That’s Creative Tension

I was asked recently to go and take a brief from a design consultancy for a corporate writing job. It’s not something I’ve done for quite a while; I’m more involved these days in helping organisations with their own approach to stories and language, and my few writing clients I tend to work with direct. But the chief executive of the agency is an old friend, and the call was timely.

As the hour approached I had the stirring of a forgotten but familiar feeling: an odd and not entirely comfortable blend of curiosity and combativeness. At the meeting, my friend and his creative director explained that they had developed and submitted some approaches to the client, one of which had been approved. As it happened, I knew the company in question quite well and had had some thoughts of my own about what might be required. Before the others could go any further, I rather emphatically volunteered them.

My friend shook his head. I was barking up the wrong tree, he said. He was probably right, but I was suddenly overcome by an irrational need to spar. For several minutes we argued noisily and forcefully while the creative director and account manager sat by in silent bewilderment. Later, at lunch together, my friend and I got onto the subject of the pitfalls of giving and taking briefs.

‘Take this morning,’ he said.
‘What about this morning?’
‘You got it all wrong, didn’t you?’
I mumbled lamely about having thought the job was going to be something slightly different, and he let it pass.

But the whole thing struck a deep chord for me, and I felt that I probably owed both of us some attempt at a serious explanation. So I began to tell him about the countless times over the years that I’ve felt wrongfooted when taking writing briefs from designers; as if the process is somehow back-to-front, against the natural order of things.

I explained to him that being brought in as a writer to a job where the ground rules have already been set, the initial creative concepts presented and even approved, can leave one feeling redundant before the relationship has even begun.

As writers, our right-brain urge is to engage imaginatively, to get under the skin and reach for the nub of the project, to root out the stories and unearth the casual but significant detail that will add ginger to the telling. Our equally strong left-brain urge is to create narrative structure and logical argument. These two instincts together are what furnish our natural drive to conceptualise. Designers’ conceptualising comes from a place that is self- evidently more concerned with form and imagery than with narrative structure and words.

But – and this is the crux of it all – the two approaches are entirely complementary; and the earlier on in the process they are brought together and encouraged to synthesise, the more chance everyone has of getting an interesting result.

This was bought home to me powerfully during the 26 Malts project, which brought together 26 and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in a ground-breaking venture that paired 26 writers with 26 designers to create labels for 26 single malt whiskies. As one of the project managers, and also one of the creative participants, I experienced at first-hand how exciting the outcome can be when a designer and writer are told to go off and create together from scratch.

But in the world of corporate communications such creative freedom is still, alas, relatively rare. Too often, we writers are presented with a design framework into which our words are simply and conveniently supposed to fit, with, so it sometimes seems, scant regard for what they actually say.

(In fairness to designers, I should say that we do tend to let projects ‘happen’ to us in this way; while asking freelance writers to become involved in unpaid conceptualising and pitch work does raise complicated issues of payment. We need collectively to become a lot more vocal about the benefits of collaboration than we have been to date; one of the very issues 26 was set up to redress.

We also badly need to get some awareness of writing into the graphic design curriculum. I’m sure that civil engineering students are taught much more about the complementary and crucial discipline of surveying, for example, than graphic design students are taught about writing.)

Nevertheless, as things currently stand, many, though not all, graphic designers tend to see writers as they do photographers: as sub-contractors to be called in to fulfil a task they, the designers, have identified. And yes, that is one way of seeing it, but it’s not the full picture. It’s an approach that makes use of less than half the skills most writers can bring to the table.
Things are different in the advertising world, of course. In advertising agencies the whole creative process focuses on the ‘marriage’ of the copywriter and creative director. So why not in design consultancies?

‘Because that’s just the way it is,’ said my friend with a wry nod. ‘It’s always been like that.’
And he’s right, it has – for the simple, if not very good, reason that the designers got there first, and by quite a long way. Graphic design had been well established as a creative service for a couple of decades by the time writing for business began to come into its own, in the 1980s.

Furthermore, the design consultancies were organisations, set up to handle print and production, who went forth and marketed themselves; whereas the writers tended to be freelances. So there was a certain logic to the process whereby designers pitched to clients, got the job and took the brief, then brought in the writer.
It was a sequence of events that very much reflected the prevailing view of the times: that identity was primarily a visual affair.

But today most people would agree that businesses need stories and language to reflect their ‘personality’ just as much as they need distinctive logos, typefaces and corporate colours. In short, they need authentic voices as well as faces. So to exclude the writer, however unintentionally, from the very earliest stage of the creative process is to do everyone a disservice.

My friend heard me out. ‘I guessed that might be what you were on about,’ he concluded with a reflective smile. ‘So, do you think we should go back to the drawing board with this project?’

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