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Page1of 1 What Does a Writer Know About Design?
by Ben Steele

In my case, both less and more than you might expect. I don’t know how to use InDesign. I fail at the font-naming game. And I can’t draw a straight line.

So what’s a writer without any formal design training doing as the executive creative director of Hornall Anderson, an agency with a three-decade history of award-winning brand design?

My role is less the signal of a change in our internal direction and more a reflection of the ways our business, and our industry, have already changed.

We are, and always will be, a design firm. As we all know, what that means has evolved and will continue to do so as the lines between advertising, branding, design and digital agencies continue to blur. For me, it means we design and transform brands. But it also means never losing sight of the fact that our clients hire us to solve a problem—not just create a design.

Design is our means to an end. It’s how we express the solution to that problem. It’s the way we tell our clients’ stories and help brands make an emotional connection.

Many design shops, Hornall Anderson included, spent much of their history doing without writers on staff. Instead, we’ve worked with a core group of trusted freelancers. We saved on overhead, we could quickly scale up and down based on project needs and we thought the results were great.

The problem was, we were wrong.

Our way of working meant that the hugely talented writers we partnered with were only in a position to contribute content—not concept. They wrote copy, but we missed the opportunity to tap into the thinking behind it.

Let me pause here to say, emphatically, that I don’t believe writers are required for a concept to exist. I’m not in the biased, old-school camp that values words above all else. But let me also say, just as emphatically, that I believe partnership is vital to creating truly great concepts.

I spent the first fifteen years of my career in advertising and the greatest learning I took away is the deep trust in the power of two people with different perspectives sitting together to solve the same problem. Words and pictures, art and copy, image and articulation—however you want to describe it, it’s that alchemic force that has been bringing world-shaking concepts to life since Bill Bernbach and his team of renegades rewrote the rules in the 1960s.

Writers and designers are better together.

We push each other to new highs. We arrive at destinations we could never find on our own. And together we make something bigger, something more true.

It’s how Hornall Anderson developed the strategy and the story that helped us make Starbucks
Via an instant success. It’s the way we’ve partnered to create a trans-formative experience for the new Madison Square Garden. It’s what gave Redhook Brewing its distinctive look and voice.

It’s at the core of our greatest successes, for brands big and small. I know it because I’ve seen it. I’ve been a part of it.

I’ve watched our best thinkers think better when we bring them together. I believe wholeheartedly in the vive-la-différence chemical reaction that takes place when the English majors and artistes start going back and forth. And it works.

My job as executive creative director isn’t to tell our immensely talented staff of designers how to design. My job is to lead our creative group, to focus on driving the quality of our work forward and to ensure we’re engaging our clients in ways that call upon the full host of our talents and abilities. My job (and all of our jobs) is to lay down the challenge to think bigger, to push farther and to build everything we do on a concept—a simple, solid, great idea.

How we get there and who gets us there is less important than the ultimate destination.

Are you a writer, a designer, a creative? We’re asking the wrong question.

The right question is waiting somewhere in the creative brief. So let’s get to it. ca Steele
Ben Steele ( is the executive creative director at Hornall Anderson and a frequent instructor at the School of Visual Concepts in Seattle. His advertising career started when he convinced an agency in Boise, Idaho, to hire him as a junior copywriter while he was still in high school. Since then he’s plied his trade at agencies and design firms across the country, crafting strategic campaigns for brands including Major League Baseball, T-Mobile, Starbucks, GE, Lexus, Bing, Alaska Airlines, Disney, XBOX, Washington Mutual, Microsoft, Albertsons, United Way and lots of dot-coms that sounded like great ideas at the time.