The Dialect of Design
When I travel, I realize a lot of things about the way I communicate. I am usually unaware of my own accent until somebody points it out to me. Region-specific idioms roll off my tongue normally, and it’s the puzzled face of the clerk at the rental car stand that makes me realize “oh…I guess nobody in Florida knows what I mean when I say ‘redd-up.’” Similarly, I notice other people’s speech patterns—interesting cadences in language, emphasis on different syllables, and idioms and tropes that sometimes require context clues to decipher. For me, this is part of the fun of travel.
In spoken language, the most noticeable difference can be found in the clichés of the region. Using Pittsburgh as a point of comparison, think of “yinz” or “dahntahn.” Visitors or outsiders are well aware of these expressions, and when they come to town, they’re hoping to hear somebody using them, and they’re looking for an opportunity to use them as a lark to feel like they’re a part of the region.
Recently, I traveled to Pensacola, Florida, where visitors are expecting to hear, “How y’all doin’?!” when they walk into a restaurant or hotel. In either Pensacola or Pittsburgh, while some locals may actually speak the way the visitors imagine they do, they definitely ham it up in front of these visitors, particularly at touristy places. (Yep, believe it or not, I suspect that the waiters at Primanti Brothers may be laying on the Pittsburgh-ese real thick just to please the guests.)
Design as a Regional Dialect
While I traveled, I also began to think about the fact that graphic design has its own “regional accent,” not unlike spoken communication. Pensacola has miles of beaches, and it is located on the Gulf of Mexico at the western tip of the Florida panhandle, only a few miles from Alabama, in an area known affectionately as “the Redneck Riviera.” Its geography, inhabitants, and antebellum architecture make it more similar to “the deep South” or “the bayou” than stereotypical Florida. And on top of all of that, it has a large Navy and Naval Aviation base. These physical features of Pensacola are embedded in the design of local businesses and their marketing.
This phenomenon is exactly the same for graphic design. Think of the most stereotypical bit of graphic design you can imagine in Pittsburgh. The design you’re imagining is probably black and gold, printed in the Steelers-esque stencil font, and it may contain a bridge, or a four-pointed star, or a diamond-plate pattern, or all of the above. This type of design represents a caricature of the Pittsburgh region. Trying to brand a business in this style anywhere outside of Pittsburgh would be ludicrous (unless it’s a Steelers bar, which is the notable exception). Because I live here, I see these bits of “Pittsburgh-ese design” so often that I stopped seeing them altogether, much like I might begin to tune out a local accent.
In Pensacola, I noticed an entirely different design dialect. The stereotypes in Pensacola design feature nautical and beach themed things, like crabs and crab traps, pirates and treasure chests, fish and fishermen, pelicans and wharfs. A lot of the tourist-type places have the hallmarks of their logo being something to do with a wave, or their brand name being written in rope. The closer you get to the Naval base, the more businesses you see trying to cater to the military presence: signs written in olive drab or red, white and blue; homages to the Blue Angels and jet trails; American flags, anchors and aircraft carriers. Trying to view these bits of design in the locals’ perspective, I realized that locals probably begin to tune this out just like I tune out the black and gold. Much like expressions in spoken language, while all of these things would seem confusing and out of place in Pittsburgh, some of these ocean or bayou themed bits of design work could work throughout the south or the gulf, but others, like the Blue Angels or the red snapper (a local specialty), are highly localized to Pensacola.
Design Dialects, Not Design Languages
One more interesting wrinkle that cements these bits of design as dialects, rather than totally different languages, is that there are certain brands that mean the same thing in both places. Automotive brand logos at dealerships, hotels, chain restaurants and larger retail brands all mean the same thing universally. Whether I’m in Pensacola, Pittsburgh, or anywhere else in the country, I know when I see the Olive Garden logo that through those doors awaits moderately priced Italian-American food and paintings of Tuscan villas. In this metaphor, the bigger bits of design represent the mother tongue as a whole. This explains why people traveling abroad feel excited when they see a McDonalds, even if they refuse to set foot there when they’re at home. Finding a McDonalds in Toyko is like meeting someone who speaks your language amidst thousands of people who don’t.
Nuances of Design Dialect
To conclude on the regional dialects of design, it is important say that the examples I’ve pointed out from both locales are those of overdone, kitschy bits of design. Design that reflects your dialect does not have to be kitschy. While it may be funny to ham it up and speak Pittsburgh-ese when giving directions to an out of town guest, there are certain expressions from Pittsburgh-ese that are engrained parts of the language of our region that people use without even realizing it’s regional, like nebby and gum bands. This is part of who you are. Along the same line, reflecting your city or region in a brand or logo is not a cardinal sin—it can be done in the same tasteful, organic way as with speech. Many of our clients deliberately ask that their logo embody the spirit of their region or their town, and this is great. Some of the most interesting logos I’ve seen contain subtle, often almost imperceptible references to the region, like an abstract bridge shape in a Pittsburgh logo, or just some script that looks an elegant, antebellum wrought iron railing in Pensacola.
The next time you leave town, look for design dialects. It may be glaring, like the colors of a city’s largest college or most popular sports team; or it may be subtle, like a reference to the skyline or geographical feature. Either way, this is part of what makes mixing design and travel so interesting.
Title image photo credit: Steve Harwood