Design Needs Language Needs Design
May 20, 2017 11:31AM
By Jason Fox
In 2009, filmmaker Doug Pray released Art & Copy, a feature-length documentary that, according to IMDb, aimed to reveal “the work and wisdom of some of the most influential advertising creatives of our time.” Having watched the film on multiple occasions over the years (it pops up periodically on Netflix), I can endorse that description. Even if the names Lee Clow, George Lois, Mary Wells, Dan Wieden, or Hal Riney (to cite a few) mean nothing to you, their stories of turning insights into ideas and ideas into brand- and pop-culture-defining work should be required viewing for anyone involved in marketing. But of all the interesting nuggets one can glean from this movie, one of the most important is hiding in plain sight in the title. I’m speaking, naturally, of the ampersand.
The phrase “art & copy” is not unique to this film’s title. It’s been applied to the two main components of the creative side of advertising for decades: the art (what you see) and the copy (what you read or hear). It also refers to the duos charged with creating all of those hopefully persuasive messages—the teams of copywriters and art directors that first became standard operating procedure at Doyle, Dane, Bernbach in the 1960s. The importance of the ampersand lies in its brief, blunt affirmation that it takes both design and language to create an effective ad. It is not “art or copy,” “art over copy,” or “art instead of copy.”
In a piece of work’s final form, the split between art & copy is, of course, rarely 50-50. That’s natural. Some campaigns rely more on clever wordplay or provocative statements, while others let the design and art direction carry more weight. In the industry at large, the fondness for one over the other tends to be cyclical. Some decades see a renaissance of the written word, only to be followed by a resurgence of the visual.
We find ourselves in an image-driven era. Partly due to the cycle described above, and partly due to the rise of mobile platforms and their associated apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever has taken the lead in livestreaming. Which is all well and good up to a point. As long as we don’t forget that ampersand. Enticing visuals without narrative—whether in literal copy/dialogue or in a piece’s underlying narrative structure—tend to lack weight. Their impact is alluring for the moment, but their message is forgotten the moment someone swipes “next,” turns the page, or clicks “skip ad.”
We live in a world where good design is all around us, and great design isn’t difficult to find. Not just in marketing, but also in products, publishing, architecture, and even food. (There’s still plenty of hideous design, by the way, so let us not grow complacent in fighting the proliferation of mediocrity.) But how much of that design is just proverbial lipstick on a pig instead of an indication of substance? Once your eye moves beyond the well-composed, shallow-depth-of-field shot to the accompanying text, is the message enhanced, the brand uplifted, and your curiosity piqued? Or do you wonder why it incongruently sounds like a Buzzfeed listicle only less clever? If so, it’s because the design is either dancing alone, or with an oaf of a partner.
It is not enough to merely look good. Because as soon as you, as a brand, open your pretty mouth, you will sound dumb, boring, or indistinguishable from the herd—akin to saying, “just do something” instead of “just do it.” Nor is it enough to merely sound smart (well, aside from radio), as few want to pay initial attention to the visually cluttered or cliché. No. It takes both design & language—rooted in truth, expressed in interesting, relevant ways—to create advertising worthy of its purpose.
No ifs. No buts. Yet always with an &.
This column was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.