The principal purpose of design.

In December of 2018, I sat, amidst the detritus of a dozen climaxing client projects, with a decidedly quizzical expression. Stumped. Well and truly. The cause of these facial acrobatics? The latest missive in a string of emails with the organisers of Melbourne Design Week. I had thought the premise of our proposed event was straightforward; to highlight the varied and deep impact of design decisions on their audiences, through discussion with experts in their field; whose principal jobs are to uncover, quantify and critique ‘design impact’. To show this end-of-the-line reality to a community of designers often stuck ‘upstream’ or without the resources or project scope to measure the consequences of their professional engagement. A journalist, a neuroscientist and an activist happily agreed to take part.

To paraphrase…

Them: ”But they aren’t designers…”

Me: “Worrying levels of protectionism aside, as they may well be designers [by most definitions worth caring about] their work plays a critical role in understanding why we design, how we design and who we design for.”

Them: “After discussion with the organisers, we are not sure this is the right fit for MDW”

As I said, stumped. To deny the imperative of design impact, its historic pedigree, and its relevance today, is to rob it of all power. It is to deny why so many, myself included, have followed a path into professional design practice. To move people, to challenge assumption, to change circumstance.To create meaningful and lasting impact, by design.

In that vein, let me share with you several premises that we at Ellis Jones are taking into the year ahead, to consider, unpack and ultimately evidence as part of our practice, albeit, not with an event at Melbourne Design Week (this year).

There is no Switzerland (objectivity is a myth).

Susan Sontag, in her collected writings On Photography, debunks the construct of photographs being objective, dispassionate, or neutral. She argues that because the medium possesses the illusion of ‘capturing’ (or taking?) a moment from time, that we have mythologised its ‘truth’. Or perhaps mistaken a capacity for some ‘truth’ as its primary mode. We have also projected a morality and framework of taste onto photos. A ‘good picture’, or a ‘bad picture’.

Mark Porter (the design drive behind the much celebrated and imitated Guardian redesign of 2005), spoke of his learning working with the great Tibor Kalman at Colors magazine. That as designers, curators, viewers even, we must take time with images to put aside labels of good or bad, tasteful or distasteful, in order to really understand the narratives at play.

What point then? Simply, what is true of photography is true of colour, of type, or layout, format or media. That for all the modernist influence in design (and the great insight, wisdom and optimism, in my opinion), the idea that designers are objective, white-coat-clad curators, documentarians without bias, capable of rationality and complete clarity, is of course, complete, (if again, optimistic) rot.

Let’s own that. We are people, people!

Like any project, any team, or collaboration, success is dependent on the messy matter of egos, issues, context, experience, interest, skills and passions. This is what makes work interesting, differentiated, vital and human. This is what makes the process exhilarating, frustrating, illuminating, and ultimately, worthwhile.

Acknowledging what we bring to each project, and our desire to move people, and improve our world will only enrich the work, and create opportunities for our partners and clients.

Much more than 1000 words (visual and experiential grammar).

Words are wonderful. Words can imitate, agitate, mitigate, deprecate. Must one perspire to inspire? We love words. Turning them inside-out, upside down, putting them to work, putting them to play.

Imagine the power to synthesise words with symbols, colours, textures, mass, and form. To have multiple triggers for association, confirmation, emotion or action. This is the power harnessed by design.

And so, like written language, we have visual grammar and syntax. We create sentences, paragraphs, narratives from these elements. Each enhancing the other, and each requiring the others for context and meaning. To change one word in a sentence can be to fundamentally change the meaning, so it is with visual and experiential design sentences.

To continue the line of thinking, the most impactful design, like the most impactful prose, must be considered, coherent, structured and erudite. This is the opportunity in the environment that is Ellis Jones. Breadth of expertise, integrated with great depths of knowledge, driving design output with exceptional resonance and impact.

Design as a societal lever (acknowledging the power).

The history of design is a history of societal engagement, comment, and critique. The visual landscape of resistance or protest is a designed landscape (although of course most often not by ‘professional’ designers). More disconcertingly, the visual landscape of oppression, repression or control is also a designed one (often by ‘professional’ designers – let’s not forget this happened).

Less famous than Andy Warhol’s ‘famous for 15 minutes’ prediction was his conclusion that ‘in the future, everyone will need an editor’. His meaning was that we each produce such a volume of indiscriminate, unconscious thought and action as to be completely unintelligible to anyone else without shaping or focus. He correctly identified the exponential curve of narcissism fuelled by greater connectivity. Perhaps the inverse also has become the reality, we need editing (read as design) of our engagement with the world, in order to make sense of it.

In a world suffocating with images, messages and meanings, with information and misinformation given equal air time, what a vital role design has to play! Designers have the skills and, hence, the responsibility to improve the situation.

We need designed systems, spaces, interactions and experiences more than ever before. We need design to free us from continual editing, to focus our attention on what matters most. Maybe that is a more sustainable, just and inclusive society. Maybe that is simply the agency to live healthily, within supportive and nurturing environments. Maybe that is to experience the respect and dignity deserved to a life well-lived.

The future is designed. Or rather, we will design our future. Let’s make it a conscious process.

So what?

Some ranging and perhaps ungainly threads there, but they can be tied together simply as such:

At Ellis Jones, we recognise that as strategists, communicators and designers, we have value and agency to partner with our clients in creating genuine impact in people’s lives.

We should demand this of ourselves, each other, and our projects.

Design of enduring value is that which improves the experience of life in tangible, communicable ways. That ought to be universally accessed, if not (yet), universally demanded!

Talk to us and explore how design can create impact in your world.