Reframing the action

An innocuous black frame does the hard work in this great ad for the British Army

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I write this whilst flying over Kabul, Afghanistan. Thankfully, at 30,000 feet and I assume out of range of Taliban surface-to-air missiles.

But naturally, thoughts turn to the horrors of war. Even more so because I’m on the way back from the Semi-Permanent conference in Sydney where I had the privilege of seeing photojournalist Ben Lowy talk about his experiences as a war photographer in Iraq.

He made a particularly brilliant series of images titled Iraq -Perspectives 1 photographed from the inside of armoured vehicles whilst travelling with the US military. Each shot features the war zone outside but is surrounded by
black, framed by the shape of the armoured Humvee’s inches-thick bullet-proof window. A neat illustration of the US public and military personnel’s distant, detached perspective on the country.

So what’s all this got to do with an ad from the 1990s by Saatchi & Saatchi? Well you’ve obviously spotted that this excellent recruitment ad for the British Army employs the same visual technique. How often does that happen? For once, the ad agency does it first. It’s testament to the power of this art direction that a great photojournalist later had the same idea, albeit with slightly different intentions.

But back to the ad. We all know the bravery of the British Army. And we now realise that the bravery extends to buying advertising.

In fact when first presented with this idea, Brigadier Rory Clayton apparently said “I wouldn’t ask you how I should run the British Army. So I don’t intend to tell you how to do your advertising or art direction.” Other clients please take note.

It turned out that the greatest threat to this art direction came from people within the agency who considered the prevalence of black as being too funereal (oh yes, we get our own ‘friendly fire’ in ad agencies – places where, bizarrely, creative people are hopelessly outnumbered).

But of course without all that black, we lose a great art direction idea. Imagine how boring the layout would be if the photograph was simply squared off with a panel for the type and logo.

Yes it’s an impactful image by itself but the window framing technique makes it even more powerful. And eye-catching. Because it’s unusual. But also relevant.
And that’s exactly what good art directors do. The black area also gives us somewhere to reverse out the great headline and place the logo, ensuring maximum legibility. And that means that the headline does not have to be too big, fighting with and almost certainly reducing the impact of the photograph.

Credit must also go to the client for not insisting on a ridiculously big logo. It’s just fine as it is. If the viewer cares about the ad they’ll obviously notice the logo – it doesn’t have to be huge – when will clients understand this simple principle?

Two more features contribute to this fabulous art direction. The sliver of light from the second window, top right is compositionally weird but wonderful. And also the way in which the end-line and phone number have been justified and bolted to the logo. This turns three elements into one.

Again, simplifying the layout and maximising its impact.

Great job.

Paul Belford is the founder of London-based agency Paul Belford Ltd. His work can be found at and he tweets from @belford_paul. More of photographer Ben Lowy’s work is at

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