Opinions - More than words. What do copywriters know about design?


by Magnus Shaw


"Like all forms of design, visual design is about problem solving, not about personal preference or unsupported opinion."
Bob Baxley

It's funny. Art directors and copywriters work so closely together, for so much of the time, and yet we're very territorial. Sure, we'll throw ideas around in the early stages of a brief, without paying too much attention to the boundaries between the pictures and the headlines - but come the final execution - ad, website, poster - and the two disciplines are pretty closely guarded. Perish the thought that the art director would become a little over ambitious and start to play with the text. Or worse - the copywriter begins to critique the layout or finer points of the colour scheme. Okay, this does happen - but deep down, any ground is given reluctantly and with a certain urge to push back.

With my tongue only partially tucked in my cheek, I've always thought I could spot a good art director through their inability to spell. Equally, the best writers with whom I've worked are usually and wholly incapable of a decent freehand drawing. Indeed, my own attempts at scamps always resemble the clumsy efforts of an intoxicated toddler.

So what do copywriters know about design? Strangely, I think we know a fair bit.

The curse of the advertising creative is to forever examine the work of others. Once you've plunged into the business, you are incapable of seeing (or hearing) an advertisement in the way you did before. Suddenly the sales pitch is much less prominent and the artistry much more noticeable. As you are now regularly engaged in the construction of advertisements, you are able to see the scaffolding, invisible to the regular punter. If you are a writer, you perceive the various configurations which led to the final headline. A designer will spot the Photoshop work, the use of space or the lighting of the photography. Decisions as to whether an ad is any good or not are no longer based on its ability to persuade, but in the subtleties of its execution, it's style and it's creative validity. Or lack of it. This is both inevitable and natural.

What is more intriguing, is the tendency for writers to examine and judge the design of an ad and art directors to spot a great header or strap. This is because, although we understand our specific fields particularly well, we also know the complementary discipline is vital to the success of our work. A superb ad is greater then the sum of its parts (words plus design). So, almost without realising, the writer begins to appreciate the nuances and skills essential to fantastic design. This is partly by osmosis. Spending long hours in the presence of a design professional allows the visual art to seep into our skin. The copywriter is receiving a crash course in design without knowing it. But it's also born of necessity.

Often the writer will have the dubious honour of pitching the finished work to the client (particularly if he or she is also the creative director). After all, it would be cumbersome if both creative partners were dragged along - one to present the colours and shapes, the other to explain the vocabulary. So the writer must have a grasp of the design rationale and be able to discuss the art direction with credibility. (By the way, I don't mean to suggest designers or art directors are not capable of presenting work, only that in my experience, copywriters seem to embrace the task with more relish).

Certainly, before I entered the heady world of copywriting, I had little or no knowledge of the design principles involved in graphics, architecture, photography or typography. Within a year, this fascinating arena was opened up to me and I had formed a much deeper appreciation of the visual world. Of course, my concentration was quite fixed on the use of language and meaning - but I was also developing an eye for inspired logos, the use of white space, fonts and illustration. It was an unexpected and useful bonus.

Twenty years on and I firmly remain a words guy. Nevertheless, I now recognise inspired and brilliant design at a hundred paces. What's more, nobody has a chance of sneaking the shoddy stuff past me. Absolutely content to let the designers do the designing, I can at least hold my own in a conversation on the subject and even give my clients a bit of design guidance.

So this copywriter does know a bit about design. Unfortunately, I still draw as if I'm in a special class at junior school.


Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.

"Advice" a collection of Magnus Shaw's columns is now available as a Kindle book.


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