(Fogra 29_WF)Job:08-28858 Title:RP-Writing & Research for Graphic Designers
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(Fogra 29_WF)Job:08-28858 Title:RP-Writing & Research for Graphic Designers
#175 Dtp:225 Page:41
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Writing & research for graphic designers
usage. No school, however, exists to teach this stuff—yet
take virtually any promotional brochure for a design firm,
scratch the surface, and you will find variations of the
following platitudes:
• Design is a tool for achieving specific results. Being
responsive, we begin each project by learning exactly
what results our client expects. This then becomes our
communications goal.
• Establishing an appropriate, positive emphasis is the
key. This, in conjunction with good graphic design,
is our special skill.
• Our work exhibits a great diversity of styles and
imagery. In an era of design specialists, we invariably
believe that as varied as the messages are, so should
the means of conveying them.
These statements by three very different design firms are not
inherently disingenuous, but when viewed as representative
of most promo copy, they are formulaic. Should all selling
copy sound alike? Imagine what the prospective client who
gets pitched by many designers must think after reading the
same phrases and sentiments over and over. The client probably
thinks they’ve all read the same copy of How to Succeed in Business
without Really Trying, or at least have hired the same PR firm.
To further the point that, despite the remarkable diversity
among design firms today—their hype comes from the same
copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Design Firm Promotions—the
following phrases have been culled from a variety of sources.
In fact, virtually no two of the design firms represented by
these unattributed statements do the same kind of work.
For purposes of clarity they are organized according to the
six major thematic categories.
One has to wonder whether these designers and firms read
one another’s promotional material or whether these pearls
just develop over time in their own hermetically sealed environ-
ments. Design firms tend to stink of their own perfume. In fact,
virtually all of the designers represented by the statements on
the previous pages are fluid and literate when talking about their
work. But put them in front of a keyboard and they choke up.
Of course, there are those who eschew the conventions of
promo writing. Some designers have gone overboard in the
other direction, emphasizing human, rather than business,
values, such as this one: “During our day, we encourage pride
but not possessiveness.” Rarely, in an open-office environment
can an idea emerge and evolve without being “touched” by
more than one person. This interaction is what tests the idea
to ensure its rightfulness. Others prefer wit and humor, such as
this send-up of a famous quote: “When I hear the words design
philosophy I reach for my X-Acto.” (The reference being to
Hermann Göring, who said, “When I hear the word culture,
I reach for my Browning!”)
But the most understated and curiously poetic piece that
this writer ever read can be attributed to Henry Wolf in the
book New York Design: “My firm is not unique but it com-
bines the facilities of photography and design under one roof.
I photograph for my own concepts.” Though this quote is a
masterpiece of clarity and concision, one might nevertheless
wonder, does he get much work?
The Music of Words
When I was a graphic designer, I orchestrated words into a
symphony of typefaces. They were not my words, so I typo-
graphically interpreted other people’s thoughts and mean-
ings. They weren’t my typefaces either; I simply selected and
composed them to make a demonstrative expression of content.
When writing, however, the orchestration of the manuscript
goes hand in glove with the composition of the prose. Writing
is as much about achieving harmony or tension between words
in a sentence as it is about conveying the facts.
Experienced writers have a rather deep reservoir of words.
Less experienced ones may rely on tried-and-true words and
phrases. They may also jump headfirst into the thesaurus or
synonym finder to seek good alternatives. Using these tools is
not cheating, although it is often not as effective as you would
think. While some synonyms fit nicely into the sentence,
many are not custom made for what is written. The wrong-
sounding word, even if it has the correct meaning, stands
out as strained.
Writing about design is not poetry, per se. But there is no
reason not to be poetic when appropriate—or at least inter-
esting. The ultimate bugaboo of any writing is the b-word:
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section 1
the three r’s : reading, writing, and research
boring. Just as meandering, idle patter at a cocktail party is
uninspiring, the stringing together of words, no matter how
clear the meaning is, will induce a yawn. Words have rhythm,
bravado, and drama when used in the right combinations
and proper syntax. Why must a business report be dry? Why
should an academic paper lack character? Often, just a
well-placed word or simple phrase can turn the commonplace
into a vibrant crescendo.
Telling Stories
I tell my design students: “All good design is storytelling.”
I tell my writing students: “All good storytelling is design.”
Storytelling is the new buzz-mantra, and the s-word has been
overused lately. Perhaps reality TV and real-time online videos
bring out the storyteller in all of us. It appears that everyone
wants to tell stories. So, all art, design, science, and technology
are rooted in storytelling more than ever before. What are
the renowned TED conferences but storytelling mash-ups?
Erstwhile amateurs use the term narrative arc in as common-
place a manner as font (once only used by professionals).
Nonetheless, storytelling and narrative are essential to the
design writing process. Without story—or plot, if you will—
what have you got? Even a factual business report can tell a
tale, albeit often in a neutral manner. Not all stories have to be
dramatic or melodramatic. Storytelling is simply the expres-
sion of something you, as the writer, believe is of interest to
you, as the reader. Indeed, you may well be representative of
your average reader.
I was writing an article recently about a graphic designer
who accomplished something I thought would be a terrific
story to share with my audience (including you). The entire
piece is reproduced here. But I will also highlight certain parts
that make this a story worth telling, rather than a mere report.
Here’s my story:
Paula Scher, a respected designer and good friend, insisted
that I meet Johnny Selman, who recently received his graduate
degree in design and was a newcomer to New York. Not
knowing what to expect, other than Scher having given him
a two-thumbs-up recommendation, he pulled out a thick
volume filled with reproductions of posters he had made. At
first glance, they were handsome though reminiscent of other
designers I knew. Then he told me there were 365 posters
designed over the course of a year—one a day—based on
news reports from the BBC. He religiously produced a highly
sophisticated, conceptually astute visual diary, which was
posted daily on a website and then collected in the volume
before me. I knew immediately that I wanted to tell his story.
Like the posters, I wanted to make it a story that could
be easily digested and appreciated—no more, no less. I also
wanted to make it less ephemeral than it was. Since he com-
pleted his project in 2011, it was already many months old.
I wanted the reader to feel his excitement and understand his
process, while not having to consider whether or not it was
“breaking news.” My method was to give it a timeless, rather
than timely, lead:
Ever wonder what a graphic designer does to wile away the idle
hours? Johnny Selman spends every morning ritually checking
headlines on the BBC. But that’s not all. In 2010, “I decided to
create a poster a day for twenty days in reaction to a headline for
each day,” he recently told me.
The first sentence establishes the idea that this is not just a
story about a former student’s thesis, but rather a self-initiated
challenge. Selman’s work is the protagonist, so the authorial
voice was there to move things along, connect the dots, and
provide context. An edited interview with Selman provided
the true voice and the firsthand details. I was particularly
glad he provided his checklist. While not exciting prose,
in an instant it gives the reader a sense of Selman’s criteria
(see page 42). But first, our case study:
“All good design is storytelling. All good storytelling is design.”
part tWo : WrItIng
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