As part of an effort to broaden the pool of writers for this blog and to cover some different areas of English Language study, there will be some new blog contributors posting soon and a few guest posts. In one such guest post by Nigel Ball, course leader for the BA (Hons) Graphic Design programmes at UCS, Ipswich, the focus is on the role of language in graphic design.
If you asked someone “what is graphic design?”, I’d put money on most people mentioning something about images. And if someone from within the discipline itself were asked, the term ‘visual communication’ would likely crop up. Both are obvious, and in and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with them. While it is undoubtedly hard to think of a piece of graphic design that isn’t visual, what such beliefs overlook in my opinion is the importance of English language to the subject. What follows are some reasons I believe English language is (nearly) as important as good image-making abilities for graphic designers.
There are some obvious reasons, even before you start designing, why English is a vital tool. First and foremost, the majority of design jobs will start with a ‘brief’. This will either be supplied by the client, or written by the designer themselves after meeting with a client. It will invariably need to be agreed by all parties before proceeding with the job inhand in order that there is no confusion about what is required by both parties. If there is confusion at the initial stage, then in all likelihood, the outcome will be confused and won’t communicate effectively. Within the brief, (and notes from client meetings), designers will often search for important key words that indicate a client’s values. These give measurable criteria that can be returned to as the design progresses.
Such importance is placed on the brief within design circles that even if a designer is working on a personal project they will invariably write their own brief in order to clarify their initial thoughts and set the parameters within which they intend to work.
After laying out the boundaries of a job, the designer will then typically move on to a research phase. While this will be dependent on what the brief is, common research themes for most jobs will include looking closely at who the client is and what they do, the client’s competition, as well as all the contexts that surround the brief. It is important to note at this point that designers rarely only work for clients who have the same interests as them, meaning research is a vital part of the design process. For example, I know next-to-nothing about opera. Were I contacted by the English National Opera tomorrow to do a job for them, I’d have to find out as much as I could about the subject in order to be able to do it justice.
Some of this research will be primary, some will be visual, but much will involve a lot of reading. This is one of the exciting things about being a designer: you get the opportunity to widen your personal knowledge on a huge range of interesting, (and sometimes boring), topics. But with any research comes a lot of searching for material, analysis and notation.
Once a designer starts the actual ‘design’, language may become less important as concepts are considered and visual ideas start to fly. However, there are many decisions to be made at this stage. Regardless of the idea, the sort of imagery to use needs consideration. Questions such as whether to follow a photographic or illustrative route arise. Even within these two choices there are a myriad of associated stylistic choices which can affect the way an image is interpreted. For example, a few years ago I ran a live project with students in collaboration with Suffolk County Council who were asked to create a recipe pack for food bank users. It was important in this instance that the design didn’t look like a luxury cookery book with recipes that were out of the reach to the audience. At the same time it was equally as important that way the design was styled didn’t visually ‘talk down’ to those that would need to use it. While such thoughts may affect the image-making process, the background analysis that is involved to question a stylistic approach involves a degree of clarity—any critical rationale for choice of imagery requires a core understanding of nuances of English language in order to clearly justify visual decisions.
Working with copy
There’s no avoiding text as a graphic designer. In most cases copy is provided by the client or a copywriter. In the case of the latter, these are highly skilled professionals who have to do as much research as a designer to get the right ‘tone of voice’ and ensure what they are writing is correct for the job-in-hand. Unfortunately, in the case of the former, many clients aren’t experts in English language, let alone understand that you cannot fit 1000 words of type into a space that is allocated for 250; unless you add more pages to a document for which clients are often unprepared to pay the extra printing costs. This means that as you type-set the words you are supplied, you inevitably have to edit, re-write and make alterations. If a designer does not have a good working knowledge of the English language and punctuation, they are going to struggle. Spelling mistakes and misplaced apostrophes could at best highlight poor attention to detail, and at worst cost you future work.
Aside from copy supplied to you, a starting point with many design ideas may be word play, and this can often drive graphic concepts. On these occasions it is vitally important to use the correct words in order that an audience interprets your design as you wish. For example, the Alan Fletcher poster above, designed as an ironic sideswipe at design ‘rules’ for a Chartered Society of Designers event in Glasgow in 1993, specifically uses the word ‘dogma’. Firstly, dogma is slightly comical—it contains the word ‘dog’ which conjures up thoughts of little Fido not letting go of something, which in turn perfectly complements the leaning of the word itself. Secondly, dogma has alliterative qualities when used with ‘down’—the phrase runs off the tongue as if a chant or slogan. Thirdly, and more importantly in regard to clarifying meaning, if alternative words such as ‘authority’, ‘rules’ or ‘system’ had been used, these would have been too suggestive of a political stance and would overshadow the piece’s intrinsic wit.
Selling your idea
Of great importance to any designer is convincing their client that their idea is the best idea. In contemporary practice this can often be through design studios pitching for a contract against each other. If you are lucky enough to be the sole company in line for a job, you will still need to communicate your ideas in a presentation or client meeting, treading the fine line between using design jargon and language a non-designer would understand. You may have a killer idea, but if the client is skeptical and you are unable to convince them otherwise, then you will either need to compromise your design integrity or the client may procure the services of someone else.
I hope I have managed to set out what I believe is the importance of English language to graphic design. One of the ironies of the relationship between the two is that at degree level study, many of the students that come to this arts based discipline are dyslexic or have a ‘fear’ of writing. It can then be a shock on starting a design degree at university to find out just how much of an equal emphasis is placed on research as on image making. As a counterpoint, those students who come to an arts-based degree with an excellent grasp (and/or love) of English language—maybe because they chose English as one of their A level subjects alongside an arts discipline—don’t always appreciate how this will benefit them as young designers. The realisation that their multiple skills can feed into a single interest can be a revelation: that their ability to think in words can be of equal use to them in the field of graphic design as it can to traditional A level progression route onto English related degree courses.
Heller S. (2012) Writing and Research for Graphic Designers: A Designer’s Manual to Strategic Communication and Presentation. Massachusetts : Rockport
Horberry R and Lingwood G. (2014) Read Me: 10 Lessons for Writing Great Copy. London : Laurence King