What can designers learn from linguists?

The English language spoken in London, Sydney, New York, Hong Kong or Cape Town is similar in most respects, but in each culture a certain evolution in phonetic, lexical, and grammatical features has occurred. This is also true for the visual language of Coke, Heineken and Estée Lauder.

This evolution may not have fundamentally changed the language, or the brand, but it does make them uniquely adapted to a certain place and time. Perhaps the biggest difference in how these changes occur in a spoken vs. visual language is the process. For a spoken language change happens in the street, from the bottom up. With a brand’s visual language, at least so far, change happens in the conference room, from the top down.

And as we know, conference rooms aren’t the greatest place to foster change.

This conflict between the streets and the conference room apparently happens with languages as well. The French linguist Claude Hagège, author of “On the Death and Life of Languages”, talks about the evolution of language in a New York Times piece today.

He seems to suggest, and I am sure this vastly oversimplifies his argument, that English is a language of the streets, where change happens from the bottom up. Surprisingly Spanish appears to be a language of the conference room, where periodic meetings are held to establish global norms for the written and spoken form.

Historically in package design, one of the key decisions we make with the management of global brands is what to change from region to region, and how much to change it. For the most part, again until now, the typical conference room discussion has been how little should we change.

Some think a new, more flexible, attitude to visual brand planning is upon us. In a prediction about 2010 design trends, Jason Little, Landor’s Creative Director in Paris, speaks about this on their design blog Thinking. He says,

“The uncompromising rule book approach won’t cut it any longer. Identities are adapting to the altered media landscape, and rigid systems won’t work well in the give-and-take between consumer and corporation  .  . flexibility is the wave of the future. Restrictive color palettes will yield to complete spectrums. Photography will shun the staged look and veer toward user-generated content from sites like Flickr. The challenge will be to maintain a cohesive brand presence without reverting to strict rules.”

I think he is right, that is exactly the challenge.

But as brands become more responsive and more flexible, and as they begin to respond to changes in consumer patterns around the world, there will still be those inevitable battles between the conference room and the street.


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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One Response to What can designers learn from linguists?

  1. elzmcc says:

    Fascinating post with exceptional source material. For those of us trained in precise methods of design or writing, the “globalization” of the marketing message yields a cohesive brand experience.

    It is unsettling for professionals. Ultimately, however, it’s what we set out to do in the first place. So while consumers may not fret over serial commas or em dash styles, their satisfaction seems to be what matters in the end. It is, after all the brand story and its resilience that matters most.

    Best, e.

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