Spellcheck charlies

Embarrassing spelling and grammatical mistakes can catch out many a professional, and designers are not immune. Jim Davies wonders if it really matters

Jen Yates – like Lynne Truss before her – has made a fortune from the failure of others to get to grips with the fundamentals of the English language. If you haven’t come across her, Ms Yates is the wooden spoon behind Cake Wrecks, an online archive of confectionery disasters (www.cakewrecks. blogspot.com), where gaffes grammatical and orthographic abound in icing sugar.

Bakers, it appears, are not only incapable of counting to a round dozen, their spelling is highly suspect, too. On Cake Wrecks, no celebration is immune from abject spelling or arrant stupidity. From ‘Happy Briday’, to ‘Thak you’, to ‘It a Gril’ – just put a plump piping bag in someone’s hands and bakers’ literacy levels suddenly sink like a helpless souffle. Not so much a case of dough, as doh! We’re not talking the odd marzipan meltdown here – the website is inundated with catastrophic creations sent in from all over the world. And the enterprising Yates needed no second invitation to publish a Christmas-friendly book and embark on a sell-out US tour.

But come on, bakers are bakers – we can expect them to know their eggs and flour, but why should they be able to put a tasty sentence together? And you could extend the same argument to designers – as long as they can tell their Garamond from their Goudy, commission a half-decent photographer, and conjure up an original idea or two, does it matter if they have kindergarten-level spelling skills?

Some of the designers I deal with aren’t exactly proud of their shortcomings, but will happily admit to them. They plumped for pictures because they never got along too well with words. This makes a kind of sense until you realise that they’re actually dealing with the nuances of language all the time. They may only be dressing them or framing them, but if the words are wrong or ugly or inappropriate, it’s like putting a tutu on a pig – ridiculous, in other words.

Of course, it’s a mistake to lump everyone together. There are some working designers who have a genuine flair for writing. You’ve probably enjoyed their deftly phrased insights on these very pages. Many more are formidable editors – they may not be able to craft a mellifluous sentence themselves, but they have a strong point of view and instinctively know whether something’s working. More often though, kerning comes before spelling, which can potentially be disastrous – after all, the man or woman on the street may not appreciate tight letter spacing, but they can tell when a pair of letters have been embarrassingly transposed.

In the old days of typesetters, designers had more of a safety net. Typesetting houses generally employed proofreaders, and with galleys passing several pairs of eyes, mistakes would often – though not always – be picked up. Now, the onus is firmly on the designer – for all the liberation of the Mac, they have had to become typesetters, subeditors and proofreaders rolled into one. It’s a testament to designers’ professionalism that many more gaffes don’t slip through, though with time and resources in short supply these days, we are sitting on a typo time bomb.

So ultimately, does it matter if designers know whether to put their i’s before their e’s, and such like? The answer’s just the same as to whether or not a designer needs to be able to draw. It’s preferable, but probably not essential. Sorry to sign off with such a half-baked answer.

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  • Kim Spickett November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    It matters little when you already have a job. However, any art director worth his salt would throw a C.V. peppered with spelling gaffes straight into the bin and you would not get your portfolio through the door for her/him to see! The moral? Hire a company to produce your C.V. for you if spelling and grammar are not your thing.

  • Graeme Bell November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I’m afraid the ‘half-baked’ conclusion to this piece shows half-baked thinking. Some areas of design such as interiors or products may entail little involvement with customer-facing text, but if designers want to be regarded as professionals rather than jobbing artisans, they need to be able to communicate with clients, suppliers and fellow team members clearly and using correct spelling and grammar.

    Clearly this has become more of a problem as the standard of English has plummeted in schools, but any designer who wants to be taken seriously in society has to take responsibility for the way they communicate, and do whatever is necessary to get their skills to a suitable level.

    As for the notion that anyone calling themselves a designer can lack the ability to draw….. that’s as ludicrous as saying that an airline pilot can get away with not being able to read the dials in front of them. If you can’t draw you can’t express your visual ideas, and that means you fail the dictionary definition of being a designer.

  • [email protected] November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    A lot of the most creative designers are dyslexic, so I’m also surprised that more gaffes don’t slip through. I am also surprised how few designers seem to know what an en-dash is and how to use it, let alone makings sure smart quotes are used or what an ellipsis is.

    Even though I’m reasonably literate, there are some words that I’m ’embarassed’ to say I can never spell correctly! I always run a spell checker on copy.

    However, a designer is a fool to themselves if they don’t make sure the client checks the final proof and signs it off for press. It is not our ultimate responsibility to ensure textual accuracy.

  • Dan Radley November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    A special mention should go to the designer at a Covent Garden agency who, in the final seconds before a W H Smith leaflet went to print, took it upon herself to change the spelling of the front cover headline to DICTIONARIES REDIFINED. Genius.

  • Hannah Shembry November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    As a graduate looking for a design job, I have thoroughly checked my CV for spelling. If it is sent in with spelling mistakes, yes it will be discarded, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t apply for a role where there are glaring mistakes in the website or recruitment advert. If you want to come across as being professional then surely communication is the key. A lot of roles I have looked at consider ‘Excellent Communication skills’ to be a vital asset when applying for jobs, so YES designers should be able to spell or at least use their spell checker.

  • Jim K Davies November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Half-baked thinking. I thought I was using my loaf.

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