i am not amused

February 11, 2017

One of the earliest lessons we are taught at school is that language, especially when it is expressed as the written word, is governed by certain rules – there are grammatical conventions that we should stick to if we want to communicate clearly and make it easy for others to understand us.

One can carry this to extremes but respecting the basics makes a lot of sense. Take capital letters, for instance. They are useful for highlighting the fact you are starting a fresh sentence. And the letter i is always expressed as a capital I when used as a personal pronoun.

Some graphic designers, however, don’t really seem to “get” words. They treat these squiggly things as mere shapes, and overlook the fact they have particular meanings attached to them. Collectively words are just “content” and the only thing that really matters to a designer is that they fit neatly into their layout.

Yesterday I receive a flyer from my bank, offering me up to £24,000. Setting aside my personal aversion to paying 4.4% APR (for me GOOD spells Get Out Of Debt) I noted that every headline began with a lower case letter instead of an initial cap. Then, to make matters worse, I saw that what should have been an I was written as an i.


I have no idea. Maybe the designer felt it made them look more creative? Perhaps they thought sticking to the rules was boring? Or could it be they don’t understand how sticking to the rules makes it easier to read? Then there’s the possibility they don’t expect people to read it anyway? Could it be the brand guidelines told them to do it like that?

What I do know is that it annoys the crap out of me. Not because I’m some kind of grammar fascist. But because all of possibilities listed in the previous paragraph really piss me off.

What we have here is a lack of respect. Lack of respect for the English language. And lack of respect for customers (“let’s make it harder for them to read”).

I’m convinced the small print relating to this loan is very carefully worded (by lawyers, not designers). And they would hold me very closely to these terms and conditions if late payment came to repossession.

Looking for this small print I turn the letter over. It’s at the bottom. And just above it is some text saying that if I want “this in another format such as large print…ask in branch.” No thanks – just make the normal sized version easier to read by sticking to some basic rules of grammar.

  1. Paul Eveleigh February 11, 2017 Reply

    Well said, Jim. But why is your example an all-too-often occurrence?
    Too many times graphic designers make my copy illegible. In reverse font. On wallpaper background. Too small and in sans serif.
    Too many battles not worth dying in the ditch over.
    I used to blame the creative director or whoever signed off on the ad.
    Now I’m freelance I make sure punters find my copy easy to read.

    • Jim February 12, 2017 Reply

      Hi Paul, thanks for taking time to reply and read. We live in illiterate and illegible times. Having said that, most of the wealth/disposable income is with the over 50's, who appreciate the rules of grammar and need glasses for reading. But how many designers or creative directors have the nouse to figure that out?

      • Paul Eveleigh February 12, 2017 Reply

        Jim, your typical ad agency staffer is under 30. Grammar? Who cares? Parsing? Wot you talk'n about?
        Elegant and simple design that makes the product interesting? Ditto.
        But the wealthy over 50's care. More than agencies know.
        Yet most agencies lack empathy with the over 50's.
        Take your example of the bank pitch. A typical example of dismal failure to persuade the over 50's to buy a product or service.
        My point? Agencies ignore the over 50's at their peril.

        • Jim February 14, 2017 Reply

          Amen to that, Paul!

  2. Barnaby Adams February 21, 2017 Reply

    I think 'imitation' is important to learn an art, but once mastered it is time for 'innovation' … this is how we evolve! To this end I've just typeset a whole book without capital letters and without a single full stop … instead we used space and indents to make the reading experience a pleasure. The author said "I’m delighted you had a huge involvement in making the interiors splendidly original, beautiful to look at and lucid to read. Hugely appreciated!" … we've had great feed back from those who suffer from dyslexia … and I have personally found the style we developed a vast improvement when it comes to digesting complex ideas!

    So I guess this is about appropriateness and taking enough care to ensure that creativity does actually improve things – and accepting that inevitably there will be disasters along the road of evolution. I do however most definitely agree with you about small print … it's malicious trickery (but in my experience this is driven by the client not the designer).

    Can I get away with a smily face here? ; )

    • Jim February 27, 2017 Reply

      Hi Barnaby, thanks for reading, and for thoughtful/thought provoking reply. You are right, it's fine to break rules once you have mastered them (see Picasso/cubism) and if you do it for a purpose. I've never read Ulysses by James Joyce but I believe he successfully broke a lot of the literary rules to great effect...because he knew what he was doing and why he was doing it.
      What's the book you typeset? Would be interesting to see it!

      • Barnaby Adams February 28, 2017 Reply

        Hi Jim
        The book is by philosopher Tim Freke and is called 'Soul Story – Evolution and the Purpose of Life' … it's a full on serious philosophical trip full of beautiful ideas. It will be released in April by publisher Watkins. All the extra spacing has made it quite a thick book (which one might argue gives it more gravitas given its subject), but when you open it you quickly realise it's very digestible both as a result of the way it's written and typeset. What was lovely (and so often missing) is that the writing informed the design and then the design informed the writing … so Tim (the author) rewrote the manuscript to compliment the design approach (together developing the design rules) and in doing so we further refined the content making it even more digestible/accessible. I do think the design process should be like this … everyone around the table together, collaborating. All too often each part of the job is separated out and so the project becomes disconnected/disjointed.

        • Jim March 1, 2017 Reply

          Totally agree about collaboration (around a table!). That was how it used to be done...email is no substitute. It's not just about end result being disjointed, but the whole process lacks the chemistry/magic of people sparking ideas off one another. Anyway, good luck with the book - I'll look out for it!

  3. Frazer Buxton February 21, 2017 Reply

    Hi Jim,
    I am a conceptual designer and typophile and I couldn't agree with you more.

    Over the years I have had to explain to designers that you should never just flow the copy in before reading it. I am often asked why? I know it seems simple but I have to spell it out - great design and typography should enhance the message and therefore it is vital to read and understand what you are trying to communicate.

    It seems that too many designers or are more focussed on creating pretty pictures even if they are made up with characters. It is the role of the CD to teach and guide designers the importance and impact of great copy.

    And don't get me started on grammar!

    • Jim February 27, 2017 Reply

      Hi Frazer, thanks for your reply and glad we feel the same way. I'd add that there is too little interest these days in the message, even from clients and copywriters. So long as it "looks good" and "sounds nice" then that's all that matters. Look and feel, tone of voice, seem to trump the message itself. In fact, if you try and say anything it actually scares people involved in the project, as it forces them to think and is seen as a potential risk (you might get a reaction!).

      • Barnaby Adams February 28, 2017 Reply

        Yep, this has been my experience … everyone is terrified of expressing an opinion and getting a reaction … play safe, be vague … crazy!

        • Jim March 1, 2017 Reply

          Have you read "Purple Cow", which explains why playing safe is riskiest strategy of all?

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