JOHNNY CAN'T READ (BECAUSE THE WORDS AREN'T WORTH THE EFFORT?)

08 November 2006
Jan Conradi
Jan Conradi

But I'm a designer, not a writer!

Houston, we've got a problem, I soberly announce to my student, Chris. (I amuse myself with odd references and bizarre quotes, even though I suspect it mostly drives my students nuts.) We are contemplating his poster, the execution of which I had just strongly praised. Chris looks at me in total bewilderment. Problem? What problem?

It's the words, Chris. They don't sing. He still doesn't understand. Doesn't realize his poster its color, imagery, layout promises great adventure, until you actually read it. Unlike the visual execution, the language promises nothing of distinction. The words lie flat and lifeless in content, if not in form. They are totally lacking energy, poetry, sparkle, and rhythm.

But I'm a designer. I'm not a writer, Chris protests, correctly suspecting that this argument won't go far with me.

Words and images
Isn't it interesting that as the general population reads less and less, words appear in our environment more and more? In advertising, packaging, and design in general, words have become key graphic elements. Designers love their texture and mystery, spending hours weaving through television commercials or websites built with Flash, often imposing the type-as-texture aesthetic onto the audience. Unfortunately, very little of that visual form actually carries consequential meaning. If the actual legibility of typographic forms is up for grabs, why have any concern for the communicative content?

In an article titled 17 Myths of Graphic Design (Critique, Autumn 1996), Marty Neumeier addresses the issue of typographic content and its importance from several vantage points, including the myth of audiences with a subconscious ability to discern hidden messages, the myth of a visual society where images hold the key to communication, and the myth of static page design lacking effectiveness in the days of interactive media. Neumeier ultimately exposes all three notions as short-sighted, ill-advised, and often just plain uncommunicative. He states: Piling up layer upon layer of images and words creates visual movement and interactivity, engaging the mind and enriching the reading experience. Piffle. Unless your audience is filled with other artists, you shouldn t be surprised if it rises up and shouts: GET TO THE POINT!

Is it really so impossible to have meaning as well as form? Working with type, or, rather, with words, is not just about having a pretty rag on a text column or a layered texture buried into an image. Images can be interpreted in multiple ways. Texture can be intriguing, but it shouldn't substitute for meaning; texture generally has little purpose beyond helping readers determine their tolerance for clutter. As with any design endeavor, working with type should be about conveying a message. Are we forgetting that words, with their clarity, focus, and precision, are extremely good at doing just that?

Once reliably static, type is now fluid, dynamic, and ephemeral from a design perspective. Motion and implied motion may remove the traditional visually inactive quality of text, but its meaning must stay. Meaning is not ephemeral; it can have power far beyond brand X is cool. Carefully chosen words can convey a message that not only communicates but lasts or inspires a nation, as in I have a dream and Four score and twenty. . . Even Think Small. It seems that in ignoring the communication potential of words, designers are thinking small indeed.

Writers and readers
The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) conducted in 1992 determined that about half of America's adults were functionally illiterate. Half! As the first major study to look at the adults interaction with printed materials on a day-to-day basis, it documented a correlation between limited literacy skills, limited economic opportunity, and limited participation in civic life. The study declared that literacy can be thought of as a currency in this society. Just as adults with little money have difficulty meeting their basic needs, those with limited literacy skills are going to find it more challenging to pursue their goals.

Having said that, the point I am trying to make is beginning to resemble the old chicken or egg debate. What comes first, designers who blatantly ignore the potential for communicative content, or citizens who can't read and comprehend? Which is worse, designers and copywriters (sometimes one and the same) who write dullness and drivel, or adults who find the written word meaningless, obtuse, and not worth the effort required to wrestle meaning from the form?

Education and reality
Not long ago, I had dinner with a recent design graduate from James Madison University, who is now happily employed in her first real design job and is absorbing new information like a sponge. I asked her for words of wisdom to share with my senior design students. She surprised me. Tell them how important writing skills are. Tell them the copy editor can't catch every typo. Tell them sometimes there isn't a copy editor. My boss expects me to be able to handle the written content of some of my design jobs. It is so important to be a decent reader and writer in my job. I never expected that.

The truth of the matter is: A designer who struggles to develop a great concept simply cannot ignore or minimize the message conveyed by the text. In this context, it is ironic that many design educational programs use the title Visual Communications. The visual part comes through (most of the time), yet the concept of communications seems to get overlooked in a society more concerned with fleeting impressions than lasting impact.

Given that a fair portion of practicing design professionals have yet to grasp the importance of written content, how can we expect today's students to do the same? The answer is simple: By setting an example. And these are not hard to find, as the better designers take an active part in the content of the pieces they work on, irrespective of whether or not they actually write the text.

I once heard MacRay Magleby speak about his poster designs and lavish high praise upon a copywriter he particularly admired. He talked about how intimately they worked together to get just the right fit of form, content, and emotional impact. He talked about how they respected each other and respected the words they were carefully crafting together.

I don't have all the answers. For one, I don't know that we can blame the decline in adult literacy on superficial designers. Nor do I know if the lackadaisical attitude of students toward writing can be attributed to the educational system alone. What I do know is this: The power of words is underestimated and underutilized by today's visual communications professionals.

A great design illuminates a concept, and great words provide clarity and purpose. Being a full-time teacher, one of the things that I want my students to do is develop an appreciation for writing. I want them to understand that writing well is a process a craft no less important or complex than designing. I want them to respect the written word as they develop their designs. But this can only happen if the example is set by practicing professionals.



About this article
The above article is reprinted from Visual Arts Trends, with permission. 2001, Visual Arts Trends.

About the author
Jan is the education editor of Visual Arts Trends and an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at SUNY Fredonia in New York, USA. She is committed to excellence in undergraduate design education and has a particular focus on graphic design history in both studio and lecture courses. With previous teaching experience at Ball State University in Indiana and Iowa State University, she has been educating students in the joys of design and typography for thirteen years. Jan is a member of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), Mid-America College Arts Association, and Typocrafters. In addition, she maintains a freelance consulting practice and is the founder of ComingHome Press, a venture dedicated to producing limited edition hand-bound artist books.

About VisualArtsTrends.com
With offices in New York and London, Visual Arts Trends is an international quarterly "state of the industry" report for the creative professional. Focusing on graphic design, advertising art direction, photography and illustration, each report offers a brief, business-oriented, definitive and timely overview of industry developments that affect aesthetics, pricing, salaries, working conditions and client relations. Visual Arts Trends combines unique proprietary research with material gathered by monitoring hundreds of publications, companies, membership organizations, online sources, and other relevant sources of information. The reports review and analyzes professional trends by business category and by specialization. In addition, each report profiles client industries interviews with senior executives of leading companies and organizations. An annual subscription retails for US$29.99 and includes four reports available for download as PDF files. Visual Arts Trends is a trademark of and is published by Colonial Communications Corp.

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