In her book The Substance of Style, author Virginia Postrel notes that "Worldwide, at least fifty graphic design magazines publish regularly." Postrel wrote this in 2003; it seems likely that the number will have risen since then. There's an interesting Design Observer post to be written about the current state of the various graphic design journals from around the world. But this isn't it. Instead, I want to address something slightly more insidious: advertising in design magazines that's aimed at designers.
Pick up any design magazine highbrow or lowbrow and the ads strike an oddly discordant note. They seem to be addressing a slightly different world from the one addressed by the magazines in which they appear. Ads in the design press tend to be anodyne and patronising, especially in the way they speak about 'creativity' a concept bandied about as if it were a new wonder-ingredient in breakfast cereal. Put it this way: if one of the primary tasks of the design press is to seek out interesting work to feature in its editorial pages, then it's hard to imagine much advertising aimed at designers ever being featured. It's just not good enough.
Why is this? Surely a visually literate target audience might be expected to attract visually literate advertising? You'd have thought that the picture libraries, software vendors, educational establishments, illustration agencies and business services who regularly advertise in the design press would create advertising that tapped into the spirit of contemporary graphic design. Yet this is rarely the case.
In a recent issue of Print there were a total of 13 adverts for picture libraries (a mixture of double page spreads and single pages.) The same issue also carried ads for printing services, paper companies and hardware manufacturers. One or two of the advertisers created ads that exhibited a bit of panache and adopted a tone that seemed to acknowledge that they were talking to a sophisticated and media-savvy audience. But the majority didn't.
A stock library called Inmagine treated us to a full-page ad featuring five immaculately styled über-business types. Here was the award-winning sales-team from some go-go business: a band of young and spotlessly good-looking spreadsheet warriors who'd clearly just won 'sales team of the month.' We see them punching the air with choreographed delight. A headline screams 'Winning Edge!' It's a depressingly clichéd advertisement.
A few pages earlier, a company called Modern Postcard promotes a direct mail and postcard printing service for designers. It's easy to imagine this as an attractive proposition for small studios struggling to promote themselves. Yet the ad features a highly styled picture of a glamorous woman a Sandra Bullock lookalike photographed in, of all things, a wind tunnel. A bold headline announces 'Your ideas are fearless' while the body copy assumes an even more ingratiating tone: "You're a stellar design guru. Able to conjure up mind-blowing ideas without breaking sweat."
Is this the language that advertisers think will appeal to designers? Do they imagine designers will be flattered by being addressed as stellar design gurus? I suspect most designers will feel patronised, rather than flattered. Of course, by saying this, I'm doing what the advertisers are doing: I'm assuming I know the audience I'm targeting. I'm assuming that because I'm patronised by this hyperbolic language, other designers will be, too. Yet how can I possibly know? Perhaps what I'm complaining about is advertising in general, and its lamentable tendency to treat great portions of the population as if they're comprised of duped individuals, or clones.
The dull and uninspiring ads that clog up the design press can at least be partly explained by the smallness of the designer market. It's doubtful if the combined spending power of graphic designers amounts to more than a tiny blip in the in the charts of hard-nosed media buyers and consequently, design journals tend to attract low-grade advertising. Poor ads in the design press also make us think about the symbiotic relationship between advertising and graphic design. After all, it is likely that these ads are executed by graphic designers working in ad agencies.
Advertisers both clients and agencies will point out that advertising can't be personal, that it has to take a buckshot approach. They'll say that the market decides what sort of advertising any particular sector gets. Yet advertising in the design press is surely different. To produce these ads, advertisers inevitably use the tools, tropes and attributes of graphic design. Advertisers are targeting an audience that will look at their ads with hypercritical and informed eyes. They'll sniff out the half-baked, the clichéd, and the patronising.
Perhaps it's just that when advertising is targeted specifically at me, I fail to recognise the 'me' that's being targeted. Perhaps we only recognise advertising's lack of precision when we're its intended audience. Perhaps we get the advertising we deserve.