I think I’m gonna switch my major to advertising.”
“Why? It’s not like you have to.”
“What do you mean?”
“Advertising is for people who can’t design—they switch to bypass the more advanced studio classes. That’s not you.”
“Yeah but... I’ve already taken a lot of design classes. I want to take advertising ones too and I’m not allowed to take certain ones if I don’t declare.”
“Do you want to end up doing Clorox commercials, and ugly print ads that people don’t read?”
“I also don’t want to end up designing the new and improved package for Clorox either. I thought maybe I could think, write, and then design. I can obsess over type and layout as much as anyone but to what end? I feel like I need more of a purpose. (I should have stopped divulging then...but I didn’t!) And I want to write TV commercials too. Does it say somewhere that thou shall not be a writer and a designer...”
“Oh, so you wanna write... (sarcastically delivered). Which do you prefer, jingles or puns, or how about jingles with puns? They like those in advertising...”
Paula knew how to get to me. A genuine punk goddess, with perfect skin, clear eyes, tattoos here and there, a ferocious reader who happened to be a fellow major at School of Visual Arts who befriended me only after approving of my design work and sensibilities. I respected that. She backed off a little, following up with:
“So, have you talked to Richard yet?” (Richard Wilde was our department chair.)
“It’s not like I’m switching to painting. Advertising and graphic design are in the same department—his department.”
“So, what did he say?”
“He asked me to keep thinking about it.”
“I’m gonna do it. It’s not like everything I know about design is gonna go away just because I’m taking more advertising classes.”
“I don’t know about that... have you seen their portfolios? All they care about are headlines. They just throw stuff together and get it laminated.”
“Advertising isn’t good if it’s not well designed. I can’t believe they’d let students get away with doing ugly work no matter how smart a headline is...”
“Suit yourself...” She was done. Almost. “Jingle Girl!”
It stung. And it stuck. I was Jingle Girl to the diehard design majors who were indeed, for one reason or another, more visually astute and artistically inclined and, for the most part and for good reason, found advertising to be crass. I was Designy Chick to the ad majors who thought they had the idea market cornered. I was in the right place, but I didn’t fit in—again.
I was born in Tehran and lived there until 1979. I am Persian, like most people born in Iran and my first language was Farsi. I came to the U.S. during the Islamic Revolution. I didn’t realize it, but I wasn’t just coming to the U.S., I was moving here. I spent the long flight dealing with how different this trip was than the last time I came to the States. While black-clad demonstrators were on the streets of my country chanting “Death to America,” I was actually going there. It wasn’t my idea to move there, but I’m glad that we did. When you’re ten, you don’t have much say in where you go. If it was up to me I would have stayed and watched everything continue to unravel out of sheer curiosity and hope that eventually things would settle down. That my school would reopen and I would see my friends again. I couldn’t imagine that things could get worse than I had already seen them become.
I don’t know if I remember enough or too much about my first experiences here. I remember my first supermarket visit. A Giant in a DC suburb. I thought it was pronounced Gee-Yaant. I remember aisles and aisles of products that I never knew existed or were necessary before. Most of all I remember racks and racks of magazines. My reading comprehension in English was nil back then, and since kids avoided me like I was a stinky boiled brussel sprout I had a lot of time to myself. The worst thing you could be in 1980, ’81, ’82, ’83 and a good chunk of ’84 was an Iranian girl in a suburban U.S. town—or maybe the worst thing you could be was me. I was a human repellent. Frustrated and bored don’t begin to describe how frustrated and bored I was. Magazines with page after page of pictures, pithy captions and headlines with word plays became my respite. From the beginning I liked the big ones with distinct mastheads, beautiful type, interestingly-cropped photographs, soulful portraits and what I’d later learn to be generally better design than tabloids and weeklies. Rolling Stone, Life and Interview were accessible favorites. In the early ’80s Life and Interview were still printed in large format. Interview was seventeen-plus inches high, printed on newsprint and saddle-stitched.
Here’s another withdrawal from my memory bank that relates to toeing the line between design and advertising. Not that I knew what that meant at the time.
It was in the airport, soon after I first got off the plane. I remember a man wearing a white Mickey Mouse T-shirt. Mickey was making a hand gesture that I didn’t understand at the time—he was giving “the” finger. Underneath there were two words, eight letters total, in cartoony type: F, U, C, K, I, R, A, N. An exclamation mark punctuated the sentence! Recognizing Mickey from my trip to Disneyland the previous summer and the name of my country instantly and instinctively pleased me. I can’t explain this, but I remember it clearly and yes, I’m embarrassed by that fact today. Obviously the irony of the image and message was initially lost on me. A fact that I reference to this day when judging creative whether I’m working under the umbrella of “design” or “advertising.” What do we see first? How does it affect us? And where do we go next? What’s the point and how quickly do you get to it? All that assuming something was interesting enough, stood out enough, for us to look in its direction, to truly, not just peripherally notice it.
Back to Mickey. Why was Mickey making that gesture and what did FUCK mean? I asked my brother, seventeen years older and a graduate student at George Washington University at the time. I could tell he wished that I hadn’t asked. He produced a generic and clumsy answer about how that word wasn’t a “good” word, and the gesture wasn’t a friendly one.
Hmmm? So, why is he wearing it? “It’s not your business. He can do what he likes.” My mom followed with “Don’t stare, it’s not polite!” Persians have a tendency to be more polite than called for and more conscientious of stranger’s feelings than, say, those of their family’s. I didn’t feel the gravity of the situation, but my brother did. He was more the target for the man’s message and he was more scared of offending someone who was clearly trying to offend him than of a confrontation. That’s a Persian trait.
The man was showing that he was angry at my country using a symbol from his. He had strategically placed himself near a gate in the terminal where people from Iran were arriving. Good media placement, huh? It certainly broke through. Twenty-four years later, I’m still talking about it. And a way to use the power of a brand. I mean it’s common to refer to McDonald’s golden arches, or Mickey as symbols of a Corporate America, but back then people weren’t nearly as media savvy as they are today. He stood out. Had he tried to produce the same sentiment using the visual of a U.S. flag instead of Mickey, maybe I wouldn’t have noticed—which may not have been the worst thing because I felt really bad after I finally got the real gist of the message. Make that stupid. I felt stupid that I hadn’t recognized it immediately as a “not so friendly” message.
I was so afraid of not “getting it” again that I made it a point of really “getting it” as much as I could from that day on. The magazines that I was obsessing over, and the images and commercials on TV were tools for understanding my new home. Advertising and design were accessible and common cultural references and they were totally intertwined in every way, in every medium.
Cut back to 1992. New York City. I’ve officially switched majors from graphic design to advertising at SVA.
It was as if I was abandoning the study of a beautiful universal communication method to join an evil empire conspiring against an unassuming consumer republic. The truth is the decision was forced on me. I didn’t want to choose between design and advertising; I wanted to explore new ways to meld the two disciplines. Didn’t everybody? Actually, I really didn’t understand how one could work without the other.
By the time I got to art school, I had already been through several majors and almost as many schools. Pre-med geared towards sports medicine, art history, architecture, finance, marketing and underwater basket weaving were among my previous majors. At SVA, I thought I was finally clear about what I wanted to do—perhaps what I should have been doing all along. In reality, I knew nothing and I wasn’t clear about anything either. Pretty much the only thing I was sure of was that I didn’t want to be a fine artist, which was why I hadn’t considered art school to begin with, and that now that I was there, advertising or design was not an option. But financially it had to be. I couldn’t afford to stay in school a second longer than necessary which meant a double major was out of the question. Richard Wilde was incredibly supportive. Together we came up with a mix of classes to address all my anxieties. When all was said and done, I took Sal DeVito’s third-year advertising class, worked really hard and was selected to be in his fourth-year portfolio class. Phew! This was my big coup. Sal was a legendary teacher with an agency that bore his name and did some of the most standout work in NYC. His was the class that I couldn’t take unless I was an advertising major. I also took classes with Frank Young, Charlie Picarillo and Rich Ostroff. I begged and pleaded for permission to submit my portfolio for possible selection to do an SVA-sponsored weeklong workshop with David Carson. It was supposed to be for graphic design majors only. So when my book was selected, there were complaints. I needed it though. This would be my last “design” class. I also got selected to do a weeklong seminar with Jack Mariucci, then the chief creative at DDB. It was a good mix.
I started to see the differences in the results when approaching a problem from an advertising perspective versus a design one pretty quickly. In advertising you think about how to do the best with what you have. You are not in a position to redesign a logo or question a color palette for a company. Sure, you can suggest changes but the goal is to do the best with what you have. You have to find an idea that can be true to the product, and execute it in an interesting way. No excuses. In a design class you might be asked to create a brand from scratch, design a logo, stationery, packaging, posters, book covers, or given the task of redesigning packages, CD covers or editorial layouts. These are completely different types of assignments. Both are valid, challenging, and mind-bendingly fun but one pushes you into a corner and forces you to be creative within your parameters while the other pushes you out the window and forces you to free-fall into a creative solution.
Frank Young was a big proponent of the free-fall approach, even within advertising. Break with tradition! To hell with corporate logos! Be raw, vulnerable and unafraid. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense as long as it makes sense in context. He made us meditate for fifteen minutes at the beginning of each class and frankly, sometimes Frank just didn’t make sense. He was great for me though. His find-your-own-voice mentality worked with my temperament. I needed to do ads that didn’t look like ads and sound like ads. I needed not to be Jingle Girl.
Sal had no patience for anyone coming into class and pontificating on why a certain product’s design or logo would get in the way of its own advertising. Basically Sal was the opposite of Frank. Again, perfect for me—the schizophrenic creative who wanted a portfolio that would please advertising creative directors and uppity designers alike.
During my last year of school I won the Rich Martel scholarship from BBDO which included a paid internship. The portfolio I submitted for judging included design and advertising work. It would be the last time I showed design and advertising work in one portfolio when applying for work. BBDO is one of the best large agencies in NYC and known for their celebrity-driven, high-production value, often-funny television campaigns, for big brands like Pepsi, FedEx and Visa. It was an amazing learning experience since they mainly do work for television, which forces anyone working there to learn how to do good television. There were at least 100 people in the creative department alone and over the years people I met there would become my friends, partners, bosses, employees and mentors. The best part was having a lot of different creative professionals see my book and give me advice that I put to good use and have since passed on to others.
Example: Don’t put advertising and design work in the same portfolio.
The reason is not that design and advertising aren’t both important and valuable to a prospective employer, it’s that when headhunters and HR people are looking to hire, they are simply looking to fill holes. You have to be clear which hole you want to fill otherwise you won’t even get a meeting with a creative director—the only person that can actually hire you. This is solid advice. I was lucky to have it early on. I put together a portfolio of print ads. Well-thought-out, well-written and well-designed ads. But just ads. Focus helped. Of course headhunters would still ask if I was a writer or an art director. And I would say: “I’m both. I’m happy to work as a writer or an art director as long as I work with good people.” This turned out to be a tall order for those whose only priority was to file me properly. A pink index card or a yellow index card along with my résumé and samples would remind a headhunter whether to send me on art director interviews or copywriter ones. I suggested that maybe they needed a third set of index cards. A new color, perhaps blue, for people like me. I never heard from them again. Luckily, it didn’t matter.
Within weeks of graduation I was freelancing at Cliff Freeman & Partners, Kirshenbaum Bond and TBWA Chiat/Day. But everything wasn’t rosy. My book didn’t get great responses from some of the larger agencies. Generally speaking, the more creatively driven an agency was, the more likely they were to want me. I got comments like too edgy, too designy and other such backhanded insults from places like Y&R, and the now-defunct NW Ayer, Bozell and D’Arcy. Someone from Hill Holliday yelled at me for having a headline that was too small for him to read. When I informed him that making the type small was a design decision intended to make the ad more interactive and that my hope was for him to lift the ad closer to his face like everyone else had, he growled. One of those condescending watch-your-tone-missy kind of growls.
The distinction between advertising and graphic design is not a natural one. In fact until you’re in art school, or in the field, it’s pretty murky what the difference between them really is. In simple terms, conceptual design is the basis on which a brand is created and conceptual advertising is the basis on which a brand is promoted and extended. When ideas in design and advertising happen simultaneously, big beautiful brands can be built from the ground up. The most obvious examples are Nike, Apple and most recently, Mini. It gives me hope to see that there are clients who believe in their products enough to invest in proper brand building with equal attention to design and advertising.
At the end of the day, the “target audience” for the communication pieces that we create, also known as the general public, will never know or care if an advertising agency designed a poster or a design studio. People watching television won’t know or care if a writer and designer team working in their basement produced a TV spot or if BBDO did it. They’ll either notice it or they won’t. They’ll laugh or they won’t. They’ll remember to buy the product it was for or they won’t. The message, the idea, and how it comes together in execution is all that matters, not the titles of the people who worked on it. How appropriate a piece of communication is for a client at a given time will always be more important than how cleverly written or well designed it is; knowing this and understanding it in a deep way matters. Being in a position to communicate ideas to the masses is being in a position of responsibility. Yeah, it’s fun but it’s also a privilege.
This is what both clients and we creatives need to continuously keep in mind: It’s not about us. Let me repeat that. It’s not about us. It’s about them: The viewers, readers, audiences, the people who’ll eventually see, hear, feel what it is we’re trying to communicate. We are the connectors. Not just writers, art directors and designers. The work we do affects the environment in which other people live. Our billboards become part of their daily landscape, our taglines become part of their vernacular, our commercials become references for their jokes.
I don’t know of any ad agencies in NYC that put conceptual design on equal footing with advertising. And I don’t know of any design firms that have a true respect for pure idea-centric advertising. Sure there are design departments within ad agencies, but they often reduce the role of designer to Mac monkey. And most design shops will only do advertising for the money if they absolutely have to—waiting until the last minute to hire a copywriter and fill in the blanks where a headline or some copy should go. Maybe that’s why the Mini’s core creative team is based in Florida, Apple’s is in Southern California and Nike’s is in Oregon.
Of course there are exceptions to the old models in NYC. I know because my company, Think Tank 3, is one of those exceptions. The company is still pretty young, but our theories and approach are tried and true at this point. Strategists, writers, designers, art directors and even a pooch named Zak eat at the same table at Think Tank 3. To me advertising or design doesn’t make sense, has never made sense, will never make sense. Advertising and design—now that makes sense. ca
Editor’s note: I was a major in Advertising Art at Parsons School of Design in 1966 but a year later, the department was renamed graphic design. And advertising and design were never spoken in the same breath again.—DK Holland