Words work

Every picture may tell a story, but Michael Johnson thinks words can tell it better

The theory goes something like this: ours is increasingly a visual culture, no-one’s got time to read any more. So stop writing and just concentrate on the pictures – that’s the important bit. And us creative types are notorious for never really reading anything, aren’t we? Look: ufsoi hbsoi kpogj bnpo sdjd sgbpj bpod jpob fgposj gbposj bgpoj. See. None of you actually read that bit; you were too busy looking for the next picture.

But is the theory right – can words have lost their value so completely?

Before the advent of 80-channel television, video games, newspapers with 12 sections rather than just one and more choice in the magazine shop than you ever thought possible, design and advertising did contain more words. It’s true. Pick up an advertising annual from 1982 and it’s full of double-page spread ads with 800 words of copy on them.

Look at a current annual and the art of ‘copy’ seems to be a dwindling one – this may mean that writing within design and advertising should be written off. Perhaps the wordsmiths had a good run and now it’s time to hand over. Or was there simply more time to read 20 years ago?

It wasn’t always like this; early advertising was based entirely on the word. Advertising folklore likes to put up Ernest Shackleton’s advertisement in turn-of-the-century London newspapers as the beginning of copy ads (even citing the end-line: ‘Honor and recognition in case of success’). But unfortunately the ad never ran, only in people’s imaginations.

Real written ads began with classics such as ‘They laughed when I sat down at the piano..’, which propelled its writer, John Caples, to advertising superstardom and a lifetime writing compelling books, compelling people to write more compelling copy. David Ogilvy channelled early experiences as a washing-machine salesman into writing ‘long-copy’ ads for Rolls Royce. In England, estate agent Roy Brooks gained a cult following for his newspaper ads that merrily derided his clients’ homes (but succeeded all the same).

By the 1960s, advertising was beginning to place more emphasis on how words and pictures intertwined. A famous series of ads for Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut (above left) mean nothing if you take the words away, they’re just simple product shots. The words around the picture give them meaning, humour and the feeling of eavesdropping into a conversation.

An early Saatchi ad for the Health Education Council (see next page) has slipped easily into the annals of the all-time greats, and its content never fails to draw gasps of horror from readers as they make their way down the page of black type to the end-line. Perhaps judicious e e choice of timeless type and layout helped, but for a 30-year-old ad to look as though it could run tomorrow is testament partly to the way it looks, but mainly to the way it reads.

A precedent was set, the world followed, and for 20 years advertising never really looked back. Oranges, cars, museums and political parties all received the long-copy treatment. In Singapore, an ad agency eventually began running ads that left the logo off the bottom of the page, so challenging the reader to interrogate the ad in its entirety to find out who the ads were actually for.

American designer Paula Scher started producing maps and pictures forming images primarily out of words, once describing the use of Helvetica across the US as a wry dig at the then ubiquity of the typeface, once producing a map of New York annotated from her own personal memories, once taking a publicity photograph of herself and writing notes on it concerning what a particular wrinkle cream or haircut meant to her at a particular time of her life (pictured top left).

Computer and printer supplier Epson began running a famous series of incredibly long-copy ads – one ad brazenly discusses the old ‘They laughed when I sat down at the piano…’ ad as it began its Herculean task of demonstrating how many characters its printer could print in 60 seconds (a grand total of 18 000 characters).

It was logical that a company should take the Epson idea of stream-of-consciousness writing and turn it into its own company identity.

Seattle-based design company Sandstrom Design features a densely packed, justified block of type on every piece of corporate ‘design’ it shows to the world, from letterhead to business card, from the exterior of its portfolio case to the front page of its website. Each paragraph changes, and each is terribly funny. Each different reading leaves you with the feeling that these are smart guys whom you

want to ring up and give work to.

All these approaches have one thing in common: they reward the reader for the time spent on reading (sometimes decoding) the messages within the statements.

But words for words’ sake began to reach a point where they were no longer achieving the power they once had. XTC’s Go 2 album sleeve from 1978 (on previous page) was ahead of its time in many respects and betrays the writers’ true feelings about producing record covers (it was produced by the designers best known for Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin sleeves). But it anticipates the beginning of an age when ‘long copy’ became an end in itself, and, facing stiff competition from the visual message, began to look increasingly like some verbose, dictionary-wielding dinosaur.

Advertising increasingly abandoned the word in favour of the picture, and within design words came out to play only infrequently.

In New York, copy only survived in the hands of satire or protest, as in M&Co’s clock packaging, which only served to sum up the irreverence of the clocks contained inside.

Its ads for long-standing client Restaurant Florent developed its ‘clip-art and gag’ theme by creating a bizarre little typographic meal for two, complete with typographic crumbs on the floor. The ad happily turned 1980s design on its head as it merrily used terrible typefaces terribly badly (on purpose).

Drentell Doyle partners used choice words and gentle layout when producing its flyer protesting against the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. But rather than design some screaming, agitprop piece of type, it was carefully printed on to the thinnest bible paper and then inserted into books, specially designed and placed to creep up on you when you’re least expecting it (and to reach the hearts and minds of New York intellectuals in the process).

But these are rare examples from a time when the world’s organisations, increasingly bent on ‘globalising’ their images, worked out that pictures crossed cultural boundaries much more cost-effectively than words. American multinationals now regularly churn out ‘centralised’ ads anaemic enough that they can run, suitably overdubbed, anywhere in the world.

But the global ad, while probably now unavoidable, only really succeeds on TV – at least the word can survive, even thrive in a printed form, especially if designers find unusual ways to present their ideas to the viewer.

Paul Elliman’s poster for a conference in London left gaping holes in the design for passers-by to fill in their own version (above right), while the poster set by Brighten the Corners promoting the German language in British schools (above left) confronts the country’s stereotypes head-on, using words and clichés to draw the viewer into the message about the language.

All of these examples show us the contemporary power of words – they force us to notice them and force us to engage.

The famous adage about a picture being as good as a thousand words was incorrect. We cannot learn from pictures alone. It’s just up to us to try to think of better ways to use words because as a communication force, they still can’t be bettered.

Michael Johnson is principal of Johnson Banks and D&AD president-elect. His book, Problem Solved: A Primer in Design and Communication, is published this month by Phaidon Press, price £29.95

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