Englishman in New York

June 6, 2013

a.k.a Lewis sharing his first impressions after joining Brand Manual Tallinn team

“Arriving without any knowledge of the language, I lived in a world without words, where, almost like a baby, I had to learn everything from scratch. I think the experience of being illiterate and then slowly growing back into society has made me a better designer. When you can’t read or write and you need to interpret everything you encounter by deciphering visual clues, you begin to understand how things and people function behind the words…it was a magnificent training in basic interface phenomenology.”
— Oliver Reichenstein (on arriving Japan)

One of my first thoughts of Estonia was that it was a very new country. Very new. That perhaps, in the 90s, a governmental/business delegation had travelled to the west and taken extensive notes on how a country should look and be. Except the delegation had forgotten to take pens with them, and could only find somewhere to buy disposable cameras. And so this emerging country of Estonia became a nation based on piles of fuzzy disposable camera pics. What I mean by this—and it surely says more of being an alien than a native—is that more often than not things didn’t quite work for me. In shops, why were the baskets stacked over there? Why did the automatic doors only half open? Why did the Elektriraudtee train timetable keep changing? Why were the plastic forks not right next to the salad bar? And who the hell thought putting six logos on a business card was a good idea?

When I joined Brand Manual I found out they had the same questions, I knew I was on to something special. Working here is about making the world make sense. Whether it be organising information or helping someone realise their business plans, Brand Manual’s style of service design is not only about looking good but about intelligibility and efficiency in everyday life. Which is something in my experience design agencies can lack. Pretty brochures are nice, but they aren’t always the answer!

I should mention that I am first and only non-Estonian/Russian speaker (potentially a disadvantage) in the BM team and the only member with English as their first language (a significant advantage – translation: I know where to use definitive and not definitive articles). Before joining I had worried whether the force majeure of English be welcomed? How would basic meetings go? Would clients mind that they would be required to speak a little English in my presence? Who would know the most English curse words in order to properly reprimand me when I did something stupid? A few of these questions have been answered. A few remain to be seen.

But one thing I know for sure is that the office life and the working ethos of BM is built on empathy and clarity of thought. And that I’ve found myself very welcome here. Brand Manual practise what they preach. Things work here and problems get solved.

And not fully speaking Estonian? (In my defence my vocabulary is reasonable, I understand most of what is going on now) Well … I could blame the difficulty in the pronunciation, the fourteen grammatical cases or that most Tallinners seem to relish the opportunity to speak English with anglo-foreigners … whatever it may be, not speaking the local language has undoubtedly benefited me as a designer. It has given me, as Oliver Reichenstein notes (above quote), a far more developed visual and semiotic language. Every colour, symbol and non-alphabetical marking carries a far deeper wealth of meaning for me now. It has also taught me to not rely on English idioms when conversing, and to communicate with more clarity and effect than I ever would have thought necessary in the UK. All things which continue to benefit me and my work here.

Not to sound trite, but I can happily say the world makes more sense when you spend some of it in a ‘language vacuum’. And working with Brand Manual, it’s about making the world make sense. And when it all gets too much, I’ve got Google translate bookmarked.

Lewis McGuffie

Thank you, Slothrops, for so kindly sharing one of the photos