The medium is the message

This cosy, unfashionable ad is in fact a radical piece of art direction and a masterclass in removing visual clutter

It’s a common misconception that great art direction has to be in some way graphically flashy or photographically flashy. It doesn’t.

What it should be is appropriate and eye-catching. But it shouldn’t try too hard. And it certainly shouldn’t get in the way of the message. Graphic fireworks or a reliance on adopting the latest fashionable style will more often than not distract from the message, not help it. And may actually make your ad blend in with all those other fashionable-looking ads out there.

But of course that’s not to say that art direction shouldn’t be brave and break rules – that’s certainly a big part of being eye-catching.

This simple layout by Ron Brown for Chivas Regal actually breaks quite a few rules. For example, there’s no logo. I bet you didn’t even notice.

Well, there is a logo of course. It’s on the bottle. So we don’t really need another one in the bottom right-hand corner.

But never mind the lack of logo, there’s a distinct lack of headline. A copy ad without a headline. Unusual to say the least. Radical even. Well, is ‘To Dad’ a headline? Not really. It’s more a nice, relevant addition to the photograph. And it certainly isn’t in a bigger, bolder typeface sitting above the copy.

This is a really important lesson in art direction. It often makes sense to reduce the number of elements in the layout. If any of the type can be somehow incorporated into the visual, great. If the logo can be incorporated into the visual as well, even better.

And one of the trickiest things to handle in drinks ads like this one is the dreaded packshot. Not because bottles are intrinsically ugly, or the art director has an irrational desire to hide the product. But because they’re so damned clichéd and scream, ‘I’m an ad, ignore me’.

So what has the art director done here? He’s not only removed the logo and the headline, he’s replaced the visual with a giant packshot. Or, more accurately, turned a brilliantly photographed packshot into the visual. An elegant manoeuvre that does away with the little bottle in the lower right-hand corner, yet keeps the client more than happy.

And ta da! What could have been a layout containing five elements (visual, headline, body copy, packshot, logo) becomes a layout containing just two elements. Magic.

Getting all the clutter out of the way so we can concentrate on what’s important. The message. And what a message it is. Wonderful copy by David Abbott that demands to be read. Not ignored like all the other ads.

So how does the art director help the reader? By making the copy big and bold. Not hiding it away like inconsequential grey lines at the bottom of the page.

In this instance the typesetting is perhaps slightly dated. Funny isn’t it though? How something so unfashionable can be so easy on the eye. So easy in fact that I defy anyone who starts to read this copy to not finish it. Testament not only to the skill of the writer but also the art director.

And isn’t it strange, given the lovely, comfy, elegant feel of the ad, when you think about it, it’s actually a pretty unconventional, subversive piece of art direction?

So art directors don’t care about the words? Hmm… another common misconception.

Paul Belford is the founder of creative agency Paul Belford Ltd, Details of his D&AD art direction session, Art Directing the Idea, at

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