All mouth, no trousers

Designers have become fluent in jargon. Peter Hall argues that this disguises the design industry’s latent insecurities and deflects attention from wider issues.

Tim Rich hit a nerve in his column (Private View, DW 6 February) when he argued that designers are unable to explain the benefits of what they do. He savours a press release in which a firm explains its redesign of a tin of fruit as the restratification of the brand hierarchy to evoke a freshly empowered appetite appeal.

Such magnificently pompous and euphemistic language is all too familiar to those acquainted with the business of design. Where else would someone praise a package of oats for balancing hard-earned brand equity with updated contemporary values?

Every professional, from the academic to the telephone psychic, finds recourse in a terminology that helps define the boundaries of their work. Psychics, apparently, read cards, feel vibes, and refer (among themselves) to cynical clients as crystal-ball busters.

The design profession, being relatively new, and somewhat unsure whether to define itself as a creative, artistic pursuit or a strategic business tool, is still developing a language. It is even in a state of anxiety over what to call itself. The commercial artists of the Fifties, who used to produce layouts for car brochures, became graphic designers sometime between the Sixties and Seventies. In the Eighties, they became design consultants, and then, depending on financial aspirations, became design collectives (we’re not worried about money), visual management consultants (we’re worried about money) or strategic marketing and communications firms (we’re really worried about money).

The further a design group leans towards the business world, the more its press releases, self promotions, and principals will adopt its language. In the US, words like the new verb to leverage (as in: “We used the hard-earned equity of the porridge oats brand to leverage its heritage on the shelves”) is about to reach burn-out through over-use.

At the opposite end of the scale is the design collective, which develops an esoteric language intended to deter all but those clients fundamentally committed to purchasing a piece of the collective’s creativity. One London group describes its creative approach thus: “We are here. We are not yet there, or there: This is what it is. Where are we going?”

Both forms of language serve to obfuscate the work that actually goes on behind the design group’s doors. And for good reasons. One reason is that design, presented in the wrong way, appears to be easy. While many people revere the solemn esoteric words of a doctor, or even the mumbo jumbo of a telephone psychic, they are equally likely to think of graphic design as something anyone can pick up after a few hours at the computer. A few choice professional words can help dispel that impression.

The second reason is that there often is no apparent benefit from a design project. Let’s say, for example, that Slick & Associates Visual Management Consultants redesigned a dubious airline’s corporate identity for $1m. A slick designer is more likely to dwell on the aesthetic and marketing challenges of the project than admit: “We just made an ill-maintained, mismanaged airline look sleek, safe and friendly.”

One honest culprit is Mike Salisbury, creator of Joe Camel, the US cartoon character accused of being des-igned to appeal to underage smokers. When asked recently if he ever thought about the moral and social implications of designing a cartoon character to sell cigarettes, he said, “As a designer you’re generally only interested in what you’re going to create, not the effect. You want to create a collectable piece of art.”

No wonder we bury ourselves in business or academic terminology as we strive to explain the benefits of promoting porridge, cigarettes and teeth-rotting fizzy drinks. Our specialised languages become all-absorbing, self-fulfilling systems that end up protecting us from bigger concerns. Design writers are as guilty as the next person, in that our function is often to bolster the profession with bellicose language. As we concentrate on the craft aspects of our jobs, we tend to lose sight of their true purpose.

Robert Oppenheimer realised, after the first atomic bomb tests, that he and his colleagues had become hopelessly absorbed in the technological challenges of designing the bomb, while ignoring its true intended purpose to destroy cities and people. You wonder if the designers of the US “advanced unitary penetrators” (reinforced bombs) that may yet drop on Iraq shared Oppenheimer’s misgivings.

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