Wandering around the entries of print advertising displayed at the AdFest in Thailand (6th-8th March 2014), I was struck by the amount of illustration. For a long time, I feared illustration (within advertising) in Asia would never take off but here it was in full glory. Art directors and designers have been producing delightful and imaginative illustrations alongside digitally enhanced photography to create eye-catching ads. Often the visual was the idea and copy just a few token words.
I was also struck by the realisation that most of these highly visual ads could have only been produced at this time in ad history. It is the tools which have been developed in the computer age that has created what one could term as ‘The Golden Age of Art Direction’.
Younger art directors, designers, illustrators and photographers may not appreciate how many restraints have been lifted by this technology. In the 1980’s working on SingTel, Singapore’s communications giant, I came up with the idea of illustrating the reliability of the equipment by suggesting a breakdown was a likely as snow in tropical Singapore. I wanted to show Orchard Road, the main shopping belt, with the buildings, cars and roads covered in snow. It would have been an eye-catching visual and probably create a lot of interest.
But the cost of a skilled retoucher working on the black & white print, with bleaches and paint was too costly and time consuming. The budget and days were not there and a less impactful ad ran. Had we tried to create this idea on a colour transparency which would have to include the cost of couriers taking the 10×8 trannies to Australia, the costs to the client would have been even higher.
Simple retouching that can now be done in minutes on a home computer was an expensive exercise in those days. Creating illustrations required not only imagination but often prowess with a compressed air paint sprayer. Insist on an illustration with 100 rabbits and each one would have to be drawn and coloured individually.
Even selecting a colour for a background could be constrained by the coloured paper available in the studio drawers. Prior to the computer, each design or ad had to be mocked up on a board with coloured panels and type ticked in by hand. Today the mouse will even take us to sites which can suggest complimentary colours before we print out a dummy that looks as good as the finished printed ad or brochure.
Our choice of typeface was limited by the type haled by the local typesetter. In London, for a new British Rail campaign, the creative department had to fight for a budget to fly in Futura, a hot metal typeface then practically unknown outside of Germany. It set so badly, that we had to cut up not only the headlines but even the body text and then stick each letter down closer to the adjacent letter in order to get even letter- and word-spacing. Now the Internet will give you instant access to a vast range of typefaces and letterforms.
Today’s art director can go into comprehensive image libraries to choose a photograph which fits his idea or design. I can still remember in Singapore, sitting for an afternoon going through sheets of transparencies hoping to find something suitable in the limited stock of the local photo-library.
I could go on picking up other examples of the barriers to ideas which stood before the art directors in the past. Today, only your imagination (and conservative clients – some things don’t change!) will hold you back. It is indeed ‘The Golden Age of Art Direction’. Enjoy the freedom. Exploit the tools at your fingertips. Excite me again at AdFest in 2015.