Captain Underpants and the Importance of the Writer-Designer Relationship

My son, Teddy, started school last September and is learning to read and write. It’s taught differently now than when I was a kid, focusing on how words are formed and the sounds you make when saying them, rather than on learning the alphabet by heart. Because of this, we read together a lot; it’s probably my favorite part of the day. Just watching him discover new words and new worlds fills my heart with joy.

For the past few weeks, he has been enjoying Dav Pilkey’s The Adventures of Captain Underpants.  In addition to the titular hero, these stories focus on the friendship and working relationship of George R. Beard, a writer, and Harold M. Hutchins, a designer.

The pair often find themselves in situations—such as when Dr. Diaper attempts to take over the world by destroying the moon—where their individual efforts are not enough to save the day. But by working together and combining their strengths to minimize their weaknesses, they always emerge unscathed.

by working together and combining their strengths to minimize their weaknesses, they always emerge unscathed.

Over the holidays, my family and I took a trip to Belfast and met my colleague Caoimhín Magee—the Harold to my George—for dinner. Because Teddy hadn’t met him before, I used Captain Underpants to explain that we worked together and what we each did.

After some initial confusion about us writing comics—he was previously under the impression that I created new words for the dictionary—he eventually came to grips with our different roles within Firewood. Well, as much as any five-year-old could.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that the likes of George and Harold, Bert and Ernie, and Cagney and Lacey are quite representative of the writer-designer relationship—dynamic duos within a wider team.

And like those relationships, the writer-designer one is not always perfect. When you work so closely together, it’s inevitable that there will be ups and downs. There will be times you hit on an idea you both like straightaway. And there will be times when the process won’t go as smoothly, when you might wonder if you’re both working from the same brief.

Like it is in any relationship, communication is key. If you can’t explain to your partner why you think you should take a certain approach, then it’s unlikely that you’ll convince a client either. It’s also important that you work through problems in the creative process and not let molehills become mountains when a cup of coffee and a chat might easily get you over the hump.

Like it is in any relationship, communication is key.

In the spirit of collaboration, I asked some of my colleagues in Europe what they found to be the secret to their successful pairings. Here’s what they said:

For me, the best writer-designer relationships are when both bring ideas, enthusiasm, and appreciation of each other’s craft. A good test is a designer who hates using Lorem Ipsum as much as I do. —Julian Abel, Copywriter

It’s all about the power of two. Two creative minds to pull from, two portfolios to refer to for past successes, two times the experience in the industry. But, most of all, it’s two sets of complementary skills that pool together to tell the story in the perfect way.  — Rob Mc Donnell, Creative Director

I really value spending time together actively collaborating on initial ideas, preparing for client presentations, and unifying copy and design later in the project. This final stage is where we can sharpen each other’s work—fresh eyes rule. —Anya Stafford, Senior Writer

I would probably say trust is an important one for me—to know that a copywriter has my back and I can share any ideas or information with them in confidence or openly. —Carl Tarry, Designer

The key is not being afraid to say or hear that an idea might not be the correct one during the work-in-progress stage. If you feel comfortable enough to give your partner constructive criticism, and take constructive criticism in return, I think you’ll produce better work as a team. —Caoimhín Magee, Art Director

Getting to know each other: Having chats over a coffee or a beer will help build trust. If you can get to a point where silences are no longer awkward—like in any good relationship—then you know it’s a real partnership. The ability to generate and share ideas, and to be (very) open to constructive criticism, is vital. —Shane Coules, Copywriter

While we might never encounter a situation in our day-to-day work like the one in the Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants, there is rarely a time when writers and designers putting their collective minds together isn’t the best way to ensure that the creative process runs as smoothly as possible and generates the highest-quality content for clients.

What do you think? Leave a comment to share your own secrets to a successful writer-designer relationship.