Have you ever made a presentation to a committee/boss/client who could not converse in words? It goes like this: “Hmm. Mm-hmm. I’m not sure what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.” And, “I can’t tell you what I like, but I know what I don’t like.”
The inability to articulate is a serious professional handicap. The problem is, it afflicts designers, too. Ask a designer to describe his fine technique and you might hear: “I air out the type until it feels right.” Or, “I isolate each color until one works.”
Until one works?
That’s not an answer.
Our teachers are equally abstract. One submitted to me an article on designing a newsletter nameplate. It began: “First select an appropriate typeface.”
Another, teaching on type, described Helvetica as honest.
With terms this vague, it’s no wonder nothing gets resolved. Just listen:
Client to designer: This is an important campaign; we have a big impression to make. Punch it up.
Designer: I know just the thing.
Later, at the presentation:
Designer: Isn’t it heavenly? The blue really makes it flow.
Client: There’s not enough ooommph.
Designer: I believe its beauty is its own ooommph.
Client: It’s not happening for me.
Designer: What do you want, then?
Client: Impact. Um, zip. I’m not sure; I’ll know it when I see it.
Later, over coffee:
Designer A: That great poster with the blue gradient fill? Jones didn’t like it. Too sophisticated.
Designer B: Aw! It was totally great! What did he want?
Designer A: Couldn’t say.
Designer B: Clients are so stupid.
Writing Before & After has made nothing more vivid to me than our need as designers to master the skills of verbal articulation. It is our job to understand and describe what we do, intelligently, perceptively, in English.
This is not a trivial matter. Would you pay your attorney for flow and oommph? Or your banker for a retirement plan that happens for you?
I doubt it.
But when you tell your boss that the company’s image needs to be perked up, do you expect her to know what you mean?
What, exactly, do you mean?
Do you mean Georgia or Verdana? Caps or lowercase? Black type or white? Can you explain which does what?
Do you mean four columns or three? Folded or flat? A new size? Why?
Do you mean red or blue? Why is one better? Can you say?
In Before & After planning sessions, we have a term we use called proof of concept. Say one of us makes the observation: Gray really works on that page. It’s probably true, but the statement is useless to the reader with a different page. If the page is important to us, we’ll make many layouts in an effort to articulate why the gray “works.” We will analyze these pages, often out loud, with a dictionary, until we can fit words to what we see.
When we’re done, the statement has been transformed into: Gray makes an image recede. It is now useful information, a statement of fact.
Some worry that getting technical like this takes the artistry and romance out of design. But it doesn’t, any more than knowing a recipe takes the goodness out of a tasty dish. Rather, it gives you the ability to create the dish — and even improve it — because now you know what’s happening.
Best, though, is that it gives you the vocabulary to tell others what’s happening in ways that they can understand and participate in. It puts everyone on solid ground.
It’s a skill you can learn.
You’ll find that while a client may not speak like a designer, he or she, like all of us, has a fine visual imagination, a theater in the mind. What’s fun is that your skill at putting solid words on vague images will light up that screen like a projector.
So do it.
Or just be a propellerhead.
(This article was originally published in Before & After Issue 11.)