Communication vs. verbal design

Originally published Oct 14, 2015

Because naming involves words, it’s often discussed and evaluated as if it were primarily a matter of verbal communication, like a special kind of copywriting. Actually naming lies at the intersection of communication and design. That’s true of verbal branding more generally, but it’s especially true of naming.

Names communicate because they use verbal elements to evoke ideas and feelings. But names seldom convey explicit messages with what our philosopher friends call “propositional content”–something that can be true or false. Many people are fond of quoting Walter Landor’s dictum that “a brand is a promise”, but a brand name doesn’t have what it takes to make that promise explicit. To the extent that a name communicates, it does so indirectly and incompletely.

A name is also set apart by its durability. In a prototypical communication scenario, a message has served its purpose as soon as it gets some information across to its recipient(s). Think of a headline or a telegram. That’s really not how names work at all. A name isn’t a one-off message, but a verbal object that’s intended for repeated use.

For these reasons, the concept of communication doesn’t provide all the right mental tools for thinking about names and naming. In many ways it’s better to think of names from the perspective of design, which focuses on function, usability, and aesthetics.

When you create a name, you’re designing an abstract object for people to use.

They will read it, hear it, store it in memory, use it to retrieve information and feelings about your brand, speak it, build sentences around it, write it, type it, text it, google it. These are use cases, and you can measure a name’s success by asking how it helps to make them easy and enjoyable.

Thinking of names in terms of verbal design will make you focus on tangible properties like sound and spelling. But a design perspective is useful for thinking about meaning as well, because meaning is part of the user experience. Consider the oft-made-fun-of name Calpis, for a Japanese soft drink. The problem with the name is not really about communication. People know there’s no cow piss in that container. The problem is aesthetic. It’s just not pleasant to be reminded of urine when you’re drinking something that even vaguely resembles it.

We should think of names as verbal tools and design them to be easy and fun to use as well as functional. Naming is verbal design.

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