Design integral part of communication

The following is one in a regular series of columns that examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.It seems there are still some stubborn souls out there who believe...

The following is one in a regular series of columns that examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

It seems there are still some stubborn souls out there who believe graphic design and visual communications are mutually exclusive activities.

Recent evidence of this was presented to us by a new business prospect, who took umbrage with the perpendicular setting of the mailing address on our letterhead.

In response to a sales call, he brusquely remarked that he was interested in solving communications problems, not in making design statements, and that our use of ‘sideways’ type clearly marked us as a firm that preferred the latter.

This rebuff betrays the fact that design is still held by some to be a necessary but annoying stepsister to the more important business of marketing and communications.

While we would be among the first to place design at the service of these two activities, we would also assert that without good design, marketing and communications objectives cannot be effectively achieved.

Design is not simply the decorative arrangement of words and images on a two-dimensional surface. The whole point of design is communication.

It is the skillful deployment of words and images to provoke a meaningful response in the mind of the viewer. Its purpose is to attract attention, to persuade. As such, it is a highly rhetorical activity.

Like the rhetoricians of ancient Greece, whose persuasive speaking skills were engaged to promote all kinds of causes, designers are employed today to create effective responses to everything from soup tins to bank towers.

Cruel and unusual economic pressure has recently necessitated the search for even more effective means of persuasion.

Despite these urgent circumstances, however, designers are still hamstrung by a demand for mediocrity.

Whether it is an irate business prospect who demands that all letterhead type be set conventionally, or a vice-president of finance who wants an annual report full of unblinking mug shots, the ‘just the facts’ approach to marketing and communications continues to hold sway.

To focus strictly on what is being said, at the expense of how it is said, is to squander the potential effect your message can have on its audience.

There is at least as much communicated by the means of expression as by that which is being expressed.

This is most certainly one of the meanings of Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, ‘The medium is the message.’

Although this oft-repeated aphorism is more of a comment on the power of the media, and although it tends to stress the importance of form over content, it does draw attention to the central dilemma of communications design: where to draw the line between fact and effect.

Good design is interested in both. How the balance between the two is struck depends on the objectives of the communicator, the receptivity of the audience and the favorability of the conditions in which the message is sent.

One is only ever certain about the first of those three factors. The other two circumscribe the realm in which designer and client must work together to create images of influence and impact.

It is this sea of muddy uncertainty that must be penetrated clearly and decisively if objectives are to be achieved.

To try to either cut through it with the blunt edge of fact alone, or float above it solely by creative sleight of hand is doomed.

A mutually supportive relationship in which the effect becomes a powerful vehicle for the facts is the only means by which a message can be meaningfully communicated.

As for the letterhead which initiated this invective, our name and address (the facts) seem to have been most clearly and decisively communicated by a perpendicular setting (the effect).

As for those who stubbornly insist that design and communications are mutually exclusive, a perpendicular plunge into the sea of uncertainty almost certainly awaits.

Will Novosedlik and Bob Russell are principals of Russell Design in Toronto.