What happens if words become meaningless?

Once again, there’s a lot of concern with the semantics of design. We’d already moved on from “packaging” to “branding”. Now it’s “brand identity” where once it might have been “corporate” or “retail identity” as consultancies strive to refocus their “offer” – that Eighties marketing term – to better suit the needs of clients.

Is it because the hard times are ostensibly at an end that we can look beyond mere survival now? Or is it that designers are once more trying to ape their clients’ jargon in a bid to be taken more seriously? And does the shift in emphasis reflect anything other than a change of words?

Words are key to the communication business – despite the copywriters’ fear that their art is being eroded by visually emotive ads such as those for Levi Jeans and Volvo. Why else would the Design Council have taken such a strong slogan stance in its own identity? But more important is their meaning. Take the phrases “good design” and “creative excellence”, both of which we all bandy about in the hope that everyone will get our meaning. If we really understand what we’re talking about when we use these terms then why is there so much mediocre design about?

Design Council chairman John Sorrell has described creative excellence as “design that makes a difference”. Not a bad start, and a definition that could equally well apply to good design. But what are the key components? We’ve heard about form and function, but what about emotion? Then there’s fitness for purpose and viability in the technical and commercial sense.

You can blame clients for lack of vision when the difference they’re seeking relates only to the bottom line, but if a design fails to reach production because it doesn’t work or can’t be made within time and cost constraints then who’s fault is that? And if it lacks sensory appeal then why bother in the first place?

Let’s continue to use the phrases “good” or “excellent” to describe design. But let’s make sure they have a real meaning, conveyed through content as well as words.

Lynda Relph-Knight

Latest articles