The Jargon Problem

I’ve always been fascinated with language and the ways it can be used. Clear, evocative prose expressed in an authentic voice is such a pleasure to read. It can be so difficult to get an idea across in an engaging way, that I truly admire anyone who can pull it off.

Of course, language can be used for less noble things too. Politicians are masters of the art of using language to conceal meaning, misdirect or misrepresent. George Orwell’s masterful 1984 foretold a template that is slyly being put in place by governments around the world where words are used to represent concepts in direct opposition to their dictionary definition. But there’s another way that many of us use language that can also be insidiously uncommunicative. I’m speaking of jargon.

Professional Jargon

In its best light, jargon is a way of using more precise and specific words to describe nuanced aspects of our professions. At its worst, jargon serves to prevent outsiders from understanding what we do and why we do it. Lawyers are a frequently cited negative example. While the intent of legal documents is supposed to be the creation of a clear and unambiguous statement, their effect is often to create prose that is unintelligible to the average non-lawyer. It’s a way of speaking in code really. The existence of the code and the lawyer as code-breaker creates a nice closed shop known as the legal system.

I don’t mean to pick on Lawyers. Most professions engage in this style of turf-protection to a greater or lesser degree, relying on jargon words to obscure their activities and keep interlopers at bay. I try hard not to use design jargon with clients, but I know that I sometimes do, and that doesn’t make me feel good. I believe that any of us do it most when we feel a bit threatened, in the Emperor Has No Clothes sense. It’s a way of drawing a line around our expertise, and staking out our authority over it. Once we’ve laid claim to the area, it’s tough for us to do more than deliver opinion. Tougher still for our clients who’ve just been subtly warned that they might be out of their depth. Trouble is, this can happen just at the time when we should be doing a lot more listening than talking.

Meaningless Jargon

There’s another type of jargon that’s far more egregious than the professional type — meaningless jargon. It’s generally composed of catch-phrases and buzzwords strung together in a way that almost sound like collectively they might kind of mean something. Examples: “Cloud-based solutions can generate granular innovation” or “Setting up win-wins enables sustainability.” These are the kind of things that are frequently tweeted by self-proclaimed business or marketing gurus. They always sound plausible, sometimes even insightful, but are actually devoid of any real meaning at all. Sometimes you’ll hear these kinds of jargon-jams made in meetings, and the sad truth is, since nobody understands the meaning, the statement won’t be challenged. I’ll admit that I have a grudging admiration for this gambit. Faced with nothing of substance to contribute, creators of this mumbo-jumbo are just making it up on the fly. It takes remarkable chutzpah. Trouble is, this too is a conversation ender. Faced with the brilliance of proposed sales channel synergies from optimizing the whatsis, it’s hard to keep the dialog going. Sadly, this flavor of jargon is much more likely to originate on the client side, and does need to be challenged. It’s really hard to help somebody if you don’t understand the problem they’re trying to solve.

If you find yourself not understanding what people are saying lately, there’s a very good chance it’s not just you. Maybe it’s the jargon.


Like this? More from the Design Process category.

Follow me on Twitter (@intudes) for interesting links and occasional observations.

Subscribe to the RSS feed, and don’t miss another post.