Read carefully – What is language design all about?

Language is an essential means of human communication. We take it for granted, yet it can be designed, shaped and manipulated like any code or material. Julie Uusinarkaus is an editor of the English language who knows that every little detail counts in language design.

You mostly work with academic texts at the University of Helsinki but you’re involved in the language of design and fashion, too. What has been decisive for your career as an editor?

Helsinki Design Week has been one of the most important shapers of what I do. I’ve been with the festival since quite near the beginning, helping to create its tone. Before that in early 2000, the client that really taught me how to design language was PápMagazine. Not only was I supposed to illustrate pictures with words but to consider the whole layout, including character counts and typography depending on the placement of the content. For example, we’d choose spelling according to the word’s appearance, like jewellery vs. jewelry. Esthetics was the number one priority, and I wanted to use the language to show off, frame and highlight the new photographers, stylists and fashions presented in the magazine.

That’s what I’d call editing to match the context, which is really important, especially today on various social media. What do you think language design is all about?

Language design is when you look at a client, a company or an organization, and consider what language they need: What register should they be using, are they formal or hip and aware? What kind of words describe them? Which language structures should they use to be recognized as one and the same organization? Many companies don’t understand how even the little things count in language design. For example, in text messaging or in bullet points, people may interpret that you’re angry if you end a sentence in a period. And any outdated phrasing is out, because it can create the wrong image.

That type of style issues impact the credibility of an organization, and they may never obtain accurate feedback from the audience because rejection based on the style or register of language is subconscious, I believe. How then can language be designed to suit a brand or a purpose?

Language design is very much about subverting expectations. People expect certain writing from a brand they’ve chosen to follow. They don’t expect you [the editor] to challenge their beliefs or the way they see the world through captions for fashion pictures. In addition to wording and register, for example with the Helsinki Design Week [printed] programme, we need to convey an image and information in two languages at once and decide what kind of abbreviations for dates and times will work for both languages so that they are still readable and easy to see and small enough to fit on one page.

HDWsans by Kokoro & Moi
HDWsans by Kokoro & Moi

I agree that typography is very much part of language design. What you said about expectations refers to trust, which is Helsinki Design Week’s theme this year. It’s as crucial between an organization and its audience as it is in editing, translating and writing for a client. How do you see trust affecting language design?

I am a native English speaker, and in the same way that I’m not aware of the tone or registers of the Finnish language, the organizations writing in English in Finland are not always able to write in every register. They need to trust me to design or edit the language so that it’ll serve the intended purpose. In academia it’s easy to know whether editing has been good: the article gets published in the desired journal [which all have their own style requirements], and the researcher is acknowledged for their work. With other clients, they don’t always know or aren’t able to communicate what style or register they want but can be adamant about vocabulary. Regarding Helsinki Design Week, trust is very much involved during the Open Call when hundreds of designers, companies, individuals and artists alike, submit their proposals and project descriptions. They’re all written in different lengths and styles and levels of English, and all the applicants must trust HDW to make their text work for this purpose. Even if they are a large company that have their own rules and style guides.

They obviously trust the organizer first to be able to trust the editing. I know you create style guides for your clients to help them communicate more consistently. How do those and face-to-face meetings with clients help establish trust?

Style guides are the history of the language design for an organization. The bigger the organization, the more words, phrases and branded language items there are to choose from, and a history helps to produce them in a designed way. Having and using a style guide makes writing easier and saves time in the process because you don’t need to change all the dots in the wrong places when indicating time of the day, for example. Most companies have a visual guideline, and especially small companies that don’t have any extra resources are grateful to get a language guideline. Most American and British brand guidelines include a section about language. In Finland, face-to-face meetings with clients are not always necessary. It seems that as long as somebody knows you personally and recommends you, the connection is enough to create trust. Actually people are so busy that they really appreciate if they don’t have to meet you in person or write long emails for instructions or clarifications. I may just write “Here’s what I did and here’s why.”

The ‘why’ is important, isn’t it? What about the tone of voice, which has been a hottish topic in Finland, especially regarding online customer service and SMS marketing?

In English, what you mean is register, in writing. Tone of voice refers to speaking, but also to mood, like happy or sad. Register is more like informal versus formal communication. For Helsinki Design Week, the tone or register we’ve created is urban, modern and inclusive. We speak directly to people, addressing them as ‘you’ and us as a community as ‘we’. It’s very important. It’s all about co-creation, and one of the most important words behind co-creation is we.