Winning the turf war

Back in the early 20th century, the golden age of the poster, there was little distinction between advertising and graphic design. Cassandre elegantly invited punters aboard steam liners or to knock back the Dubonnet, John Hassall’s jolly fat man urged tourists to sample the bracing delights of Skegness, John Gilroy produced more than 100 classic Guinness posters. These ‘commercial artists’ seamlessly combined type and imagery, creating visual masterpieces.

The big rift began in the 1950s, with the advent of commercial television in the US. Ever since then, the two disciplines have endured an uneasy relationship – embracing each other one moment, refusing to break bread at the same table the next. Advertising, now fully endorsed as Marshall McLuhan’s ‘hidden persuader’, took itself seriously. It was science and big business wrapped up in an irresistible package. It looked down its nose at design, which was strictly for doodlers with no financial acumen. This attitude was typified in a comment by WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell when I interviewed him a few years ago, where he dismissed design as ‘a cottage industry’.

Even so, advertising has never had any qualms about plundering ideas from the design industry. Sometimes they even pay for it, buying in the hottest graphic stars to sprinkle a bit of magic dust over a lacklustre idea. Actually, it doesn’t stop there – a big-shot advertising creative once proudly told me he’d hired the services of a poet to help him with some rhymes he was struggling over. Sometimes you wonder what’s left for them to do themselves – with their in-house buyers to recommend talent, and their PAs to make the bookings.

While there have always been designers with their fingers in the advertising pie, they’ve usually leaned towards the more left-field or art side of graphics. Think of Aboud Sodano’s eclectic body of work for Paul Smith; Tom Hingston’s impeccable collaborations on Dior’s press campaign with photographer Nick Knight; Why Not Associate’s posters for high-visibility Royal Academy exhibitions like Sensation and Apocalypse. But now, the mood is changing. These days it’s common for mainstream consultancies to be asked to extend their concepts into press, poster and on-line advertising campaigns.

It makes sense. This route offers more control and accountability, keeps costs down and maintains the integrity of the original idea. I’d also argue that craft standards are generally higher in design, and while advertising seems to have abandoned the written word altogether, design is slowly starting to embrace its potential. Though there are one or two ad agencies with a decent on-line offer, design has stolen a march in this sector. Arguably the only place where designers can’t compete is in TV advertising, a medium with an uncertain future.

It’s telling too that advertisers are encroaching on disciplines that have lately been dominated by the larger strategic design consultancies. The areas where there’s money, of course – branding, naming, positioning, and so on. The boundaries are once again blurring, although too much water has passed under the bridge to return to a golden age of togetherness and cross-fertilisation. But who knows, maybe design will soon be able to move out of its cottage into a modest town house.

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