Jan 12, 2017 | Branding, Featured

6 things George Orwell taught me about design

What happens if we take Orwell’s suggestions for writers and apply them to design?

Convoluted writing upsets me. I have George Orwell to thank for this, because after reading his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language it became nearly impossible for me to ignore. Written specifically to address the euphemistic use of language by politicians in “defence of the indefensible”, the essay contains six guidelines for direct, effective communication. I tend to refer back to these points often while writing, but it only recently occurred to me that they could probably be translated to design as well. This could all go horribly wrong, but it’s worth a shot:

#1: Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Remember Hipster Branding? Or Skeu It? Snark aside, both sites are dense with design similies and metaphors overused to the point of cliché.

#2: Never use a long word where a short one will do.

I love density and over-decoration on occasion, but not when i’m actually trying to understand a message. Design should always enhance the communication of an idea, not hinder it. And design should not be used to deceive. Like Tibor Kalman said “Designers: Stay away from corprations that want you to lie for them”.

#3: If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

This is the first rule of modernism in the context of graphic design. Since as long ago as 1905, good design has usually been accompanied by a long list of things that the designer chose to omit.

#4: Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Don’t design things that require people to exert a lot of energy to decipher the content. Design things that communicate clearly. I should point out that I don’t consider that to be the same thing as “design more minimal shit”. The inherent beauty of design is the ability to convey complex ideas with a limited palette.

#5: Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. 

I think this rule is put to best use regarding how we discuss design, especially with clients. More than once I’ve seen designers hide behind industry jargon or lean on the technological aspects of a project to mask the fact that there’s not really anything there once you scratch the surface. If you can’t explain your work without quoting a bunch of specs and catchphrases it doesn’t do a lot for the whole “designers are master communicators” argument. My favourite example is this PDF for the 2009 Pepsi rebrand (even though it’s a joke)

#6: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

To an even greater extent than in writing, design rules are made to be broken. For example, maybe there is a case where designing something arcane and complex is the most suitable approach to a problem. I mean, someone had to design the book chronicling the Cremaster Cycle, right?

So can Orwell’s rules for writing be applied to design? Not perfectly, no, but in a lot of ways what translates coherently ends up closely echoing the ideals of Modernism. Or, perhaps by interpreting Orwell’s writing the way I have above I’m showing my modernist-educated biases. Either way, I’m sure if he were alive today Orwell would be far to busy decrying the surveillance state to be offended. He might, however, be offended by how many times I broke his rules while writing this post.





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