Words say so much about the current state of design

John Simmonds’ latest book couldn’t have come at a better time (see Design Business, page 14). Never, judging by Design Week’s Letters page over recent months, has the power of words been expressed with so much emotion within design.

Simmonds, along with WPP Group’s masterful writer Jeremy Bullmore and others, has argued long about the value the right words can bring to communication design. And the campaign is working.

Who’d have thought five years ago that we’d be bandying about the phrase ‘tone of voice’ so freely in a world largely dominated by visual expression. Yet while mobile phone giant Ericsson has been using UK writer Tim Rich to build its own language in communications designed by SAS, Boots the Chemists has developed an in-house team of writers to communicate on-brand.

The importance of words has long been acknowledged in advertising. ‘Go to work on an egg’, famously attributed to novelist Fay Weldon when she plied her craft in advertising, is one of the slogans that have stuck where its visual manifestations are lost over time.

In advertising writers can even aspire to become creative director, as former British Design & Art Direction president Larry Barker was at ad agency BMP DDB, whereas in design, with the exception of supergroups such as Enterprise IG and Simmonds’ employer Interbrand, they are more likely to be independent consultants. It is not surprising, therefore, that for the past couple of years, at Barker’s behest, D&AD has given prominence to writing in its awards scheme.

These things are often slow to take off in design, despite a strong lobby on the writers’ side. Not enough designers push the power of words – perhaps because they view text merely as a grey area on the page to work around the images. There are notable exceptions though, whose influence bodes well for better communication in future. Not least among these is Johnson Banks, known for marrying witty copy (self-generated) with potent imagery, particularly in poster designs.

But I can tell you from recent experience that the lobby is working – and in unlikely areas such as packaging. I had the privilege to judge the Scottish Design Awards last week and the use of words in the work stood out – possibly because the sample is relatively small. Reviewing our own results, I realise the same is true of Design Week Awards contenders, whose success or otherwise will be announced next week.

It’s great for both writer and consumer for words to play a bigger part. But there’s also something in it for designers, especially typographers. If words are more important, then so too is the way that they are put across on page, screen or pack.

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