Design and ego.

Design is not a competition. It is not about ego. It is about doing the best job possible for your client. If winning a competition helps the client (or helps you keep your client) that’s fine… but it should never be the primary goal of the work.

I’ve both judged and won competitions, and, although it feels good to be appreciated, the platitudes I am most proud of are the surveys in which our ads were the ones that stayed in the minds of the readers over all others in that particular publication. It told us that we were doing the best job possible for our client.

And that, in the end, is the point.

(this post was inspired by a rather gloating post on Google+)

On borrowed interest

Borrowed interest adds nothing but confusion to marketing. If something doesn’t relate to your product, service, or company image, it doesn’t belong.

Borrowed interest belittles your product by showing that you have nothing to make yours the best of the lot and insults your true target audience by promoting fluff over substance.

Branding vs Marketing

This morning I read a point/counter-point style article that came my way via Twitter (thanks to @boxofnuts22) talking about the difference between branding and marketing. Here’s the gist of it:

The first person’s explanation was long and winding, full of MBA-style doublespeak and overly complex sentences. Boiled down he says that branding is company reputation and marketing is everything else – from logo design through advertising, etc.. The second fellow wrote short, simple statements claiming that branding was what makes you different from your competition, logo design, color schemes, etc.; and marketing is how you sell your company’s product or service.

Now if the description of the styles of explanation didn’t tip you off, second fellow is correct (I’ve no idea where the first guy got his ideas).

Branding is what helps the audience know who you are without explanation. It exists to make it possible, at a glance, for a potential client to say, ah, this is a Spacely Sprockets product, not a Cogswell Cogs one. It encompasses logos, color schemes, typeface choices, and the style that makes a company recognizable (think Apple’s simplicity and penchant for black, white, and aluminum).

Marketing is how you use your branding to get the message out there – whether it be advertising, PR, social media, etc..

Very simply put, branding defines the topic and marketing is the message.

Context in design.


Context is key.

You get a lot of people who feel that Helvetica makes everything better and Comic Sans is the typeface of the devil. Here are two designs that follow different philosophies… one based on flat design and Helvetica and one based on a more dimensional design and Comic Sans. I asked my two-year old (who would be the target audience) which he liked better… guess which he chose? Everything has its place. It is vital to consider the tastes of the audience.

Whether it be typefaces, copywriting, or design style, it is all a question of context.

(Note: these weren’t done for a client… they are quick and dirty designs for illustrative purposes. Although I do like the bear).

Let me tell you a story…

That’s what advertising is about. It is about telling a story. A story of boy has a problem, girl has the solution. Boy meets girl and she solves his problem.

Substitute boy with your target audience and girl with your company and you have an ad.

You are trying to convince your target audience that your product or service is the very thing they need to solve their problem or meet their need. It is as simple as that. If you don’t engage your target by making them empathize with the story, you aren’t engaging them. A list of your product’s benefits simply isn’t enough. It won’t compel your audience to put themselves in a position that makes them want to come to you. People are convinced to act based on need or perceived need. If you can’t make them feel that conviction, that need to have a problem solved, then you have probably failed to get a customer.

And without your customers you don’t live happily ever after.

Empathy and advertising.

By now I’m sure a lot of you will be aware of Hyundai’s ad promoting one of their low-emission vehicles. There’s this poor soul who, distressed with how life has dealt him a bad hand or something (I’m fuzzy on the details) decides to end it all by committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage. Foiled by the environmentally friendly nature of his Hyundai, he goes off to continue his life. I’m guessing that Innocean (Hyundai’s agency) and the client felt that this would be an edgy promotion, perhaps going viral, culminating with an uptick in profits for the quarter. Maybe they even thought that the message of an environmentally friendly vehicle helping to save a person’s life would be a great message.

This is one of the most asinine things I’ve ever heard of.

The first rule of advertising is that an ad is there to help sell a client’s product or service to its intended target audience. Assuming that the intended target audience is human, this ad missed the mark completely. A good agency is able to put themselves in the shoes of the prospective consumer and sell in a compelling and sympathetic manner. Certainly it can be argued that the ad drives home (unintended pun) the point that it is a low-emissions vehicle, but there is nothing funny at all about depression or suicide and all this ad does is make Hyundai look like a bunch of heartless, money grubbing, insensitive bastards (tell us how you really feel, Jason) who wouldn’t know what a human being would think or feel if they ever met one. The apologies issued by both Hyundai and Innocean are quite hollow at this point. That ad should have never made it out of the agency’s creative department, let alone into the wild where actual human beings with feelings would consume it.

A couple of years ago, Nissan ran an ad with Lance Armstrong (yes, that Lance Armstrong) riding on his bike behind one tailpipe or another while training. The ad culminated in him riding behind a Nissan Leaf – an electric vehicle with no tailpipe at all. We could almost feel the fresh air invigorating our beleaguered lungs. All of us have walked behind a bus or a car with an emissions problem and inhaled a noxious, choking cloud of carbon monoxide. It is unpleasant. This ad reminded us of that and made us sympathize with the narrator – feeling great relief that the time is coming where we don’t ever have to deal with that again. It appealed to our common experience. This was a good ad. It was positive and made us think kindly toward Nissan and their forward thinking, sympathetic motives. Whether or not that was their motivation is irrelevant, it was the message of the advertisement and it is one that appeals to the target audience on an emotional level.

On a personal/professional note:  there is a common feeling out there that advertising agencies are only out there for the money and we prey on poor consumers by convincing them to buy things they don’t really need and might not be able to afford. Innocean seems to be out there to prove this to be true, and it doesn’t help the rest of us who (while making money for ourselves is, of course, why we have turned our talents to a field where they can feed our families) feel like what we do serves the purpose of helping others build and maintain their businesses – in the end adding to the well-being of their companies, employees, and the economy as a whole. The best and most creative of us can use our common experience and emotional intelligence as tools to accomplish this goal. Those who do not make the rest of us look like ogres.

And for that I’d like to say stop. Please, just stop. We are all human and it is in our best interests, both as people and as advertisers, to remember that.

Helvetica, the other white meat.


Let me start by saying I like Helvetica. A lot. It is a wonderful typeface with a plethora of uses, but (and here is where I’m going to get in trouble with typophiles everywhere) it is not the be-all-and-end-all of typefaces.

It is not, as some would have you believe these days, the bacon of the typographic world (that’s another kettle of fish – but this is a design blog, not a food one).

Now while you are off sharpening your pitchforks, let me explain:

Helvetica does not make every design better. It is a very clean, easy to read typeface. Of constant weight and line, it is pleasant to look at and legible at a distance. To me, it is the white meat chicken of typefaces. It can be used in many different situations to great effect. A very utilitarian font, but there are others of equal dignity and perhaps of greater impact. White meat chicken is universally liked for a reason: it goes with so very many things and is completely inoffensive and sometimes (when prepared well) quite delicious.

So when choosing your typographic weapons, choose carefully. Helvetica isn’t for everything and, considering its ubiquity these days, should be used intelligently. Embrace your Copperplates and Garamonds, rejoice in your Avant Gardes and Neutrafaces. Remember that, as a designer, it is your duty to help your client stand out in the crowd. If we all wear the same clothing, we don’t shout out our uniqueness. And that uniqueness is what separates us and calls attention to what we have to offer.