Copywriter thumbnails and how to draw them

March 8, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Design 

copywriter thumbnail Copywriter thumbnails? Draw them?

You’re thinking I’ve lost my mind, right? You’re scratching your head and saying, “Why would a copywriter have to draw a thumbnail?”

(Do people really scratch their head when they’re confused … or is that just something people do in old black and white movies?)

Okay, I’ll admit that I may be misleading you a little with the photo of the big thumb.

But if you’ve been in the copywriting business for a while, you know what I’m talking about. Other than using an opposable thumb to help hold a pencil, your thumbs have nothing to do with thumbnail sketches.

So what is a copywriter thumbnail? Very simply, it’s a sketch drawn by a copywriter to show how his or her copy should be designed.

thumbnail sketch

Click the picture to see my full-size sketch.

It looks something like this. (Actually, it looks exactly like this. I don’t why people say that.)

This is an actual thumbnail I drew for a recent direct mail project. The agency that hired me wanted me to take the lead on the message strategy for a pharmacy gift card mailing. This included providing them with both the copy and how I visualized the copy in a layout.

As you can see, it’s not a work of art. It doesn’t have to be.

A thumbnail has two big benefits. First, it helps the designer “see” the copy and have a good starting point for the design. Second, it helps you, the copywriter, visualize what you’re writing. After all, you can’t just write whatever you want at any length or in any order.

A thumbnail shows you want bits of copy you need, how long they are, and where they go.

“But I thought the designer determined the design and did all the drawing. Don’t writers and designers work as a team?”

That’s true, sometimes. But not always. Often, you as the copywriter will be asked to take the lead on what to say and how it should be presented visually. And when that happens, you should know how to do a simple thumbnail.

It’s actually pretty simple:

1. Get a plain sheet of white paper and a pencil. You need a pencil because you’ll probably need to erase here and there.

2. Sketch each item you’re writing. I’ve shown you a sketch for a small direct mail package, but you may be writing a brochure, an online sales page, a print ad, or who knows what. Show the overall shape, folds, panels, everything. If you don’t know what something should look like, dive into your swipe file (all those samples you should be collecting) and find something with a design close to what you’re looking for.

3. Show the location and arrangement of major elements. This includes headlines, copy blocks, bullet lists, photos, illustrations, testimonials, guarantee, and any other element you include. If your little thumbnail is too small, sketch a larger version to fill in the details.

4. Label each component and copy element clearly. Make sure to use the same terminology that you use in your copy document. For example, my direct mail thumbnails show a 4-panel brochure. I refer to the inside as a “4-panel spread” and label each panel 1 through 4 in both the sketch and the copy document. It doesn’t matter what you call things. It’s just important that you are consistent. This saves a lot of confusion.

That’s it. When you submit your copy, submit the thumbnail along with it. Not only do designers like this, your boss or client will like this too. Some people have a hard time visualizing the final product when all they can see is words.

Now I know what you’re thinking. (I have a good supply of Gilligan’s mind-reading seeds.) You’re thinking, “Are you kidding? Seriously. I can’t draw.”

Relax. You don’t have to. Not really. Look at my sample thumbnail again. It’s a bunch of lines and squiggles. You can scratch some lines and squiggles on a piece of paper, right?

And don’t worry about a designer making fun of you. They don’t expect you to render a Mona Lisa and would be shocked if you did. Do the best you can and that will be good enough.

Talk your designer through your idea, but be open to suggestions. Unless you have significant design experience, the final layout won’t match your sketch exactly. I do have significant design experience, and the designers I work with almost always deliver something better than my original idea. That’s their job.

I’m curious. Do you do thumbnails? How often?

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Smart Comments

5 Comments on Copywriter thumbnails and how to draw them

  1. Andrew Rogers on Mar 9th, 2010 7:46 pm
  2. I do thumbnails all the time for newsletters, brochures, and other complex pieces. I don’t know how I’d keep track of what I need to write and where it’s supposed to fit if I didn’t. Not to mention that it does help the designer figure out what I had in mind, if not necessarily what she has in mind.

  3. Merryl Rosenthal on Apr 9th, 2010 4:13 am
  4. Just like you and Andrew Rogers, I do thumbnails all the time.

    Actually, I’d be shocked to learn that most writers don’t!

    By the way, I’m all out of Gilligan’s mind-reading seeds. Are you
    selling any on ebay?

    Cheers. :)

  5. Sara on Aug 10th, 2010 11:34 am
  6. Since most people create the design of their website before they write the copy, I find I’m usually writing with the design already in mind. I’ll ask the web designer for a wire frame before I write to make sure I cover all the elements.

  7. Michelle Wood on Sep 13th, 2010 12:22 am
  8. I do thumbnails for just about everything – can’t imagine writing something like a multipage brochure without sketches.

    Since I started out doing tech writing in pre-formatted corporate documents before becoming a freelancer, it was a while before I realized I should have a say in content layout. I just thought it was the plight of the writer to be frustrated with shiny – but ultimately impractical – designs full of lorem ipsem that the client had “already approved.” Imagine my joy when I met the designers I most often partner with now, who actively engage me in content design up front!

  9. Dean Rieck on Sep 13th, 2010 9:01 am
  10. @Michelle: That’s good news. I know how it feels to “fill in the blanks” for predesigned items. I once had a client who would send me layouts with text boxes and ask me to just fill them in. It was absurd.