Designers hate words: Debunking an industry myth

An industry joke is that designers hate words. As a typophile, reader, and journalist, I am a little offended at the notion that we’re perceived as only liking color boxes, white space, and images. Personally, I love words. Whether it’s one giant word in a slab type on a 12’x12′ wall or 144,000 words carefully typeset into a book, using words (or verbal tools) are what define humans. Words are at the center of nearly every design. I care about the best way to send the message visually. As form follows function, design follows content. What I don’t love are the 4,235-word diatribes — ill set — that convey less than that one 12’x12′ word. Words that are carelessly strewn, just because they fall in the midst of more important ideas.

Though words are a necessary, enjoyable part of the way we communicate, there is truth to the fact that people are attracted to images over words. We have an innate desire to be shown, not told. The average person reads (skims, scans) dozen of e-mails a day — it’s rare that a job requires you to look at photos (barring obvious exceptions). Images are a sigh of relief for the brain. It doesn’t say consume me in a specific order and interpret what that order depicts. Instead, images say: look at me any way that you want! Focus on nothing or something or everything. Moreover, images can communicate a lot more than words in a very short time — icons are recognized instantaneously, whereas reading takes more concerted energy and time.

Images become associated with certain words and thus, meanings: [1] an octagon, stop [2] a triangle, yield [3] a man running out a door, exit [4] three Möbius strips pointing toward each other, recycling.

How did this happen?

It began with a bright Neanderthal drawing some gazelles on cave walls with berries, and didn’t compound until Belgian surrealist René Magritte alerted us to our concept of representation. By writing C’eci n’est pas une pipe underneath a painting of a pipe, he told us that a representation of a pipe is not actually a pipe. If he wrote that it were a pipe, he would have been lying, since you can smoke a pipe, but you can’t (really) smoke a painting of a pipe. Aptly named The Treachery of Images, this painting forces us to address our need to depict things that are not there; to be aware of our need to represent words with images.

In logo design, the hope is always to say a lot in a minimalistic fashion (not in the aesthetic sense but conceptual sense). People always crave simple logo designs like the Nike swoosh or CBS eye. Typically, those logos deemed as successful are void of words.

However, it’s a rare instance that a logo starts that way. Most clients wanting logos become nervous by just images. When images are unadulterated with words, they tend to rely on archetypal tropes.

A Pantheon-like icon to represent a bank. A hand to represent giving.

A young plant to represent growth.

Most brands who aim to include a conceptual representation (a double-siren, golden arches, swoosh, peacock), usually accompany the image with the name of the brand. But through time, as brands gain universal appeal, they slough off the accompanying names, allowing the gravitas of the image to tell the full story — perhaps even more than when it had a name.

Brands like Starbucks, Nike, Target, McDonald’s at one point or another have all undergone the knife for a leaner, pithier and arguably bolder image. It’s a gutsy; taking the words out. By doing so, you are brazenly telling the world that you no longer require words — which have literal value — in order for people to identify who you are. The risk is in confusing people. As with most high-risk decisions, the potential gain is the ability to assert that your brand is so powerful, so recognizable, that you require no written introduction. The swoosh, the arch, and now the double-siren now entirely represent not only the words with which they were once affiliated, but the entire brands themselves.

We intuit more than we think nonverbally: the story of a long day that a sigh tells, the trepidation we feel when the lengthy space sequence is scored with Also sprach Zarathustra, the dreamy disorientation of Dalí’s clocks. With Starbucks, the wordless logo not only says and represents the phrase ‘Starbucks Coffee’ but also encapsulates everything that Starbucks stands for: saying ‘yes’ to every insane request, accusations of burnt coffee, providing opportunities, consistently providing the world with a sense of no-place.

It represents an emotion involved with the concept rather than the concept itself. That’s precisely what effective branding does. It makes you feel something. If you know the brand, it makes you intuit their values. It makes you want to run faster, drink more coffee, eat 4am fries, or sign up for this car insurance. If you don’t know the brand, I’d argue that the impact of just the image allows your imagination to digest what the sheer image says. If you never knew what McDonald’s was and you saw those golden arches for the first time, how magical is that? You might not know they serve hamburgers if you just saw the arches, but you’d perhaps imagine nostalgia, or fields of golden wheat, or the Grand Canyon, or whatever it is your imagination would conjure up.

The risk with removing the literal element for an audience who doesn’t know you is always that people won’t know exactly what you do. The risk is real and yes, there will be people who don’t know exactly what it is you do. But how often are golden arches not attached to a giant restaurant with huge pictures of hamburgers? How much deduction does it require if you see a coffee cup with a logo on it? Sure, someone might not realize that double-sirens means Starbucks which means coffee.

But as with all major risks, the potential for reward is great: Associating just a swoosh with extreme athletic success, an arch with crispy, salty french fries, and concentric red circles with convenient, one-stop shopping. As a designer, if ever my logos — free of words — can communicate such strong emotions so viscerally to one person, let alone thousands or even millions, well, then I feel like I’ve done my job well.