Be a Grand Inquisitor

I receive at least two questionnaires every week, mostly from design students, asking me to provide them with information and/or wisdom—which, as it happens, I am happy to do. Yet these questioners don't always approach it effectively. Given the volume (and I know I'm not alone in receiving these requests), I think it's time someone offered some advice.

A reporter's bag of tricks: notepad, iPod, cellphone, laptop, chewing gum.

A reporter's bag of tricks. (Flickr user liltree, under Creative Commons license)

Most emails begin along the lines of “I know you are busy, but…” and then continue in variations of “I am working on a report [or thesis or whatever] and would appreciate your valuable comments.” Valuable is an operative word. However, sometimes—and indeed more often than I would like—they write: “I have to do a report on a designer and my professor assigned you to me.” Not exactly flattering. That is often followed by something like, “Would you answer the following questions so”—and this is unstated, but the meaning is clear—“you can tell me who the hell you are and give me enough basic information so I don't have to do more than a simple Google search on your name?” Every so often they add, “I should have done this earlier, my project is due tomorrow….”

Let us begin with a brief discussion of the word “etiquette” from the French étiquette, signifying “a ticket of admission.” Having first appeared in English in 1750, it is a code of behavior that outlines “expectations for social behavior according to contemporary conventional norms within a society, social class or group.” It could be argued that if enough people practice “bad” etiquette, that would become the standard or norm. Nonetheless it is still rude if the receiver takes offense. Since I frequently receive those “you were assigned to me” queries, I could assume that the professor who “assigned” me neglected to establish the proper etiquette of first contact or, even worse, accepts this greeting as the “norm,” discourteous as it may be. Whatever the reason, the student has started off on the wrong foot and with most people will not get the desired result. Email has made approaching “assigned” designers easy, but it is just as easy for us to ignore them if the email does not strike a positive note.

The introductory greeting is just the first hurdle. I will usually give the student benefit of the doubt (or blunder), but most interviewees (busy as they are) don't have the tolerance for naiveté. My advice would be to say, “I have selected to report on you because I admire the work you've done and have some questions that would enlighten me, as well as my classmates, if you would be so kind as to answer them.” Don't grovel but acknowledge the designer's status.

Earning someone's limited attention is just the first part; getting answers to the questionnaire is the goal. So, avoid the boilerplate and ask some good questions. Forget the “Where were you born?” “How did you get into design?” “What's your favorite color/typeface?” “Are you now or have you ever been…?” approach. Start with a question that shows you've done some preliminary research or, even more ambitious, have a thesis about your subject that you'd like to have proved or disproved. The fact is, everyone likes answering smart questions and will often come back to you with smart answers (although even the best of questions may only elicit short answers from those who have no patience for email—in that case, suggest the option of a phone or Skype interview).

Now that you've impressed your subject with an astute opener, this should segue nicely into the ideal scenario. If an interviewer demonstrates the preferred etiquette that shows respect (and some deference), then a good rapport should follow suit. But to be certain we're on the same page here: When “cold calling” with a questionnaire, you are better off starting out with a preliminary note requesting the interview, either by email or voice, or even face to face. We all have our preferences; I usually prefer going the email route, but on occasion I will do a phone interview or, more rarely, if time permits, an in-person one.

The criteria for how, where and why are simple. Foremost is convenience: Email is fast and efficient for both parties. Second is time: Telephone can save time (perhaps not for you since you will need to transcribe, but it may be better for your subject—and if the thesis presented by the interviewer demands detailed responses, it makes more sense to do it verbally). Third, a convincing argument: If the reason for an in-person visit tickles my fancy, I'm happy to meet the inquisitor. There is one more criterion: place. I receive a large number of requests from distant locales, so so email is the way to go.

What makes a “smart” questionnaire? Here are some good questions that I received recently. Since it was a focused group of questions on design writing, it gave me the chance to respond with more depth than my usual boilerplate answers. Although the questions revealed that the asker was on a fishing expedition, they nonetheless built to a nice crescendo.

  • Why does graphic design need theory? Is it in order to give the subject weight/legitimacy/credibility or enhance public perception of the subject? 
  • How has the relationship between critical writing and the creative industries changed recently, and do you think there is more theory now? 
  • Fine art theory, with its substantial historical roots, could be argued as being taken more seriously than design theory. Are there lessons to be taken from fine art theory? 
  • As the market becomes more accessible with the increase of online activity and immediacy of blogs, how do you view the legitimacy of online and public opinions compared to academic opinions? 
  • How important is graphic design history in graphic design education? 
  • How should graphic design change in response to constant changes in technology? 
  • What drew you to focus increasingly on writing for visual communication above other forms of art practice? 
  • In your opinion, how does writing improve design, if at all? 
  • What motivates you to write theory? 

Similarly, I received this one a few months ago. The first question almost stopped me as it belied the more purposeful aim of the subsequent ones regarding hand lettering (run-on sentences aside):

  • What's your occupation? 
  • Hand lettering the last few years have [sic] become more and more hand drawn and DIY-looking (often), even in projects and campaigns for big corporate names, do you think this type of style is more tolerated these days because it has had such a booming popularity, or do you think people are getting tired of the traditional, slick, corporate look? 
  • Designers … are doing a lot of type originally drawn by hand which is scanned in, to work on it further on the computer with either tracing it or adding bits to type treatments, do you consider this as hand lettering? 
  • If not, do you think it ever will be considered hand lettering, as the skill continues to evolve, and medias continue to mix and merge? 
  • Where do you feel that the line between hand lettering and computer made lettering is drawn? 

Focus is the key to a good questionnaire (or interview). Too often the fishing expeditions reveal a lack of research or understanding. When the question-giver succeeds in convincing her subject that the questionnaire is not a “one size fits all” form letter, and that a concept bolsters each question, the subject is more likely to engage, and even be insightful. One last thing to remember: Don't ask questions that do not pertain to the person asked, and most of all, don't say “Dear Mr. X” when you're sending it to Mr. Y. Now, that's an interview stopper.

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.