Words are not enough

It’s no wonder that designers are met with suspicion and mild derision by the general public, says Tim Rich, when they are so ineffectual at communicating what they do.

How nice to see the much-practised art of talking bollocks about design celebrated in an amusing new commercial for McDonald’s. It opens on an empty room with white walls; enter a pointy-bearded man: “Some people would call me an interior designer – an inadequate description,” he says, in annoyingly breathy tones. “I am a life space architect. I manipulate space, I mould it, I make something out of nothing… Yes, I cost a little more, but then the best always does.”

The image cuts to a new sequence and a new voice over: “You too could make a load of money doing absolutely nothing. Just play Money for Nothing at McDonald’s and you could win over 100 000.”

To say that “the designer” has become a symbol of public contempt would be an overstatement. Mild derision, perhaps. Suspicion, definitely. In short, people don’t really like designers.

We shouldn’t get too worried about all this, however. Art critics and accountants are even less popular and estate agents remain reviled among all people of sound mind. In fact, the McDonald’s ad is a pretty gentle poke at the design profession. Yet, it’s worth considering why designers should appear on an advertisers’ list of “professions we can safely take the piss out of”.

The comic proposition of the McDonald’s ad is pretty straightforward; there are designers around who spout rubbish, get paid handsomely but achieve nothing. The reason it works: most people don’t have a firm idea of what “good design” is, don’t care and believe that a lot of it is a waste of money. It’s the emperor’s new clothes syndrome, except this time it’s the emperor’s new warehouse apartment.

I’ve met a few “life space architects” in recent years, but there are many more designers around who are honest, modest and genuinely want to produce something effective. The great problem facing the industry is not that it isn’t successful at what it does but that it is so horribly ineloquent about it. The public gets annoyed around the subject of design because – quite rightly – it doesn’t see what is intrinsically important about the “act” of designing; they either like using or looking at something or they don’t. Designers, on the other hand, tend to talk about the way something has been created rather than its end use.

Read the average consultancy press release and you’ll find plenty of discussion about colour, materials, light, image or type, but no explanation about why the designers believe the world wants or needs what has been created. It’s like a building company talking about how it puts up scaffolding and uses cement instead of how wonderful its houses are to own and live in.

The problem afflicts individuals as well as companies. “What do you do for a living?” is widely regarded as a gentle conversational enquiry, but to many in the industry (although not the likes of the McDonald’s designer) it is an almost insurmountable existential challenge inspiring tortuous verbal pirouettes around the subjects of art, commerce, brand values, communication and taste.

Most replies are met with confusion on the part of the questioner, who quickly runs for safe ground by asking “you must be very skilled on the computer?”. This – usually taken as an implicit sneer on the intellectual aspect of the job – is guaranteed to bring an already hot and bothered designer to the point of full volcanic eruption.

Is it any surprise that in the face of its inability to define why it is useful to the populace the industry has resorted to jargon? Space-head interior designers are certainly guilty, but packaging designers are the hardcore, E-wing, serial offenders. I was once presented with a press release that talked about “a restratification of the brand hierarchy and a freshly empowered appetite appeal” in relation to a tin of fruit.

At the risk of sounding commercials obsessed, the packaging world might learn something from a delightfully populist ad for Ronseal quick-drying wood stain. “It does exactly what it says on the tin” intones the no-nonsense spokesworkman, implying that some other brands ponce around in the words department. If only some packaging companies could describe themselves with such vigour.

So, it’s something of a conundrum; British designers are very good at producing effective, revenue-earning work, yet most fail to explain what they achieve to the world at large. No wonder Britain’s burgerscenti are happy to laugh along, to them design is no great shakes.

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What to do and see at Designjunction 2018

From 20-23 September, London’s Designjunction takes place on the South of the River Thames, and will see installations, exhibitions, talks and its well-known fair spread across three venues including Doon