Hip to Be Square

Creatives lately seem to be taking a cue from Huey Lewis—it looks like it’s hip to be square. Or, more accurately, full of squares.

Boxes, split screens and layered images have been popping up everywhere, in all shapes and sizes. AT&T’s latest effort, “Faces,” shows a split screen that brings together images of two people, while Honda’s “Best Friends” uses a split screen to compare its cars to their owners’ faces. Then there’s Hewlett-Packard’s “You,” touting its digital cameras, which uses moving, morphing squares, and Monster’s “Today,” in which a collage of images fills the screen.

Boxes and squares in ads certainly aren’t new—they’ve been around since the first TV commercials, when a split screen was used to compare the merits of two different brands. And the square-within-a-square technique has been a longtime staple in film, from 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair to 2000’s Time Code, which used four boxes to follow four different scenes. But multiple images seem to be multiplying in ads, and they’re being used in new ways. In “You,” for example, scenes dissolve as squares peel off from them, revealing another image underneath.

One theory for their newfound popularity is that it’s technology driven. “I call it the ‘Quarkification’ of commercials,” says Sally Hogshead, a freelance creative director in Los Angeles. “Most art directors these days were raised on Quark. Instead of first designing a layout on paper, they go straight to the computer. Quark leans toward a linear, boxy structure, which means our design, and even our concepts, do as well. It’s a case of technology influencing thinking instead of merely conveying it.”

John Norman, the Goodby, Silverstein & Partners creative director who worked on “You,” credits his graphic-design background with inspiring his boxy aesthetic. “Grid systems, to me, have been around forever,” he says, suggesting the boxes are a backlash against the high-end CGI look. “[The boxes in “You”] were something very geometric and simple and fresh for us.”

The boxes serve a purely practical purpose as well—”You” is, after all, about taking pictures. But creatives originally considered other visual solutions. One idea was to show a series of still pictures moving from left to right across the screen. But that “felt a little bit cold,” Norman says. “It was like seeing a [photo] album go by—it didn’t play.” Instead, Norman says, the layered imagery allowed the commercial to “pull off digital photos without looking digital” and focus on the “humanity” of the spot, directed by François Vogel of Tool.

Another reason creatives may be seeing squares is that a lot more information can be conveyed at once. “It goes back to time and space,” says Angus Wall, an editor at Rock Paper Scissors in Los Angeles. Wall edited last year’s “Bubble Boy” for Volkswagen, out of Arnold in Boston, which used an array of boxed images onscreen—four pictures of clocks, for example—to convey the similarity of an office worker’s days.

Squares allow stories to be told in two different ways, Wall says: They can show a linear progression or two separate moments. The approach worked for “Bubble Boy,” because it was a way to show time elapsing without having to do it linearly, Wall says.

Sometimes, squares just naturally fit a spot’s concept. In Honda’s “Best Friends,” Santa Monica, Calif.-based RPA wanted to compare people and their “lookalike” cars. “I don’t think we set out to do the squares; it was more the idea of having the cars and the people on the screen at the same time,” says svp Joe Baratelli, co-creative director and art director on the ad. “It was a simple solution to break up the screen that way.”

Rick Lawley of Whitehouse in Santa Monica, the editor on the spot, says the split screen was the most obvious way to go for a “side-by-side, direct analogy.” While other solutions were considered, the team kept coming back to the squares approach. “It makes it very frank, confrontational, graphic,” Lawley says.

In Monster’s “Today,” several boxes showing a scene unfolding were a way to complement the spot’s multiple voiceovers. The ad shows people getting ready to go to work as voices ask questions such as, “Will today be the day that starts the rest of your days?” and “The day you don’t hit snooze?” Just as the voices are layered on top of each other, some images overlap others.

“We wanted to put a lot of visual information in,” says Bryan Black, svp, group creative director and copywriter at Deutsch in New York. “Visually, it was an expression of the words the way [the squares] came up on the screen, so it seemed appropriate.”

Whether squares will keep multiplying or a backlash (circles?) will begin, the look will likely never fade completely. As Black says, admitting another reason he brought in the boxes: “I can’t lie—it’s cool looking.”