The Fourth Wall

9.13.12 The Name of the Game… is Design?

This is a blog post about a word. Should you read this article? Clue: If the name of your marketing communications practice contains the word DESIGN, or you are a client who hires communications professionals that you generally call DESIGNERS, this may be relevant to you.

Let’s start with a dictionary definition of the word DESIGN:

de·sign [dih-zahyn]
verb (used with object)

1. to prepare the preliminary sketch or the plans for (a work to be executed), especially to plan the form and structure of: to design a new bridge.

2. to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully.

3. to intend for a definite purpose: a scholarship designed for foreign students.

4. to form or conceive in the mind; contrive; plan: The prisoner designed an intricate escape.

5. to assign in thought or intention; purpose: He designed to be a doctor.

I would argue with the language and ordering of the five parts of the above definition (dictionary.com). But that’s only a fraction of the problem. It’s abundantly clear, if you read these five statements carefully, that defining DESIGN is difficult. It’s blurry, unclear. Is it art? Form? Structure? We don’t see the word strategy, but we do see the words planning and forming (perhaps gentler terms for strategy?). Probably the most powerful word used in this definition is conceive.

The same line, number 4. also states that design engages the mind. I would assert that this is the heart of the matter of defining DESIGN, but is in fact sadly obscured in the marketplace/space.

The best (most effective/strategic) tagline I’ve ever heard for a design firm, developed around the same time as safe-sex condom messages were abundant in the public sphere: Practice safe design, use a concept. (Editor: Quote attributed to Petrula Vontrikis). Even condoms can be conceptual: pictured above is the measuring condom by Condometric (sorry, not available in the US).

There are many disciplines of design. Fashion, architectural, interiors, landscape design. And, the business I have been engaged in for over 25 years, graphic… design. Some of these practices have licensing bodies, and one — where the safety of human life is at stake (architecture) — has extremely rigorous licensing. Licensing in graphic design has been a long conversation with no definite conclusion. From where I stand, a license will not make the difference needed in shifting perception. Nothing less than a complete redefinition, repositioning, and yes, marketing strategy for the practice of graphic design is called for.

No one has ever died from a misuse of Helvetica. On the other hand, it could be argued that a certain presidential election was won/lost due to a certain ballot DESIGN. Remember the butterfly? (Wallet pictured above available from wedraw).

So, what’s a business owner / practitioner of DESIGN to do? Is it necessary to change the name of my practice from designfarm to marketfarm? thinkfarm? brainfarm? Nah, I don’t think it’s really the issue. Right now, this morning, I do want to put this conversation out there into the marketspace. What do DESIGNERS do? If you are a designer, what do you really sell to your clients? Are you choosing helvetica over ariel? Really? Is that all?

If, as a communications director, you hire designers, what are you asking of them? Can you or a young staff person choose helvetica over ariel? Of course, you most certainly can (and should!), it’s right there in your font list! And may I kindly suggest that if this is primarily what you are demanding of your designers — in-house or independent — you are probably (hopefully) getting your budget’s worth.

But, consider for a moment that you could be doing so much more for your organization, its mission, its goals. Consider hiring a designer as a marketing partner, an experienced communications strategizer, who researches your position, crafts your message, defines your goals and then exceeds your expectations for executing powerful visuals that inspire and motivate your audience… and, get RESULTS. It isn’t apples-to-apples with your font-chooser or image-arranger, and you will pay more for these services. My next post will address how to hire designers, exactly what to look for to make certain that you do get the proper ROI.