Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

We're All Stellar Designers, Now

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.

Comments [21]

That's certainly true of print advertising, where the cost involved doesn't really allow you to finely target niche groups - say, InDesign users, outside of any official Adobe InDesign magazine. How to differentiate between in-house designers, freelancers, specialty houses, small do-it-all agencies and large?

This is really where Internet advertising (and soon, digital television and one day, e-paper) comes into play, theoretically offering only the most relevant ads to the proper audiences. However, this only works if the advertisers have enough information to begin with, and most people just won't give up that information.

People tend to not follow through with lengthy telephone surveys (rendering them statistically invalid), neither do they fill in all the demographic information on sign-up pages, etc. Privacy is important, but we cannot lament bad, scattershot advertising that doesn't "speak to us" if we never let advertisers know who "we" are.

There's a certain magazine genre known as "aspirational" -- meaning the reader is of lesser status than the magazine appears to aim for. Seventeen magazine is actually mostly read by fourteen-year-olds. Playboy is not actually read by anyone who lives the Playboy lifestyle.

I would be interested to know what percentage of the subscriber base of the big design mags is made up of non-designers. I've met many marketing types who buy them for reference/information/swipe files, and those marketing people often have access to the budget that pays for fonts and stock photography. So perhaps the advertising is accurately aimed at non-creatives who want to feel part of the creative process, and have lots of money to spend on creative tools.
Pat Broderick

Its always been strange that mindless, bland, and astoundingly awful design ends up in mostly strong design magazines. Most ads seems to be created in some hack's basement in the spare time between finishing the Great American novel and selling Amway.

To be fair, publications rely on advertising far more than those who spend the five bucks to buy the magazine. They are hamstrung because of the fear that, if they turn an advertiser away, that advertiser will simply find another magazine to hock their wares. There is always another magazine willing to take the cash, right?

However, if such magazines as Dwell, an arcitecture and industrial design magazine, only allow such poorly designed adverts in the back, why can't Print? They're both eye-candy and each have heavy subscription bases in the design world. Is there really that much of a difference in subscription numbers and mass appeal that allows Dwell to regulate what is placed between articles and not Print?

Most of us tend to spend quite a bit on printed materials and, until recently, there was little choice but to frown, shake our collective heads, and flip the page. This is why such publications as Dot, Dot, Dot are on the rise. These publications forego advertising altogether, thus ensuring the editors can create an oasis where design can be presented and discussed in any manner they choose, to any length they choose, and at any depth they deem necessary. Its the NPR business model of publication and it works. Yes, they are far more expensive than Print or HOW, but worth it.

Next time you pick up a magazine, ask youself if the content outweighs the detritus. If so, make peace with it and move on. If not, seek out other worthwhile pubs that inspire and entice you to do better work.
James D. Nesbitt

Aren't the people making these ads also designers? Perhaps they are just not as good as some of the rest. Maybe it's good to have the mundane as a kind of field for the superb to stand out on. But maybe they aren't designers at all, and are just stylists.

I've long been fascinated (and repelled) by the bizarre, patronizing "Hey, Creative Superstar!" tone of these ads. I actually think the problem isn't (or isn't just) that the ads are done by hacks.

Rather they're done with great enthusiasm by agencies who eagerly seize a chance to communicate to — finally! — an appreciative audience: real "creative" people. Then, freed of the rigors and limitations that would be imposed by any responsible widget manufacturer, the agencies, predicably, choke. The audience research must take the form of creative teams sitting in a room saying, "What do these people really want? They want to be famous creative people — like us!" For a long time I thought that those audiences really existed somewhere, but I have yet to meet anyone who fits the spec.

The exact same thing is true for so many call for entry posters sent out by organizations like the New York Art Directors Club or the D&AD. Awful and embarrassing.
Michael Bierut

What are you saying Michael? You don't want to "Pimp" your cube? Its a very valid point. How are we to hopefully impact this situation when we can't even communicate with ourselves? This year the ADC's theme reflected popular culture—a fading sector of it at that—instead of critiquing it. I'm a proud, card-carrying member, but they missed the mark.

Many thanks for the observation.
James D Nesbitt

i agree that the tone of the advertisements is rather sophmoric and the graphics frequently are uninspired. However i HAVE met folks for whom the 'hey you fabulous designer you' tone does meet with appreciation. I've encountered a lot of prima donnas and I do think that this crap does play well with the 'my vision transcends the ADA, building code, the realities of construction and even physics itself'. Go to any architectural lecture and watch the people there preening in their appreciation as true designers of true design. Even here in Phoenix, one need only look for the architects clad in black 'east coast' clothing strutting around, even when the outside temperature is pizza oven hot.

However this advertising is a profound improvement over the past. When i was in arch school (late eighties/early nineties) we were gifted with many old sweets catalogs. We kept a wall of shame where we posted ads from the late 70s early 80s. They were usually in two catagories - naked women and naked children. To look at that assortment one would have to assume marketers thought that their subjects were letches and pediphiles.

I find the 'hey you fabulous design demigod' tone a great improvement over the previous trends....

If I remember correctly, "Dot Dot Dot" does actually have ads or, shall I say, paid product placement. But they don't allow the "advertisers" to design their ads. They are presented generically in the (lovely) style of the journal itself in the back pages. Don't have one in front of me, but that's how I remember it, at least. Interesting strategy that always struck me as classy.
Sol Sender

The newspaper & the (larger than ever) TV Guide seem capable of executing print runs that directly target me, or at least my ZIP code. Upon receiving a traffic citation, it doesn't seem like the law firms that flood my US mailbox with their spam have any trouble doing print runs directly targeting me. So why can't my design magazines do the same, or at least make an effort when my subscription data clearly spells out significant demographic information?

That being said, I'm surprised at how repelled I am by mass market advertising that not only targets but hits my demographic. The current Scion campaign for example. The car is monstrous, but the motion graphics! The pointless accessories! Or when I go to Starbucks and sneer at the licensed ambient audio - until I hear a tune by someone like Kate Bush, and only later realize just how quantifiable my "personal aesthetic" actually is.

It may be that targeted advertising often has the opposite effect than is intended simply because it holds the mirror too close?
Gary R Boodhoo

It is indeed a compelling phenomenon, bad design targeted at good designers. And it doesn't appear to be limited to ads in the design press or call for entry posters. I can think of several books about design that are designed so poorly it makes one weep. Meggs' History of Graphic Design is a prime example of this (I'm thinking of the third edition, although I hear the 4th isn't too hot either), which is laid out like a stale, uninspired text book, and is doubly guilty for having some of the worst editing I've ever seen. The content itself is invaluable, but the design leaves much to be desired.
Josh B

Certainly design magazines run their share of ads that miss the mark by trying to appeal to designers with cliched flattery, but are these really any worse than the hackneyed stereotypes that advertising generally expects us to embody?

My bank has decided that since I'm a creative person, I deserve a creative checking account. And how is my demographic represented in the brochure? By the same incomprehensible tableau that's evolved slowly over the past thirty years: to my bank, I am that stock photo of an attractive young Asian woman in cat glasses and a black turtleneck, shot at a rakish angle in front of a rack of color pencils, a stack of marker comps (hello), a swing-arm lamp, and a dress form. In the background of her all-purpose creative business, there's usually a photoshoot going on, and there may be a collection of vintage toys. We can tell she's someone just like us because somewhere on her whiteboard walls, someone has written "meeting with client 2:00" and "project due today!", and nothing else. OMG just like our studios!!!!!

Note that she has neither a phone nor a computer, because the bank doesn't really regard hers as a genuine business in the traditional sense. This is why they don't think to offer her their payroll service, investment counseling, compliance guidelines for her employee profit sharing plan, a line of credit, or a merchant service account for her website. However, she can get Performance Plus Checking Select, especially for the Small Business Owner.

Perhaps the real failure of advertising cliches -- whether it's from stock photo houses or banks -- is the failure to recognize what people genuinely need. Bad rhetoric is usually a sign that someone can't articulate their product's virtues.
Jonathan Hoefler

The dull and uninspiring ads that clog up the design press can at least be partly explained by the smallness of the designer market. Why assume as many of the posts to this thread assume that designers as a group are any smarter, more astute, more critical, or even more or less blase then any other group? As the post states we really do get the design advertising we deserve. Most of us, designers and otherwise, are needy, in desperate need of flattery, and desire a pat on the back now and then. Some of us are even educated by the content in the ads. The advertisers work very hard to speak to us, have a good sense of our moods, fantasies and desires and I suspect mostly succeed, or shift their advertising strategy to something even dumber.
Bernard Pez

I bought my first ever stock (shares, not photos) in Adobe this past year, and I was delighted when I received Adobe's simple annual report which profiled four real people who use their products. They managed to go across a solid range of users and reveal new insight into how various people use their software without falling back on cliched black-sweater caricatures of "creatives." To me, it was a serious breath of fresh air. Of superstar crazy-creative air!
Ryan Nee

Certainly the designers putting these ads together share much of the blame for their mediocrity. However, I do design work for a stock photography company which advertises in design pubs and often the client will choose a much "safer" option and try to communicate too much to too many people, thus rendering the ad ineffective.

On a purely aesthetic level the ads need to be "cool" to appeal to designers and often what is "cool" makes no sense to the client. Companies that want to sell to designers need to trust the designer's instinct as to what will sell to designers.
Travis Cain

Just got back from a seminar presented by Daniel Dejan (of SAPPI) and can honestly say the last good ad I saw in a design magazine was their ad promoting the booklet "Life With Print."

(Hope that doesn't come off as a plug. But it was a good presentation and a good book for my shelf here at work.)

Also, with regard to advertisers in general, I've heard they will put ads where they expect to get the most return on investment -- meaning, they do a lot of research before they place an ad so they get the most "bang for their buck." As far as the quality of ads, I hate most of them anyway. So I don't feel patronized by them in design magazines anymore than I do in Esquire, my local newspaper, the Web or on TV.

As stated previously, the money guys have the final say and most of them play it extremely safe and conservative (or "PC") because they are afraid.

Just my thoughts on the whole subject. Great topic.

Joe M.
Joe Moran

Just found this article in Business Week. Interesting.
Joe Moran

As far as the quality of ads, I hate most of them anyway. So I don't feel patronized by them in design magazines anymore than I do in Esquire, my local newspaper, the Web or on TV.

I agree. One thing I'll add is that while, say, a fast food chain's ad in Entertainment Weekly can be the very model of economical cool - a juicy photo with pared down headline and dainty logo in lower ight corner - most of the ads for stock and print services in design magazines feel obligated to include the sort of detail that runs the work to ground - price points, specs and sizes, and announcements of special promotions. They are constrained to an odd and in-between "trade retail" model, and not a strict "retail" or "fine design" model.

"The same (dumb advertising) thing is true for so many call
for entry posters sent out by organizations like the New York Art
Directors Club " - Beirut

Oh Snap. Havent you designed a few of these ADC posters, Michael? I realise last year's "Rono-Bling Mac Donald" caught some flack (most notably from Steve Heller on AIGA's Journal) but does it really stop there? I railed Myrna Davis (ADC
executive director) on that particular blog but nonetheless
actually considered entering it's show. I didn't, and was rewarded: later, 2 of the 11 awards given in the illustration category went to Myrna's husband (and ADC co-chair judge) Paul Davis.

Oh, thats rich. (btw- nothing against Paul's talent- as a judge I gave him a gold in last year's Society of Illustrator show.)
felix sockwell

Why don't you guys spend a little less time ranting and a bit more time doing great creative. The notion that D&AD creates 'embarassing work' disgusts me, you clearly would not recognise good work if it climbed up the ladder to your self-imposed pedestal and slapped you round your ever swelling head. There is no such thing as the right opinion, so whilst I appreciate your views do not preach as if you are the 'design beholder' you have no right
Adam R

The advertisements in those magazines which are not of a particularly good quality (and there are a lot whose meaning and purpose is lost amongst the showcasing of product) isn't meant for 'good' designers or exceptional ones.

It's meant for that huge population of readers who want to be good designers. And as such it is usually put together by businesses who cut corners by not hiring a talented designer.

These are usually businesses who are trying to provide the tools for those who want to save time and money and try to save time and money by doing the layout and design themselves.


Adam R just to say thank you for making me post a "rant" attacking your rant against "ranting".

Why don't you spend a little less time ranting and a bit more time acknowledging differing positions. The notion that D&AD creates 'embarassing work' makes me laugh, you clearly do not recognise critical positions when they're posted as comments on the Design Observer blog. There is such a thing as being critical, so whilst I do not appreciate your views, continue to preach as if you are the 'design beholder,' we have to defend that right.
Design Beholder

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