David Bernstein: Carefully chosen words

Using the right words can make the difference between an ad that misses the mark and one that makes your consultancy really stand out, says David Bernstein

The back pages of this magazine intrigue me. I scan them, not for a job, but to see how design consultancies design ads for themselves. Ad agencies, in my experience, are better at extolling their clients’ virtues than their own. An ad has to distinguish the brand from its competition. This principle applies to design groups, crucially in an appointments spread.

I perused one such (DW 4 August, pages 42-43) in some detail. There were 29 ads. Most were business-like, clearly signalling the job, the sort of person sought and the seeking company. They would not have looked out of place in any appointments page. Perhaps when it comes to a career move, a job ad simply has to look like a job ad.

Though I feel I might be attracted to a company wanting my creative skills if it chose to demonstrate some of its own. A few attempted this on 4 August. Standing out from the crowd was a mock eyesight test, a neat way of making a virtue of the necessity of a cramped space full of small type. The diminishing headline read, “E Business wants to meet a shit hot Web artworker with creative mind and prodigious talent” (promising start: alas it continued), “for website development and day-to-day maintenance”. So that’s the job – maintenance person. And, to confirm it, the company proclaims: “We provide the visionary insight and you the excellent skills to drive our Macs or PC’s” (note the apostrophe). There’s demarcation for you. The employee provides skills, but not insight. What about this “creative mind” then?

The other ads which caught my eye had one thing in common: none of the companies was based in London. This presumably makes them try harder. And all of the headlines involved personal discomfort. “Fat balloons wanted – as close to bursting as possible”, cries a Midlands digital media agency. Would I want to be thought of as a fat balloon? Bursting is a common complaint. A Maidenhead consultancy wants “designers bursting with energy and imagination”. Interestingly, the word “energy” is larger than “imagination”, which conveys priorities. Of course, I could be accused of taking the design literally, of assuming that the ad was consciously designed, that size matters.

“London or bust?… think again” is a design outfit’s defiant headline, defiantly set out in white type out of an orange background. “If you are a creative Mac designer with strong Flash, Dreamweaver, ASP/ Java and Photoshop skills, then we are the Oxfordshire based design agency for you.” How much more defiant to have said “we are the design agency for you” and to have put the location reference somewhere else. The adjective in diminishing the noun diminishes the consultancy.

Talking of diminishing, here is the headline of the fourth provincial ad. “We’re looking for a designer/ artworker to help reduce our piles.” Of work presumably. But the advertiser is “a rapidly growing healthcare agency that has had it’s (sic) fair share of infectious diseases” etc, etc, all of which, sort of, justifies the headline.

Pressure on space often forces the writer to juxtapose disparate elements at the expense of meaning. A sign outside a Taos, New Mexico, sculpture park reads “No trespassing after 6pm”. There are two notices here coalesced into nonsense. It took me three attempts to get my head around the following. “As comfortable artworking a 30- page manual on acne as designing a national charity poster campaign, you should be fluent in QuarkXPress, Photoshop and Illustrator with the administrative skills of a ward sister!” Maybe punctuation would have helped.

A comma is a courtesy to the reader: it says “draw breath here” and thus aids comprehension. There are, of course, other ways of signalling pauses – for example, line breaks. But what happens when the sentence is meant to run on? There is an interesting example on the cover of the same issue of Design Week: Dome Europe looks to design to rocket Greenwich venue to theme park success

The break plus the cap “G” turned one sentence into two. Meaning is blurred (is “rocket” a noun?)

It’s a common problem. The person who wrote the line knows what it is meant to convey, but the reader comes to it cold. Communication, as I never tire of saying, begins at the end – with the receiver. Most appointments advertisers know this, know the audience, know what works – and I’ll settle for efficiency.

Latest articles