What’s in a Name

If to design is to communicate, and it is, then design—you name it, from the symbols and characters we use to form words to a box of Wheaties®—is language, and judging by current examples such software updates that baffle, ATM hieroglyphs that mislead, broadcast in English to English-speaking audiences that require one to engage their television’s closed-captioning function to be understood, the ubiquitously unprogramable recording device—the creative collective is far from literate. Is Designer finally actually synonymous with Decorator? Have we forgotten that it is incumbent upon us to ensure that our ideas are not only purposeful but also possible and that our products are not only useful but also usable, that the messages entrusted to us are not simply passed along but understood. Simply put, writing and design are interdependent. Writing is design; design is writing; you can’t argue your way out of it.

Consider that in today’s workplace it is a particular moniker that defines us rather than our good work, and Designer isn’t cutting it. Indeed, new job titles are given and their positions filled without having an idea of what skill set that the new position implies, all so that an agency might be perceived as capable of addressing their clients’ rapidly growing needs. At what point did designers stop being strategists so that a separate and vaguely tasked full-time Strategist was necessary? And how is it beneficial that strategy be a separate discipline than design. Strategy is implicit to design, nether subordinate nor superior. Puffed-up monikers are nothing more than marketing tools that we have come to believe are actualized in real people that fit just so into each new role the industry dreams up. We would do better instead to stick with existing descriptors and modify our behavior. From the Oxford American Dictionary:

THE RIGHT WORD2: creative, original, imaginative, inventive, resourceful, ingenious; everyone likes to think that he or she is creative, which is used to describe the active, exploratory minds possessed by artists, writers, and inventors ( | a creative approach to problem-solving). Today, however, creative has become an advertising buzzword ( | creative cooking | creative hair-styling) that simply means new or different. Imaginative implies having an active and creative imagination, which often means that the person visualizes things quite differently than the way they appear in the real world ( | imaginative illustrations for a children’s book). The practical side of imaginative is inventive; the inventive person figures out how to make things work ( | an inventive solution to the problem of getting a wheelchair into a van). But where an inventive mind tends to come up with solutions to problems it has posed for itself, a resourceful mind deals successfully with externally imposed problems or limitations. Someone who is ingenious is both inventive and resourceful, with a dose of cleverness thrown in.

We are part of a large and unwieldy clan spanning high arts, literature, architecture and product design, among other disciplines, yet on the whole graphic designers are significantly less prepared to service their audience than are many of our creative confreres. Our educations often provide us a toolbox comprising computer skills, an eye for imitation, and a notion of achievement that rewards rhetoric and ambiguity over truth and clarity of purpose. Which is to say that designers must possess ingenuity, and we are sorely ill-equipped. The tools of the novelist—narrative structure and form, character development, and detailed description—can serve the designer. Storytelling as a discipline brings together the many ways our culture communicates—words, images, sounds, or the absence thereof—clarifying the abstract and enlivening the banal. Whether in constructs of fish tales or scholarly articles, through dialogues and diagrams, the conjoining of the written word with the visual, aural, and tactile as part of the designer’s purview benefits the broader perception of the designer as a valuable participant, not simply a functionary. To the betterment of the creative community and the culture it serves, true creatives, like storytellers, are called upon to imagine, imbuing knowledge with relevance, to push against limitation and convention, to invent.

Consider the craft and discipline imparted through an architectural education. Only by way of discipline, order, and a fundamental understanding of physics can you build solid foundations that support functional and elegant skylines. Each successful structure tells a story to and of its inhabitants (e.g., the attributes assigned a hotel often reflect the character of its guests: frugal and pragmatic, trendy and smart, itinerant and shabby, even beautiful). But what parallels can be drawn to an edifice that is insufficient to bear its own weight?

This is not to say that possessing the eye to successfully combine text and imagery, texture and topography, is secondary. The picture can in fact impart a thousand words, but a picture is never just a picture: It’s a hieroglyph, a part of a cast of characters; it imparts meaning that our brains translate into words, into language. The designer’s purview, as much as any other creative undertaking, is language. A designer averse to language is akin to a vocalist unmoved by lyricism.

Alice Flaherty is, by trade, a neurologist with a strong interest in the physiology that drives the creative mind. In her deceptively titled book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain,3 I found myself well through several chapters before referring to the author’s bio, which cleared up why I encountered the words neuron, neurotransmitter, and synapses more often than discipline, inspiration, and imagination. But what a pleasure it is to delve into the chemistry of the creative brain; what gratuitous liberation, if not vindication.

Flaherty refers often to the limbic system, the part of the brain that lies beneath the cortex; it is believed to be more evolutionary in its development than the cortex, which develops with study and experience. “The limbic system controls the four Fs (fear, food, fighting, and [sex]),”4 in another word, drive. It is the same area of the brain that administrates information. Before the brain can pass knowledge along to the cortex, where we store information, it must pass through the limbic system, specifically the amygdala, which tells us whether the knowledge is necessary or interesting enough to recall. When the telling is not engaging, the message is physiologically discarded.

The limbic system is also home to the hypothalamus, which lays dead center in mid-brain. It is widely held to be the origin of high-level aesthetic pleasures, such as the appreciation of beautiful faces or the spine tingling chill that can occur when listening to certain music, it is responsible for mood, emotion and temperament. If the limbic system is the origin of inspiration, what drives us to create, the hypothalamus is what equips us to be engaging and successful creatives.

To engage our many and varied audiences—a tall order in that there are as many triggers to interest as there exists a population—the trick is find unexpected commonalities; we appeal to the universal ability of humans to comprehend and react to that which makes us joyful, sad, angry, fearful, surprised, or disgusted—the six universal expressions of emotion5—and awaken in our readers their basic instincts.

Ideally, the commercial creative does not get lost in a multitiered org chart but finds work among other multitalented individuals in a condensed hierarchy that brings to the client/designer relationship a unique intimacy. When communicating in the abstract language of ideas, the designer is called upon to interact with the client multifariously playing the roles of employee, client, student, and teacher, and in the vernacular of each explains the distinctions in the work product that are germane to the client’ goals. An equipped designer considers fiscal practicality, clear messaging, and a reasoned aesthetic, sometimes simple and at other times at first glance outlandish, but always on message. Differentiation is vital and it is difficult to achieve, in equal parts due to what is already prominent in the marketplace, the ingenuity of the designer and the willingness of the client to stand up and well apart from the competition. If you opt to follow the same map each time, you’re going to end up at the same place, a destination of little value to anyone other than the first to arrive there. It’s always time for something new.

Due to the nature of the creative process—how a novelist labors over then crumples pages, an architect drafts then rejects a sketch, or a composer struggles through the same measure again and again looking for the right combination of notes—the graphic designer’s day is an exercise in frustration. This too can be traced to emotional biases from the limbic system—emotional biases that also make quick decision-making possible by paring down choices to manageable (and in the case of a properly functioning limbic system, plausible—if not proven) courses of action. Buy accepting both his successes and his failures, he refines his perspective and adapts to new challenges.6

Curiosity, more than necessity, is the true mother of invention. I am a proponent of the restless eye. I believe in listening and observing that takes into its purview what we say and don’t say, a client’s comments and his gesticulations, his wandering eye, the titles of the books that line his shelves. But in multitiered organizations, more than any other player it is the creative and his work that is most polarizing and called into question for lack of quantifiable proven prepackaged strategies. That the client favors a particular author registers near nil to internal clients who would have us emulate (read: copy) the closest competitor. Ask me to whom should we should listen. I’ll tell you to listen to everybody, take away or discard what you will, and listen to yourself.

There is no shortage of those who will parrot whatever it is that they assume colleagues and clients want to hear, but there is real value to be found in the person who willingly shares his own questionable truths and who will unflinchingly question others’. To assert his ideas as aspirational, the designer must claim his role as a skilled communicator rather than succumb to the role of people-pleaser. Rather than catering to an audience with manifold tastes, he must enter into a peer-to-peer discussions asserting his status as creative professional. Someone to whom you would defer to as you would other service providers. To best serve, we must broaden the client’s understanding of our purview to include strong, strategically designed underpinnings for the concepts and ideas we present.

Client work is about bringing to the table what you can. Some ideas will be embraced; others will not. We choose our battles to the betterment of the product as best we can. If we are worth our pencil shavings, we succeed. And because we are the excellent marketers we say we are, others hear of our successes. And should similarities to our work start popping up among the competition, we owe ourselves commendation—for keeping the grand tradition alive, for bringing cachet to our profession, and for helping restore the era of the designer as storyteller, as tastemaker, as inventor.


1. BRIEF INTERPOLATIVE DISCUSSION OF DEMONSTRATIVE SEMIOTIC (IL)LITERACY. Many embrace such ill-considered strategies. And, why not in the age of the enduringly popular Aflac duck, whose one-liner, were he/she/it to engage a thinking audience, arguably translates to a corporation’s illiteracy? The purpose of such a campaign is not lost on me. The name Aflac is always handy. It lives in the fore of my brain, available for immediate recall. But what do I know of the company that owns the moniker? In truth, not much. I often confuse Aflac with Progressive and I have no idea why; I am gratified that I am at least in the right ballpark, but I would have to go online to tell you exactly what it is that Aflac insures; and I am hesitant to do so for fear that the avatar duck, which I personally find to be really very creepy, would insist on guiding me to the information I seek.

2. New American Oxford Dictionary, 2nd, ed., s.v. “creative,” Dictionary 1.0.1, Apple Computer

3. Flaherty, The Midnight Disease (Mariner Books, 2004).

4. Ibid., 183.

5. Paul Ekman, “Facial Expressions and Emotion,” American Psychologist 48 (April 1993) 384–392.

6. Because the life of the working designer effectively consists of a lengthy struggle with failure until success seems finally within the realm of possibility, stress is another factor in motivation simply because mild stress is itself a heightened form of arousal. This explains why many designers experience bursts of creativity and epiphanies as deadlines loom.

Additional reading, Steven Heller, “Writing Is Design, Too” The Atlantic (July 2012); Clare Dodd, “Writing and Design: a Communicative Combination” Articulate (June 2013)