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March 5, 2003
The Big Picture
 

"Typography is dead."

So say some creative directors about what they see in portfolios of recent graduates. "Not like portfolios of the past that demonstrated great sensitivity for typographic form. Today's graduates grind out print ads in a predictable format: no headlines, no body copy, perhaps only a tag line of four to six words. Completely visual. And their visual is most likely a photograph with the quality of a 'point and shoot' print from Walgreen's. A logo sits in the lower right hand corner. This is the typical ad in a student book!"

These CDs blame schools. Some blame the young people's love of the computer. I have a different theory. The creative directors and the students simply aren't getting the big picture.

Let me give the view from someone who's only 2 years away from 70 years old. I taught many of these same critical creative directors and I'm still teaching the young ones they're criticizing. So I speak from this experience that the young people graduating today are as talented as the creative directors complaining they aren't.

But, before I leak my secret theory, let me give you a history lesson. Let me begin with Ancient History when I started working in advertising agencies. Computers didn't exist. They weren't even a gleam in Bill Gate's father's eye. If we wanted to put type on a layout, we had to draw the type. Yes, draw the type. No xeroxes. Instead we found a type sheet with a complete alphabet, put the type sheet in an enlarger called a "luci" and traced the headline, letter by letter, enlarged onto a piece of tracing paper the size we wanted the type to appear. Then we traced the letter once again onto our layout, perhaps a photograph. Once traced, the letters then had to be painted by brush or pen into whatever color we wanted the type to be.

Perhaps all that tracing imprinted the typographic form into our brain. And since we were also lazy, we quickly learned four or five type faces very, very well and found that number would suffice for most of our ads. There was no font list of 300 faces we could click on a whim. Letter by letter -- remember, we formed each letter -- traced at least three times.

Undoubtedly the process of tracing the letterform actual size also gave us a head start on appreciating letterspacing (kerning). You simply moved the tracing paper closer or further away. You saw the impact; you used your hands to make the difference just as a sculptor carves a limestone angel. The same with line spacing. There was craftsmanship in art direction in the old days. And we had the tremendous advantage that at that time copywriters had a great respect for language. Headlines were incredibly funny, witty, sharp and compelling. People read ads in magazines. Ads were quoted at coffee breaks and cocktail parties.

Best of all, magazines were BIG. "Life" and "Look" were the size of posters nearly. You didn't need a magnifying glass to see the nipples in a National Geographic story of tribal women. Today all magazines have shrunk to paperbook size.

Now let's return to present day, Let me contrast how young people today approach typography and layout. They're actually at a great disadvantage. They spend all their time looking at a screen that is approximately 10 or 12 inches square. They're literally looking into a light tunnel, a small screen filled with rulers, boxes, tabs, and windows. The space left for viewing type is not much. Type is tiny. Today's art direction students never really see the beauty of a particular letterform. And sadly they can pull down a font window and immediately access 300 to 500 type faces of mostly junk. And they can use this type instantaneously without knowing or caring anything about it. A kind of "fucking and forgetting."

In the meantime, no one is writing copy for ads. Copywriters own the same computers but use them only to write taglines that stand a 20 percent chance of ever showing up in an ad.

We've known about this state of affairs at Miami Ad School. And we've added additional type classes, beat up art directors, begged the writers to write? screamed, bribed and cried. I love type. I wish my students -- all students everywhere loved type.

But, then we had a happy surprise. When we gave students editorial design assignments, the typography was marvelous. Like the old days, like ancient history. And another surprise when I required my portfolio students to print their weekly soccer poster assignments in gigantic size. I made them "tile" their printouts so they were producing posters of 4 feet or so. Remarkably, they saw immediately the terrible error of their terrible typography. SIZE MATTERS! Very quickly, their typography dramatically improved. They began to integrate type with illustration and photography in ways they had never dreamed.

I feel so strong about this "size" theory that we are beginning a major change in our computer classrooms. We're starting a program of replacing rows of computers with small screens with the largest monitors we can find and afford.

But there's more to the big picture than big screens. Advertising, particularly print advertising has discovered the big picture. Advertising is also very different than even just a few years back. The internet has changed forever the need for print ads to have a lot copy. If we want information on a product, we'll go to the web and get everything we could possibly want to know. Print ads, like a lot of other media, now are purely entertainment. And they have become purely visual.

So, here's a radical thought. Do we even need type any longer? Has type gone the way of illuminated manuscripts of Medieval days? Maybe we just don't have time to read. We look at pictures instead. Why not? Look at the work of Brazilians like Marcel Serpa. Masterpieces of visual expression. The work of TBWA Hunt Lescaris in South Africa. The work of Crispin Porter Bogusky in Miami. All visual. Perhaps my favorite visual ad of all time was done by Clare McNally, (now a teacher for Miami Ad School in Amsterdam) at TBWA Hunt Lescaris. The ad is simply an infinity sign drawn by a Pic pen. It's a perfect ad. Doesn't need a single word.

Visual ads are winning all the awards. I picked a copy of the brand new Art Directors Annual #81 and skipped to the print ad section. Fourteen out of the 19 pages were all-visual ads. Two other pages were 99.9% visual. You want'a know something? I'm a copywriter and I didn't miss a thing.

On the other hand two pages of the non-visual ads were the long copy Range Rover ads. I'm pleased to say the copywriter, Michael Buss, is a graduate of Miami Ad School. And on Friday, two of our students were notified their work was accepted in the Type Directors Club Annual. Out of 2, 300 entries from 28 countries, only 240 were accepted into the annual. There's always room for genius, trend-busters and rule-breakers. That's advertising.


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Few people have shaped the world of advertising like Ron Seichrist. As Founder of The Portfolio Center and The Miami Ad School, Ron has influenced many of the world's top creative talents. Seichrist continues to find new ways to train students, placing them in internships at agencies worldwide. Talent Zoo is proud to present a lesson from Ron. information@adschool.edu

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