Ampersandesign is an Oxford based agency offering print and web orientated brand communication and graphic design. Ampersand Design has over 40 years combined experience.
Good design is good business. Lester Beall

The story of a self-initiated project:

Corporate Jargon – A Communication Paradox

Have you ever wondered why there’s so much meaningless jargon in everyday business language? Ever questioned how at odds this is with your expectation for clear, accessible information? After all, isn’t that what effective communication is all about? Asking myself these questions, I began to reflect on why business jargon exists in the first place, before going on to create my visual (and tactile) response.

We use language not only to engage, but also to hide ignorance or veil insecurities; to impose supremacy, assert expertise, win favour, justify actions, or gain foothold in a competitive environment. Often barriers are created in place of bridges and pathways as we try to disguise certain traits, or simply fulfil expectations.

My aim with this project was to explore and expose this communication paradox and have some fun with it too: often the best way of bringing something down that takes itself seriously is to send it up. The challenge here, I recognised, would be to communicate the impenetrable nature of corporate jargon, using some of the most effective tools in the designer’s kit – imagination, humour, analogy and juxtaposition – to produce a rich visual antidote to a verbal problem.

Choosing typography as the main vehicle for expression, my research began with a visit to the Lubalin Study Center in New York, where I discovered a wealth of examples by masters from the heyday of advertising.

I interviewed business professionals from the public and private sector, identifying the common denominators in industry terminology. Dipping into social media, I picked up on the frequency of embittered remarks on the subject and recorded examples found on Twitter; I read Linked In posts, articles and blogs and looked to my copywriter contacts for support.

I saw my project as a visual aid to communicating a verbal problem. It wasn’t till Ryan Wallman, Head of Copywriting at Wellmark (Australia) introduced me to Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, that I found inspiration for my main piece. My boardroom table, rich with metaphor and including references to the themes of clarity and obscurity would appear right there, under the noses of executives gathered round for a meeting.

Their eyes could explore the maze of jargon; they might exchange accusing looks, chuckle in recognition, or ponder on the illuminated simplicity of the central block of text.

Nothing could have prepared me for the obstacles I encountered creating this piece. Several hands (ie bribed friends) made lighter work of feeding the optic fibres through holes I’d drilled into the Perspex; there were chemical reactions I’d not anticipated, technical and practical hurdles that were overcome only through my own perseverance and determination to produce what I saw in my mind’s eye.

I moved on to furnish the rest of the meeting room too, with an interactive (blackout) blind; transparent posters illuminated by LEDs; a ‘jargon extinguisher’ and another sculptural piece – a tower of English words, (Oxford dictionaries), topped with a jargon-littered transcript of The Lord’s Prayer.

I enjoyed this project – from writing my own brief and researching the subject, to producing an interactive and thought provoking 3D response. It was rewarding to see viewers engaging with the whole display when it went on show earlier this Summer and I was flattered when the cleaners – unaware that the extinguisher was an exhibit – repeatedly moved it to a more accessible position by the fire escape.

Reflecting on the outcome of my project, I felt I’d succeeded in explaining my subject more vividly through effective manipulation of scale, materials and context. Graphic design need not be restricted to 2D presentation and when it comes to communication, showing really does support telling.

“ of the roles of design is to bring humanity, intelligence and beauty to the world of business, and indeed to everyday life. In my experience, good clients and good designers don’t see this goal as being opposed to – or even separate from – achieving business goals, but rather an integral part of it.”
Michael Bierut, interviewed by Peter Merholz during UX Week, 2006

Shireen Dew
22nd September 2015

Selected References

Lubalin Study Center, New York

Campaign for Plain English

Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, Don Watson

How Learnings Prevent Thinking, Dave Trott

Your Audience’s Language, Dave Trott

3 Ways to Never Be Wrong, The Ad Contrarian (Bob Hoffman)

How God actioned the Heaven and the Earth, Transformational Business Verbiage Initiative

Alignment, Brian Bilston