Grand Designs

As we all know, copywriters no longer just write copy and art directors don’t just art direct. The blurring of disciplines and work processes has been a big part of the evolution of ad making in recent years, particularly as advertising has moved beyond traditional media formats to become more complex and multidimensional. If you’re trying to create a rich experience or develop an expansive platform — and these days, what brand doesn’t want that? — then a clever line and a nice layout won’t necessarily get you there.
 
What does get you there? In a word, design. More and more, today’s marketing campaigns are starting to resemble complex design projects. Think of NikePlus or, more recently, the Pepsi Refresh Project. Or consider just about any campaign with lots of diverse moving parts. Design is what connects all those parts to create synthesis.
 
Which is why, as the ad business struggles to come up with new ways to describe what it does, we must not underplay the importance of the “d” word. However an agency may choose to label itself (“We’re not ad guys, we’re branded content creators”), it wouldn’t hurt for everyone in the business to begin thinking of themselves, at least on some level, as designers.

For many in advertising, this may require a radical shift in how they perceive and define “design.” Historically, ad agencies have thought of design in a limited sense — mostly in terms of logos, packaging and typefaces. The designer has been seen as the slightly fussy person down the hall who puts the final decorative tweaks on an idea.
 
But today’s cutting-edge companies know that design, in the larger sense, is not just about decoration. It’s a methodology and an approach to creative problem solving that can ultimately produce innovation. The process varies among designers, but there are some shared key principles and practices that include:
 
 • Questioning basic assumptions

 • Using lateral thinking to come up with fresh ways of doing things

 • Using deep-dive empathic research to probe how consumers are living today and what they really need

 • Testing and refining new ideas through constant prototyping
 
The endeavor to better understand and utilize this process, sometimes referred to as “design thinking,” has emerged as a major trend in business. CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, MBA programs, a wave of new books — are all engaged in an important conversation about design thinking.
 
But the ad industry has been largely absent from this conversation. Many ad people I’ve spoken with are not familiar with design thinking, nor with basic design principles. And they’re only vaguely aware of the more central role design is playing in business today.
 
I think there are two reasons why the ad business should give itself a crash course in design. No. 1, if ad agencies are not part of the current conversation on design that’s going on at client companies, then they will not be part of the design-driven transformation of those companies (and that transformation is already under way at powerhouses like Procter & Gamble).

 
Secondly — and maybe more important — people at agencies can learn a lot from design thinking as they tackle the ongoing challenge of reinventing advertising. As old models and formats give way to new ones, ad creators now find themselves having to constantly come up with fresh ways of delivering messages — through viral films, social networking platforms, an endless array of guerrilla stunts. The continuous invention of new forms is something designers have always done. And so it makes sense to employ the same rapid prototyping approaches used in design, while also embracing the designer’s willingness to experiment, test, learn and to always “fail forward” by drawing lessons from flawed prototypes that lead to refinement and progress.

Connecting is just as important as inventing: The more variations on ads are designed, the more critical it becomes that all the pieces of an increasingly complex campaign work together, cohesively. For marketers, this ability to successfully orchestrate diverse elements — a basic design skill — is a key to developing holistic consumer experiences.
 
What else can advertisers learn from designers? Everything in that four-part process previously described is relevant — starting with the need to question the most fundamental assumptions of the ad business (as in, what do our clients really need from us now?). Advertisers can also learn from the ways designers focus on human needs. Of course, the ad business has always been good at figuring out what people desire, but responding to what they might actually need — e.g., ad messages that are more informative, useful, customized, delivered in media formats that fit more comfortably with someone’s daily life — represents a very different challenge.

But it all starts with getting a better handle on what design is really all about. It’s time for ad people to recognize that design isn’t just about style, and that the designer isn’t just that guy down the hall. The designer is you.

Warren Berger is a consultant and author of Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Business, Your Life, and Maybe Even the World. He can be reached at warren@warrenberger.com.