Designed to annoy

Ah, the relationship between the designer and the copywriter – ain’t it a beautiful thing? Like Lennon and McCartney, when they chime just right, there’s no end to what creative heights can be achieved. But when they don’t, the results are more Mills and McCartney: a publicly fought power struggle that embarrasses the perpetrators and spectators alike.

I flinch whenever I see evidence that a fellow writer has surrendered all power to their designer (or, as I suspect, hasn’t been consulted in the creative process at all). The biggest give-away that this has happened? When words are over-designed in a misguided attempt to be witty or allusive.

A good example of this is London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s recent attempt to rebrand London by giving the city a logo in which the last two letters are rubricated in a spurious attempt to add significance. It looks something like this: LONDON.

Now I’m no Ken-basher, but for those of a writerly disposition, this abomination is a sin far more egregious than the introduction of any congestion charge.

Presumably the intention is to convey the idea that London is a city that never switches off – a vibrant, swinging place that rivals New York in its appeal to those of an insomniac disposition. What annoys is not so much the palpable falseness of such a suggestion (try getting a drink there after 10.30 on a Sunday night, or finding somewhere to eat after the opera).

It’s not even that the architect of the crime hasn’t stopped to consider the other connotations of being ‘on’. New York: the City that never sleeps. London: the city that sits at home on the sofa feeling sorry for itself with a hot water bottle clutched to its belly. Such a connotation is, of course, exacerbated by (queasy males, look away now) the unfortunate choice of colour.

What really irks is that the conceit jars with the natural pronunciation of the word, forcing readers into the uncomfortable position of calling their native city ‘lond-on’ instead of ‘lundun’. I suspect that randomly changing the pronunciation of a much-loved product is not what branding experts would call ‘best-practice’.

Worse still, this crime has been exacerbated by the extension of the idea to an advertising campaign designed to imbue all Londoners with a feeling of community spirit and solidarity. Every time I see the phrase ‘WE ARE LONDONERS‘, I feel anything but at one with my fellow citizens. Indeed, nothing fills me with more misanthropy than being forced to do a word puzzle on my daily commute by a designer who thinks he’s cleverer than he is.

And presumably that same designer was responsible for the banners that have recently cropped up in the Holborn area of city, featuring the word ‘holborn‘. The creator of this disgrace can only be doing one of two things: either trying to suggest that this part of London makes you feel like you’re simultaneously on holiday and born again, or randomly dividing a word because it looks pretty. The former seems a rather far-fetched claim. The latter I could live with were it not for the fact that literate people actually pronounce Holborn ‘hoe-burn’, making an utter nonsense of the division of the word.

So designers, take note: a key part of your job is to enhance your writer’s work by making it easy to read, not hard. And writers take note too: if a word or phrase isn’t sufficiently strong to convey meaning without designerly elaboration, then you clearly need to rethink your copy.

In cases like those cited above, it’s clear that blame can be apportioned to both sides. Rather like Mills and McCartney, one suspects.

2 Responses to “Designed to annoy”

  1. RP says:

    The Holborn design must surely have been the brain child of a disgruntled American — who else would say Hol-born and then want to make a case about how it’s spelt? And what about consistency? I think the design needs to be rolled out all over London: why not FulHAM. ShoreDITCH, WaterLOO, BoROUGH, etc? More than just a statement, they’re a state of mind.

  2. clare says:

    RP, you are a genius – have you thought of approaching Saatchis?

    Actually, perhaps you could launch a guerilla campaign on behalf of disgruntled first-time buyers wanting to cool the housing market in areas like ‘vibrant (read: ‘dodgy’) SoBo’? What a perfect foil to estate agent hyperbole!

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