Leader of communications agency word-design, Elise Valmorbida is an expert at brand voice and verbal identity. Additionally, Elise sits on the board of writers' organisation 26, has published three novels and two nonfiction books.
From the cloak and dagger freelancer working alone, to the glorious collaborations of the oh-so-rare visual and verbal agency, in this article she traces the evolution of that illusive being, the design writer.
"Once upon a time there was power-dressing and mass privatisation. Polytechnics and colleges were all set to become universities. The Design Museum opened its doors in London. The Apple Macintosh II was launched – with a colour display! – but designers were more like ink-stained scalpel-wielding artisans than computer workers.
The corporate identity manual burgeoned. It bludgeoned too. Page after page showed what to do with a logo, and what not. This use of colour was illegal, that kind of typography was brand treason, punishable by hanging, drawing and quartering. Corporate identity was more than image; it was how staff answered the phone. From transport to takeaway, the world became designer.
Corporate identity grew into brand identity, and the manuals started to include token pages about writing style. It wasn’t enough that staff answered the phone with a smile you could hear – what sort of words should they be saying?
As a young designer at Newell and Sorrell, I relished working on projects with John Simmons, an early explorer of verbal identity, who later co-founded 26 for “a greater love of words, in business and in life”. (How could I resist joining?)
In my time as a creative director at The Body Shop, I learned from Anita Roddick and Jilly Forster the power of concepts where the visual and the verbal do a dialectic dance. From the start, and from the heart. On packaging, promotions, campaigns, financial reports and environmental reports. Not for them the use of random Latin to indicate where real words might eventually appear like last minute sprinkles. It was a challenge to find and keep talented wordsmiths who’d accept less pay than advertising offered, but our London studio did house writers, designers and visual merchandisers, all working together on creative projects from concept through to implementation. Ours was a rare kind of visual-verbal agency.
Even today, design groups that promise comprehensive branding rarely employ writers except as ad hoc freelancers, sometimes at the later stages of a project, sometimes because the dark art of naming is involved.
All too often, a writer can be called up to ‘provide content’, to fill in pages about ‘tone of voice’ at the back of a brand book, or to ‘proof copy’ written inexpertly by an enthusiast. Now and then, secretly, the writer is also expected to spin gold from straw. By dawn. Alone.
In 2001 D&AD introduced Writing for Design Awards. Hallelujah. The early 2000s saw the emergence of new collective entities – Quietroom, The Writer, 26 – and solitary writers at last had some power in numbers. And still they gather: The Professional Copywriters Network, Aesop, Afia, Reed Words and others. (Do we call a group of writers a pack, a brace, a murder? Perhaps a murmuration?)
Smart organisations know that words can be their armour and halo in the battle for a scarce resource: attention. And, because writing is a concentrated form of thinking, words can reveal a brand’s true colours. Which is why writers for design do more than provide content or fill in spaces with kapok words. And why they should be engaged from the start, to write from the heart.
There may be no such thing as objective truth, but there is something essential to be discovered through courageous questioning, contradiction and thought. If that truth is expressed with creative sincerity – which can be as plain as gov.uk or as wry as a Disappointments Diary – then there will be sparkle and wonder. With a bit of luck, awards too."
If you think you have a campaign that deserves a Pencil, enter your work into the D&AD Awards and see if our judges agree. When it comes to awards, nothing matters more.