The execution too often buries the idea

We knew we were in for a treat last week when a few of us gathered at Pentagram’s office to hear David Bernstein speak. One of adland’s best wits, wordsmith Bernstein has the knack of making a great gag out of the mundane, coining phrases such as the legendary “what you gain on the slide, you lose on the carousel” to sum up bad experiences with a slide presentation.

But on the subject of ideas – his chosen topic for the evening – he excels. What’s an idea? Simple. It’s about surprise, a twist in meaning, a demonstration, about sex and emotion, a metaphor – just some of the words he coaxed out of the audience, poised at the flipchart, pen in hand.

In terms of advertising – and design – it’s the spark, or moment of sheer brilliance (if you’re that good) that crystalises a brand’s proposition and helps to communicate it to the target audience. The ad itself is merely the execution of that idea, says Bernstein.

Too often though creatives get caught up with the execution – the slick camerawork and special effects. The idea is lost in the implementation.

Bernstein cited the latest promotions for perfume brand Impulse. The myriad manifestations of a man compelled to buy flowers for a passing woman wafting Impulse in her wake are spot on, he reckons. But the racier Art Class ad, though exquisite in its concept, misses the point. In it, the interest of a nude male model is aroused by the arrival of an Impulse-drenched female student. Sexual arousal is a reflex, not an impulse, says Bernstein, and the idea is lost.

The same thing happens all too often in design, even if there was an idea supporting the visual image in the first place. The slick interior, the pretty pack, the fashionable logo – approved by the client, but lacking in meaning. It’s a situation so easily avoided if you follow Bernstein’s simple sequence of proposition to idea to execution, without confusing the process on the way.

The same theory could be applied to design businesses. Too few have a proposition to offer clients, other than the ability to churn out designs by rote, but even those that do could do more to manifest that proposition through an idea encapsulating their culture or particular expertise. Call it identity if you like, with management style as much as promotions spelling out the difference between them and their competitors.

According to Bernstein, an idea “makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange”. Either way it gets you noticed in the right way. Design like advertising would do well to rally under Bernstein’s slogan, “What’s the idea?”

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