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The Printer’s Devil’s Dictionary
Guest Editorial by Kenneth FitzGerald

Shortly into my graduate study, I considered compiling a lexicon of common graphic design terms. However, they weren’t profession-specific words like “kerning” or “corporate identity.” They were familiar to design discussions everyday and everywhere, employed by clients and designers. The definitions were my own derisive views on the process.

My design career to that point had been brief and erratic. As inexperienced as I was, I knew that it wasn’t just my cynical nature. I had done enough design to encounter the disconnect that’s often between what a client says and what is meant. And this was something different than realizing when someone asks, “Can you make the type bigger?” it’s really a call for a greater emphasis on the particular text. No, this was using a word that pointed to a meaning wholly at odds with the dictionary definition. They were code words, doubletalk. I imagined making a small volume of terms and my alternate definitions. It would be called The Printer’s Devil’s Dictionary.

My inspiration was Ambrose Bierce’s classic 1911 book, The Devil’s Dictionary. First published five years earlier as The Cynic’s Word Book (a title the author hated), the book is still in print today, along with a variety of web versions. It is a masterwork of what would now be called language deconstruction. Then it was simply satire. Bierce was a contemporary and friend of Mark Twain, and some consider Bierce the greater wit. Unfortunately, if he’s mentioned today, it’s alongside Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Hoffa. Like them, Bierce disappeared mysteriously and his fate will likely be forever unknown.

Bierce’s scathing humor spared no person, belief, or institution. Today, it can seem decidedly insensitive—and startlingly relevant. Bierce continues to spawn a number of imitators, none of which can match his acuity, word play and venom.

I didn’t fancy myself anywhere near Bierce’s level with my collection but it was great therapy. From my freelance days I had things like:

Audience, n. An army of me.

Deadline, n. A point in time whose arrival results not in actual demise, though its approach induces yearning for that sweet release.

Quick-and-dirty, v. Method of dispatch suitable to those who employ the term.

Simple, adj. Cheap.

Straightforward, adj. Designed in a manner the client’s already determined.

X-acto, n. A cutting tool that, unlike the surgeon’s scalpel, assists the wielder in embellishing the surface, rather than penetrating it.

Graduate school was where I mainlined design literature. My frustration with much of the popular discourse directed the lexicon’s emphasis inward:

Art, n. What graphic design isn’t, except when it is.

Fame, n. As a design usage—e.g. “famous designer”—it is an oxymoron. (See also, “design superstar”)

Over-analyze, v. 1. To perform even the most cursory critical study of a design artifact. 2. To analyze.

Theory, n. A manner of creating design inconsistent with my own, and is therefore incomprehensible and faddish.

White-space, n. An area where the designer demonstrates the greatest ability by restraining from displaying any effort. Less is—and costs—more.

And like Bierce, I amended little stories, though my tales were true:

Appropriate, adj. An expectation fulfilled.
A requirement of my second-year graduate seminar was to write an artist’s statement. The class included students from all disciplines. The professor showed interest during my oral presentations and supported my investigation. As I was exploring the rhetoric of design, I designed my statement differently than the typical artist’s statement (i.e. 12 pt. Helvetica, double-spaced). I used three highly readable typefaces to weave alternate lines of three different short texts. She returned my submission with the notation that the writing was good—but that it wasn’t in the appropriate form. This brief, dashed-off comment essentially negated my entire graduate study. I knew I was in for a hard time. I also knew I was on the right track.

I toyed with making The Printer’s Devil’s Dictionary part of my graduate thesis document. As that tome already had two addenda and much apocrypha, I dropped it. My dictionary remained scattered notes that, over the years, were absorbed into various essays and lectures.

Since then, whenever I’m referred to as a critic, I ponder Bierce’s definition:

Critic, n. A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him.

Then I recall my aborted project. It really came back when our Speak Up friends introduced The Design Encyclopedia. When I poke through many of “real” entries there, I insert my own, sardonic takes. Surely, I’m not alone in this.

Maybe there’s still a place for The Printer’s Devil’s Dictionary. The two serious flaws of the original effort was my design experience (limited), and relying solely on my own wit (insert your own descriptive here). What if I throw it open to the world?

So, I welcome your submissions to the Dictionary. While the temptation may be great to focus on client claptrap, doublespeak cuts both ways. A study of design gibberish might provide more enlightenment. Terms that were on my list to be “defined” ran from the profound to the mundane: brainstorm, concept, creative, elegant, freelance, inevitable, interactive, intuitive, layout, logo, pop, rough, stock, tweak. All these and more, plus the ones above, are up for grabs. Style, however, might need a rest.

Kenneth FitzGerald is an Associate Professor of Art at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, teaching in the undergraduate Graphic Design and graduate Visual Studies programs.

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PUBLISHED ON Apr.26.2006 BY Speak Up
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
danny’s comment is:

Cool, adj. Possessing qualities beyond articulation.

Pop, n. Scientific unit used to measure legibility and contrast.

On Apr.27.2006 at 12:37 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Brainstorm Session, n. Internal meeting where half-assed ideas are thrown around in hopes of some combination of those ideas becoming a good idea.

And an addendum to Danny's Pop:

Pop, n. Scientific unit used to measure legibility, contrast and client satisfaction.

On Apr.27.2006 at 08:24 AM
JohnO’s comment is:

Intuitive, adj. Meeting the speaker's own first expectation

On Apr.27.2006 at 08:30 AM
bryony’s comment is:

Schedule, n. Based on the astronomical calendar, a series of steps to be taken by the parties involved where there is no understanding or care of actual time, and one in which the order of the days can be inverted with little to no notice.

On Apr.27.2006 at 08:57 AM
felixxx’s comment is:

Breakthrough, adj. Intuitive, Cool Brainstorm Session with contrasting demographic deliverable. See Kool Aid.

On Apr.27.2006 at 09:06 AM
Zoelle’s comment is:

Contract n. Mythical document written in a cryptic language once believed to hold the power to guarantee monetary compensation from clients. (see also: Easter Bunny)

On Apr.27.2006 at 10:49 AM
Armin’s comment is:

PowerPoint, n. Piece of software – spawned from the deepest and darkest confines of the earth – whose sole mention sends designers into a tizzy, tears and fear. (See also David Byrne, Hell and Punishment).

On Apr.27.2006 at 11:54 AM
Tan’s comment is:

Collaborate, verb. a process of working between designer and client wherby the designer is responsible for generating all original ideas, and the client is responsible for subjectively choosing the most mediocre ones and subsequently claiming all credit for any ideation that results.

Cost estimate, noun. a short-term contract of indentured servitude between designer and client.

Meeting amnesia, noun. a common syndrome which affects the parietal lobes of a client's brain, rendering short-term memory loss of all agreements and decisions made in the most previous meeting or phone conference call. This malady can sometimes be reversed with copious amounts of alcohol or corporate blackmail. Closely related to lying-son-a-bitch syndrome.

On Apr.27.2006 at 01:25 PM
Zoelle’s comment is:

Logocialis n. A syndrome which affects many clients. Symptoms include a sudden irrational need to increase logo size, often occurring after final design approval and just before printing. (see also: Typographacialis)

On Apr.27.2006 at 02:12 PM
Sheepstealer’s comment is:

Horror Vacui, N. The fear of open space on a printed page. Well-trained designers are immune, but many clients are infected by this disease. Most common symptom is the inability to avoid the phrase, “I'm paying for the space, we may as well fill it up.”

On Apr.27.2006 at 02:54 PM
flydianslip’s comment is:

graphic designer, noun professional artsian whom uses design elements (as typography and images) to convey information or creating a desired effect, also an expert in the wiz-bang sounds and animations of the widely used tool...PowerPoint.

On Apr.27.2006 at 03:00 PM
bryony’s comment is:

Scope, n. (1) From A to Z; (2) From here to there; (3) From where the client dreams to where the client decides; (4) From where the project started, to where the budget was blown.

On Apr.27.2006 at 03:14 PM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

Contract n. A document whose true meaning derives from its verb form. The client's attitude towards its provisions serves to shrink a designer's profit, patience, and desire to remain in the profession.

On Apr.27.2006 at 03:26 PM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

Focus Group n. [M.B.A., from the bottom line, neuter of design] 1. the end of the design process, where the client takes over creative duties for the betterment of economics, market share, the client, and/or the consumer 2. the shortest distance between the creative brief and final design 3. a primary factor used by management and executives in order to have their p.o.v.—masked by research—imposed on a creative endeavor

On Apr.27.2006 at 04:09 PM
r agrayspace’s comment is:

Competition n. An oppositional body whose strengths and weaknesses are entirely assumed by narrowly focused group of myopics. Definition of self-identity based entirely as a reaction to these assumptions.

Audience n. 1. An ambiguous body of "purchasers" whose characteristics and behaviors are entirely assumed by narrowly focused group of myopics. Definition of self-identity based entirely as a reaction to these assumptions. 2. Everyone

Differentiation v. The desire to stand out from the crowd and say or do something original and unique. Unless no one else is doing or saying said thing, then which of course the idea is abandoned.

High Quality adj. The thing that every business believes they provide more than anyone else.

Tag Line n. The use of jargon to say nothing specific, original or even true.

On Apr.28.2006 at 08:53 AM
r agrayspace’s comment is:

Dammit. This is fun. Good stuff everyone. Made my morning.

Brand, n. Logo

On Apr.28.2006 at 08:59 AM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

Brainstorm n. Related to the meteorological phenomenon. Both feature prodigious and turbulent masses of hot air, periodic dousings of cold water, and sporadic flashes of enlightenment. Related to (and sometimes a causal force of) the shitstorm.

On Apr.28.2006 at 09:11 AM
P-P-Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Buzz, n. Rumors of "it" circulated by busy little bees.

Critique, n. The shortest distance for an idea between enthusiasm and deflation.

Creativity, n. Embracing mistakes until they become clever or beautiful.

On Apr.28.2006 at 09:53 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Kerning, n. Intimate relations between two letterforms.

On Apr.29.2006 at 08:40 AM
Ryan Peterson’s comment is:

Those are really great, thank god for Speak Up and its open forum for designer commiseration.

This one is probably really only for me, but I hear this from a couple of clients, so I'm going to vent it:

Skosh, n.slang
An amount that implies a bit, but actually proposes a great amount: “Bump it up a skosh” (see also: Make it bigger.)

On May.02.2006 at 09:43 AM
flydianslip’s comment is:

Very true Ryan.

How about a list of measurements.

Skosh, n.slang An amount that implies a bit, but actually proposes a great amount: “Bump it up a skosh” (see also: Make it bigger.)

Smidgeon, n.slang [Prob. alteration of dial. smitch, particle]. A minute quantity or portion: Bit, a unit sometimes smaller than a skosh, but bigger than a hair

a hair, n.slang also down a hair, left a hair, right a hair. A unit of measure equal to a human hair, also can be used to describe a pixel width, a character width, an inch, a foot, a yard, or a smidgeon.

A bit, n.slang An undefined unit of measure. 1. A term used by clients or customers, , 2. a term used for you to move something until they (the client) likes it. 3. equals infinity.

And around and around we go.

On May.02.2006 at 11:08 AM
raymond’s comment is:

software, n. Any illusory system that encourages a client or IT professional to believe that he or she is a graphic designer.

client, n. An individual or entity that goes to great lengths to insure that the value of something is directly proportional to the value of the surface it is printed on.

contract, n. An agreement entered into by two parties and exited by one.

web, n. A hole in the ether that everyone uses, but few understand.

On May.03.2006 at 10:25 AM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

internship n. [Real World, neuter of wage-based job] 1. an environment where designers learn how to take orders from clients 2. an expansive limbo that exists between academics and private practice, especially for persons wanting an excuse to leave school early 3. work that is easier than school, but done under harder conditions with greater constraints 4. slavery 5. what every young designer wants before they realize what they're getting into; "I really thought that internship would let me get my design into the world, but then I found out I had to actually work with other people and share ideas." [syn: thrall, exploitation, subjugation]

On May.03.2006 at 12:10 PM
adrian’s comment is:

Brainstorming Session, n. Thinking inside some-one else's box.

On May.04.2006 at 12:31 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

software n. [computer geeks, possibly IBM, coined by John Tukey] 1. what every parent feels their son/daughter must master in order to find work in the commercial/applied arts 2. what every student believes they will learn in their first college design course 3. money pit 4. a pre-programmed system of tools used for homogenizing visual and commercial arts 5. eraser of the pencil, murderer of the sketchbook

On May.06.2006 at 05:03 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Kerning: a measure of the amount of space between your own sensitivity to typographic refinements and everyone else’s

On May.08.2006 at 08:17 AM
Nichole’s comment is:

spellcheck: an overdeveloped automatic "dictionary" that fixes misspellings or correct grammer.

On Jul.07.2006 at 11:45 AM