Advertising Got Better

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Since 9/11, I've secretly measured the socioeconomic well-being of New York City by the advertising content and graphic design of the billboards on the Long Island Expressway between the Midtown Tunnel and the Greenpoint Avenue exit in Queens. I like seeing lots of billboards, and I want them to be filled with terrific ads.

I started doing this about two weeks after 9/11, when on the way out to Kennedy Airport I discovered that the billboards went away. I mean, the billboards were physically there, but the messages were gone. The billboards had been painted all white except for one that had a large stock image of a huge American flag blowing in the wind superimposed with "God Bless America" in some indiscernible serif font.

I don't want to diminish all the tragedy and horror of 9/11, but the blank billboards really sent the chilling message home to me that we were at war. The missing billboards meant that the current state of affairs was so unbelievably bleak that all consumerism, frivolity and excess, in any form, even the most necessary trade, were on hold until things became less dire.

The graphic design community has actually been advocating that for a long time: "Make advertising go away." The graphic design community doesn't like advertising; it thinks advertising's immoral. (It doesn't count book covers, CD covers, annual reports, magazine covers, corporate brochures, real estate brochures and promotions for cultural institutions as advertising). The American graphic design community likes to promote the First Things First 2000 petition that advocates that graphic designers forswear all advertising (except for non-profit organizations doing good works). I wish the entire American graphic design community could have driven to Kennedy that day after 9/11 and viewed that ghost town of blank billboards.

Then one by one, the billboards came back. It took at least eight months. First were the rather cheesy ones, local service ads with phone numbers on them, ads for electric companies and other utilities like cable TV, then hospitals. Later there were a few bank ads, and a few liquor ads. The ads got lusher; they had better photography. Then came the movie and theater ads, the really good consumer electronics ads and finally, fashion. I never knew how much I would miss them all.

But something else has happened post-9/11. I think advertising came back with a vengeance and got better. On the whole (with the exception of movie and theater advertising) ads are better designed than anytime I can remember since the sixties. The concepts are smarter, the layouts are more sophisticated, type choices are more appropriate, and art direction is more nuanced. Some agencies like Ogilvy and Wolff Olins have branding arms that give large graphic design firms a serious run for their money. And they've also competed with design firms by donating their branding services to local initiatives and cultural institutions (the Wolff Olins branding of the New Museum, etc.). They are doing it phenomenally well.

The best web site I've seen since 9/11 belonged to Leo Burnett. The best jokey web videos that get forwarded to me have all been hatched at advertising agencies like Crispin Porter + Bogusky. If you're a young interactive designer, advertising agencies have the strongest, most creative and innovative departments. Agencies like Goodby, Silverstein & Partners that always demonstrated a high level of craft in their advertising in the nineties are even better now. In the Art Director's Club annuals of the past five to seven years, the advertising section is much more vibrant and varied than the graphic design section. Even the billboards along the Long Island Expressway have gotten better. Perry Ellis, a clothing company whose logo I designed a while back had an ad campaign a year ago that relied on terrific illustration. There it was on the L.I.E.! A fashion company with a well-done illustrative billboard! Imagine that.

I don't exactly know why this has occurred. I know that graphic design students, for the first time in decades, are considering advertising agency jobs as viable. The talented design staffs of some web and interactive companies from the nineties that imploded, like MarchFirst, may have relocated at the better agencies. Also, some agencies have hired terrific graphic designers as creative directors, where formerly the creative directors would have come from the copy side of agency. My former design staffs, after leaving my employ, have traditionally gone into magazine design, book design, or worked at in-house art departments for entertainment media companies. In the past five years, several that have left have either freelanced for or taken jobs at advertising agencies. I can't remember that happening in over thirty years.

I'm not sure that the graphic design community as a whole is paying any attention to this. I don't see very many speakers from the advertising community invited to speak at design conferences (except for the very few who lead branding groups at agencies and in some circles they are still considered the enemy). I don't read about it on design blogs, and I'm not seeing books published about it. I'm not seeing advertising, in any form, turn up in any design museum exhibitions, not at the Modern, not at the Cooper-Hewitt. The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum has an annual designer award category for Communication Design and I've never seen an advertising person nominated since the award's inception.

How can the design community be so insular? Something has definitely changed here, and the design community is missing it. Too bad. Whatever the reason for the change, it's been fun, and a little unnerving, to watch.

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