How do you communicate clearly, expressively and idiosyncratically?

Three client conversations in the last two weeks reminded me of a drum I’ve been beating for years:

We articulate our thoughts in words, not just pictures. So why don’t business leaders see great writing as vital to creating purpose and strategy?

They should. They can transform all those dry, jargon-laden strategy papers into stories that get people excited, it just takes some well-crafted words. That’s assuming the strategy has substance. If it doesn’t, words give the game away.

Words and pictures might not have equal weight in brand and strategy consultancies, but they always have in advertising. John Spencer wrote about it for me a little while ago, in this lovely article…

Way back in the early ’60s, graphic designers Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar published a book called Watching Words Move. Their aim was to ‘…explore the evocative potential of words’ and vividly express their meaning. In the book’s introduction they said, ‘…we looked at the words and did to them what they themselves suggested.’ The book caused quite a stir in the fledgling graphic design community.

I love Watching Words Move. It stands for everything I believe graphics is about: crystal clear, expressive and idiosyncratic communication. It’s about the intimate relationship between what’s written and the visual interpretation of the message.

Words in design

Writers and designers are storytellers. When they work closely together the end product can be out of this world. That’s why advertising agency art directors and copywriters collaborate, and have done for decades. But in the design industry that kind of alliance is nothing like as commonplace as it ought to be. So more often than not, there’s a disconnection between what’s written and what’s designed.

There are two reasons for this nonsensical state of affairs. First, everyone thinks they can write, and all too often everyone and anyone does. People who lack the experience and well-honed skills of professional writers produce colossal amounts of business writing that’s short on clarity, confidence and emotion, and has no discernible personality. So designers end up camouflaging forgettable words rather than revealing and enriching unforgettable stories.

Second, many designers regard words as ‘filler’. And that has everything to do with the way we’re taught. Language is fundamental to graphic communication, but on the whole that message doesn’t get through. Too many designers put up with words rather than embrace their meaning. To their minds, words get in the way of good-looking design. They spoil all the fun. And the inevitable outcome is decoration, not communication.

So that’s why writing and design are so often out of step, and every so often incompatible – like lipstick and gorillas. Small wonder so many stories fail to capture the spirit of an organisation. And amazing tales struggle to break free, invite people in and make them want to know more.

There’s another reason I love Watching Words Move, and that’s because it champions straightforwardness in every kind of graphic communication – from logos through campaigns to the printed and digital page.

Straightforward communicationsHeld to Ransom was a campaign by International Planned Parenthood Federation. It was to replace $8million of US international aid money that George Bush cut off from every non-governmental organisation involved in abortion. Including just giving advice. I invented a name that told everyone what Bush had done to IPPF. And inevitably all the people they work so hard to help – some of the poorest in the world. The name and logo are daring and uncompromising, and together they tell a powerful story.

There was an expected twist in the tale when the campaign became the catalyst for a profound change in the charity’s tone of voice, from academic and long-winded to what they proudly described as ‘brave and angry’.

Painting with words

Keltie is a firm of patent and trademark attorneys with a jaw-dropping passion for their work. This is Keltie’s practice brochure called Painting with Words. It’s full of stories told in their very own words. There are funny stories, thoughtful stories, no-laughing-matter stories. Stories that are so good their design is all but invisible.

Five top tips

So how do you go about communicating in a crystal-clear, expressive and idiosyncratic way? And how can language and design be made to come together to tell an unforgettable story?

1 Choose designers who show a love of language. Listen to how they talk about their work. Do they tell a good story?

2 Choose writers who get a buzz out of working with designers. And make sure they’re genuinely interested in the visual interpretation of their words.

3 Bring writers and designers together at the very beginning of projects. Encourage them to work together as a team.

4 Be clear about what needs to be said before asking designers to dream up graphics. Expect writers to contribute to the story.

5 Manage projects so there’s plenty of opportunity to develop the writing and design together. Neither is more important than the other.

John Spencer is founder of Offthetopofmyhead.