Lessons on language and inclusivity

Held annually in Stockholm, Nordic Design 2019 is a conference focused on the design within the range of user experience, user interface, technology and graphic design. The speakers were varied and did much more than simply show their impressive portfolios of work. They actively outlined certain manifestos or values inherent in their work. Topics ranged from design sprint methodologies to how to the design language learning app Duolingo; from design of systems to the usage of eye-tracking.There were a few key points which stuck with me from a few of the speakers, the first of which discussed the importance of names.

How to name

Like many who work in design nowadays, Sophie Tahran inhabits multiple roles already in her job title: she is a UX Writer. This unique and new role has her creating copy and naming systems for various services and products. Much like the visual side of design, the linguistic side must not only carry the brand’s unique voice but also serve its functional purpose. Language, she pointed out, is important. Much of Sophie’s eloquent talk described the structured process which she has crafted in order to find suitable names for brands or wording systems within brands. Overall, there are seven main categories of possible brand names, each with their own pros and cons:

  1. Descriptive names which describe what the service offers
  2. Evocative brands which try to stir a certain emotion
  3. Invented words which don’t exist in the dictionary
  4. Lexical names are those which play with language or spelling
  5. Acronymic names of individual words
  6. Geographic names of places
  7. Founder of company names.

Sophie outlined her process of creating a name for a new brand and this process is similar to the divergent and convergent phases of the design thinking double diamond. The process of starting the naming a certain brand begins with laying the foundation through looking at the context in which the name is intended to be used, the scope of the brand, competitors and the stakeholders involved. After this a brainstorming workshop is organised. Sophie was quite vague as to how exactly to brainstorm, but there are a near infinite methods available at this ideation stage. The key is to generate an over-abundance of ideas. Once it is deemed sufficient ideas have been generated a move into the refinement stage is needed. Names need to be clustered and researched into whether they fit certain requirements for literacy, universality, SEO or size (meaning whether the name fits the scope of the brief or the forecast growth of the company).  Additionally, legal teams need to be consulted in case of copyright issues. Once a name or shortlist has been made, you need to find approval from the rest of the stakeholders. A new name is easier to approve through being transparent about the whole process by showing an overview of the steps taken to get to the final result. Finally, once a name has been approved the driving of adoption is needed in order to fully execute the naming process correctly.

Sophie’s talk was interesting not only in its content, but also in the way it highlighted an oft overlooked element of design: language. In design it is understood that not only what is being communicated is important, but also how. This is especially important when you are literally discussing the usage of language in design. For example, the way specific navigational signage in a building may guide you around matters: it must not only be succinct, but ideally also carry some of the brand’s values as it provides the important service of showing you where to go.

Accessibility and inclusivity

Speaking of traversing through a service, another speaker Laura Kalbag, highlighted the needs of making services not only accessible but inclusive. It was not a distinction which I had previously made. In fact, in my ignorance I may have used the terms interchangeably.

The difference is wonderfully simply illustrated in these two shopfronts she showed. In the accessibility image, the shop has tried to accommodate for wheelchair users by building a ramp. However, the ramp is on the side of the building and accesses the back of the shop. In inclusive design, as shown in the image on the right, the ramp is built into the front of the shop. This may seem like a small difference to those without special needs, but it represents a fundamental shift in how we think about the provision of services for everybody. It is simply not enough to make services accessible; we must make include those with special needs in our society as fully equal members. This comes from designing products and services which do not simply have augmentations which accommodate special needs, but are intrinsically – from the shopfront onwards – geared towards giving everyone an equal footing.

Designing in collaboration

A final insight which I would highlight came from the introductory speaker, Prem Krishnamurthy. He gave an inspiring and conceptual talk about how his team goes about their graphic design practice. His talk had many good takeaways, but I will focus on one overarching theme: collaboration. Prem seems to have really understood that combined we make more than the sum of our parts. One project stood out which highlights this point well: his co-creation of the “Ministry of Graphic Design” for the Fikra graphic design biennale.  Hired to create an identity for the biennale, Prem’s studio instead decided to collaborate with other designers and create fake bureaucratic entities such as the dept. of optimism or the dept. of non-binaries and curate the work according to their subdivisions. This level of collaboration, in which a design studio will actively involve others and even split their allocated budget in order to raise the level of work being completed is significant. It shows how important collaboration and co-creation truly are in the design field. Working together in order to raise the bar of what is possible as a designer shows a deep understanding that design is a co-creative process and that by making it ever-more collaborative can only make even better work.

Overall, Nordic Design 2019 proved an inspiring and well-designed conference. Service design, despite its closeness to may of the fields at the conference, was not mentioned. However, despite this it was completely worth attending in order to further my service design practice. The lessons of mindful usage of language and inclusive collaboration will serve me well in the future. I look forward to attending in 2020!

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