not get read because they aren’t formatting in a way that’s comfortable to read or because they didn’t take time creating an attractive website.  

    It IS a shame because they might have a more powerful or important message to share than those that take the time to design their websites.  So, the ones that are sharing a weak message are getting noticed.

    If we’re going to create something of value, we should put it on a platform that serves it best.  It’s really a disservice to the art we create when we don’t.

    1.  Pretty simple, I think, but you’ll have to talk to Martyn. If you don’t want to mess with the code, you can tweak the colors with no problem.

      I agree with you, Denise. At the same time, I’m coming to appreciate those who take the time to write great words and package them well. That takes effort; it ain’t easy. I have a new-found respect for people who not only pay attention to the message, but also how it’s being presented. Makes a difference.

  15. Good stuff. You made me realize something else through reading this- I cook the same way I write: Ignoring recipes, throwing random things together, tasting it as I go along, and cleaning it up later. 🙂 

  16. Totally on board with this! I love cooking (even started a website about it), and it is amazing how much a difference presentation can be. Especially with the wife. Nice work on the chili Jeff, and your website looks good enough to eat too.

  17. Hi Jeff,

    As usual – thanks for sharing.  Some great points in here to consider when writing.  Also a good example of taking your own advice…make your message relevant.  (re: I personally found this message very relevant.)

    Like many trying to grow their tribe, I realize I need to take a good look in the mirror at both the look and feel of my page and the relevance of the content.

    Solid food for thought…thanks again.

    My Best,  Steve

  18. I just started a blog, probably too soon. I know nothing about blogging.  After I created my blog on wordpress my son helped me with my header.  He doesn’t know much about blogging either but he used a program that he got to help him with his journalism career. I saw the offer for the child theme. At the moment I am researching, trying to figure out exactly what that is before I buy it.  It seems the changes my son made to my blog may disappear if the parent theme updates.
    Bottom line, where can I go to learn enough to know how how to fix up my blog?  I signed up for the blogging course. Does this address my situation in anyway? Any advice overall?

    1.  Hi Renee. Good questions. It depends on the theme (note: you need the Genesis framework to run the Tribe child theme), but usually when you switch themes, some of your settings don’t apply. However, WordPress made some updates recently so that all your widgets (sidebar items and such) are saved, which is nice.

  19. I was talking with someone the other day and they were explaining how when they were looking to purchase a newspaper they would be influenced heavily by the front cover picture. If it was of a vehicle crash they would go to another newspaper which had a more appealing image. 

    Good presentation catches the eye.For free images from flickr I use a great search engine website called compfight. https://compfight.com/

  20. Nicely said Jeff, this writer loves this scenario. It was a nice paring of ingredients, and a satisfying well laid out meal easy to digest and just the right amount of spices- bravo on such a thoughtful and easy to follow recipee 🙂

    Take Care Sandy

  21. Well said, Jeff. Definitely something we should all be thinking about when we put our work out there for others. Treat their eyes with kindness.

    Pet peeve: I can’t stand it when I see a bloated black mass of words on a blog or website with a font the size of an ants leg. I’ll keep moving if I find something like that because, frankly, I’m a slow reader and it would take me all day to get through it. They could have the best content in the world, it could change my life forever, but I’m movin’ on ’cause that’s just daunting! 

  22. great post – and something I really should take to heart and work on. i may be one of those who settle for a bad website without knowing it …if you ever have a second, check out https://lavitaebella-elisabeth.blogspot.com/ and let me know what you think needs the most attention 🙂 

    1.  hi Elisabeth. the design isn’t bad. it’s consistent and colorful. with some of the side widgets, you might want to go for a more understated look. for example, maybe include some text links and not so many images. you want the visitor’s eyes to gravitate towards one or two main features. on your site, it’s hard to know what I should be paying attention to.

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