Why No Place at the Table

I 've been in design my whole life. During this admittedly lengthening period, I've listened to many designers spend much energy fighting to be recognized, fighting to be heard by the people who make things happen in corporations, in NGOs, in government.

For years I have heard stirring arguments about how designers need "a place at the table" around which important systemic decisions are made. And still that place at the table is not an assured place. Why are designers still not really a part of things? Why are they not an assumed voice in high-level decision-making? Even today, when innovation and sustainability and green are the newest corporate cliches, it is rare to see a designer in the boardroom.

"And why is this?" I asked myself, walking back from teaching tonight. The answer came to me, borne on feathered wings, somewhere between Nordstrom's and the ferry.

The reason that designers have only a feeble grip on that chair at the table is not because design is not respected, it is because most designers cannot write. I don't mean they can't write like Faulkner. I don't mean they don't have a discernable prose style. I mean they cannot WRITE. They do not know where to put a subject and a verb and a capital and a period. They are functionally illiterate. Only the very top echelon of designers writes. And let me tell you, that top echelon writes like the wind: read Stefan Bucher, read Michael Rock, read Michael Bierut, read Jessica Helfand, read Sagmeister--these people are not only literate, they are wonderful writers and they get their ideas across in ways that inspire people to agree with them. It should be noted that two of these people are writing in a second language.

But below that level, it is very rare to find a really good writer in the pack. Oh, sure, there are one or two in every AIGA meeting. But to be blunt, the greater mass of designers is a mass of functioning illiterates. I know. I've edited them. The odd part is that these designers have convinced themselves that they CAN write. They think they are fairly good writers and that a little dust-off with Spellcheck will pretty much make them excellent writers. They have a totally unrealistic view of their own skills. They dress up their writing in the Emperor's new clothes, but those clothes don't fool anyone at the table.

Now. Why is writing important to getting and keeping said much-ballyhooed chair? For two reasons. The first is that no one trusts illiterate people to make decisions. If they did, all countries would be democracies.

The second is that the rest of the people at that table can write and they look down on people that can't. It's a class issue (though in America we would never say that) and it's an issue of the perception of judgement. Not being able to write-- thinking you can when you can't-- shows a willingness to believe in vague and untrue things, a willingness to obfuscate. It shows an inability to be clear, to be rational--to think. That's not something people want at the table.

Being unable to write well also shows a lack of understanding about the way corporate culture works. CEOs write. CFOs write. Marketing directors write. You can draw on a napkin all you want, but napkin-drawing is not the native problem-solving tool of most CEOs: Writing is. It is the stuff of which convincing arguments are made. It is the natural language of the boardroom. No matter how brilliant you are, if you don't know how to write well you will never be perceived by the rest of that table as anything but a window dresser wearing Prada.