Words without meaning

David Bernstein thinks designers should read the copy they are working with before they start playing with the text. That way, the finished design makes sense

A long time ago I invented a TV panel game. It was all about words. Contestants scored points according to the value of the words constructed. I called it – you guessed it – Words Worth. No TV company was interested. “TV is a visual medium,” they said. You could have fooled me. Anyway, as they reminded me, one picture is worth a thousand words.

I bet that fatuous overclaim has been responsible for a lot of mistaken graphic design and insults directed at writers.

The phrase occasionally pops out when I work with a designer on a page layout. The discussion begins with a smile and a request.

“Could we get rid of 50 or 60 words here?”

“By we you mean me?”

“Well, you wouldn’t want me to do it, would you?”

“No way. But why? Do you think the text is prolix?”

“No. Helvetica.”

“Wordy, repetitive,” I explain. “If so, show me where.”

This, of course, is a cunning move on my part as it’s a racing certainty he’s not read the text. He’s played with it, measured it, looked at it on the screen – for widows and things like that. But read it? No. That would inhibit him. He shrugs, turns on that smile again and plays his court card: “Less is more”.

Now I believe that too. Pruning text invariably improves it. First paragraphs, editors tell you, are often surplus to requirements. Fashioning text to fit the space is a useful creative discipline. My first ad agency creative director told me to mark out the size of the ad and write my copy inside the space.

However, designers are usually less interested in improving the text as removing the text. For the sake of a dramatic graphic or illustration. He plays his ace. “One picture is worth a thousand words.”

I finesse.”Half less is Demi Moore.”

Which gets us nowhere.

One picture may be worth a dozen words. But how many of them are worth having? Come to that, isn’t the reverse just as true?

At the Creative Summit, Channel 4’s and The Guardian’s mediafest this month, Melvyn Bragg is chairing a session entitled “One word is worth a thousand pictures”.

Words are important, as his lordship well knows. And what sayeth that other, even loftier Lord?

“In the beginning was the logo?” Do me a favour.

One response to the “one picture” argument is to ask the person who quotes it how he or she would draw that statement. How can that thought be conveyed as succinctly without the use of words?

“Words are important.” I would not pen something that obvious and seemingly naff were it not for the evidence of my eyes. Brand names miniaturised and placed discreetly at the corner of ads. Headlines and subheads superimposed vertically on the magazine page and possibly over an illustration. The key message placed along the bottom of a poster so that he who runs may miss it.

One of my special hates is arbitrary emphasis. For example, a word is printed in a second colour or put in caps or increased in size irrespective of its comparative importance. Does the designer actually comprehend the text, understand the language even? More to the point, what about the client who approves such idiosyncrasies? Does he or she seek a reason? If so, what’s the response?

“No reason guv’nor. It’s part of the design.” “Ah,” says the client.

I can imagine that happening at Thameslink. That rail service generates enough bad publicity without having to create its own in the form of station posters and car cards.

Imagine you’re a designer. (Go on, work at it.) You’re given the following text: What is Thameslink to you? “One less worry getting to Gatwick.”

Soä how do you lay it out? Do you give particular emphasis to any of the words? And, if so, which ones?

Right. Now for the professional solution – or rather the one run by Thameslink:

What is Thameslink to You?

“One less

Worry getting to


Seated opposite the car card, one might find the arrangement of type and size somewhat bizarre. Passing the poster, one receives the message “What You One Worry Gatwick.” Meaning?

Talking of which, here’s a translation of the label on the bottle from the French DIY superstore (Private View 20 August) EMAIL is enamel. NET is clean. Bet you knew that all the time.

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