You can’t make people read, but you can make them want to

Notes on the shifting role of typography in advertising by Craig Ward

Over the last seven years working as a designer and typographer in a variety of advertising agencies above, below and through the line (whatever that is any­more), I’ve heard it said that good typography is invisible. That if a good typographer has done their job, you won’t know they’ve done anything at all. It’s true in many cases – and something I’ve riffed on in the past – but it’s no longer a maxim I’m comfortable in subscribing to. It’s time for typography to step up and move on.

Typography has always been perceived as something of a quiet art – a dark art even. Practiced by bespectacled men in darkened rooms, squinting at bezier curves on out-of- date monitors and using out-of-date software (miss you Fontographer). In earlier times, typography was the preserve of fastidious men such as Jan Tschichold and Eric Gill. Both were champions of clarity and legibility. It was something they strived for – partially because to achieve it with the printing equipment they had at the time was quite something. Neatness of line, crispness of form and the immediate recognition of each letter and the context it was placed in were their goals. It is something that has been taught in all (good) design schools for decades now and remains singularly the most important string in the designer’s bow. If you can’t work with type, you can’t call yourself a designer, it’s as simple as that. It sorts the wheat from the chaff, the dedicated few from the weekend Mac-jockeys, down­loading free Photoshop brushes and bad freeware fonts by the bucket-load.

‘Legibility’ is also a word that clients like and enjoy using. All the time. “I can’t read it. Make it bigger. It’s not legible enough.” It’s one of those little power displays that lets you know that they know some stuff about what you do – so don’t you dare try and blind them with science. Unfortunately, it’s a term they too often confuse with readability – which is something else entirely – and also something they place far too much emphasis on. A dozen or more times I’ve had ideas rejected for their ‘lack of legibility’, regardless of how interesting and intriguing they might be.

What has complicated things for the typographer is that everything moves now. Even posters. David Carson’s monograph may have been a little premature in proclaim­ing The End Of Print all those years ago – and with it, all the rules we have come to acknowledge and obey – but print has certainly taken to its bed with a mug of Lemsip. AdShells and billboards are being replaced by huge screens, full tv ads are being shown on cross-track project­ions on the underground. Everywhere you look, something is bouncing around trying to grab your attention. TV ads have always moved but now the little ones on the side of your browser window jump about and invade your screen space with full motion video and the like. Everything moves. A lot of the established rules have been cast aside in the rush to the screen,
and at some cost.

In what remains of print advertising there are still rules, visually speaking, but they often work against the typographer. Most are to do with the immediacy of communication, partic­ularly above the line (if there is still a line – the road becomes less clearly defined round these parts but that’s another essay entirely). Apparently you have less than five seconds to get your message across – hence your average D&AD annual will consist of dozens of variations on the ‘witty juxtaposition of images (visual one-liners such as brains made out of popcorn, two Weetabix making a heart shape, that kind of thing) plus logo and strap­line in the bottom right hand corner’ formula.

This is something else most clients are all too happy to tell you they know all about. They’ve had workshops to the effect. A man in a rollneck told them that it worked. And it creates a vicious circle. Students look at the annuals. Students see what wins the awards. Students think this is what advertising is all about and forget about writing copy. Thus, typography plays less and less of a role and I lose my job. Or become a retoucher.

I, for one, can’t be bothered to ‘get’ these visual puns anymore. They wash over me in the same way as sale signs, neon letter Xs in Soho and most things with skulls do. The problem, it seems, is that at some point, we have become ashamed to ask people to read what we’re saying. I had some work for a major book retailer rejected recently for being too wordy. A bookshop. Too wordy. Apparently, they’re having to dumb down in the face of increased competition from online retailers and need to get people through the door: clever posters in the windows scare people. When was being clever ever considered scary? I’ve received far too many briefs from creatives asking me to set the endline ‘as small as we can get away with’. It’s a tried and tested template for sure but, from a design point of view, it’s also tired and testing – and has made viewers and consumers visually lazy.

There will always be the few champions of the long-copy ad – a breed previously thought to be extinct but which enjoyed a brief revival recently, some­thing the recession has quickly snuffed out – but for the most part there is a tendency to take the easier way out in terms of concept and art direction. Pictures are easier to comprehend than words. It’s why books for young children are full of pictures. You’d think we’d grow out of it but apparently not.
I’d like to propose that we stop taking the easy way out. That we don’t ‘set it as small as we can get away with’. That creatives aren’t ashamed of being wordy or verbose and that, rather than assume people will only look at your ad for five seconds, give them something that they want to spend five minutes looking at and reading and understanding. What’s better? A perfectly legible and communicative poster that everyone can read but no one is inter­ested by, or a well put-together, interesting piece of typography that demands that you stop and look at it?

We’re all in the same boat here and only ideas will save us, so why not try something different? Some wordplay. A poem. A story. A statement. Say something about the brand you’re advertising. What have you got to lose? If no one’s buying anything, no clever juxtaposition of images is going to change their minds. If they listen they listen, if they don’t it’s clearly not for them.
I genuinely believe words can be as visually engaging as any image – if used and treated correctly – and a piece of typography that might not be immediately ‘legible’, may still turn out to be more effective at getting the right kind of people to stop and stare. Surely it’s better to connect with one consumer effectively than to have 20 consumers see your ad, get it and walk on? A picture may paint a thousand words, but conversely, with a thousand words, who needs pictures?

Craig Ward is a designer and typographer at ad agency CHI & Partners and is also represented by Debut Art.

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