Standing out

Rejecting received wisdom usually results in work that stands out from the pack.
I know because I’ve tried it, says Paul Belford

heroinsml_0.jpg - Standing out - 7142

Arse, crap, dickhead, wasted, heroin. I wonder how many clients would buy copy containing those words? They’re not gratuitous. Shocking, yes, but also relevant and powerful in this context.

And they’re there to make the ad more memorable.

Oh, no-one reads copy you say? Arse, I say. Depends on the copy.

I worked on this campaign for the Big Issue Foundation with writer Nigel Roberts. And when this poster went up on the London Underground, I used to watch people reading it. Every single word.

But never mind the body copy, what about the headline? Surely a 29-word headline on a poster is asking for trouble?

And it might help if the headline actually made sense? Seriously, most clients would have laughed you out of the room by now.

But it does make sense of course. It’s a great way of using words to dramatise drug addiction. And once you’re hooked by the headline, there’s a good chance you’re going to read the rest of it. No escape.

Especially when your opening gambit is ‘you’re freezing your arse off in some doorway…’, who could resist? The peaks in the copy that keep you addicted include ‘it’s a holiday for your brain but it’s only a short trip…’ and ‘some dickhead in a duffel coat who’s read a couple of Irvine Welsh books…’.

My job as art director was to do everything possible to make sure that this ad was read. So it seemed like a good idea to make the body copy as big as the headline. And the same bold weight as the headline.

In a millisecond this says to the viewer that this is important stuff.

Making the headline red catches the eye and differentiates it as the headline. But then, without missing a beat, we’re straight into the copy.

Received wisdom would have said make the headline bigger and have at least a bit of a gap between the headline and the copy to give the eye a rest.

It would also have said put some paragraphs in the copy to break it up a bit. I very rarely pay any attention to received wisdom. It tends to make your work invisible, just like everyone else’s.
Unwise, surely?

In a rare lapse, I actually did try it with paragraphs but it suddenly looked polite and normal. It somehow lost its urgency and gravitas. But a poster entirely full of dense copy would have been just too much. Hence the top and side margins. Creating a useful contrast that really helps the words stand out.

And now the truly controversial bit. There’s no logo because I strongly believe that it’s more likely to get read without a Big Issue logo on it. The client agreed.

Whilst the imagery here is not a major element in the layout, it is important. The apparent random positioning of discarded needles (‘photographed’ on a cheap flatbed scanner) again, adds a useful visual contrast to the dense regimented copy.

So there you have it. Hopefully a few useful arguments to use next time some sod in a suit who’s read a couple of marketing textbooks is trying to ruin your work.

Paul Belford is the founder of advertising, graphic design and digital agency Paul Belford Ltd, based in London. He tweets from @belford_paul. His work can be seen at

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