“It’s not just about making something look pretty or making something look trendy. — Nick Stephenson
“It’s not just about making something look pretty or making something look trendy,” Nick Stephenson tells his students in Pennsylvania College of Technology’s graphic design major. “It’s about having something that really has an idea behind it … that’s really well thought out … a good solution to the problem.”
The challenge for Zachary Bird, one of Nick’s students who is featured in Working Class: Design & Do, was to market imaginary beers under the brand name Poetic Justice. His solution was inspired by his study of words, language, and composition.
“I started, like I start anything else, with word lists,” Zach said. “I wrote down Poetic Justice and beer and all the topics that I needed to cover and I just wrote for probably 45 minutes.”
From the writing, themes emerged that led him to design distinctive graphics and chose dramatic names for the imaginary beers: MacGuffin Scottish Ale, Death Trap Triple, Red Herring Hefeweizen and Chekhov’s Gun.
Word lists are common tools used by designers and other creative people. Scribbling down on paper words that relate to challenges or topics of interest can help the brain form connections and inspire ideas. The better the one’s vocabulary, the more word options waiting to be discovered. And more options can lead to better designs.
Teachers, students and parents: take note. English classes matter – not only for students who want to become writers. Vocabulary, spelling and grammar are tools used in every walk of life.
During the Great Depression, an English teacher observed that students exposed to more “practical, interesting, and essential” materials took a greater interest in learning.
“English should be adapted to the situation in which it is used,” John T. Shuman wrote in Spelling for Trade and Technical Students, a textbook published in 1934.
I found Shuman’s text while researching a book, Working Class: 100 Years of Hands-on Education, published by Pennsylvania College of Technology in 2014. I was intrigued by Shuman’s method of teaching spelling, punctuation and meanings of general vocabulary along with words specific to popular career fields of that era, including terms heard in the drafting room, machine shop, woodworking shop, and print shop.
The author claimed “one very definite aim: To motivate the study of English spelling and at the same time to give … command of an adequate vocabulary that will function in the school, in the industrial world … and in the everyday world.”
Shuman, who went on to become a school district superintendent, encouraged all students to learn to express themselves well: “No one is born with the ability to speak correctly and effectively, just as no one is born with the ability to swim or to operate a machine. Both are skills that must be learned through practice.”
Despite the fact that many design terms and tools (micrometers, protractors and T-squares) in Shuman’s text have become obsolete today, the practice of vocabulary is still very relevant. Words remain a constant, necessary part of all expression.
“No one is born with the ability to speak correctly and effectively, just as no one is born with the ability to swim or to operate a machine. Both are skills that must be learned through practice.” – John T. Shuman
Successful designer, entrepreneur and former vice president of products at Adobe Jeffrey Veen revealed in a 2013 Interview article that classic texts on writing are among his favorite books.
“William Zinsser’s On Writing Well was a transformative book that I read my freshman year of college,” Veen said. “Not only did it teach me about grammar and composition, but it also taught me brevity, editing, and clarity, which I’ve applied in my life in an unbelievable number of ways. It’s obvious to say less is more, but it’s more about getting down to the essence. Also, The Elements of Style goes hand in hand with that.”
Word tools are essential for designers who create things that are not only visually interesting but also useful, innovative, and valuable to society. It is important that we encourage students interested in design to pursue a comprehensive education that includes reading and writing as well as art and technology.
“I’ve been amazed at how often those outside the discipline of design assume that what designers do is decoration. Good design is problem solving.” — Jeffrey Veen