Designer expression

Some of my favourite communicators are designers. Communicators with words. I feel humbled in their presence because they can do what I do and I can’t do what they do. The copywriter knows that, in an emergency, the art director could write the headline.

When TV advertising arrived in 1955, established print writers found that they had to unlearn their craft when writing commercials. Text (to be read) was replaced by script (to be heard). Conversely, art directors, or visualisers as they were then known, were much more adept at audio. They wrote as they spoke. This suited the medium. Will the Web call on the more traditional writing skills? They are less evident in advertising today. Long copy is confined to technical and financial products. Today’s copy is short – as are the sentences, aping the structure of audio. But, if the Fifties visualiser was good at audio because he couldn’t “write”, the copywriter was good at video because he couldn’t “draw”. He did stick-men, basic indicators of action and more suited to the purpose of the storyboard as a means to an end.

It’s hard to realise now the culture shock which TV brought. The writer and artist had always created in a medium virtually identical to that of the ultimate expression – impressions on paper. Now they were asked to create in one medium for ultimate expression in another, a process involving the contribution of numerous intermediaries, far more than those concerned with a simple press ad and, moreover, people such as directors, composers, actors, who could make a creative contribution.

In the four and a half decades since that culture shock I believe the art director has adapted better than the writer, for the simple reason that the printed word has lost its universal pre-eminence. Though TV is replete with end lines and slogans, copy is not the engine of the commercial – the idea is. And ideas are not the exclusive province of the writer. The art director is equally capable of generating them – often without the writer. Art directors are generally more versatile than copywriters; the writer would argue that he or she brings more wisdom (but then I would say that wouldn’t I?). This move to the advertising idea relegated the word to a secondary role which the art director could embrace as he does that of producer and even director.

My respect for designers is not confined to advertising directors. Most graphic designers are minimalists, ruthless with the extraneous. A Finnish designer defines poster design as “the art of reduction”; items are not arbitrarily deleted, but reduced.

Advertising is also a process of reduction. All the facts about the consumer, the brand, the marketplace, the competition are reduced to a brief. (Brief, by the way, means brief.) At the heart of the brief is a proposition. The client brief is reduced further, becomes a creative brief. And the creatives, in providing a solution to fit the confines of the medium, effect a further reduction. The prose of the proposition is transmuted into the poetry of the idea. “Poetry says more and in fewer words than prose.” The italics are mine, the sentence is Voltaire’s. And that was uttered two centuries before Mies van der Rohe. “Less is more” is a brilliant example of the designer’s skill with words.

Abram Games defined the poster artist’s task as “maximum meaning, minimum means”. That is not only a rule, but a demonstration of the rule in itself.

A kindred spirit is the American designer Milt Glaser. He has the knack of planting aphorisms in your mind. You are impressed at the time, even more so later. One I worked with is “the answer is in the question”. If the brief is right then it must contain the solution – if you concentrate, if, as Milt recommends, you “make love to the problem”. The tendency after a frustrating hour or so, is to do the opposite. “Make love” fits perfectly with his definition of the designer’s function: “He makes understandable things which are not understandable without his participation.”

Another of his minimalist phrases is his definition of creativity as: “the disruption of expectation”. All good ads surprise. Which is not to say that all surprising ads are good. Surprise is of two sorts. There’s the obvious Wow! type. But the real surprise is when you hit your head and say “Of course!” because the solution fits. The answer is in the question. You say to yourself “Why didn’t I think of that?”

It’s a paradox really. The solution is not what you were expecting but, once having encountered it, you find it hard to believe that anything so inevitable could not have been expected.

“The disruption of expectation.” I suppose remembering designers for the use of words is just that.

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