Design as treatment vs design as language

One concept that I’ve found helpful in developing as a designer is understanding that there are essentially two distinct modes to design, two ways of thinking when you approach a project: design as treatment and design as language.

Design as Treatment

This is often where you start out when learning. You’re figuring how to use software, like Photoshop, Illustrator and Premiere. You’re experimenting with typography and grading. You might be learning how to make a brand identity feel unique, iconic and striking; or discovering how to model objects in 3D.

In this your main aim is simply to make something look professional, to produce a project with an aesthetic quality beyond what the man in the street could achieve. And this definitely has value. If you can make your artwork look professional, it projects a sense that the product is as well.

This works on one level but not on another. I watch a lot of online video tutorials and almost every one has an ident — an animated sequence with the author’s logo (think Pixar, Disney, or Channel 4). Sometimes these are really short, snappy and effective. But other times they’re much longer; 20 or 30 seconds, and I almost always skip ahead. Even when they’re incredibly well produced they actually make the project feel amateur, because it’s self-indulgent; adding length without any real content or substance. In a world where people skim-read everything to find what’s relevant, it’s not good communication.

Design as Language

The more you progress as a designer the more you come to realise that literally every single element in a project has an effect on the way you think and feel. If you can understand and harness them, you start producing work that is saturated with inherent meaning and emotion.

This is the ultimate goal of every advert, every film, every programme you watch: to get you so wrapped up in the message that you forget you’re watching TV. The actual video becomes a means of pointing you on to something bigger, rather than something simply to be admired in itself.

This is a design that was hung on a lamp post outside a railway crossing in Hampden Park. It’s stuck in my head ever since. I remember the message and where I was when I saw it.


Nothing about this advert is particularly complex. There’s no amazing Photoshop effects, no photography, no illustrations or CGI. Just text on a page that most people with Microsoft Word and a crayon could mimic.

But it’s incredibly effective. When I saw it my heart jumped — I thought of my two kids, of them copying me in what could be a life-changing scenario. The contrasting type and handwritten text, the spacing, colours and the messy texture all work together to form a strong concept. It’s placement next to a rail crossing was also quite clever, and the emotional response it produced in me was immediate.

One of the main things I love is the way the designer has shown restraint; prioritising the message where others would showcase their skills. This design won’t float to the top of Behance, but it’s incredibly effective.

Becoming fluent

Becoming a good designer is really about using visual language as a communication tool. When you discover and learn new types of treatments (whether it be typographic, photographic, particular effects or editing techniques) you’re effectivity adding to your vocabulary. In time you become fluent, working out how choose and utilise different aspects to convey specific ideas, moods and tone.

This is when you do your most interesting work — when you’re trying to solve a puzzle. When you’re trying to figure out why your design makes you feel a certain way, how your eye is being directed around a piece, and what you can do to change it. It pushes you to experiment and try new things, engaging with treatments and styles you wouldn’t normally use. When you can do this, and be effective, it’s like you’ve graduated as a designer.


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