John Spencer: “There’s no bullshit like design bullshit”

Offthetopofmyhead’s founder and creative director John Spencer, says jargon and bullshit are getting in the way of people understanding and valuing design.

When did designers first come up with the idea that bullshit is good? Why do we think it makes us sound grown-up and clever and important? I started in the design industry in the late seventies. In those days, all the designers I knew and worked with were down-to-earth and straight-talking. But as the years have rolled on and the industry has grown, so has our appetite for showing off. Graphic design is about making sense of things but the way we talk about our work often makes no sense at all.

Lost in a confusion of words

We’ve elevated bullshit to an art form with our unintelligible and sometimes unintentionally comical pronouncements. We use jargon words like “differentiation”, “touchpoints” and “behaviours”. We twist language into gobbledegook like “direct unequivocal propositions”, “convergent tangible context” and “competitive brandscape analysis”. And we give free rein to puffed-up nonsense like “brand is not a product; it is the product’s source, its meaning and its direction, and it defines its identity in time and space”. We risk everything we do getting lost in a confusion of words.

Here are some more examples of gibberish, ridiculousness and absurdity. And yes, these are real quotes:

“We integrate inspired design with expert execution to articulate immersive and resonant brand experiences.”

“The new identity stems from a paradox effect surrounded by a combination of funk layering beyond formality.”

“A brand is a promise wrapped up in an experience.”

“The ‘reveal’ analogises the mystery of obscured truths followed by the catharsis of narrative conclusion.”

“Our process acts as an invisible facilitator applying strategic rigour to bold thinking.”

“It’s not a logo, it’s a symbol… a way of life.”

“We conduct new perspective workstreams to create insights and stimuli that feed our ideation workshops.”

“We provide communication strategies which create resolution to problematic aspects of effective communication.”

People value what they understand

Bullshit bamboozles people and makes them feel stupid. And that’s just not playing nice. But worse, it gives them reason to think we’ve got something to hide. We risk creating the impression that what we do has little substance or significance and that not even we believe in it.

It’s almost like our love of overblown language has come about because deep down we aren’t convinced design does have much value. That we don’t think people are in love with brands and want to have “conversations” or “authentic relationships” with them. That we suspect brand loyalty is not much more than habit and convenience, and that people just want stuff that works well, is reasonably priced and looks good.

Blinded by “science”

We complain that design is misunderstood and undervalued. We bellyache about how it’s too often thought of as a bolt-on or a “nice to have” when it should be a driving force. But people don’t have misconceptions about design because they’re stupid, they have them because we’re forever putting a spin on it, blinding them with “science” and being inconsistent with the language we use. People value what they understand.

I came across an online marketing guide that pulled together thirty definitions of brand. No wonder people are confused – and cynical. One definition ought to be enough. It’s ridiculous that we’re struggling to communicate what design is all about decades after it emerged as an industry.

Every single day, designers across the UK do exciting and thought-provoking work, but jargon and bullshit are getting in the way of people recognizing its massive contribution to business and society.

We owe it to ourselves and everyone else to be articulate about what we do and why design is so important.

A design industry standard

Clear communication should to be a design industry standard. It ought to be taught in design schools. Bob Gill used to make his students tell him about their work before they showed it to him. It would have been an unforgiving test of their communication skills. He wouldn’t have put up with any bullshit.

Author and former creative director Dave Trott says, “We can either use language to invite people into a conversation, or we can use language to keep people out. And that’s what jargon is designed to do, keep people out.”

If we use jargon, we reveal our insecurity. If we use pretentious language, we expose our arrogance. But if we use language that anyone can understand, people are much more likely to value what we do.

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Comments
  • Simon Dry September 14, 2018 at 1:46 pm

    Thank you John Spencer for this article – I genuinely HATE the jargon spouted by so many creative people. It’s why I try to socialise with people from other backgrounds so I don’t get sucked into using it! And there is no doubt that clients appreciate straight talking, with openness and honesty, so they actually understand what I am saying. It creates proper dialogue that leads to genuinely effective design solutions.

  • Marty Neumeier September 15, 2018 at 11:51 pm

    John, as a designer and the originator of some of these concepts, I’m appalled at how they’ve become twisted into meaningless pretzels. But I think we have to differentiate between bad concepts and bad writing. Personally, I couldn’t do my work without concepts like differentiation and touchpoints. They’re as important to design as they are to business strategy. How can we partner with clients if we don’t have a common language or care about management principles?

  • Lukas September 16, 2018 at 11:17 am

    Hey, great article. I just want to add that for us as a ux designers, it is almost rule number one to communicate to people with language they understand, not just this ego chasing jibberish. When I was rejected from design school I was thinking why did they not accepted me and one of the reasons I came up was that I would not fit in their exclusive world only for chosen ones willing to bend their thinking, to start act like an elite, talk like nonsense and visiting art openings. Sad, sad world.

    • Lukas September 16, 2018 at 11:20 am

      at the end I don’t regret that. I guess I’m now more designer than they ever will be, with people on first place in my mind.

  • Gloria Baldwyn September 16, 2018 at 4:56 pm

    Wonderfully refreshing plain English. Thank you, John.

  • Mark Olson September 16, 2018 at 5:54 pm

    Amen brother! I’m fortunate to live and work in the Dakotas and Minnesota where folks don’t tolerate bullshit in any form, especially when seeking professional help. When an industry matures it tends to attract flimflam artists. Design has only recently been recognized here as a valuable service worth paying for, so everyone is still using simple language to describe it, sell it, and buy it.

  • Shaun Boateng September 17, 2018 at 8:35 am

    I feel a lot of this language is being used by slightly insecure people in agencies, to make themselves appear more intelligent to their colleagues.

    I once asked an account handler how a presentation went, and she replied that the client was ‘in the process of crystallising their thoughts’ …ie – they were still thinking about it!

    I now feel I need a dictionary or google translate to understand some design briefs or people at work these days.

  • Jan Atkins September 17, 2018 at 9:24 am

    Oh music to my ears….I just spent three hours on the phone to a friend who’s been in the industry like me forever, talking about this.

    “We can either use language to invite people into a conversation, or we can use language to keep people out. And that’s what jargon is designed to do, keep people out.” HOW TRUE!

    There’s a terrible snobbishness in design now, from people that aren’t creative. They do the talking and by default alienate those that do the work. They over analyse, intellectualise and add fluff and nonsense to make themselves sound clever and take ownership of the very idea that was materialised by hard working designers. I hear things like ‘language that the client likes and understands’ excuse all the time. Its a sad indictment of our industry to relegate designers to the benches, those that put pen to paper and imagined those ideas in the first place. Designers are thinkers too, when was it cool to sit them at macs to just produce? We need to talk aesthetic and problem solving again. Get back to basics. Im a creator, a thinker and I want design back, with it’s sense of humour and it’s straight talking. I want to fall in love again with communication, with ideas, techniques and words and pictures. You’re so right – Its all just got a bit too serious.

  • Dave September 17, 2018 at 9:24 am

    “Bullshit bamboozles people and makes them feel stupid.”

    “We risk creating the impression that what we do has little substance or significance and that not even we believe in it.”

    I think these two quotes sum up the argument – I think we strive for a ‘scientific’ approach to what we do in a bid to validate it, claim expertise, and (dare I say it) charge more for it. Many marketers have strived to apply scientific validity to marketing for years in an effort to elevate its standing. I think many ad and design practitioners are striving to do this too, so we can create an equal ‘playing field’ with our clients who can fundamentally claim more expertise in marketing than we can. But the flaw there is that that’s not what clients want us to do (often). We need to bring a more _critical_ perspective to what we do: more validation of what we propose to clients isn’t a bad thing, but it can be done without the BS and jargon in reality.

  • Andy September 17, 2018 at 9:43 am

    Finally someone talking sense!

  • Ezri Carlebach September 17, 2018 at 10:06 am

    I think the answer to the first question (When did designers first come up with the idea that bullshit is good?) may lie in the assimilation of design culture into corporate culture, which began to sink into bullshit when a Californian telco imported language and concepts from controversial mystic G.I. Gurdjieff. It spread inexorably from there (see André Spicer’s recent book ‘Business Bullshit’, published by Routledge).

  • @faddyfinch September 17, 2018 at 10:17 am

    I recently wrote an article entitled “What we really mean when we use words like agile.” I’d heard myself and other designers using jargon in an attempt to sound like a specialist. I questioned what was actually being said and for fun created a glossary of terms:
    https://blog.prototypr.io/what-we-really-mean-when-we-use-words-like-agile-948fe9c81b5

  • Karan Bhardwaj September 17, 2018 at 10:21 am

    Nice John, we shouldn’t be doing the opposite of what we set out to achieve with design when explaining it.

  • Melissa Hay September 17, 2018 at 10:33 am

    I couldn’t agree more and one I do make myself use constantly is, the ‘KISS’ principle!
    For those who don’t understand the acronym ‘Keep It Simple Stupid!’ x

  • Neil Littman September 17, 2018 at 11:00 am

    Been wondering for some time when an article like this would appear so, thank you John Spencer. I could probably fill a book with the rubbish I have heard used over the years in meetings trying to justify concepts and ideas in ways that were completely unnecessary and only served to alienate or baffle clients as well as what I have seen written online. I have also noticed the language or ‘jargon’ has changed over time and certain ‘buzzwords’ are more in vogue now than they were a few years ago. I have noticed recently is now many times designers refer to their solutions as ‘playful’ or ‘organic’ etc. Maybe this article will make creatives sit up and take note.

  • mike dempsey September 17, 2018 at 11:11 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with John Spencer’s views about the increasing use of bullshit in the design industry.

    As a graphic designer, a lot of what I am involved with is, making the complicated simple. That’s what we do well. But in the process of conveying this to a client, in say, an initial proposal is where the world of invented jargon, buzzwords and gobbledygook thrive.

    Architects are past master of gobbledygook e.g. they can never refer to a room as a ‘room’, but a ‘volume’. The worst culprits are art gallery curators, they are masters of total obscuration. Then we have the medical profession with their litany of terms e.g. pediatric (why not ‘children’?). Then there’s the financial industry and of course the law. They all have their own special language, perhaps to intentionally keep us out, to put us on the back foot or simply to charge us more.

    Back in the 1980’s writer John Simmons wrote a book for WHSmith on how to communicate internally. It was called, ‘The Trouble with Words’. It is so beautifully clear and simple. Great advertising copywriter’s like the late David Abbott are masters of clear, understandable, beautifully crafted simplicity. And simplicity, as anyone knows, is the hardest thing to achieve.

  • Jonathan Davis September 17, 2018 at 1:07 pm

    Three years ago, after several decades running design businesses I quit. Why? Many many reasons but the one that comes round time after time is that described by your article. When I started into college in the early 1980s design was fun, entrepreneurial, exciting, serious and an opportunity to do something in a young developing industry with a god given artistic talent. Nothing more. Being paid to think and draw all day, that was enough. The money wasn’t the motivation. The idea that it was possible to do this was enough. Clients were entrepreneurial salesman in the infancy of marketing and the work was remunerated in such a way that there was time. Time to think, time to make mistakes, time to explore. The opportunity to work in teams t built for the purpose. The opportunity was enough and frequently jobs were over budget due to passion.

    Then came the bean counters. Design needed to be rationalised. The money needed to be justified. The idea that someone who spent all day thinking and drawing might actually be able to talk about it was belittled and the suited and booted account handlers moved in bringing process and accountability. Not a bad thing in some ways but out of the door went common sense and the passion and in walked the silver tongued. For me, the strategy was always part of the process, design thinking a direct connection to the drawings. Justification created through a pure interaction between a few knowledgable passionate people. Rarely informed by research and rarely criticised.

    The result of change.

    Surround work with style boards and more and more words and phrases to justify ever higher fees to pay ever increasing army’s of talkers. Design wages have in real terms gone down. None of us do it for the money. It is a passion and as such should be valued. Not derided into the last chapter of the process

    In the end, the armies of talkers cannot do we what do. We draw the talk and honestly, the less talking they do the more time we have to draw and express business improvements and brand innovations through design. After all, what is design if not a means to express something with out talking.

    DE-SIGN.

    Great article. No bull. So refreshing. Thank you.

  • Mark North September 17, 2018 at 5:59 pm

    Don’t forget John, apparently we are all ‘disrupters’ these days. That’s right, all of us. And I for one am excited about that. Oh no! I think bullshit must be contagious!

  • Ruth Shearn September 17, 2018 at 6:31 pm

    Great piece. I was a suit at a big advertising agency in the 1980’s. Yes, I wore big shoulder pads! At first I was in awe of the jargon. Then I quickly learnt that only insecure people rely on it. If you’re confident in your capabilities (whichever side of the table you sit) you don’t need bull. I set up my own agency 26 years ago and one of our founding principles still stands – no jargon, ever. Great piece.

  • Romario Eichlig September 18, 2018 at 12:55 pm

    Design jargon became a dangerous sh here in my country due to some old book that set strict words to address logo design.

    Since then you can only speak as that book taught you; else people will curse you and even say you don’t deserve a job for not saying their prefered word, lol…

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