Why it is crucial to form the verbal for the visual

Published:  October 16, 2015

You’re great with design, but are you able to articulate your contribution to your peers, your potential employers and your future clients?

All words by Dr Nicki Wragg.






You’ve worked hard for the last three or four years at design school. You’ve dedicated yourself to the ‘visual’ to communicate, persuade, intrigue and inform. You believe the work in your folio speaks for itself. It’s creative, current and demonstrates the knowledge and skills you have developed during your time at design school. Therefore, what’s the problem? Through your work, other designers will see your brilliance, your ability to think on your feet and be dynamic and flexible. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Traditionally in design, particularly in Communication Design, there has been the ‘wow’ factor at play for a long time where ‘wow’ could mean anything. It could be that the production techniques were outstanding or the concept was exceptionally clever or the layout and composition sophisticated, raw or uncompromising. The ‘wow’ factor has been the predominant mode of articulating good design for a significant period of time, however, this was in a time when design in graphic design and advertising was less complex and involved simply print, television and radio. A time when design was considered the product of the lone genius and clients took a ‘leap of faith’ when dealing with designers. Designers didn’t explain their process as they didn’t want to dispel the genius myth. However a gap emerged between how designers speak visually and speak using words. These traditions have had an impact on curriculum and how we emphasis the visual over the verbal.

As design becomes more complex and media neutral, that is design that translates across multiple media formats, with more external stakeholders involved in the process, the ‘wow’ factor is outdated. Designers have to articulate their contribution to designers and non-designers alike. Design is measurable and a designed outcomes’ effectiveness can be evaluated based on a variety of methods and analytics available to designers. In effect, this makes designers more accountable to the user rather than pleasing themselves aesthetically, as luminary Paul Rand (1985) described.

How does this impact on you as a junior designer? It will affect you very much as you enter a complex industry where there is an increasing array of niche areas within the broader spectrum of communication design, forcing you to question where do you and your skills fit? Are you a brand strategist? Do you design printed publications? Is your specialism information design? Do you want to work in advertising or specifically in typographic design? Do you understand digital or even have an interactive literacy? Does your work translate across media formats?


Credit: Swinburne

This may sound overwhelming and to some degree, it is. But there are a few steps that could help you make some of these decisions. These steps require an analytical approach where you question yourself and your skills in written and spoken form, reflecting on each piece of work, asking yourself:

What was the design problem?

What was the concept?

What was the creative intention?

What was the visual approach?

What were the challenges of the project?

What have I learnt about myself through this project?

Why is it in my folio?

By writing the answers down and becoming more familiar with them, you better understand what you are doing and what motivates and inspires you. Through this process you begin a journey of articulating your craft, your design practice through your own narrative.

I tell my students that for each project they propose, they need to develop a ‘design pickup line’, where they explain they strategy and concept in 50 words or less. If it’s compelling they are rewarded, which in this case, would be by obtaining an interview.

Reflection of your own work is a difficult thing to do and not something that most students initiate. To demonstrate your design excellence through a portfolio of work is essential. However there is a greater challenge, which is to articulate a thoughtful and considered process behind each project. To do this succinctly communicates the depth of your design knowledge as well as a self-awareness of the way that you work.

The ‘wow’ factor will never leave design and can be a valid indicator of the quality of work, however, there needs to be more. Students have to understand how their ‘wow’ came about and communicate how they can achieve it again and again and again. They need to be articulate from a visual and verbal perspective. The only way to do this is practice throughout their time at design school. Start their design narrative and build on it each year, learning all the way to communicate the intangible aspects of design.


Dr Nicki Wragg is Swinburne Online Program Director of Design and Senior Lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology.


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