Words and design: the best of enemies

On a fine April evening, 100 of the great and good of writing and design gathered in the mysterious Swedenborg House to thrash out their alleged differences. The discussion featured designers Malcolm Garrett, Jonathan Barnbrook andSimon Esterson, with Creative Review’s Patrick Burgoyne in the chair. Jim Davies did a fine job of organising and introducing the event, which soon turned into a lively free-for-all. Here’s a review from one of the writers present, Start Creative’s Dan Radley.

I had some reservations about the title. The image of designer and writer locked in a creative arm-wrestle doesn’t fit my own experience. In the event, the panel at Swedenborg House moved swiftly from the confrontational side of the relationship to the positive possibilities.

Jonathan Barnbrook, a typographer who has championed the power of graphic design to bring about social change, kicked things off with a lament: “Too many young typographers don’t read the text they’re working with.” Malcolm Garrett, type guru and interactive pioneer, asked, “Are they a designer if they haven’t read the text?”

Editorial designer Simon Esterson agreed, “Designers are visual translators.” He explained that in editorial design the nature of the product often dictates the way writers and designers interact. “The New Yorker is about smart writing and cartoons in a fixed format and typeface,” he said. “Whereas The Sun is a subs’ product.”

Patrick Burgoyne in the Chair observed that The Sun gets you reading half the page before you even realise. Malcolm saw this as the sign of a seamless relationship, rather like, “You never notice great acting.” He said he’d been in partnership with a writer since the 1980s. As it turned out, that writer – Kasper de Graaf – was in the audience and helped the platform debate spill naturally onto the floor.

How can we make our clients braver? Is the internet the death or salvation of writing? Why doesn’t design follow the advertising model of the art director and copywriter role-switching and cross-pollinating?

Overall, collaboration was deemed the winner: “Two people in a room equals three people in the room.” The spirit of Emanuel Swedenborg, erotic love poet and inventor of the submarine, had moved amongst us.

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