John Spencer: “There’s no bullshit like design bullshit”

Offthetopofmyhead’s founder and creative director John Spencer, says jargon and bullshit are getting in the way of people understanding and valuing design.

When did designers first come up with the idea that bullshit is good? Why do we think it makes us sound grown-up and clever and important? I started in the design industry in the late seventies. In those days, all the designers I knew and worked with were down-to-earth and straight-talking. But as the years have rolled on and the industry has grown, so has our appetite for showing off. Graphic design is about making sense of things but the way we talk about our work often makes no sense at all.

Lost in a confusion of words

We’ve elevated bullshit to an art form with our unintelligible and sometimes unintentionally comical pronouncements. We use jargon words like “differentiation”, “touchpoints” and “behaviours”. We twist language into gobbledegook like “direct unequivocal propositions”, “convergent tangible context” and “competitive brandscape analysis”. And we give free rein to puffed-up nonsense like “brand is not a product; it is the product’s source, its meaning and its direction, and it defines its identity in time and space”. We risk everything we do getting lost in a confusion of words.

Here are some more jibberish, ridiculousness and absurdity. And yes, these are real quotes:

“We integrate inspired design with expert execution to articulate immersive and resonant brand experiences.”

“The new identity stems from a paradox effect surrounded by a combination of funk layering beyond formality.”

“A brand is a promise wrapped up in an experience.”

“The ‘reveal’ analogises the mystery of obscured truths followed by the catharsis of narrative conclusion.”

“Our process acts as an invisible facilitator applying strategic rigour to bold thinking.”

“It’s not a logo, it’s a symbol… a way of life.”

“We conduct new perspective workstreams to create insights and stimuli that feed our ideation workshops.”

“We provide communication strategies which create resolution to problematic aspects of effective communication.”

People value what they understand

Bullshit bamboozles people and makes them feel stupid. And that’s just not playing nice. But worse, it gives them reason to think we’ve got something to hide. We risk creating the impression that what we do has little substance or significance and that not even we believe in it.

It’s almost like our love of overblown language has come about because deep down we aren’t convinced design does have much value. That we don’t think people are in love with brands and want to have “conversations” or “authentic relationships” with them. That we suspect brand loyalty is not much more than habit and convenience, and that people just want stuff that works well, is reasonably priced and looks good.

Blinded by “science”

We complain that design is misunderstood and undervalued. We bellyache about how it’s too often thought of as a bolt-on or a “nice to have” when it should be a driving force. But people don’t have misconceptions about design because they’re stupid, they have them because we’re forever putting a spin on it, blinding them with “science” and being inconsistent with the language we use. People value what they understand.

I came across an online marketing guide that pulled together thirty definitions of brand. No wonder people are confused – and cynical. One definition ought to be enough. It’s ridiculous that we’re struggling to communicate what design is all about decades after it emerged as an industry.

Every single day, designers across the UK do exciting and thought-provoking work, but jargon and bullshit are getting in the way of people recognizing its massive contribution to business and society.

We owe it to ourselves and everyone else to be articulate about what we do and why design is so important.

A design industry standard

Clear communication should to be a design industry standard. It ought to be taught in design schools. Bob Gill used to make his students tell him about their work before they showed it to him. It would have been an unforgiving test of their communication skills. He wouldn’t have put up with any bullshit.

Author and former creative director Dave Trott says, “We can either use language to invite people into a conversation, or we can use language to keep people out. And that’s what jargon is designed to do, keep people out.”

If we use jargon, we reveal our insecurity. If we use pretentious language, we expose our arrogance. But if we use language that anyone can understand, people are much more likely to value what we do.

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