Bruno Maag: What's the value of design?

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Posted by: Creative Times on March 21, 2011 14:30

Bruno Maag, the renowned type designer, is speaking at the inaugural Manchester Design Symposium, which takes as its theme ‘The value of design’. Here, he talks about the financial and social worth in creating the perfect font.

The opening slide for my talk at the Manchester Design Symposium is probably going to be an image of me in the boxing ring hammering my trainer, and the caption will be: ‘You should have bought a licence.’

If you’re copying and using my font, you’re devaluing my work. Type design has tangible financial value. A good example of this is when we did a project some years ago for the BT Directory, redesigning the font they used to make it more in keeping with BT’s brand identity. On average we managed to save ten lines per page, which, if you multiplied it over 300 pages and the 25 million books printed every year, was a lot of money saved. That’s a clear illustration of the financial value of design.

The pounds and pence is the measurable aspect of any designer’s work eventually. But so much of the value of design is difficult to measure and so intangible.

On the more philosophical side, I want my client to value what we do because we put a lot of care and time into our work – any font is checked and triple checked to make sure that it works and everything is correct, and that takes time and it’s time that needs to be paid for.

As type designers we are not artists, we have a clear function to fulfill. We are problem solvers, solution finders, that’s where our value lies.

As type designers we are not artists, we have a clear function to fulfill. We have to respond to a client’s need or solve a client’s problem. We are analysing information and presenting it in an aesthetically pleasing way. Whether I’m a type designer or a graphic designer, it doesn’t matter, the same things apply. We are problem solvers, solution finders; that’s where our value lies.

If I’m designing a type for a book, then clearly the value of that type is that it is not seen, and as a designer I have absolutely no place and no right to start putting in fancy curly wurlies; I have to facilitate functionality, I have to facilitate easy reading. However, if I’m designing type for an advertising campaign, then of course readability and legibility are more secondary; there the point is to attract the potential clients and customers and provoke an interest. It’s a different approach.

I don’t necessarily see myself as a creative, I see myself as a craftsman. Nowadays in the design community the word craftsman is derided, because it’s seen as someone who just ‘does things’. But to me a craftsman is an expert designer, because a craftsman understands the functionality in whatever he does and can design to fulfill that function.

Type design does have an impact on the wider world, but a very small one. If a font is poorly spaced and poorly kerned, as a designer you can’t use it, so you spend hours trying to get it to work. If it’s a good font then you can whack it in, type it out, a bit of slight adjustment and instead of spending five hours you spend two, and so that’s going to help your profit margin – there’s the financial value, again.

Type design is part of our visual culture and visual understanding. I always liken fonts to plankton. No one talks about it, but if plankton get sick, the whole food chain collapses. So there’s a total dependence, a total reliance on how it behaves.

Events like this Design Symposium are vital, because as practioners, we can confirm to each other that we’re all on the same wavelength. It’s very important that everyone understands what the value of design is.

It’s important that we put out the message about no free pitching, that doing free work isn’t good because it devalues what you do. That sometimes you have to stand up to your client for professional ethics, professional responsibility. That because you have done it so many times, you know better than the client. We have to be clear about how we deal with our clients and what is right and what is wrong.

Basically my world is just a link in a long, long chain. But if the chain is strong and well crafted, then ultimately you get a better job done. That’s what I’m about.

The inaugural Manchester Design Symposium takes place Wednesday March 23, 1-6pm, Manchester Metropolitan University, Geoffrey Manton Building, Manchester. The event is sold out.

Bruno Maag was talking to Chris Sharratt


Bruno Maag studied both Typography and Visual Communications at Basel School of Design. From there he immigrated to England, working for Monotype. He founded Dalton Maag in 1991 after a year in Chicago where he recut the fonts for the New Yorker Magazine

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