The difference between copywriting and art direction

The other day I was looking at this poster:



It’s nice and clean, and stopped me enough to read it and give it some thought.

But I wasn’t thinking about the cheating cyclist; I was thinking about the freedom art direction has over copy.

It’s often said that great art direction is about the creation of a ‘new page’ – a layout no one has done before. This is intended to grab the consumer’s attention by standing out from the other things he sees and intriguing him enough to engage.

But that’s not quite the same as the copywriter’s job.

Yes, the writer also has to grab and intrigue, but that must happen after the art director does his job. If the layout doesn’t bring the reader in then the consumer will never even get to the great writing. If your eyes scan the landscape then it’s the art director’s job to draw them in so that they hopefully read something like this:

thanks for the warm-up the Paralympic Games


But writers don’t have all the colours of the rainbow and all the images in history (including new ones yet to be seen) to assist them. Instead they have the rearrangement of those 26 letters and however many words (yes, including the odd neologism).

You could rearrange the familiar into the unfamiliar in a bid to pull the rug out from under someone’s thoughts:



Or you could shock (brilliantly):



But in the end you have to use language, which is already familiar, to attempt to create the same power of originality as art direction.

And that’s what I mean by not working in the same way.

Creating a verbal version of the new page (the new sentence?) is something of a given. Despite the clichés that infiltrate copywriting, even quite poor ads will have a sentence you’ve never seen before. The problem is that it’ll still be boring, or arranged in a familiar structure.

To have newness you need to establish a tone of voice you’ve never read before:



Or use an unexpected tone for a famous client:



So the principles of copywriting and art direction exist in similar territories but those guidelines are used in very different ways to create different processes and achieve different effects.

Maybe that’s why the best ones are usually different people.