Relevancy of design. Part II: Language

A Four Part Series. Part II.How many designers have returned to the office from a meeting with the deflated statement, “Everyone in the room was a designer”? And how many times have designers heard from clients, “Design is fun”? Yes, design is fun. Design also entails hard work and late nights, and more often than not, it is practiced by well-educated, passionate professionals.These professionals love and live design in everything they do. It’s fun, it’s difficult, it’s satisfying and its relevancy is threatened by the unskilled professional and human-centered design being misused by corporations. For the field of design to remain relevant and valuable in the next decade, it must develop a standard of expected skills and roles, consistent design language, code of ethics and produce well-rounded intellects and talent from undergraduate design programs.

June 7, 2022


Design education

Relevancy of design. Part II: Language

Design needs to define its own language to differentiate itself from the unskilled professional and corporate misuse of human-centered design. It can do this through: historical design language, addition of new evolving language, consistent and daily usage of design language, and support from design industry leaders. Art terms are a useful beginning to describe design. The birth of semiotics in the late 1800s introduced the designer to the relationships between language, knowledge and eventually signs as demonstrated in the isotype movement of the early 1920s (Meggs 326). The modernist design movement was a prolific time of language used to describe design. From the 1970s to 1990s, marketing and advertising terms were assimilated into the design language, as well as the post-modernist language of  personal expression (Meggs 466). For an example, by 2000 the designer had available to them the languages of: art for describing composition and color, semiotics to communicate complex data, modernism to describe order, and post-modern for discussions of pluralism. Designers should incorporate into daily design discussions the historic language available to them while carefully incorporating new language without discarding established language.

Incorporation of new appropriate language is not the concern of relevancy instead the concern is the loss of established language in favor of new trending language and the quick turnover of new appropriate language. Designers lose their history and importance by changing the design language to a new discipline’s language. Currently, design is incorporating the language of UX and research into its vocabulary. An example is the word “chunking” from the UX world replacing the Gestalt design language of proximity in business vernacular (Meyer). Another example is the relatively new buzz term SCRUM replacing the design process terms of refinement and evaluation. Conversely, when a new appropriate term is attached to design, practitioners should not quickly abandon these terminologies. Recently, the use of a relatively new phrase “empathy in design” has been questioned by design theorist, Helfand. Empathy is a strong and appropriate word to describe the importance of the designer’s need to understand what their audience sees, feels and experiences (Brown). Heard on the podcast, The Observatory, Helfand cried out, “I am so sick of the word empathy in design!” (“Episode 67: Guns N’ Tote Bags.” 9:35-9:37). Helfand, who frequently opposes the use of buzz words, turns an important design theory into a buzz phrase before the approach can be completely assimilated into the field. It is important for design to stay current through the addition of design language and rejection of buzz phrases. It is just as important to use the historical language of design daily and protect it from extinction through replacement by another discipline’s language.

Designers can be their own worst enemy by not using design language when they have the opportunity through publication of their work whether in books or online. A visit to a bookstore’s design section shows the majority of design titles are individual monographs, design style-specific or design competitions—no words, all pictures. Industry design leaders are focused on “make it pretty” monographs over the language of content, context, function, form and outcome. Design legend Massimo Vignelli stated, “Styles come and go. Good design is a language, not a style” (Massimo). The design theory section is comprised of portfolio building advice, design basics and “how to’s.” There are exceptions. Designer, Michael Bierut, produced a monograph, How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, Make Things Look Better, Make People Laugh, Make People Cry, and (Every Once in a While) Change the World, of his work that included detailed language of the process, context and objectives of the work, but not before producing a previous book of design essays, Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, a fine example of language before style. Helfand produced an entire book of design language, Design: The Invention of Desire, that is already becoming an education staple at design schools. There is not one image of design within the book, although the author’s conceptual oil paintings are included. Design leaders must support the use of a design language when they have the unique opportunity to educate the industry through publication of their work in books or other media.

As well as an increase in published work focused on the language of design, design language must be incorporated into meetings with clients and education of design students. All designers should use a consistent design industry language when presenting their work to clients. This language establishes an understanding of design knowledge and in turn a level of client respect for specialization and expertise. Designers should not succumb to a colloquial language of art or the language of another discipline. Design educators should spread the language to young designers through education, lectures, seminars and publication. Design will be able to differentiate itself through the specific, daily and consistent usage of a design language. Additionally, the field can be elevated through the adoption of a defined design ethics.

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