Why it pays to be professionally nosy
What skills do you need to become a successful graphic designer? According to Lydia Thornley, nosiness is up there as a core skill, along with design sense, visual awareness and lateral thinking.
Nosiness generally gets a bad press, but maybe it’s time to rehabilitate the word. According to Lydia, who runs a design practice in East London, being nosy is a key attribute in her profession. She explains why. “Almost invariably, design briefs begin at the end, with the thing that the client would like. Where design should begin is at the beginning, with establishing what the job is that design needs to do – and that’s where curiosity helps.”
Delving beneath the brief
A case in point is Lydia’s work for Chequers Kitchen, a restaurant and cookery school in Deal, Kent. “I walked around the site and talked with the people who run the business and met some of the people who go to the cookery classes there,” says Lydia. “One of the owners is a chef and one is a social entrepreneur, so it was important to understand where both were coming from.”
“Wandering around and listening to people told us more than any brief could about what Chequers Kitchen means to the people involved, and about the signage and marketing challenges of a coastal site set back from a toll road.” The result is an updated visual identity which takes the ‘pubbiness’ out of the brand and reflects the relaxed, modern coastal kitchen feel of the environment.
Similarly, being nosy was important for her work for The Secret Space, a yoga centre in Hertford. “Doing a recce and going to visit the premises turned out to be really important in developing the new brand,” says Lydia. “The centre is tucked away out of view of the high street, so it’s easy to miss. It made me realise that one of the most important design factors was making a calm brand that would be visible down a mews with poor sight lines.”
Ferreting about in subject matter
Lydia believes that a lack of professional nosiness can be disastrous for a designer. “At best, you end up solving the wrong problem and at worst, providing exactly what the client has asked for,” she says. “And in my experience, this is rarely what the client actually wants.”
“Ferreting about in the subject matter, getting inside people’s heads and turning up aren’t just useful in getting to the guts of the problem. They’re interesting in a way that is one of the great privileges of working in this industry. And that rigour, that digging around in what clients need design to do, throws up all sorts of creative possibilities that would otherwise never see the light of day.”
Adding value through curiosity
Crucially, being nosy is also a way to demonstrate how you can add value as a professional. “At a time when clients have the means of production, it’s all the more important to differentiate what we do from what a non-designer can do with some software,” says Lydia. “Some designers are doing that with craft, some with thinking, some with a bit of both. My approach has lost me clients. There are some people who really do just want a technical service with no questions and no argument. But it’s gained far more: people, organisations and companies with their own kind of curiosity and open minds.”
Wandering down creative side-streets
As a writer and communications consultant, I’ve also found that it pays to be professionally nosy. It’s only by asking questions, listening to different opinions and wandering down literal and creative side-streets that you come up with new ideas. As with Lydia, going to new places often proves inspirational. It might be visiting Finnish people in Brighton to discover how they’ve brought their homeland to the South Coast, listening to a folk singer give her final concert in a library in Bannockburn, or going to see Alexander Peden’s battered bible in Greyfriars Kirk.
Lydia’s latest excursion is Typography-on-sea, a beautiful booklet with sewn binding where she explores type styles from the seaside. She says: “I always seem to come back from the coast with some type. It tells of grand days out, strange instructions, naughty snacks and maritime adventures.” This time, her nosiness uncovers some “perky brewery type” in Folkestone, a lifeboat poster in Rye Harbour and a ‘No Parking’ sign with careful serif additions.
So let’s hear it for professional nosiness. It helps us get to the heart of a brief, discover what clients don’t yet know they want and deliver more creative work. And it turns out that investigating things that are none of your business can be excellent for your business.