Hi, everyone. In April of 2011, I gave a lecture to some first-year design students at George Brown College in Toronto. My talk was intended to introduce the students to the differences between a career in design and a career in advertising. The lecture might be useful to some of you, so I’m reposting it here. Hope you like it.
My name is Suzanne Pope, and I am an advertising copywriter and creative director. I’ve been in advertising for over 20 years, and I am here today to tell you about what I do and to explain to you how the training you’re getting right now might be good preparation for a career as an advertising art director.
Our first order of business is to try to figure out what the differences and similarities are between visual advertising and graphic design.
When I first got into advertising, my colleagues and I had the very snobbish and very wrong idea that advertising was better than graphic design, that it had better ideas, that graphic designers were just around to make things look pretty, that the more strongly conceptual work was done by ad people. If you had asked us to draw a Venn diagram of the two disciplines back then, it would have looked like this:
We would have said that designers were all about peripheral marketing materials, annual reports, shopping bags, things of that nature. We would have insisted that advertising was about important things! Double-page spreads! Television commercials!
Many designers were rightfully insulted by this kind of thinking – including one very famous one.
Jonathan Ive is the Senior Vice-President in charge of design at Apple Computer, responsible for the groundbreaking design of the iPhone, various iPods, the Macbook Air, the iMac– the list goes on and on. The interesting thing, though, is that Jonathan Ive almost resigned from Apple before any of those products saw the light of day. And the reason he almost resigned was that for the longest time, he wasn’t permitted to do the job of a designer the way he understood it. Apple’s hardware engineers would bring him the box of wires and circuit boards and say, “Here. We need you to design a nice-looking case for this.” But as a designer, Ive knew that his work needed to start well before then – right back to when the product was first conceived. Eventually, he got Steve Jobs to understand it, too.
To persuade Ive to stay, Jobs agreed to give him meaningful input to his products from the earliest stages. With this new influence, Ive helped to create the first iMac computers in 1998…
…which launched Apple on its way to where it is today – the most valuable and admired brand on the planet.
There is a difference between the disciplines of graphic design and advertising, but there is also a great deal of overlap. Here’s something to look at.
Although this is obviously an example of graphic design, I don’t think you would describe it as an ad. Now, let’s look at something else:
Would you describe it as an example of advertising? Of course you would. But you would also have to describe it as an example of graphic design. So, while it’s clear that not all graphic design is advertising, it is equally clear that almost all advertising does involve design – even radio commercials, because the sound effects and music placed behind the announcer’s voice are referred to as “sound design.” Thus, the appropriate Venn diagram to describe the relationship between advertising and design actually looks like this:
(I’ve allowed advertising to spill out of design a bit because of the possibility that a stunt – or something – might require no design at all.)
So, advertising is just one small part of a much larger universe called design. But what makes advertising its own little dot inside that diagram? What sets it apart? Let’s look at the next slide and see if we can find an answer.
What’s going on here? We see there’s an arrangement of typography and illustration here, so we know there was graphic design involved. But what is the concept? Well, we’re looking at an architect’s blueprint for a house, but the weird thing is that the family’s vehicle is included as if it were really part of the floor plan. So the concept, or the point they’re trying to make, is pretty clear here. They’re telling us that a family’s car is an extension of their home. Some families practically live in their cars, so I think this is a sentiment we can all recognize and get behind. But for all that, I don’t think this is an ad. Not yet, anyway. Now, I’m going to show you this piece of design again, but this time with an important difference.
What has been added here is a sign-off identifying Volvo as the source of this design thought. There’s also copy expressing how Volvo understands that a car is effectively a second living room, and that the company takes design very seriously for that reason. I think we can all now agree that this is most certainly an ad. So what were the differences between this ad and the previous slide? Well, we’re now seeing that the interesting design concept is being presented for the benefit of a particular product. We’re also seeing that there’s an explicit call to action – the reader is being invited to see a Volvo design exhibition. There’s also an implied call to action – buy Volvo cars. So, for the purposes of today’s talk, I’m going to define advertising as follows:
Typically, the call to action is “buy this product” or “try our service.” But sometimes ads ask for political action or charitable donations, so our definition needs to be flexible enough to accommodate this possibility.
There is far more respect for design today than there was when my career began. I think the brilliance of Apple’s success is part of the reason for that. It has made us aware that design is central to every manmade product, process and activity. The design might be brilliant or mediocre or downright terrible, but the design is there nonetheless. The limitation of advertising is that it generally has no opinion on products or practices until it’s time to write the creative brief. Practically speaking, ad agencies don’t get involved until a product is well on its way to being in stores.
By contrast, designers (be they product designers or graphic designers) have the potential to improve products or processes from the moment of their conception. Good design makes itself felt in all our interactions with a brand. You might recall the launch campaign for the iPod, a campaign in which the posters looked pretty much like screen grabs from the TV spot.
It’s interesting that the launch commercial looked more like a piece of design than an ad. It was all graphics and sound with no explicit sales message, but it sold hard nonetheless. It was a wonderful piece of design because it felt like the product it was selling. It was cool, thrilling, simple and human. In recent years, ad agencies have trumpeted their ability to make brands consistent and recognizable at every point of communication the way Apple has, but good designers have always known the importance of this.
Another reason design is getting more respect these days is that more and more ads draw their thinking from the grand tradition of poster design. When my career began, the concept of most ads was found in the headline. But for the past decade or so, ad concepts have been visually driven. Today, many advertising concepts are virtually indistinguishable from the design concepts that appear on event posters. Here’s an example.
Here, we’re seeing a mash-up of the visual language of movie theatres and the visual language of the chemistry lab, all in service of promoting a scientific film festival. The thinking here is pure graphic design, but it’s coming from an advertising agency – the very respected Legas Delaney of London.
But the most important reason design is getting more respect these days is the relatively new and still-scary blank page known as the Internet. This is a blank page that is communicating across cultures and languages, and because of that, icons and images are supremely important, as are the ways in which users interact with them.
Clearly, to manage this new frontier, it’s the designer’s training you want on board more than the advertising art director’s.
So now we know that if you decide to be an advertising art director, your design concepts will be dedicated to selling products or services or ideas. That’s okay on a theoretical level, but you probably want to know about the practical differences your decision will make. Okay, so here goes. The first big difference is in your earning potential. Your pay in your first job will probably be terrible whichever path you choose.
However, the potential salary for an art director is way higher.
If you are an award-winning art director, you could be earning six figures in just a few years. Most designers don’t earn that much that quickly. Money should never be your only reason for doing anything, but if salary potential is an issue for you, you’ll want to consider a career in advertising.
However, there is definitely a price to be paid for that higher potential salary, and that is in the relative volatility of the two industries. Simply put, jobs in graphic design are way more secure than jobs in advertising. The reasons have to do with the business model of a design firm versus an advertising agency.
Design firms are usually hired by the project – an annual report, a corporate identity, a package design and so forth. A design firm might therefore have dozens of clients, and losing one or two clients is no big deal. At busy design firms, layoffs don’t happen all that often, unless the entire economy is suffering. By contrast, advertising agencies don’t spend a lot of time doing project work. They need to rely on substantial monthly retainers paid by a smaller number of clients. So, if one large client cuts its spending or fires the agency, the agency’s revenue can drop so sharply that jobs have to be cut, and one of those jobs might be yours, even if you’ve been doing a good job.
If you stay in advertising long enough, this is almost certain to happen to you sooner or later. So, if you’re the sort of person who places a lot of value on a secure job, you will probably be happier in a design firm than in an ad agency.
Another important difference between design and advertising is how concepts get generated – how your work gets done. As graphic designers, you will typically work alone. You’ll get the brief, go to work on some ideas, and if you’re awaiting copy from the client or from a writer, you’ll just flow in Greek copy as a placeholder. You might not ever meet or speak to the person who’s writing your copy. If it’s an annual report, you’ll get your copy emailed to you, and if you don’t have any questions, that’ll be it.
Good advertising agencies work differently. Typically, creative people in agencies work in teams. In an ad agency, an art director is paired with a writer in what is pretty much a full-time partnership. You take the brief together, and you work on it together, batting ideas back and forth. And there’s a lot of overlap in your roles. You might suggest a headline thought to your writer, and your writer might suggest a certain illustration style to you. All things being equal, a happy creative team can produce a lot more cool ideas than someone working solo. And, indeed, some amazing careers have been built on this sort of teamwork. But creative partnerships are like marriages. When they work, they’re awesome, but if they’re not working, they can be a source of pure misery. So if you’re interested in being an advertising art director, remember that you’re going to be spending a lot of hours trusting in and relying on your writer. If you enjoy jamming with people, you will probably do just fine. But if you prefer disappearing into your own head when you work, you might be happier working solo as a designer.
Now would be a good time to talk about the history of advertising, because that, too, might affect your decision. Fifty years ago, ad agencies actually worked more like design firms. Writers and art directors were in separate departments. The art director would wait until the copywriter came down the hall with his copy sheet. Only then would the art director start thinking about how to handle things visually. But all this changed in the early 1960s because of what is known in advertising as The Creative Revolution. It was hugely important to our business, and it all started because of one man.
This is the late Bill Bernbach. He is still viewed today as the single most important figure in the history of advertising. Bill Bernbach was one of the founding partners of the New York agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, which is today known globally as DDB.
When Bernbach started his agency, he made some radical changes in how advertising got made. Every other ad agency had writers and art directors working separately; Bernbach got them working in teams. Every other ad agency hired blond-haired white boys who had graduated from private schools; Bernbach hired people from working-class immigrant families: Jews, Italians, Germans – even women. Bernbach had a core philosophy about advertising, and it’s a philosophy that still dominates today. It is the philosophy that advertising doesn’t work at persuading people unless it reaches people emotionally. And to reach people emotionally, you have to say things that are insightful and true to the human condition. The most famous work Doyle Dane Bernbach did was for Volkswagen, and the single most famous ad they ever did for Volkswagen was this one.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “What’s so special about that ad? I’ve seen lots of ads that look something like that. What’s the big deal?” Well, the fact that you’ve seen lots of ads that look like this is a reflection of how important this ad still is, fifty years later. To understand how arresting this ad was when it first appeared, you have to look at other car ads of that era.
The first thing you’ll notice is how over-the-top the scenarios are. For one thing, people are depicted as being absurdly happy just because they’re near a car, for goodness’ sake. Also, these ads present fantasies as if they were reality. Most people don’t belong to country clubs or go yachting, but before DDB, advertising would present such scenarios as if they were fact.
So, the “Think Small” ad was arresting for the modesty and simplicity of its art direction. But the writing would also have caused a bit of a head snap back then. The years following the Second World War were a time of explosive growth and progress in America. People were earning more and more money to buy ever bigger homes and cars. Back then, people would say, “You’ve got to think big!” absolutely without irony. So, the exhortation here to “Think small” would have been almost shocking, and it would have pretty much guaranteed that the ad got read.
Let’s look at another famous ad from Doyle Dane Bernbach. This was an ad they did for Avis Rent-A-Car.
Again, there is nothing shocking about this ad if you view it through modern eyes. But remember, this was done in an era when people bragged about being number one. Back then, America was Number One. Nobody would have proudly announced that they were an also-ran. So, by proclaiming their Number Two status, Avis got people’s attention, and they rewarded it by stating some very human truths. We all know that people who aren’t leaders have to try harder; Doyle Dane Bernbach was the first agency to turn that kind of human truth into a persuasive selling message.
So we now know that advertising attempts to deliver emotionally provocative messages to people. What I can tell you is that your success as an advertising art director will largely depend on your ability to present ideas as freshly and as interestingly as Volkswagen and Avis’ messages were presented back in the day.
That ability will depend on your ability to think in terms of advertising concept versus design concept. If it’s true that form follows function, then we need to think about the function of graphic design versus the function of advertising. Typically, the function of graphic design is to present communication in a way that is clear, interesting, accessible and appropriate. You already know more about this than you think. You already know that this is an appropriate wordmark for a funeral home…
While this is not…
Advertising concepts share this burden with design concepts, but they have a further duty. They must provoke action, something that graphic design isn’t always required to do.
To provoke action, the best ad people understand that they must target people’s emotions. But mere information isn’t typically very emotionally provocative. If I tell you that Tide gets clothes clean, you probably won’t be inspired to run out and buy Tide. That is because information is not communication, at least not in advertising terms.
So, good ad people work to reconfigure or reinterpret information so that it becomes more persuasive. They seek to give information a kind of personality or attitude that makes it more interesting and convincing. I just mentioned a truth that everybody knows, that Tide gets clothes clean. Back in the 1950s, advertisers felt they were doing their jobs just by illustrating that information.
How can we turn this boring information into interesting advertising? Here’s an approach that won a ton of awards for Saatchi a while ago:
Here, they’ve shown the fight against stains as a literal battle, and because of Tide, stains don’t stand a chance.
Let’s look at another example. We’ve all heard of date rape, and we all know the importance of keeping an eye on your drink when you’re out partying. Here’s a website that provides information about that topic.
I think we can all agree that this is not a successful piece of graphic design. Whoever put this together was obviously well intentioned, but it’s just a whole bunch of default font type on page that’s never been touched by a designer. We can agree also that this is not a successful piece of advertising, either, because all it does is repeat familiar information. There is, unfortunately, nothing here that would make people think seriously about how to protect themselves when they’re out clubbing. But a London ad agency helped these people out with an ambient idea that looked like this.
A team of people went out to clubs and popped these little umbrellas in women’s drinks when their backs were turned. Suddenly, people were confronted with the stark emotional reality that they weren’t as good at protecting themselves as they thought they were. Suddenly, mere information was delivered in a way that grabbed people’s emotions and made them think about their behavior and how they might change it. So, if you’re interested in becoming an advertising art director, ask yourself if you feel able to come up with the kinds of ideas that turn mere information into arresting communication.
It may be that some of you are thinking, yeah, wow, I want to get into advertising. What should I do? Well, the good news is that you can and should keep on doing exactly what you’re doing. To understand good design principles, photography, typography, print production – all these things are vitally important to your success as an advertising art director, and I can tell you that advertising programs don’t teach these skills nearly as well as design programs do. So you’re in the right place, but you’ll need to do some extra work to prepare for your start in advertising, and that extra work will be on your advertising portfolio. Your advertising portfolio should not, ideally, contain design pieces.
For your advertising portfolio, you need to start creating ads. Grab images off the Internet or do your own quick photography and start creating ads. The best place to start is with print ads, because they give you your best odds of making a good impression quickly in the context of a portfolio. To inspire yourself, go looking for an ad that’s really bad. You won’t have to look long to find one. When you see that bad ad, you’ll probably be able to glean from it what the brief would have been – that is, what the advertiser was trying to communicate.
But if you don’t feel able to work without a formal brief, I can help you there. If you go to the adteachings account on Scribd.com, you’ll see that I’ve posted a bunch of clear, straightforward briefs for several brands: California Sandwiches, Swiffer, the Royal Conservatory of Music, Jolt Cola and M and M Meat Shops.
A word of caution: Your first portfolio will not be done quickly. You’ll get started and think, “Wow, this is going well. I’m going to be done in a couple of weeks!”
No, you aren’t. If you spend an hour a day on it, your first presentable portfolio will easily be a year away. Good portfolios are the result of endless revision, refinement and editing. You will know you’re making progress when you realize that you’re discarding way more ads than you’re including. And please be aware that your portfolio will actually never be finished. I’ve seen advertising students and juniors hang on to the same lousy ads for years and years, and since their portfolios stay in the same crummy place, so do their careers.
If you’re looking for more inspiration, I would direct you to the Internet, where there are all kinds of amazing websites devoted to advertising. One of those is mine.
Another one is AdsOfTheWorld.com, which receives and posts pretty much every good ad that gets published or broadcast anywhere in the world.
Thank you for your kind attention. Questions?
UPDATE: studiobink asked: You mentioned that ideally an art director’s portfolio should not mix design pieces. However some people present themselves as an art director and something else (ex. photographer or illustrator) what are your thoughts on this?
In my experience, presenting yourself as more than one thing at a time is confusing to the creative director, and you might not get hired for any of your roles. I would recommend having separate portfolios for each of your disciplines. If you wish to be hired as an art director, the only time your other skills will be relevant is when you need to apply them to a project that has zero budget.