Design guidelines

Bland statements of intent can do designers more harm than good, says Craig Oldham. It’s vital that we stick to our beliefs

I’m a passionate person. Not just over the usual – such as when I scream at Barnsley for riding their luck one too many times on the pitch – but for certain things in my life and my career. I can’t help it, certain things just really mean a lot to me.

I always knew I was a passionate person. Everyone knows in themselves when something is occurring that they simply don’t agree with, but not every­one acts upon these passions. Some are happy to let them go, for the greater good perhaps, whereas others dig in like an Alabama tick and go for gold.

Until recently, I believed I was the former, not so much a pushover but I didn’t feel I’d quite found the bravery to voice my opinions. That was until one recent outburst in the studio was deemed by colleagues to be the last straw and I was handed the scribbled list you see illustrated on the right: the appetisingly-titled Craig’s Beef List.

As the list was handed to me, it came with the instruction to write upon it everything that I passionately disagreed with, or disliked. It was soon filled in. However, as banterful as the Beef List was, it did provoke some thought about principles within design (along with my choice of reading material at that time, A to Z by the passionate, value-driven designer, Massimo Vignelli). And I couldn’t help but realise that front-facing design consultancies, agencies and groups (pick whatever else you want to call them) are – to be brutally honest – quite misty, often spineless, in expres­sing their beliefs about design and the design industry.

A brief click through many of the ‘creatively-led’, ‘design-and-communi­cation-passionate’ agency websites will highlight this as they try to express their beliefs to their ‘wide and varied client list’.

The fact is, they end up saying something so safe, and so resultantly bland, or something so saturated with convoluted terminology, that it’s borderline ridiculous. And as business-safe as this option may seem, I can’t help but wonder if this actually helps or hinders the business. OK, it doesn’t hurt it, but maybe it does something far worse – nothing.

Of course, not everyone opts for the safe option. Some designers and design agencies publish their beliefs online – their do’s-and-don’ts – upfront for everyone to see, whether ethical and moral stances or personal beliefs in design. Here are a few examples that I know of: Thoughtful (; Pearlfisher (; thomas.matthews (; Wim Crouwel (his biog at; Massimo Vignelli (; John McConnell (; and the great Milton Glaser (

Sure, looking at this list, the rot can set in and designers can begin to doubt themselves. ‘Oh, that’s easy for so-and-so to say – they’re amazing –but I’d like to see them do that with my client. They won’t let you.’ But what I’d ask these designers is ‘have you tried?’ Have you ever expressed your passion and principles so, well, passionately, to convince your client that you’re a consultant, not just a processor, and that what you’ve designed is right for all involved?

This is an approach that I believe should be applauded and is something that the design industry, its educators and students, can learn from. Almost every designer enters the industry with their own charged passions, optimism and visions. That drive to do something different, to challenge the norm and uphold their principles and what they believe to be right.

But where does all of this go? Why do we not keep these desires and beliefs, reinforce them with our knowledge and experience and allow that momentum to build into our commercial design work? Why compromise our design, some­times beyond all recognition, to produce work to promote a cause, or a product, we often don’t believe in? Why do we design something to bend the truth or intentionally deceive the public? Why do we make the type bigger, unbalance layouts, change the colour from blue to red and make the logo bigger? Why don’t we stick to our guns?

More often than not, in the end, we bend (and often break), falling back on the belief that we can take pride from our good service rather than working with, and possibly educating, our clients about our beliefs regarding good design and how truly effective it can be for them.

Standing strong on your principles can be beneficial for all involved. In the beginning, publishing exactly where you stand will deter many a client that you wouldn’t want to be working with anyway (as they don’t agree, or would ask for a certain some­thing that you believe to be wrong) and attract a like-minded client that could lead to great opportunities. Educating current clients on what you’re ‘all about’ will develop your relationship with them, giving them clearer, more honest expectations of you, and in return giving you better, clearer, more honest briefs. Thus improving the dialogue and, more importantly, creating more of a partnership than a dictatorship. Allowing for work that serves yourselves better, your client better and, above all, the intended audience and society better.

So if we stand by our beliefs and principles in good design rather than make something uglier, or a bit ‘more stupider’ than we believe to be right, just for the sake of money, experience or in order to ‘service’ our clients, we might, just might, be able to make that bit of a difference to ourselves, our work, our clients (and our relationship with them) and improve the visual literacy of society.

Of course, we have to be grown-up about all of this, and I’ll be the first to admit this is a little pie in the sky but I really believe in having principles and defining them out in the open. Honestly and for all to see, as others, far greater and wiser than I, have so poignantly expressed.

Massimo Vignelli (in that book I mentioned, A to Z) describes his profession as “a continuous struggle against vulgarity. A battle against the ugliness.” He draws similarities between a designer’s task and that of a doctor. “The doctor analyses you and gives you a diagnosis of the situation and then a cure to make you better. And as designers we do the same thing, but we cure … ugliness.”

But a designer/client relationship is very different to that of doctor and patient. When my doctor gives me a cure, I take it. There’s no negotiation. I wouldn’t expect him to back down on his decision, to change his mind, to compromise his dose or schedule if I didn’t like what he said. As designers, shouldn’t we expect the same from our ‘patients’? Perhaps, if we were clearer on our principles at the start and were prepared to stick by them no matter what, we might earn the same kind of respect in return?

Craig Oldham is a designer at Manchester-based studio, Music. See

(“Although The Beef List is predominantly populated by my own ‘beefs’ there are two strays on there from the commentary of others,” Oldham adds. “Li Rui decided my constant verbal onslaughts on Facebook would warrant an entry, and Mike, the founder of the Beef List itself, concluded that when I’m overcome with a terrible, bed-confining migraine and can’t make it to work for the morning, that also deserves a place on the leaderboard.”)



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