As good as your words

Great design is as much about being forthright and arguing your corner as it is the execution and conceptualisation, explains the once reluctant orator Jim Davies

I recently had to stand up in front of 100 people at the Design Council and deliver a presentation. I’d dreaded it for weeks, but despite my excuses on the night my fellow speakers insisted I faced the music. Fuelled by adrenaline and a few beakers full of the warm South, I took the plunge, and towards the end of my allotted slot was beginning to fancy myself as the next Jonathan Ross.

Or perhaps not. Writers – like designers – are often self-conscious, self-contained animals. Their flashes of creativity and inspiration tend to be conducted in private, as they commune intently with their notebooks or PCs, shaping their thoughts into physical form. Bulging-eyed and predominantly nocturnal, these timid creatures thrive in small, tight packs, rarely venturing outside the safety of their carefully marked territory. They are certainly far more comfortable communicating in their chosen medium than talking about it in public.

For most designers, the creative process quickly becomes intuitive, taking raw information, blending it with ideas and experience to come up with something fresh and appropriate. But ask one how they arrived at a particular solution and often they’re flummoxed. It just happened. It’s what I do. This is a frustrating response, particularly for design critics and students, so desperate to analyse and deconstruct the journey from problem to solution. But you wouldn’t expect a footballer to deliver a post-match interview with the same finesse as he can deliver a ball, so why should a designer be able to explain and rationalise their working processes?

Because, actually, it’s a powerful and often overlooked part of the designer’s repertoire. Great design is not only about conceptualising and execution, it’s also about being convincing and forthright, of arguing your corner. In the case of designer-entrepreneurs like James Dyson and Trevor Bayliss, it can be the difference between success and failure. But it can pay dividends in any walk of design. One of the most impressive, and these days successful, designers I’ve worked with got a double first in Modern Languages from Oxford. Smart and articulate, his trump card was his ability to ‘talk a good design’ – in several different languages, if he’d chosen to. You may have been a bit dubious about a particular layout when you went into a meeting, but by the time you came out, you felt you’d just had a brush with genius.

Of course, it’s easy to label designers as intense, slightly nerdy characters, obsessed with visual minutiae and the niceties of their Macs. But, actually, they come in all shapes, sizes… and volumes. There’s a small noisy band of them who are either ardent apologists for their profession or – more probably – just like the sounds of their own voices. These wanton self-publicists haunt the international design conference circuit; they pop up as talking heads on TV; they’re in every magazine and newspaper supplement going, offering their opinion on anything from recycling to the construction of bras.

But the fact that they surface so frequently suggests they’re a bit thin on the ground. Meanwhile, the silent majority are just keeping their heads down, shunning the limelight as though it was a prison-camp spotlight. Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that this legion of shrinking violets needs to enrol on a stand-up comedy course or get to grips with Stanislavskian method acting. But they do need to get out of themselves a bit more. They need to develop the confidence and the wherewithal to say what they think, and explain why they’re thinking it.

Most obviously, this helps to include and reassure clients. It makes internal collaboration fluid – ideas can more easily be shared and developed. But more than that, it really encourages clarity of thought and rigorousness of idea. Using words to explain concisely and convincingly why you’ve made a certain mark, chosen a particular colour scheme, material, or photographer means you have to ask questions of yourself. It forces you to take a step back from what you are doing, to reassess assumptions, to consider whether there might be a better route. It means you can approach a project in a more analytical way, rather than falling back on the less reliable inspiration or gut instinct.

As for me, now I’ve had an audience in the palm of my hand, albeit for five shaky minutes, I’m hungry for more. Before you know it, I’ll be on a TV screen near you fumbling with a bra and waxing lyrical about its perfect marriage of femininity and functionality.

Please e-mail comments for publication in the Letters section to lyndark@centaur.co.uk

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