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I know around 650 French words, plus a score of English ones
that can be made to sound French. While certainly not enough to
understand Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
without subtitles, given my ability to make some sentences out of
the words that I know, I can have a primitive conversation in a
When it comes to design, I once had a real tussle with language
when, as part of a consulting job, I had to interview applicants
for a critical web design position, for which not only was my high
school French inadequate, but all the years I've spent working as a
print designer—and therefore mastering the idiomatic speech of the
I may have an iMac on my desk, but when it comes to the web, I
know how to use a search engine, and that's about it. Given that
the new digital design language is so foreign, I feel like a
stranger in my own land. Never before in the history of modern
graphic design—at least since Gutenberg—has our common language
changed so rapidly and radically, to the point of being downright
exclusionary for those of us who have never read (or are incapable
of using) a user's manual. Forget those silly semantic distinctions
between commercial art and graphic design that crop up at design
conferences—this is where the real divide lives. I really had no
idea before talking with my first applicant that to speak,
understand and otherwise intelligently interview a web designer—no
less an information architect—I couldn't bluff my way through by
knowing just a few key terms. N'est-ce pas? Rather I needed
to form meaningful sentences. Zut alors! I needed a Berlitz
guide to fathom just the basics of this new language.
Of course this isn't exclusive to design. Other professions are
laden with technical verbiage. But I'm not in another profession—in
fact, I entered this one because it was bozo-friendly. Therefore,
it is frustrating that the graphic design vocabulary has changed so
quickly from being essentially accessible English to techno-ese, to
Nevertheless, I had a job to do: I had to judge the suitability
of more than 10 applicants for a job whose fundamental parameters I
understood but where the measure for making the determination was
beyond my ken. So in a nightmarish state, after three interviews
during which I sat behind my desk, virtually speechless and nodding
uncontrollably, I requested that a translator be present. And it
was a good thing too!
If I had known the language I could have asked the pertinent
questions that had bearing on the applicant's competency. Instead I
stuck to basics: “You make webpages, do you?” Fortunately, my
fluent translator did the major questioning, and ultimately had the
good sense to take over the entire procedure. I sat there, as
though listening to Radio Moscow for all I knew, attempting to
follow each conversations. On the surface, all the applicants
seemed to know what they were talking about, but how could I
Being incapable of conducting the interviews was not, however,
as much of a problem as being totally surprised by the developments
that have revolutionized design and visual communications right
under my nose. Where had I been for the past few years? Was I
asleep under a workstation? What bothered me even more was learning
that other former print designers with whom I have frequent contact
could actually speak and understand this language. How could I be
so ignorant to what was going on?
Yet rather than rush to enroll in a class or hire a tutor, my
response to this professional crisis turned out to be not unlike my
time spent in high school French class—stubborn intransigence. As a
high school student I felt dwarfed by my schoolmates who surpassed
me. Their successes forced me to remain in French 1 until I had
mastered the course. I would not leave until I was certain I could
pass French 2 with ease. Yet upon being graduated, after four years
of French 1, my highest mark was a C+. Today, I still resent my
friends who found it so easy to learn and speak French and other
languages so well. Similarly, I feel dwarfed by all those young
designers who speak the new digital language so fluently.
“I wouldn't be a member of your club, even if you begged me,” I
said in frustration, several years back. Well, I'm not so adamant
now, but I haven't gotten any invitations. I realize that the
design world has changed so radically that not knowing this
language is like not speaking Spanish in Miami Beach. So, what I
need is help. Is it too late to learn a new language? Is it too
late to learn a new culture? Both are needed to survive in this new
world. It's not enough to hire a translator—these days they're
pretty expensive, anyway—it's important to have some degree of
fluency, even if it is only equivalent to a sixth-grade spelling
level (in fact, sixth graders already know how to make websites).
The first thing I want to know is how to speak the basic language;
the next thing is how to make complete sentences. And the third
thing is how to think for the screen the way I think for the
printed page. The biggest question is, can I do it?
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