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  • Design Patois

    It's sometimes embarrassing the way that designers prostrate themselves—and the English language—in their promotional material describing in words what they do, as though their designs alone aren't enough to tell the story. It may be true that some clients (or prospective clients) don't have a good grasp of what design is, but most have eyes and can intuit. During the nascent period of graphic design (somewhere around the mid-1920s) all that a commercial artist advertising in one of the many promotional annuals had to say was “Jeanne Doe, calligraphy, layout, illustration,” and the point was made (in part because the services were being bought by agencies or art directors, not directly by clients). Today, with non-design clients being more active in the hiring process, something called design philosophy has become the basis of a new patois. Philosophy is not pejorative, but when it turns to sophistry—beware!

    When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like cuttlefish squirting out ink. —George Orwell.

    For at least the past decade designers have tried to position themselves as legitimate professionals. Inherent in this quest is an attempt to squelch the myth that visual people are ostensibly illiterate. Where the myth started is anyone's guess. After all, the first, what one might call, literate people—those who developed the earliest codified languages—were image makers. The first alphabets were comprised of images. Early scripture was illuminated by scribes who made pictures as well as words. The first typefaces were designed by artists. The first books were designed by artist/writers. So, traditionally, designers have been a very literate people. Then, where and when did the distinction begin? Maybe it came with the onset of commercial printing, when publicity was churned out, not designed—when its makers began providing service, not art. Not all commercial printers or commercial artists were enemies of the word, yet the impact of those who were has had a detrimental effect, ultimately leading in the early 20th century to the schism between copywriters and designers.

    During the 1950s these distinctions in the advertising world started to blur, but graphic designers were still suffering from the effects of negative stereotypes. Ever since graphic designers began adding terms like “marketing” and “communications” to their billheads, the accepted notion that having a codified philosophy would undo those negative stereotypes has resulted in design firms issuing promotional materials replete with weighty (and sometimes dramatic) mission statements that read either like legal briefs or epic poems, like this one:

    Communications: Visual plays leading to emotional involvement.
    Communications: Creativity at levels that make the experience.
    Communications: Materials that desire to be collected for keeps.
    Communications: Turn the target. Flip the crowd.
    Communications: Translate the message into action to your advantage.
    Communications: Manage the trains of thought and the rest will come to you for yours.
     

    Without any disrespect intended, is what you just read substance or hype? Did it describe or confuse? Think about the selling (flap or ad) copy on a book or the liner notes on a record. In both cases the best of these titillate, if not illuminate. What does this copy tell us? Visual plays? A rather strained metaphor. Emotional involvement? A lot to hope for from a piece of paper. Collected for keeps? Hold on! Even the best publicity has a limited shelf life. Manage the trains of thought? Hey, did anyone copy-read this?

    If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. —Confucius

    As hyperbolic as it is, the “visual plays” copy is at least somewhat creative compared to the conventional fare. Indeed, with few welcome exceptions when designers, especially firms, extol their own virtues, the results are dry, platitudinous and repetitive, with buzzwords reminiscent of police accounts like the ones one hears uttered on the TV news by rookie cops: “The perp, a Caucasian, white female, was apprehended and subdued by two pursuing, uniformed officers, while proceeding to gain unlawful access to the abode of the victim…”

    To a teacher of languages there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not more wonderful than a parrot. —Joseph Conrad

    Like cadets parroting the phrases in Jargon 101 at any police academy, most designers learn—Lord knows from where—that to gain respect in the outside world it is imperative to use officious language they would never apply in everyday usage. No school, however, exists to teach this stuff—yet, take virtually any promotional brochure for a design firm, scratch the surface, and you will find variations of the following platitudes:

    • Design is a tool for achieving specific results. Being responsive, we begin each project by learning exactly what results our client expects. This then becomes our communications goal. 
    • Establishing an appropriate, positive emphasis is the key. This, in conjunction with good graphic design, is our special skill. 
    • Our work exhibits a great diversity of styles and imagery. In an era of design specialists, we invariably believe that as varied as the messages are, so should the means of conveying them. 

    These statements by three very different design firms are not inherently disingenuous, but when viewed as representative of most promo copy they are formulaic. Should all selling copy sound alike? Imagine what the prospective client who gets pitched by many designers must think after reading the same phrases and sentiments over and over. Probably he or she must think that they've all read the same copy of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, or at least have hired the same PR firm. To further the point that despite the remarkable diversity among design firms today, their hype comes from the same copy of Bartlett's Familiar Design Firm Promotions.

    The following phrases have been culled from a variety of sources. In fact, virtually no two of the design firms represented by these unattributed statements do the same kind of work. For purposes of clarity they are categorized according to the six major thematic categories.

    1. Happiness Is a Warm Client
    • The process begins with analysis, immersion into the client's situation in order to define the true problem. 
    • Our primary concern is with our client's success in their business. 
    • The basic need of most clients who come to us is to fulfill a business function. 
    • Our primary concern is to solve the client's communications objective. 
    • Our goal is to meet our clients' visual communications needs by applying an approach based on discipline, appropriateness and ambiguity. [huh?]
    • We carefully analyze our client's needs, and if necessary, reinterpret them in a more profound way than the client can do. 
    • A key element to our approach is that we uniquely tailor each project to a particular client's needs. 
    • We will not begin a project without a clear understanding of the spoken and unspoken client needs. 
    • Today, we bring to our clients a rich, ever-expanding base of knowledge and experience. 
    • Our main concern is understanding and working closely with our clients to carefully think through and define the problem at hand. 
    • No matter how well we prepare ourselves with information, the client's knowledge far exceeds ours. 
    2. Style? We Don't Have No Stinkin' Style
    • Our approach to design has always been concept-oriented. We feel that a good concept is the single most important aspect of any project. Along with effective design and attention to detail, a strong concept has always made the difference between a good solution and a great one. 
    • The diversity of our work provides us with the experience and ability to approach a range of design problems in a fresh way. 
    • Design is the solution of problems, incorporating ideas in relation to the given problem, rather than the arbitrary application of fashionable styles. 
    • We produce design that goes against the jarring nature of our times. 
    • We're interested in producing contemporary design, design that's straightforward looking and appropriate for each client. 
    • Our belief is that any one visual problem has an infinite number of solutions. 
    • We don't have a style or philosophical framework. We simply want to understand, then solve the problem. 
    • We do not have a house style, but favor designs which are crisp and simple enough to stand out among today's cluttered communications. 
    3. Meaningful Relationships
    • Our professional ability has been developed and tested for 20 years in a highly competitive environment and has been the basis of many enduring relationships. 
    • We pay special attention to creating strong working relationships among members of the project team. That our approach works has been proven by the unusual amount of repeat business our clients have offered us. 
    • Recognizing that team effort is required to create successful design, we define our role as a collaborative one. 
    • We thrive on long-term client relationships, having many major corporate clients for years. 
    • We nurture the client from beginning to end. 
    Diversified Meaningful Relationships
    • We've maintained variety in the types of projects and clients that we handle, this has given us the opportunity to develop a diversified portfolio of work. 
    • Because of our diversity we've attracted a wonderful group of multi-talented designers, and we are very proud of them. 
    4. Touchy-Feely-Squeezy
    • Graphic design should touch the viewer as well as inform. 
    • Imagination and sensibility create the most potent visual communication. 
    • It's not that we don't believe in a structure or grid; we just believe they should be felt instead of seen. 
    • We try to balance our own personal insight with the client's particular needs—design is a magical balance. 
    5. Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Our Lives
    • Every client, project and problem is unpredictable. Each is unique. Our mission as a group is to solve the unique problem, manage the unusual project, and serve our wary client the best quality design available. 
    • We welcome the challenge of different business involvements. 
    • Our experience allows us to approach a range of design problems in a fresh way. 
    6. How Do I Love Me?
    • We take great pride in a body of work that has received national recognition for excellence, and in the roster of prestigious clients who hired us to create it. 

    One has to wonder whether these designers and firms read each other's promotion or whether these pearls just develop over time in their own hermetically sealed environments. Design firms tend to stink of their own perfume. In fact, virtually all of the designers represented by the statements above are fluid and literate when talking about their work. But put them in front of a keyboard and they choke up.

    Of course, there are those who eschew the conventions of promo writing. Some designers have gone overboard in the other direction emphasizing human, rather than business, values like this one: During our day, we encourage pride but not possessiveness. Rarely, in an open-office environment can an idea emerge and evolve without being “touched” by more than one person. And this interaction is what tests the idea to make sure of its rightfulness. Others prefer wit and humor, like this send-up of a famous quote: When I hear the words “design philosophy” I reach for my X-Acto. (The reference being to Hermann Goring, who said, “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.”)

    But the most understated and curiously poetic piece that this writer ever read can be attributed to Henry Wolf in the book New York Design: “My firm is not unique but it combines the facilities of photography and design under one roof. I photograph for my own concepts.” Though a masterpiece of clarity and concision, one might nevertheless wonder, does he get much work?

    About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com
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