Dave McCourt thinks some thoughts...

Keeping design dark

Posted in: Design, Ethics

Design can sometimes be seen as elitist. Designers sometimes like this as it elevates design above more, perhaps mundane creative arts such as sign-writing and printing. Despite being a social activity, design can also be a costly activity and some designers like to keep it this way by talking up design’s importance.

Neville Brody is a hero. His body of work is beyond reproach. He is a design icon, an inspiration and I’ve got nothing but respect for him. But I read a quote from him in a recent issue of Creative Review magazine (April 2010) about the work his company, Research Studios, have done for the BBC’s online presence (unassumingly called the ‘Global Visual Language’). They’ve done a very good job of rationalising and standardising the Beeb’s output and this is what he had to say about it:

The core approach has been to find a simple, modern and compelling experience based around dramatic and scalable editorial concepts. I envisage more inventions and nuanced ideas coming into play as the project evolves and the design starts to reach into the distant corners of the map.

This is design waffle. Sometimes called design bullshit. It is the kind of nonsensical, pretentious corporatese that designers spout to try and make design and the business of design sound like it is more than what it is. Design is important, don’t get me wrong. Design is fundamental. But couching design in language that aims to restrict its understanding and limit its access to people is not right. This isn’t the worst example I’ve seen but one that made me want to write about waffle.

So what was he really saying? This is my interpration of Brody s quote:

Our approach was to find a simple, interesting visual design based on using good stories for the content. I think we’ll try some ideas out and do some tweaking whilst we implement the design.

It’s not as impressive-sounding or as vague as the original but it is more understandable – and this is the point – corporatese is designed to obfuscate, to conceal. This isn’t an attack on Neville Brody – he isn’t alone in talking this kind of crap, it is widespread in the design industry. The reason being the practice of design is unsure of itself, it doesn’t know how to describe what it does and as a result it is often under pressure – pressure to justify its importance and its pricing. A lot of design is about a functional process and a lot of it is about intuition and experience and this can often be hard to put into to words.

Design and printing have long been thought of a as dark art: esoteric and little understood by its customers and users. One of design’s problems is its inability or unwillingness to reach out and make the public understand what it is and what it does. This is why a lot of logos are designed by “my friend’s nephew who’s got a computer”: if you don’t understand something then you don’t know what you are getting and you don’t care where you get it from. We lack a design education in the UK and most people would struggle to understand with what designers do each day. Corporatese certainly isn’t going to help and only exists to make design appear more pseudo-intellectual. There are already many places were design is analysed in a proper academic and intellectual way. Corporatese operates quite separately from academia and intellectual rigour – it is usually presented to clients and the media as a post-design-process justification to impress or persuade. It is something added afterwards.

I can understand why some designers (and especially top agencies) try to make things sound like this. Getting design to be acknowledged as an important part of communication and strategy, and just getting around the table in the first place is difficult. But it is a vicious circle: decision makers and budget holders don’t understand design; designers often talk in ways to make things seem more important and complex than they are; decision makers and budget holders think this talk sounds important and complex and therefore invite designers to the top meetings, still unaware of what they mean. The designers do a good job, the designers charge a lot of money. The decision makers and budget holders think they’ve had what they needed.

Corporatese can be the difference between a small job and a several hundred thousand pound job. A logo is a logo whether it is done by a friend’s nephew or by Neville Brody. Without an understanding of design it would be hard to know the value of one over the other – other than the corporatese and the fee. Clients can fall back on corporatese too as a safety blanket: it sounds complex and important therefore it must be worth a lot more money. And designers fall back on corporatese to win projects and make a lot of money.

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