Catchphrase cop-out

Whatever happened to the three Rs? We have become information parasites, communicating in soundbites and catchphrases taken from the Net rather than good old-fashioned knowledge. And graphic designers are one of the most guilty parties, says Janice Kirkpa

ILLITERACY – and the recent reports of its increase – have startled me and seem to be in direct proportion to technological developments in the production and reproduction of the printed word. Even the invention of the computer has not made us more intelligent or literate.

I find it terrifying that a generation has been denied a working knowledge of English grammar because it was deemed to be educationally unfashionable. Instead, it’s trendy to have access to the Net, that remote reservoir of raw information available on demand. Quantity, not quality, is the “in” thing. It’s as if we’re scared to fill up our own hard disks with information which might quickly pass its sell-by-date. We’ve become a generation of hunter-gatherers, tracking and feeding off other peoples ready-made information, rather than working hard to develop our own analytical intelligence and understanding.

The spoken and written word provide us with the basic building blocks and, by extension, analytical tools with which to build or deconstruct the narrative structure in the tangible world. If we don’t understand how language works, it’s doubly difficult to understand how the physical world works, let alone appreciate the nuances and depth of film and architecture or, on a more basic level, how to operate the video.

It appears that vague vogue words – “blur”, “pulp” and “fuzzy logic” – express a generation compelled to drift and grunge around in an unfocused world – a world lacking precision, clarity and understanding.

There’s no shortage of creativity in the UK, but how much more inventive would we be if we’d been taught to communicate this creativity, allowing us to make the connections between speech, type, products, buildings and cities?

I don’t believe that we can have too much knowledge or that knowledge compromises creativity or the possibility of an “original” creative response. We’ve all worked with clients who’ve been economical with the brief, and we’ve paid the price by having to do the whole job again. The world is rich and complex, like the most satisfying design: a multi-layered feast which, if we’re lucky, meets us on many different levels: functionality; aesthetics; cultural values; and technology. We get from art what we take to it.

Maybe it’s just that I don’t see the point in producing work that’s one idea thick, a graphic one-liner which makes us snigger or cringe and then forget. After all, there are already plenty of one-hit wonders in the tabloids and on the TV.

OK, so I have an admission. I can’t stand “wit” in graphic design. I detest little cardboard boxes containing carefully manufactured cracked cups which announce “we’re moving”.

I balk at the game of advertising where designers decorate the textual whims of the child-genius copywriter who starts every sentence with “and” and “but”. Graphic design is reduced to the level of a “catchphrase” gameshow, and designers are relegated to the lowly squad of decorators adding visual texture to the often thin copy of the word-based “idea” in advertising.

Instead, designers should provide for rich and deeply layered meanings to be encoded within language and typography; our “containers for language”. Whatever happened to the cultural meaning of colour, composition and form? Paul Klee would have died laughing at Saatchi’s surreal and patronising “New Labour New Danger” posters, where Tony Blair’s eyes peer from the bottom of a lady’s purse.

Graphic design in the UK in the Nineties is too light on structure and communication and too heavy on decoration, business and financial return. Design often directly effects the bottom line, but not always. At its most powerful, design can communicate in ways which transcend and enrich written language. Design can make us feel and think more than works alone. Design can give form to the future and, like art, it can tell us something about our human condition.

I worry that the UK will continue to produce generations of designers who cannot spell, who don’t read books and never write letters and never read the copy they so carefully set.

Will the UK become a country where designers disengage their brains when they design? Will we become the Stepford husbands and wives of Europe?

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