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The Power of Text In Design

Story telling, if used effectively in the design process, has enormous powers to enrich design. Joeri Bakker chats with us about how this idea works.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 28-09-2009

In the first of the BNO Talk Series held during Dutch Design Double the newish subject of the relationship between text and image within the design industry was explored. The event was initiated by Ellen Bokkinga and both designers and copywriters participated in the debate, which was moderated by Joeri Bakker.

“I wouldn’t say that it is that new,” says Bakker. “It’s just that not that many people think about it.”

Bakker, a copywriter, is fascinated by language and his main position is that everything is a sort of language – design, image and text. “Actual text is very literal and descriptive,” he says, “whereas images are more sensitive. If you compare the two, text is like German and images are like Spanish.”

The way it works is that as one reads, an image is created or designed in the mind of the reader according to the writers’ wishes.

“Yesterday I walked through a park and I saw a man sitting on a bench. He was wearing a peculiar pair of black shorts,” says Bakker.

The image one person creates of this starting scene is always going to be different to the image another person creates, even when given exactly the same description.

“You’d need to provide a photo of the image to ensure we were all picturing it in the same way,” Bakker says, “because a writer never tells the truth exactly. He is a liar, which is what gives him creative space.”

This means, of course, that writing is an effective tool of manipulation. Story telling, if used effectively in the design process, has enormous powers to enrich design. “It can add things”, Bakker says. “A sense of humour, a sense of humanity, or add an atmosphere of expectation. Whereas design made without the use of a story will end up being much colder and more minimal.”

It’s a process similar to the field of art history where students are encouraged to unravel images to discover meaning. “They are looking for the original texts,” says Bakker, “for the stories.”

When it comes to product design, Bakker says it isn’t hard to design a new vase. “But what is hard is designing things that will become a friend to people” he says. “Things that will make people happy.”

A lot of designers already feel that design is not a matter of form, but a matter of meaning. “I agree,” says Bakker, “but my views go even further than that. Design has to be a part of today’s story. Everything we do is an experience and has a narrative.”

Using texts or stories in the design process helps to create important design. “It adds feeling,” Bakker says. “Without a story, design can end up feeling dominant, empty and inconsiderate.”

But the problem now is that young designers are not being taught this. “Text deserves a much more serious role in the education of young designers,” Bakker says. “I hope that will start to change.”

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