Separated by a common language


The Wassily chair, designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925 – anyone remember any ads made that year? Image courtesy of Alex Terzich.

My first love is design.

I got into advertising by accident. I was all set to become an industrial designer, when irresistable lure of Geography took me away from the path of righteousness (which is another story).

And a love of design is handy these days since it is looming ever larger in the lives of advertising people.

For one thing identity is no longer content to sit in the bottom right hand corner of the ads but demands to play a bigger role – sometimes with brilliant results (the Guardian) and sometimes in less edifying form (O2). We have to recognise that identity rich advertising is here to stay and that ads that ignore identity feel somehow distant from the brand.

We are also starting to see the value of design in-house
not just to dress up weak ideas but as a distinct practice allowing us to extend our role within Client businesses.

Finally I think we all admire the way that designers make stuff at every stage of the process when so often our ideas exist simply as words on paper right down to the point of production. Designers know that producing stuff means that they win clients over on a very emotional level.

But anyone in advertising or design that has worked closely with the other will know that a truely collaborative relationship is not easy.

Part of the problem is that, just like the relatioship between the US and UK, advertising and design are separated by a common language.

I have felt this separation most acutely working with identity agencies but even working with in-house designers can be a challenge when the two of you think you are in agreement but mean something totally different.
So I thought I’d record the differences (albeit from an advertising perspective) in order that an understanding of them will promote fraternal love and co-operation.
1) When advertising people talk about a brand we mean the set of associations that exist in peoples minds. While designers clearly think this is important for them the brand is much more about the mark or identity. Our brand is nebulous theirs is concrete – it’s what the identity looks like and the values that it embodies.
2) As a result advertising people see themselves as shepherds marshaling brand associations over time, whereas designers prefer to see themselves as police laying down the law of the brand and then enforcing it, often using their favourite tool – the Spirit Book.
3) Advertising people prize originality above any other value (we are obsessed with things that have never been done before regardless of whether this is relevant to success) while design people prize control over any other value (the extent to which they can control every manifestation of their creation). That’s why they like Spirit Books so much.
4) So when it comes to integration advertising people try to encourage strategic coherence across all channels and activities whereas design people like to see executional consistency.
5) Designers often create things that are permanent manifestations of the brand – the packaging, the retail facia, the staff uniforms and of course the brand’s physical representation in the form of a mark. As a result they are very conscious that these things need to last and rise above trends and fads. Advertising people produce things that are instantly disposable, the temporary manifestations of the brand so they like to play with cultural currency and at best to contribute to it. Perhaps this is one reason why advertising people like things being funny and designers do not.
6) Advertising people burn up ferociously expensive media this makes them very conscious of the need for it to deliver results. Design people tend to use relatively cheap media in comparison. It is costly to re-badge every retail outlet but that investment will last a decade (unless you are Abbey). Indeed many things that the designer controls have to be produced anyway – like packaging or stationary, bags or uniforms. This leads to a fundamental difference in the urgency with which activity is supposed to work and often makes design more commercially passive when advertising seeks to be more commercially aggressive.
7) Having said that, design people are often more focused on solving problems (especially industrial designers) since their training is in finding and solving real problems in people’s lives or with the status quo. This means that they are often asked to and can think more fundamentally about, how it should be solved. Take the problem of left handed people being unable to use a pair of scissors, advertising people would approach this by telling left handed people how to use the existing scissors better whereas design people would create a new pair of scissors.
8) And finally our ideas of quality are based on different criteria. The concept of Good Design is absolute, in others words there is a notion of good design and poor design and while design genius can not be taught, good design can – there are real principles upon which it is based. There is no such absolute concept of good advertising and a pretence that there is often leads to commercially irrelevant decision making. Good advertising is whatever works for this audience today, good design is eternal. This is one of the reasons that we still sit on chairs designed by mid-Century legends (like Eames or Breuer) but laugh at advertising from the same era.
Neither camp is right or wrong we simply come from different traditions that value different things in the work we produce and from the people that produce it. And the more we understand and appreciate this the better our attempts at collaboration will be.

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17 Replies to “Separated by a common language”

  1. Thanks for that.
    Useful to know, especially for someone who finds it far easier to think in terms of words than images.

  2. Absolutely, one of the big issues at FMS (in terms of design) appeared to be finding people who can move between the two.
    At university I found every designer I met thought they were an artist, they werent given enough thought on the commercial value of their work.

  3. advertising people tend to think in terms of ideas that can be verbalized, whereas design people tend, inevitably, to think in terms of aesthetic impressions. Arguably, in today’s hyper-visual world, it’s the latter skill which is more valuable.

  4. About time you talked about design over here.
    Seriously, this is a good post and it’s nice to see this written from an advertising point of view. Here’s my thoughts on the individual points.
    1) Don’t really agree with this one. Perhaps it’s true of the not so good designers.
    2) Hmmm.
    3) Well, it’s certainly true that designers aren’t so tortured by the thought of referencing a concept from the past but I’d disagree that they value control over everything else. They value small fonts over everything else.
    4) True.
    5) Very true. Plus we call funny ‘wit’.
    6) I think the main difference here is the zeros. Your average FMCGs Finance Director will scrutinise a £5M TV campaign much more than a £50k piece of packaging.
    7) This one is very true.
    8) Yep.
    There is one thing you’ve missed and I’ll write about it over on the nation’s favourite design blog some time in the future. The main difference between design and advertising is how the businesses are run.

  5. That can be your tag:
    NoisyDecentGraphics – The Nations Favourite Design Blog
    After all, if I can be labelled as “famous”…
    7 is exactly right, most designers I know literally say “design = problem solving”.

  6. More from Google….”In 1925 Gilroy embarked on his long association with the advertising agency S H Benson Ltd (Benson’s)” – though I admit he didn’t start on Guinness until 1928….
    Anyhow, this is all wonderful reading. Your point 6, for instance.One of the worst failings of clients is the extent to which they lavish their time and energies on what is most expensive rather than what is most important. The commercial impact of design can easily outweigh the effects of advertising (particularly given its long lifespan), and yet responsibility for it is often delegated while senior people agonise for months over a couple of posters.
    My quibble with design springs from your point 8 – it can occasionally be a little fascistic (indeed totalitarian regimes often manifest a rather good design sense, as witnessed by Napoleon, Milan Railway Station, Hugo Boss designing the SS uniforms, etc).
    What I mean by this is that – at times – little heed is paid by the deisgner to the public’s taste or the views of the target audience; instead the designer’s own aesthetic is imposed upon them. The target audience, in short, always being that 3% of the population which uses an Apple Mac (Steve Jobs being the apotheosis of the design-fascist – Albert Speer for the 21st Century).
    Incidentally, that Wassily thing is a lot better to look at than to sit in. As a fat man, I generally find it was the Edwardian English who truly perfected the armchair.

  7. I think we should remember that a lot of design usually sets out to last forever (or at least for a long time) whereas advertising never does.
    Marketing Managers may talk about a campaign that lasts as long as The Economist but in reality they know they’ll need to change tack just to keep everyone alert. Including their boss.

  8. Very interesting. Many of those points feel spot on.
    A few comments & caveats:
    1. Victor Papanek described design as an activity which felt satisfying in the same way tidying a sock drawer is. I think of it as more about creating order & meaning than control?
    2. I think you mean graphic identity design.
    I think I’d exclude space (eg retail) service, interface and information design from your points and these really are at the leading edge of changing how our world actually works or flows.
    While we are all beavering away these are the dam makers imho.
    as an example of what I mean check out this interview:
    3. Advertising & graphic identity design do have one thing in common; they are fixated by their creative output & each has built whole edifices of brand & business theory to fit this view. You could call them narcissistic industries; caught by the beauty of the(ir refelected) image. And hence frozen in time.
    These are the leading industries (along with PR) of the mass production & consumerisation age – ie the 20th century.
    What design, advertising and PR dont do however is live interaction, experience, conversation, hubbub; the spontaneous daily chatter of markets, blogs, gossip, rumours; ebay auctions, amazon reviews, blog recommendations.
    They are like cave art (design) and shared myths (advertising) but they miss a very large part of the daily life of the tribe?
    I think there’s life after both graphic identity design & advertising – I tend to see each as (mostly, but with glorious exceptions) equally stuck in the 1980s or so
    just to be controversial
    (worth about 2p as always)

  9. Thanks for that, Richard. As stimulating as ever.
    I think you flatter the design community with the generalisation that designers are more likely to think about solving problems.
    As Ben has pointed out before, people calling themselves designers don’t necessarily have a monopoly on problem-solving commonsense.
    When I worked at a design consultancy, we all wanted to be addressing fundamental problems in just the same way that we (planners) did when I worked in an ad agency. But usually these high ideals defaulted to the creation of a nice new identity. Just as they defaulted to a 30 second commercial/DPS in the ad agency.
    The problem is that both (planning) environments come with their own default executional solutions. As the old chestnut goes, when you’ve got a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Or something.
    Yes, product/industrial and interaction designers are most likely to focus on problem solving but they are probably least likely to concern themselves with “the brand”. I generalise, of course, but you get my drift.

  10. Hi Richard,
    Thanks for that. Helped me understand why I had fundamental differences with a designer friend on what would work for the brand when I was doing some freelance copywriting for her last year.

  11. I don’t think we should be hard on ourselves for not being able to provide every/any possible executional ‘answer’ to a business problem. We all try to solve our bit. Or as much of the problem as we can with our bit.
    But one thing missing here is a definition of the problems we’re all supposed to be solving. Very generally, design traditionally solves human need problems: functionality, facility, usability etc. Whereas, again (too) generally, advertising looks at more commercial problems. If we’re talking about what we *should* all be doing, then yes, I’d say every day of the week that all of us should be looking at both commercial and design problems – regardless of our field.
    It’s the people who can solve business problems with thinking that feeds product/design AND comms solutions (+whatever else) who will bring us closer to the collaborative nirvana we’re always talking about. I think that’s why people say ‘making stuff’ is important. Because if you have that, learning how to solve business problems is relatively easy.

  12. Advertising & graphic identity design do have one thing in common; they are fixated by their creative output & each has built whole edifices of brand & business theory to fit this view. You could call them narcissistic industries; caught by the beauty of their refelected image. And hence frozen in time.
    This is the most frighteningly accurate one-sentence attack on our industries I have ever read. The only small defence is that it isn’t only our fault – our clients have also built whole procedural and budgetary edifices which demand we maintain the illusion.

  13. Having studied both design and advertising, the main difference I saw between the two was that design students saw themselves as artists, and their clients as the ‘brand marketing brains’; whereas advertising/marketing students saw themselves as the true problem solvers/idea creators that would take the brand solution to their graphic designer friends to execute.
    This difference, and perception, in my opinion, still exists in my industry circle.

  14. Great post. Really interesting focus. I’m an advertising CD from a heavy design background, so i have an obvious spin on this!
    From this modern ad-centric focus, there is a third designer beast.
    Firstly the two you are discussing here (in my opinion):
    1. a BAD designer: one that doesn’t understand branding properly (emotion + marque) and doesn’t see the bigger picture (problem solving/ideas)
    2. a HARDCORE designer: one that just wants to focus on Swiss typefaces etc.
    (1) you would do well to steer clear of as they will always give you bad solutions, (2) is a brilliant collaborative outlet for a specific job at which they will excel. Pick the right (2) to do the job you may have got (1) to do!
    3. Is a designer with their head up, watching, listening, talking and thinking, much like an advertiser. They bring all the good qualities of design lead problem solving, user centric approach and practical experience + maturation into the social science/psychology and emotionally lead thinking of advertising.
    That’s a pretty powerful skill-set.
    More and more of these beasts are maturing onto the scene. Two examples would be from 1 – The onset of digital blurring the lines between ad & content/product and idea & execution, and perhaps collapsing of old job boundaries 2 – TV channel branding that needs to convey information alongside personality.
    Good designers learn how to think like advertisers also. Perhaps good advertisers do likewise in reverse?

  15. Ultimately, I think designers and advertisers are after the same thing: a mark to be left behind that would link them to the rest of the world.
    Both are creators. Both are constantly challenged by new problems. An advertiser’s creation is only useful to the brand it is representing, and which would last as long as the brand wants that communication to last. A designer’s creation can be used by the consumer-end, again and again — until a new designer comes out and overtakes this designer’s product. Neither is everlasting, really.
    Designers don’t necessarily solve problems. The problem comes from the designer him/herself: “I don’t like that design” or “I think I can do better than that.”
    The two groups can collaborate together as long as they both can ultimately agree on one thing: neither will have a job if the client doesn’t like it.

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