Blog in 05 2014.
Last week I shared some of the year’s best ‘Writing for Design’ entries from the D&AD Awards. But not one of them was quite groundbreaking enough to win the ultimate accolade: the Black Pencil.
So, what does it take to be groundbreaking in writing for design?
1. Don’t stop at the idea
If we could’ve awarded every great idea on the table at the D&AD Awards, it would’ve been a bumper year. But once we looked past the big idea or the clever headline, the rest of the words often let the work down.
Take the Run That Town app by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Such a brilliant idea: to gamify the results of the Australian census in an app that lets you ‘run’ your local area a la Sim City, complete with personalised ‘newspapers’ reporting on the local community’s response to your planning decisions. But although the video trailer for the app revealed some great writing within the app’s 100,000+ words, when our jury actually tried to play with it, the signing-in process – and the instructional language that came with it – let it down.
Remember, as I explained at a Creative Mornings talk earlier this year, every word is an opportunity.
2. Beware of humour
One reader’s belly laugh is another’s face palm. As illustrated by the wackaging backlash, getting it wrong can turn readers off quicker than you can say: ‘Contains 100% FUN!’
Have a look at last week’s post to see how Harvey Nichols and The Macquarie dictionary got it just right.
3. Think beyond words
An unexpected medium. A brilliant typographic twist. By definition, being groundbreaking means going where no one else has gone before.
I love the annual report by the Calgary Society for Persons with Disabilities, which won a Black Pencil for graphic design. A single staple through the middle of the report makes it physically hard to read, illustrating life with a disability in the most tangible way. And the words work beautifully with the design, telling the story of a client over a day and using the ‘four sides’ created by the staple for different sections and threads.
Now if only they’d entered it for Writing for Design, they might have had another Black Pencil on their mantelpiece…
When I was a seventeen-year-old advertising student in South Africa, it was my dream to win a D&AD Award. So I was as thrilled as a teenager on a first date to be at last night’s awards ceremony as foreman of the ‘writing for design’ jury.
Being foreman meant I got to judge not only the Yellow Pencils, but also the coveted Black Pencils, which recognise the best of the best from across all design categories.
As I wrote here the last time I judged the awards, winning a Yellow Pencil is hard enough. But to be awarded a Black Pencil, a piece of work needs to be truly groundbreaking.
Sadly, it was once again a lean year for writing for design, with only one Yellow Pencil awarded, and no Black.
Next week I’ll share some tips on how to make your writing groundbreaking. But in the meantime, here are some of this year’s entries that came close…
Harvey Nichols: Sorry, I spent it on myself
Some of you might find it surprising to see department store Harvey Nichols’ tongue-in-cheek Christmas range in the D&AD Annual for writing. It certainly divided our jury.
The packaging was deliberately ‘undesigned’ and ‘unwritten’ for a low-budget feel that’s totally out of keeping with the luxury brand – because the gift-giver ‘spent it on themselves’.
As such, there are very few words on the packaging. And yet, the writer has managed to squeeze loads of subtle wit into the short product descriptions where most others might have given in to the temptation to labour the gag.
Dishoom’s story plates
From a content marketing and storytelling point of view, this entry really stood out for me. Indian restaurant chain Dishoom took anecdotes about the original Bombay cafes in India and retold them on their plates. A lovely way to educate and entertain diners waiting for their masala prawns and gunpowder potatoes.
It made it into the book, but didn’t get nominated – mainly because the quality of the stories, and the writing, was inconsistent across the dozens of variations on the theme. Had there been fewer, better examples, it might have gone a different way…
Minds for Minds: meeting of the minds
One of only two Yellow Pencil nominations, Minds for Minds’ poster juxtaposes the thoughts of a person with autism with those of a scientist studying the condition. It’s a moving piece of work that gets even better and more rewarding on a second or third reading.
Had it been up to me and me alone, I would’ve given it a Yellow Pencil.
And the winner was… The Macquarie for Phubbing
As the writing for design jury, it gave us huge pleasure to recognise a good, old-fashioned dictionary (with next to no budget) for inventing a new word – phubbing – and turning it into a phenomenally successful campaign. An example of both a great idea and consistently great writing, The Macquarie’s website had us smiling from beginning to end, hitting that sweet spot where ideas, wit and humour come together without ever trying too hard.
Not only that, but I’m happy to report that this particular judge has been keeping her phubbing habits in check ever since.
Jargon. Ugh. Horrible stuff. The chattering of birds. The ramblings of nerds. As unintelligible as surds. (Maths was never my strong point.)
For all these reasons, linguists prefer the term ‘occupational dialect’. And if you put it in that context, you start to think a little differently.
Here’s what I mean. Imagine you’ve gone to see your GP and this happens:
GP: What’s your CC?
You: My what?
GP: Your CC. Chief complaint.
You: I’ve had this cough.
GP: Try some antitussives.
GP: Chlophedianol hydrochloride. Diphenhydramine citrate. Camphor. You know. Antitussives.
The main problem with that conversation is the jargon, right? Wrong.
Consider scenario two. Now you’re on the operating table.
Surgeon 1: Administer the Seldinger.
Surgeon 2: Okay. I’ve identified the right subclavian vein.
Surgeon 1: Good. Start aspirating the blood now.
This time the jargon’s vital. Without it the surgeon would waste precious time, so it’s fair to say it might actually save your life.
Jargon isn’t the enemy. As with all bad writing, the real culprit is a lack of empathy.
The golden rule is to use the most effective words at your disposal. If you’re a surgeon performing an operation, an engineer talking to other engineers or a footballer addressing his fans, jargon is effective, because everyone in the conversation speaks the same occupational dialect.
But if you’re an expert talking to non-experts, steer clear. They’ll only end up with acute cephalalgia.
Note to doctors: sorry if I butchered your dialect in the examples above. Biology was never my strong point either.
I’ve always thought London was a pretty cosmopolitan city.
But then I moved to New York for a few months. And even the names of our people there tell you a lot: Emelie Rodriguez. Mariam Muzaffar. Colby Brin. Anelia Varela.
Compare this to London: Nick Parker. Paul Edwards. (Sorry, chaps.) And yes, Neil Taylor. Heck, the other day we went to a meeting and our team was a Smith, a Jones and a Brown. You could barely get more statistically predictable. Thank God for Laura Swidzinska.
So that’s our illegal new recruitment policy in the UK: more interesting names.
What’s the difference? Does it even matter?
The truth is often we just refer to it by whatever our clients call it (they’re paying the bill, after all).
But here’s the thing: neither are quite up to the job.
Tone of voice is too narrow.
So is brand language.
To get the big benefits, just think of it as your organisation’s language. So it becomes ‘Cisco’s language’, say, or ‘Mandarin Oriental’s language’.
Now I should say I think the ‘tone of voice’ and ‘brand language’ labels are absolutely fine, it’s just that they’ve got baggage. When you read them a little switch flips in your brain and not surprisingly the word ‘brand’ flashes up in glitzy (and carefully RGB-specific) letters. Whichever label you choose, to people in your organisation it looks like brand’s bag – and not something the folks in HR, customer experience, L&D or anywhere else need worry about.
Only it is. And just calling it your language makes that plain.
Language. Changing the label makes it a much bigger deal.
At the nuts and bolts level of writing it’s not just about ‘tone’ anymore, but what choices you need to make so your message comes across most effectively. What content to use and what to leave out, and how to structure it to make things easy for your reader.
Then if we jump up to the jumbo company scale, it immediately gives you licence to apply your language to the kinds of things those ‘brand’ labels don’t get you near. Everything from bid writing to complaint handling, HR policies to annual reports.
It’s suddenly the entire business’s language, even if behind the scenes it’s brand who are pulling the strings.
It’s everyone’s responsibility and something everyone can use. And that means more people will reap the rewards of applying it to what they do.