How to Spend Your Christmas Break

My first Christmas break in portfolio school was great. I crossed several states to return home. I relaxed. I snowboarded. I read. I didn’t think about advertising at all.

Then I went back to portfolio school in January. And I was rusty. Really rusty. Not because I’d taken a break from advertising. But because I’d taken a break from writing. And maybe even thinking.
As you head into the holidays, take a break. You probably deserve it. Step back from advertising. But don’t step back from your craft.
If you’re a writer, continue to write. Doesn’t have to be headlines or taglines or anything for a school assignment. But write.
If you’re an art director, draw, paint, sketch, or sculpt some snowmen. Whatever. But keep using your hands, and your brains.

Look@Things

Our friend Brian Thibodeau is currently teaching at The Chicago Portfolio School. (He’s a VCU Brandcenter grad who’s worked at The Martin Agency and now Ogilvy.) Brian recently launched a new blog called Look@Things for his art direction class. He’s got great taste and a knack for seeking out eye candy and inspiration. So give it a peak.

(Brian’s also the guy who sends us new headers for the blog. Check out his latest.)

We all gotta learn something

I was just flipping through the Communication Arts first ever Typography Annual and came across this quote from one of the judges:

“We need to teach designers to be better readers. Once they respect the text, they’ll want to set it well.”

I buy that. Here’s my open question to you readers: What do copywriters need to do to better respect design and art direction?

"Constantly Being Out There"

Last week, I got to work with a musician who was at RISD about the same time Shepard Fairey was there. He said he remembered Fairey printing his Andre the Giant stickers and bringing boxes of them to the small concerts he loved attending. He’d give them to the band or to their road manager for free, provided they take them on their tour with them. That’s why, after a few years, with no paid advertising, these little stickers made by some design school kid in Providence began to appear all over the country.

I was in portfolio school the first time I heard about Fairey. It fact, I don’t even think I heard about him. What I heard was, “There’s this guy who makes these Andre the Giant stickers and gives them away for free. They’re pretty cool. Look, there’s one on the back of that stop sign over there.”

Years later, he’s the guy who designed the first presidential portrait to be purchased by the United States National Portrait Gallery before the President had been sworn into office.

What this former schoolmate of Fairey’s told me was this: “I honestly don’t know if ‘Andre the Giant has a Posse’ is a great concept or not. It could be brilliant. It could be absurd. Maybe both, I don’t know. What I do know is that never quitting, and constantly being out there can make all the difference.”

Carl Sandburg and Manifestos

We’ve written before about manifestos. A well-written one can be a powerful opening to a meeting. Couple it with the right art direction, and a great manifesto can sell a campaign, even if it never appears as a print ad or in the voiceover.

As a writer, you need to know how to write a great manifesto. As an art director, you need to be able to imbue those words with meaning, making them even more relevant. They may not be ads, but they can help you make and sell better ones.
Here’s a poem I recently found by Carl Sandburg. I think this would make a great manifesto. Maybe for Corvette. Or Gulfstream. Or FedEx. (Any other ideas?) It’s about the right length. What really works for me are the cadence and the imagery. Read it out loud. Poetry, like manifestos, is meant to be heard.

The silent litany of the workmen goes on –
Speed, speed, we are the makers of speed.
We make the flying, crying motors,
Clutches, brakes, and axles,
Gears, ignitions, accelerators,
Spokes and springs and shock absorbers.
The silent litany of the workmen goes on –
Speed, speed, we are the makers of speed;
Axles, clutches, levers, shovels,
We make signals and lay the way –
Speed, speed.

The trees come down to our tools,
We carve the wood to the wanted shape.
The whining propeller’s song in the sky,
The steady drone of the overland truck,
Comes from our hands; us; the makers of speed.

Speed; the turbines crossing the Big Pond,
Every nut and bolt, every bar and screw,
Every fitted and whirring shaft,
They came from us, the makers,
Us, who know how,
Us, the high designers and the automatic feeders,
Us, with heads,
Us, with hands,
Us on the long haul, the short flight,
We are the makers; lay the blame on us –
The makers of speed.

(I’m not expecting any takers on this, but if any of you art directors want to art direct Sandburg’s poem and submit it, we’ll post it, tweet it, link to your portfolio and sing your praises.)

The New Yorker, iPhones, and Experimentation

Here’s a video of a cover for The New Yorker created on an iPhone.

http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f8/1827871374

Consider how much detail the artist puts into what is eventually obscured. He makes a nice little crosswalk, a cue, and a couple taxis. Then covers them up with a hot dog stand and silhouettes in the foreground. That doesn’t mean he was wasting his time.
I’ve seen a lot of portfolio students resist experimentation with tag lines, headlines, certain visuals and even media because they didn’t think they’d be necessary. They have an idea of what the ad should be, so they stop working as soon as all their requirements are met.
The truth is you won’t know if your ad needs a tag line until you’ve spent some serious time coming up with a sheet of the best lines you can write. And as much as you love that visual you came up with, you’ll never know if it’s the best until you try to come up with at least three that are even better.
Put in the time and effort to paint that crosswalk and those taxis. Who cares if they’re covered up? It doesn’t mean you wasted your time. It only makes the finished piece better.

Patton

Here’s a short piece that has great copy and great art direction.
[The link to this video was removed. But you can watch it here.]
Simple message. Simple images. Simple brand positioning. So clear and deliberate, you either hate the guy’s guts, or you sign on as a lifelong follower. No wonder this show won Best Picture.
Caveat: Before you decide to “pay homage” to this by ripping it off, you should know Nike and Dennis Hopper already did.

Thinking Visually

A copywriter in his first semester, on his first assignment came to me for advice. He was trying to do a campaign for Invisible Fence, a kind of invisible barrier for dogs. One of his ideas was to show a patch of ground the dog had mischievously dug up. The dog would be next to the big hole smiling innocently.
“The dog is smiling?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said the student. “See?”
I looked at his Sharpied sketch. Sure enough, the dog was smiling.
“Would this be a photograph?” I asked.
“Yeah.”
“What does a real dog look like when it’s smiling? Not a cartoon dog. A real dog.”
Pause.
“Oh.”
He hadn’t learned to think visually yet. Thinking visually isn’t just coming up with a cool image and putting the client’s logo in the corner. It’s the ability to know exactly how an image is going on a page or a screen.
In portfolio school, some of my classmates had an idea for a TV spot that opened on a marshmallow.
“How are you going to know it’s a marshmallow?” asked our professor.
“Because it’s a marshmallow.”
“How will I know it’s not a pillow?” asked my professor. “Or a cloud?”
“Because it’s a marshmallow! It will look like a marshmallow because that’s what it is!”
But sure enough, when we saw that marshmallow on film, it was surprisingly hard to tell it was a marshmallow. Maybe Pytka could have pulled it off. But not us. We hadn’t learned to think visually yet.
For more tips on thinking visually, read this article by Hal Curtis.

Try this when you’re stuck

Copywriters: the next time you’re absolutely stuck with your copy, try this.

Go pick up a novel of a writer whose style you admire. Say it’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez – he’s about as unmarketing-speaky as you can get. Open to any page. Now copy the words of the page into your own notebook.

When you’re finished, start writing what you need to say about your product. You’ll find you’re doing it in an entirely different voice.

You can do this with Hemmingway and Steinbeck as easily as you can with Dan Brown and David Sedaris. Go ahead and try some poetry. Works with Sandberg and Billy Collins, too.

Art directors: Do the same by taking out a big book on fine art. Or photography. Or design. You don’t have to recreate each painting. But you can try. Sketch out the composition. Study the shadows and the colors. Spend a half hour with a particular style. Then jump into your layout while it’s fresh in your brain.

Small trick. But it works. And it’s much better than staring at a blank page, or just writing and laying out what you think the client (or the awards show juries) expect.