Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Graphic Language

As part of an effort to broaden the pool of writers for this blog and to cover some different areas of English Language study, there will be some new blog contributors posting soon and a few guest posts. In one such guest post by Nigel Ball, course leader for the BA (Hons) Graphic Design programmes at UCS, Ipswich, the focus is on the role of language in graphic design.

If you asked someone what is graphic design?, Id put money on most people mentioning something about images. And if someone from within the discipline itself were asked, the term visual communication would likely crop up. Both are obvious, and in and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with them. While it is undoubtedly hard to think of a piece of graphic design that isnt visual, what such beliefs overlook in my opinion is the importance of English language to the subject. What follows are some reasons I believe English language is (nearly) as important as good image-making abilities for graphic designers.

The Brief
There are some obvious reasons, even before you start designing, why English is a vital tool. First and foremost, the majority of design jobs will start with a brief. This will either be supplied by the client, or written by the designer themselves after meeting with a client. It will invariably need to be agreed by all parties before proceeding with the job inhand in order that there is no confusion about what is required by both parties. If there is confusion at the initial stage, then in all likelihood, the outcome will be confused and wont communicate effectively. Within the brief, (and notes from client meetings), designers will often search for important key words that indicate a clients values. These give measurable criteria that can be returned to as the design progresses.

Such importance is placed on the brief within design circles that even if a designer is working on a personal project they will invariably write their own brief in order to clarify their initial thoughts and set the parameters within which they intend to work.

After laying out the boundaries of a job, the designer will then typically move on to a research phase. While this will be dependent on what the brief is, common research themes for most jobs will include looking closely at who the client is and what they do, the clients competition, as well as all the contexts that surround the brief. It is important to note at this point that designers rarely only work for clients who have the same interests as them, meaning research is a vital part of the design process. For example, I know next-to-nothing about opera. Were I contacted by the English National Opera tomorrow to do a job for them, Id have to find out as much as I could about the subject in order to be able to do it justice.

Some of this research will be primary, some will be visual, but much will involve a lot of reading. This is one of the exciting things about being a designer: you get the opportunity to widen your personal knowledge on a huge range of interesting, (and sometimes boring), topics. But with any research comes a lot of searching for material, analysis and notation.

Once a designer starts the actual design, language may become less important as concepts are considered and visual ideas start to fly. However, there are many decisions to be made at this stage. Regardless of the idea, the sort of imagery to use needs consideration. Questions such as whether to follow a photographic or illustrative route arise. Even within these two choices there are a myriad of associated stylistic choices which can affect the way an image is interpreted. For example, a few years ago I ran a live project with students in collaboration with Suffolk County Council who were asked to create a recipe pack for food bank users. It was important in this instance that the design didnt look like a luxury cookery book with recipes that were out of the reach to the audience. At the same time it was equally as important that way the design was styled didnt visually talk down to those that would need to use it. While such thoughts may affect the image-making process, the background analysis that is involved to question a stylistic approach involves a degree of clarityany critical rationale for choice of imagery requires a core understanding of nuances of English language in order to clearly justify visual decisions.

Working with copy
Theres no avoiding text as a graphic designer. In most cases copy is provided by the client or a copywriter. In the case of the latter, these are highly skilled professionals who have to do as much research as a designer to get the right tone of voice and ensure what they are writing is correct for the job-in-hand. Unfortunately, in the case of the former, many clients arent experts in English language, let alone understand that you cannot fit 1000 words of type into a space that is allocated for 250; unless you add more pages to a document for which clients are often unprepared to pay the extra printing costs. This means that as you type-set the words you are supplied, you inevitably have to edit, re-write and make alterations. If a designer does not have a good working knowledge of the English language and punctuation, they are going to struggle. Spelling mistakes and misplaced apostrophes could at best highlight poor attention to detail, and at worst cost you future work.

Aside from copy supplied to you, a starting point with many design ideas may be word play, and this can often drive graphic concepts. On these occasions it is vitally important to use the correct words in order that an audience interprets your design as you wish. For example, the Alan Fletcher poster above, designed as an ironic sideswipe at design rules for a Chartered Society of Designers event in Glasgow in 1993, specifically uses the word dogma. Firstly, dogma is slightly comicalit contains the word dog which conjures up thoughts of little Fido not letting go of something, which in turn perfectly complements the leaning of the word itself. Secondly, dogma has alliterative qualities when used with down’—the phrase runs off the tongue as if a chant or slogan. Thirdly, and more importantly in regard to clarifying meaning, if alternative words such as authority, rules or system had been used, these would have been too suggestive of a political stance and would overshadow the pieces intrinsic wit.

Selling your idea
Of great importance to any designer is convincing their client that their idea is the best idea. In contemporary practice this can often be through design studios pitching for a contract against each other. If you are lucky enough to be the sole company in line for a job, you will still need to communicate your ideas in a presentation or client meeting, treading the fine line between using design jargon and language a non-designer would understand. You may have a killer idea, but if the client is skeptical and you are unable to convince them otherwise, then you will either need to compromise your design integrity or the client may procure the services of someone else.

Degree study
I hope I have managed to set out what I believe is the importance of English language to graphic design. One of the ironies of the relationship between the two is that at degree level study, many of the students that come to this arts based discipline are dyslexic or have a fear of writing. It can then be a shock on starting a design degree at university to find out just how much of an equal emphasis is placed on research as on image making. As a counterpoint, those students who come to an arts-based degree with an excellent grasp (and/or love) of English languagemaybe because they chose English as one of their A level subjects alongside an arts disciplinedont always appreciate how this will benefit them as young designers. The realisation that their multiple skills can feed into a single interest can be a revelation: that their ability to think in words can be of equal use to them in the field of graphic design as it can to traditional A level progression route onto English related degree courses.

Further reading:  Website of creative team Nick Asbury, (a writer) and Sue Asbury, (a designer).
Heller S. (2012) Writing and Research for Graphic Designers: A Designers Manual to Strategic Communication and Presentation. Massachusetts : Rockport

Horberry R and Lingwood G. (2014) Read Me: 10 Lessons for Writing Great Copy. London : Laurence King

Nigel Ball is course leader for the BA (Hons) Graphic Design programmes at UCS, Ipswich, lecturing across both practical and contextual modules. Alongside teaching, Nigel takes on graphic design commissions, produces personal projects and writes a critical art and design blog under the moniker Dubdog. He has also written for the blog of respected graphic design publication Eye magazine; and peer-reviews publications for Bloomsbury art and design imprint Fairchild Books. Nigel is currently studying for his Masters in Arts Practice.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Join EngLangBlog

In September this blog will have be celebrating its 10 year anniversary, which makes me feel older than I normally do. Which is like bare old? And shown by my feeble attempts to use teen slang and MLE-style youth sociolect. And not write in full grammatical sentences?

Anyway, all of that aside, it would be good to expand the pool of people writing for the blog beyond the existing team (me and my dog). The launch of the new AQA English Language A level specification which kicks off in September 2015 seems like a good time to get new people involved, especially if you are a teacher of English Language A level or someone who is studying it/has studied it. So, if you fancy writing for the blog, just tweet me via @EngLangBlog and we can get you set up.

Monday, June 01, 2015

New AQA A level resources

If you are coming here to find new material for the September 2015 AQA English Language A level, it will be coming soon and labelled as "AQA new spec".

As the current spec is still running and students are doing exams at the moment, I don't want to post anything here that will confuse them, so will start posting new spec material later in the month.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Everybae People

The recent news stories about Scrabble are a gift to A2 students revising Language Change and Discourses, so have a look at these links for some good stuff on new words, and lots of "OMG, how can that even be called a word?!" reactions.

Here's Ben Farren of The Guardian listing lots of them.
Here's The Daily Telegraph looking at both sides: from Sue Bowman of the Association of British Scrabble Players who reckons it's "an abuse of the English language" to Gyles Brandreth, founder of the National Scrabble Competition who says "hang loose and get down on the street". Yeesh!
Meanwhile, Elaine Higgleton offers a staunchly descriptive defence of the new entries in this Radio 4 clip.

Language change hit the headlines a little while ago too in the aftermath of a thinly-disguised marketing exercise for a new Samsung phone, with several articles looking at how older generations claim to feel completely bamboozled about young people's new slang.

Here we have The Guardian explaining how language is changing faster than ever before.
Then, there's The Daily Telegraph saying the same thing in a slightly older and more baffled way.
The Daily Mail reckons it's all the fault of trades unions, gay marriage, Red Ed and immigrants (probably).
The Huffington Post keeps it fleek.

But just to prove that older people have always struggled with young people's language, here's Ben Zimmer looking at an American newspaper from 1911 saying nearly the same thing.

Thanks to various Twitter people for the links (@languagepigeon @agwilliams9 @tonythorne007 @bgzimmer)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Language Change: political correctness and technology

Recent Language Change questions on ENGA3 have featured pairs of texts (one old, one contemporary) on the same topic and offered you the chance to analyse how they use language to create different representations of whatever it is they are focusing on: rugby matches, the city of Bradford or coffee, in recent years. You are also expected to think about how the times the texts are from might have influenced their language. It's worth remembering though, that this isn't the only type of question for ENGA3, so you might want to think about some others. Remember too, that any topic that turns up in Section A of the paper can also appear on Section B as a Language Discourses question.

Political correctness (PC) is worth a look at as a language change topic. It's a movement to change language and redress some of the perceived inequalities in how language represents traditionally less powerful groups in society, but it's always controversial. A question on PC could offer you examples of words that have been changed to make them more inclusive and/or less discriminatory (like this) and perhaps extracts from a text like this one which offers a range of opinions and arguments about how homophobic language can affect people.

Even in Section A, it would be hard to avoid addressing attitudes to PC and there's no reason to steer clear of this kind of debate, because it is covered in the mark scheme. However, what you need to bear in mind is that it's Section B where you will find texts that offer opinions and discussions about language and this is where you can engage more fully with debates and discourses.

The following texts are worth a look to help you think about the arguments.
Gender-neutral language and arguments around PC
Simon Heffer gets wound up about PC (from this page)

Feminist academics upset the Daily Mail and its readers by suggesting that 'Miss' is less respectful than 'Sir'. Full story here.

The other kind of question that has cropped up before is where texts show evidence of the use of new language. Back in June 2011 the paper had an extract from a review of a digital camera. Here you would be looking at how new words are being used and how they reflect technological change (amongst other things), but as with any question on this paper, you're also looking at how language represents the topic, in this case, how the reviewer represents the digital camera. Don't forget either, that - as with the PC questions above or the ones on pairs of texts in recent years - any analysis of the text is also expected to cover how the writer represents him/herself and how s/he addresses the ideal reader. These ideas around positioning and stance are always worth mugging up on to help you secure AO3 marks, whatever kind of text you have to analyse.

It would be quite possible to get a question that had a text featuring a lot of slang and/or new words from popular culture, so you would apply the same analytical skills but perhaps focus in BP2 on a few other areas of language change. Have a look at these examples of news pieces on emojis for some ideas about this.
Emojis on the up
Emoticons are changing the language

As with PC, it's quite possible you could get a Language Discourses question on Technology and Language, so here are a few pieces to have a look at.
Is the internet destroying English?
A similar one from Steven Poole in The Guardian
Robert McCrum updates George Orwell's famous attack on poor English to cover the internet

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mode mini-moments mark 1

In the run-up to the ENGA1 exam in a couple of weeks, here's the first in a short series of short posts on Language and Mode. Today it's about Mode...

What is mode? If you can't answer that question by now, I'd respectfully suggest that you should do some basic work on the topic. After all, the first part of the paper is called "Language and Mode", so you might be advised to understand what it's all about.

So, what is it? Mode, on a really basic level, is how a text producer conveys something to a text receiver. The text producer could be a person writing, texting, tweeting, talking face-to-face or telephoning and the text receiver could be one person or a much bigger audience. So, the mode part of this is what is in the middle - how it gets from A to B. Historically, mode has been separated into spoken and written forms, based upon the channel through which the text is received (visual - i.e. read or auditory i.e. heard) but that's too binary, so the way we generally conceptualise mode for this course is along a continuum. This approach owes a lot to the linguists Doug Biber and Dick Hudson who have both written about the ways in which certain texts exhibit particular mode characteristics or dimensions.

Jarvis Cocker demonstrates his knowledge of 2nd person
pronouns & multi-modality through gesture
More recently, a wider view of mode has been suggested (by, among others, Gunther Kress) in which mode does not apply simply to speech and writing but to other forms of meaning making too, such as gesture and images. This means that a written text with pictures might be seen as multi-modal, as would a spoken lecture accompanied by a power point and gestures (not the kind of gestures I am fond of making to my students to demonstrate first and second person pronouns).

So, if you think about mode early on when addressing the texts you are given in the ENGA1 exam, you can start to make some useful observations about the nature of each text before you start considering more familiar elements such as genre, audience, subject and purpose.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

General Dejection

You might have missed it, but there was a General Election last week. While many of us in Sixth Form Colleges are still weeping, wailing and gnashing our teeth - not to mention drowning our sorrows in red red wine - at the prospect of another 5 years of underfunding and fragmentation, at least the election gave us some good stuff to look at for language analysis. Every cloud has a silver lining...

Anyway, here's a quick round-up of things that you could look at for English language A level related to the recent campaign.

First off, it's the rise of the hashtag #Milifandom. For a while, it looked like people might actually vote for Miliband, and the rise of the Milifandom hashtag seemed to crystallise the feeling among a (clearly deluded, in hindsight) minority that the time of the geek had come. Obviously, it hadn't...

Accommodation was also under the spotlight: not the kind of accommodation that we need - you know, houses and stuff - but accommodation in the form of Howard Giles' Communication Accommodation Theory. A year or two ago, we looked on this blog at George Osborne's attempts to converge to working class speech but this time round it was Ed Miliband who was mocked for his apparent convergence to Russell Brand's Essex/mockney style.

Have a look at this piece which explains some of the background to the Milibrand interview and the ways in which such convergence can happen and is often viewed.

And in a separate article, David Shariatmadari looks at the glottal stop and its stigmatisation, making the following observation:

The glottal stop (more specifically, the glottalisation of “t”) is a feature traditionally associated with male, working-class speakers. But even as far back as 1982, linguist John Wells noticed it being picked up by young speakers of “prestige” British English – otherwise known as received pronunciation. It’s difficult to say exactly why that happened, but Labov’s idea of “covert prestige” makes intuitive sense. Some sounds, even though they’re generally regarded as markers of an “inferior” dialect, are nevertheless used to signal group membership, solidarity or cool.

Away from the two main male players in the General Election, Cameron and Miliband, the three female party leaders of the Greens, Plaid Cymru and SNP attracted much media coverage. Was this the first election since Thatcher's in 1979 that would see women making a splash? Well, yes and no, Sturgeon's splash appears to have seriously dampened Miliband's chances of taking power or exerting any influence on a hung parliament, with the SNP butchering Labour in Scotland and then Labour failing to make gains in England.

But what about the speech styles of the female party leaders? Were these women breaking the mould of adversarial Punch and Judy politics by injecting some much needed co-operation and civility into the debates? 

Deborah Cameron, ace linguist and author of The Myth of Mars and Venus, looked at this with a sceptical eye in this really interesting piece about gender and the debates, arguing that much of the coverage of the three female party leaders has succumbed to tedious stereotyping:

The specific ways in which women are said to differ from men (more supportive and less aggressive, more into consensus and less into point-scoring, etc.) could come straight from the pages of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. These are hoary old gender stereotypes, which in other contexts feminists would decry as crude and sexist. Yet in the context of the election campaign they are being dusted off and trotted out as if they constituted a feminist argument. ‘Look, women are different from men, that’s why we need more of them in politics’. There is an excellent feminist case for equal political representation. So why use an argument whose basic assumption is that women deserve a place because they’re from Venus rather than Mars?

As she points out elsewhere in her article, female speakers aren't all the same:

Some differences among women are produced by the intersection of gender with other social divisions like ethnicity and class; others reflect variation at the level of individual personality or life experience. It’s true that ‘female politicians’ is a much smaller and less internally diverse category than ‘women’. Even so, it cannot be assumed that they have a single style of speaking. In fact, it’s obvious they don’t: even among the three female party leaders I've been discussing there are clear individual differences.

Perhaps what has shaped so much of this coverage of the female party leaders and their 'female language style' is the sheer novelty of seeing women in power, and that is hugely depressing in 2015. As much as I detest pretty much everything Margaret Thatcher ever did, I can still recognise that having a female Prime Minister was still a pretty big moment in history, but 36 years later there still hasn't been another woman PM and we are still short of equality for the sexes in parliament. 

So, even when things look apparently very different, they actually stay the same. Or get worse...

Women lead the way

Yesterday's Word of Mouth on Radio 4 had a really good discussion of how language change around the world - and not just in English, but other languages, including Arabic - is being led by young women. It's definitely worth a listen if you're revising gender for ENGA3 Language Variation or even Language Change and reasons for change.

You can find it here.

The focus on women as linguistic innovators is also picked up in this 2012 New York Times article, which suggests that features as diverse as vocal fry (or 'creaky voice'), high rising terminals and new slang are all driven by young women. It's not just in spoken language that women are having an impact; in this Slate piece from 2013, Amanda Marcotte looks at how language styles on Twitter are often related to gender and speculates on how this might lead to men adopting a more 'female' style (more emojis, ellipses and exaggerated punctuation).