Tim Rich: Time to try the hard sell

Designers may be more considered than their advertising peers, but Tim Rich thinks some design work could benefit from the brash, dumbed-down approach

Ah, the differences between advertising creatives and designers… how far we have come since the days when commercial artists turned their hand to a letterhead in the morning and a newspaper advertisement in the afternoon, with just a pint of stout and a snort of cow gum in between. Today, the communications industry has niches within niches – an advertising art director and a graphic designer might meet at a party and find each other’s work-life very exotic.

There are many ways to express the differences between the two camps. One – simplistic, but salient – is that ad creatives help to solve their client’s selling problems, while designers (should) help to solve any problem, whether the resul

t is for profit or public good. But in this piece I’m taking a much narrower focus, and looking at how some creative approaches differ from design to (print) advertising.

One fundamental difference is detail. Most print advertising is utter crap; most graphic designers know this and believe they could do better. But when did a graphic designer last create a stunning ad? Exactly. And why? Because if you ask a designer to create a print ad they will spend 5 per cent of their time on the core idea and 95 per cent crafting the execution; ask an ad creative and they will spend 95 per cent on the idea and 5 per cent on execution. Ideas are more important than detail.

Of course, there are contemporary graphic designers who create wonderful and effective posters, but how many of these pieces are selling some common item or service? Most are imparting information about a subject the viewer is already semi-predisposed towards – an exhibition, the delights of public transport services, public information and so on. Billboard art director is to poster designer as salesperson is to spokesperson; I know who I’d rather have a conversation with, and I know who I would employ to help me sell something.

So, designers don’t make great ad creatives, but what happens if ad people try their hand at ‘graphic design’? Well, people in advertising work on the premise that the entire population of the UK has attention deficit disorder. You wouldn’t want a creative anywhere near a project where the reader is required to engage for more than 30 seconds.

The area of corporate identity could do with some advertising verve though. Most new identity design is so controlled, contrived and so damn appropriate that it’s boring. Wolff Olins’ Bovis work looks new wave compared to much contemporary output.

There are some very clever people in design who will tell you why it is not necessarily a good thing for an identity to excite people, and in many cases they’re right. But wouldn’t it be interesting to see what a very creative ad agency came up with?

This happened with French Connection. Whatever you think of the Fcuk concept, it is currently the most discussed organisational identifier in this country. People wear T-shirts promoting the cheeky values of the company (haven’t seen ‘Fcuk design’ yet, but I’m sure it’s coming). Since its launch, sales have risen dramatically and the company is expanding globally, despite the recession.

The Fcuk idea occurred to TBWA Advertising creative director Trevor Beattie when he saw a fax from French Connection’s London headquarters (FCUK) to its Hong Kong office (FCHK). If Beattie had been a designer rather than an ad man he’d probably have found sound reasons for a large retail brand not to be associated with the F-word. He might have then turned his attention to tidying up the positioning of the existing identity on the fax header paper.

Of course, implementation and evolution may be unfashionable, but you ignore them at your peril, as French Connection might soon discover. It is growing fast on the spirit of Fcuk, but visit one of its stores and you wonder whether the design teams back at HQ have got high on all the attention. There are tens of Fcuk slogans, and even more graphic treatments of the four letters. What will happen when customers tire of the big idea? Perhaps the company needs some traditional identity expertise to help Fcuk evolve?

Whatever, Fcuk should serve as a reminder to designers that a dose of ad agency-style single-minded populism can lift a new identity from the tastefully appropriate to the fabulously famous. It’s a crowded, fast-moving world out there and some businesses seem to be crying out for a big new idea, rather than a big new identity guidelines manual.

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