Designers also communicators

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.We were recently asked by the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association...

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.

We were recently asked by the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association to participate in a communications workshop at its annual conference, held in Toronto last week.

With a view toward discussing a suitable topic for presentation, the association sent an envoy to our offices about two weeks before the conference.


The envoy came to us with a cellular phone ringing in one hand, and a clump of hair in the other. After doing whatever we could to quell her anxiety, we tried to get down to the business at hand.

We would, she said, be talking about how to get the most out of in-house and outside design services. And we would be addressing an audience of institutional middle managers.

Now, these particular managers had the thankless responsibility of acting as liaison between their employers and their in-house designers.

No design experience

Officially described as ‘communicators’ by their human resources colleagues, most of them had experience in some form of editorial or public relations writing, but not necessarily in any form of graphic design.

Before we were able to explore our topic, our querulous guest (herself a disenchanted member of the audience we would soon address) unleashed a flood of questions about why life with designers had to be so difficult.

The poor woman was desperately frustrated. Had she not provided her department with the latest Mac technology? Did she not present her staff with clear enough briefs? Why did they complain so much about the length of her copy?

And so on and so forth. So great was her dissatisfaction with her staff that she was beginning to search for ways to bypass them altogether.

Own designs

She had, for instance, recently engaged the services of an outside design firm. Worse yet, she was even starting to use her Mac to design the stuff herself.

This we found particularly frightening. Here was a situation in which someone figured, ‘Hey, what the heck, I’ve got Quark Xpress. I’ve got Pagemaker. I’ve got all the screen fonts. I’m going to do this myself. How hard can it be?’

Oh, what a sad state of affairs. Why?

Because a Mac is no more capable of making you a designer than the keys to a Formula One racer can change you into Michael Andretti.

What our friend was experiencing were only the symptoms of a much deeper problem.

It is the problem that designers have always had to face: design is simply not perceived as an effective vehicle of communication, based upon a set of special skills which are carefully learned and nurtured through years of study and practice.

Indeed, our friend seemed genuinely incredulous when it was suggested designers were ‘communicators’, too.

As we have argued in this column on previous occasions, visual communication is the whole point of graphic design.

Once that point was made, we were able to discuss the topic of our presentation in earnest.

The key to successful use of design expertise in the development and execution of image and marketing programs is to know what skills to use when.

The development of an overall design strategy, the creation of a corporate identity program, the design of a direct mail campaign or an annual report: all of these are high-level tasks which are best left to design professionals who have built their own successful consultancies.

There is nothing more valuable than the diversity of their experience with other organizations, and this is something that in-house staff simply cannot bring to the table.

The frustration of ‘communicators’ would be greatly relieved if they changed their expectations of in-house staff.

The role of in-house departments should be maintenance and production, not creation and development.

Production staff

Once the programs are in place, a fully equipped production staff (not design staff) can be most effectively used to roll out all of the components.

The communicators then assume the role of ‘image guardians’ (in collaboration with outside designers, if necessary), ensuring that what gets produced falls in line with the overall program.

Implicit in this model is not only the need for an overall strategy, but a belief in its value from the top down.

Unless there is support from the highest levels, the corporate image will always be fragmented, it will always be subject to the vicissitudes of private agendas, and ‘communicators’ will never be anything but crisis managers with huge cellular bills and very little hair.

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