How to Say What You Mean

by Rick Poynor


One thing that never fails to surprise me about the design scene – correction: the American design scene – is how much some people want to talk about writing. This does come up once in a while in Britain, but only in the sense of copywriting. Every so often there is an article in the trade press arguing that designers should be more aware of the importance of good writing in their commercial projects. And that’s about it. What never seems to arise in Britain in any serious way is the question of design writing. What is it for? Who is it for? How should it be approached? What are the differences between journalism, criticism and theory? What concerns and modes of address are right for particular audiences? British design writers and their readers carry on as though all this was self-evident and there was nothing whatsoever to discuss. It’s a shame.

In the US, though, it’s another story. In the last decade or so the question of design writing has come up repeatedly. As a former editor (more on that below), as well as someone who lives by writing, this topic has always been of the greatest interest to me. I was committed to writing long before I knew anything about design. I have written a handful of pieces about design writing over the last decade, but with a single exception, which I published in Eye, these have been for American audiences. In a couple of cases, they were initially presented as talks delivered in the US.


The most recent of these pieces is a column in Print magazine, where I took as my starting point a review written by Matt Soar, a British academic based in the US, of Paula Scher’s book Make it Bigger. It was something of a lament that the two sides, academia and practice, still find it so hard to discover a common language. “If design educators wish to bring about a more critically aware design profession,” I suggested, “then it is up to them to talk to ordinary designers in a way designers can understand.”

“then it is up to them to talk to ordinary designers in a way designers can understand.”

This sentence makes a couple of unexpected appearances in the latest Emigre (issue 66). Rudy VanderLans quotes it neutrally, but an academic called David Cabianca, interviewed by VanderLans on the strength of a letter he had published in the previous issue, takes exception. Cabianca argues that, since professional designers were once design students, their educations must have failed them if they struggle later with academic language. He also wonders why there is no corresponding call for professionals to elevate the level of their understanding and vocabulary. “No one faults a lawyer or doctor for using very specific language when discussing their respective practices with other lawyers or doctors,” he says.

“No one faults a lawyer or doctor for using very specific language when discussing their respective practices with other lawyers or doctors,”

Are lawyers a helpful example here? The serpentine syntax of legal language is often used to obfuscate meaning and confuse those outside the law. This doesn’t mean that legal concepts are necessarily hard to grasp. There is a crucial difference between subtle and complex ideas and needlessly convoluted and indirect forms of expression. The more difficult the ideas, the greater the need for clarity.

In his interview, VanderLans – as wily as an interrogator as he is modest – asks Cabianca to explain the phrase “disciplinary specificity”, used in his letter. Cabianca replies that it means that each discipline, such as painting or law, has specific ways of seeing the world. The idea is simple enough, but the phrase is likely to be unclear unless you operate in a milieu where it is commonly used as shorthand. (You only have to read Emigre’s letters to obtain a sense of the variety of backgrounds its readers come from and see that this understanding cannot be assumed.) The effect of combining encapsulations of this kind in sentence after sentence is to produce an awkward, unnatural prose that sounds nothing like everyday speech and constantly trips up the reader. Jargon has its place. It speeds up communication between insiders. But it quickly becomes a way of fencing off territory and keeping other people out. I have met many intelligent, well-educated designers, but I know very few who are comfortable with academic styles of language and who are able to communicate this way convincingly, either face to face or in writing.

No Better Way

Unless you happen to be a translator, there is no better way of grappling with the complexities of language and meaning than the experience of editing other people’s writing. Few readers of an article or essay, except for perhaps some academic readers, will peruse it as many times or as closely as an editor. It’s the editor’s task to understand what the author is saying and to ensure that this is expressed in a way that the reader can understand. Not many pieces of writing of any kind are sufficiently lucid and wrinkle-free to be printed without revision. Often you discover, once you begin to unravel knotted prose, that there is much less to it than met the eye. It makes you a wary reader. On the other hand, take a look at almost anything that finds its way on to Arts & Letters Daily. There is no shortage of sophisticated thinking, but the prose that delivers it is vigorous, endlessly supple and engaging everyday English.

One of my favourite essays about – not exactly design – but popular visual culture was written by George Orwell in 1941. “The Art of Donald McGill” is a fond analysis of British comic postcards, which combined great sexual frankness, for their day, with vulgar humour. Orwell’s vocabulary could not be plainer and more direct, yet the sentences push along with great energy and he is brilliantly attentive to the postcards’ visual routines, to their social and cultural meanings. I would be thrilled to read writing about visual communication today that showed half this level of ambition. There is a place for an inward-looking design terminology. But the real challenge for design writing now is to move outwards into a world in which design is everywhere.

What You Mean

How to Say