Impressions of a designer on advertising

I’ve worked professionally as a graphic designer for over a decade. I confess that after all that time I’m still a little perplexed by the trajectory my career has taken. I signed up for a sexy profession of album covers, book covers, movie posters and film titles. Websites, what they used to call multimedia and logos (now branding) were always part of the mix but that was supposed to be the more serious corporate (boring) stuff. At Cooper Union I don’t remember ever even hearing or seeing the words advertising or marketing. I do know some colleages who had the common sense to take creative advertising classes at neighboring Parsons and it appears to have paid good dividends in their careers. I, on the other hand, never thought about the broader commercial applications of my design training until I was a few years into the profession. I joined a startup web design company immediately after school. The web bubble burst at the end of 2000 and 9/11 effectively put our struggling boutique out of business. At the end of 2002 I could no longer afford to play along with entrepreneurs and I took the first job I was offered as lead designer for the marketing department of a public company.

It sounds mildly glamourous and respectible but it wasn’t at all (at least not to me). It was my first brush with how design actually fits into the real world with the designer being a low level player in a cast of copywriters, marketing directors, researchers, vps and other middle management. I lasted for nearly two years before I regained some risk taking confidence and dived into the world of freelance (where I’ve remained for the last six years). As I soon drifted toward larger ad agencies (at least more glamourous sounding) the rudest awakening for me was that often my design skills were often viewed as production. When this happened it was very demoralizing to me as I considered myself creative. I quickly learned that if wanted to reclaim the respect I desired and of course get paid better I’d need to redefine myself as an ‘art director’ (a term that still has a whiff of ambiguity about it to me). As an art director the job has been to sketch out visual ideas and concepts (often in tandem with a copywriter) and leave the finishing work to the production specialist.

As a person with a history in working with the web it was only natural that my creative talents were channelled into art directing web banner ads (back to unglamorous). Although I’d skimmed the surface of the advertising ecosystem it was in digital ads where I saw all intangibles disappear and the objectives and successes of an ad become crystal clear.

Digital ads are sold by impressions and tracked by clicks (clicks being of the most value and cost to the advertiser). In the advertising world of Mad Men the idea is committed to by the client and released into a world of print, radio and television. The idea was often tested by small focus groups. The success or failure of a campaign could be measured over time, usually the life of a campaign (6-12 months).

In digital ads the premium has moved to the most elemental metric of clicks. A campaign could be deemed a failure in one day if it doesn’t meet it’s click quota. Ironically a successful campaign amounts to fractions of a percent of clicks out of all impressions. (With this much waste in advertising it is truly a blessing that we are moving away from printed ads!)

As a creative person, the futility of the ad business creeps into the soul pretty fast. A majority of digital campaign concepts come from higher up from print and media teams. When it’s time to execute the digital ad it often feels more like task based production studio work (not a great feeling for the art director). But in the event that the concept is generated by the digital team, regardless of idea brilliance, that idea and execution is thoroughly vetted by marketing managers to make sure that it is optimized for clicks.

What’s that amount to? In most cases the ads feel as cheap as they are. I’ve rarely been moved by a banner ad although I have felt the seductive pull of a print or broadcast campaign. The momentum now swings in favor of preroll video ads which are exactly like tv commercials (try watching YouTube videos without them…an annoyance I’ll save for another post). This doesn’t help me professionally all that much as I’m not a film director (although I have still managed to create some preroll ad videos). I suppose the holy grail of creative digital ad work is the microsite. The final destination of all clicks. They come in varying degrees of quality. Most feel as cheap as the ads that have led to them. Occasionally some break ground for exceptional design and technology. But all are more transient than ‘real’ websites with very short shelf lives.

Ads have produced an unweildy amount of clutter on the web. Google is the worst offender with their garrish automated ads promising dividends to the content owner. As a designer it is truly a conflict to see ads I’ve art directed contributing to the unsightliness of a website. I’ve since moved back to the content side of designing websites and can lament having to deal with the variables of ads and their disruption of what was a beautifully executed design.

I certainly don’t mean to devalue the necessities of sales and marketing. Companies need to create awareness for their products and messages and advertising is often the best way to meet that goal.

But consider this. While advertising can be credited to making the old media world go round it does not make the new media world go round. There are many content sites who use advertising as income to support an Internet business. There are many sites on the web that don’t rely on ads, and many of them are quite profitable. I toyed with using Google ads on a website but killed the idea after I deduced that the returns were going to be very poor and it wasn’t worth sacrificing the cleanliness of the website for a few extra bucks.

I thought by writing about my experience with advertising in this post I’d intellectually stumble on a solution to what I see as a still primitive, unsophisticated and largely ineffective apparatus. I have not. But there’s a whole lot of people out there who hate ads on the web and they take steps to shut them out. This prompts content creators to complain that their readers are causing them to lose money on already free content. I’m not ready to side with either camp. I keep the ads turned in (I tell myself it’s for professional reasons) but I must confess I love the idea that I could shut them off if I one day decide I’ve had enough. But what I think this conflict illustrates is that there is indeed a problem with the current advertising paradigm on the web. If I ever think of a solution ahead of webolution I will revisit this topic.

So in a roundabout way here’s the question. Can we transcend sales and marketing without killing advertising?

Open vs. Closed Apps

An examination of the benefits and futures of open and closed mobile apps.

I confess. I love the iPhone. I’ve spent some time with the iPad and I love that too. These devices provide great access and consumption to large chunks of media on the web. I no longer need to use my laptop to communicate through email and social networks or consume audio/video. Most websites I’m interested in can be viewed on the iPhone. So what’s missing?

I’m most certainly a prosumer. Ever since I started using computers in the 90s I’ve used them to make things (art and music). I’m currently typing this post in the iPhone notepad app and it feels very primitive to me. But I don’t doubt I could go to the app store and find dozens of Apps to help along my typing. These Apps are subject to the approval of Apple. If anything in the app is deemed unfavorable by Apple (usually due to bad coding) it will probably not be approved. iOS is a closed system as opposed to an open system. On an Open system like my computer running Apple’s OSX I can install any type of software I like from wherever.

Continue reading “Open vs. Closed Apps”

Everything is easy but the problem is time

It dawned on me a few years ago that everything is easy. By that I mean everything is accessible. Thanks to Google and WikipediA everything is knowable. And now with Facebook and Twitter everyone is reachable.

It dawned on me a few years ago that everything is easy. By that I mean everything is accessible. Thanks to Google and WikipediA everything is knowable. And now with Facebook and Twitter everyone is reachable. In my professional design career the tools have evolved to the point where I not only deliver the aesthetic but I can also provide the function without being an I.T. specialist. In fact there’s so much access now thanks in large part to open technology and it’s respective movements. 

Earlier this year I needed to acquire some new development skills. I did. It was, dare I say, easy? All the knowledge I could ever need to plug into was waiting for me on the web. I met my goal of gaining skills and even more conceptual possibilities opened up for me in my work process. I’d proved my hypothesis. Everything was easy. Or was it?

In the earlier part of the year when I’d made these resolutions we’d just returned from a year of travel. I was fermenting with ideas. The economy was in the dumps so work was slow to pick up. I had time. Soon after the skills were acquired our work utilizing those skills became in demand. My learning renaissance came to a halt once I needed to poor hours of concentration into real working solutions. I’ve come to realize that while everything may indeed be accessible (I’ll stop saying easy) it’s certainly not all doable. 

Time is an unbelievably precious resource. We all know this but many of us, including myself, are guilty of undervaluing it. To do all there is to do is of course impossible. To acknowledge that one may not be able to do even a fraction of what one wanted is hard to accept. Even when there is time there is not enough of it.

I am disciplined enough to do one thing at a time. Things definitely are accomplished that way. But not everything. I’m still holding onto goals and ideas from a decade ago. I do know that time can certainly be made (with great sacrifice). In my case the necessity of earning a living usually monopolizes my time. But a few years ago we accelerated that necessity with the ultimate goal of buying the time not to have to work for a year and use the time for travel. I write this from a floating house in the middle of the Amazon as caymans smash around on the river under us. I’m incredibly grateful that I have had the time to write it.

Colonial/Religious Thoughts in Salvador

Writing this in the dead of night in the lovely old city of Salvador, Brasil.

I remarked to Ewa yesterday that it seems to me that all the old colonial empires were fueled by a demand for inessential goods (sugar, coffee, tea, spices, opium, gold etc.).

After visiting all the stunning Portuguese cathedrals I wondered allowed to Ewa how strange I found it that Catholics around the world can share that singular common relgious connection. I’m more familiar with the multitude of different Protestant denominations without one central Protestant leadership (like a pope). What a way to build an empire…to make everyone think and believe the same. I momentarily lamented that I didn’t know what it’s like to be part of such a major group myself having backgrounds in different ethnicities (yet not feeling totally connected to either) as well as fringe evangelical upbringing. But then I remembered…I’m born American so I can’t really feel too much the outsider now can I.

We went to a Candomblé ritual tonight in a Favela. It’s a religion with roots in Africa that was syncretized by slaves in Brazil going all the way back to the 16th century. I was amused at how familiar it all was. It looked very evangelical to me. There are heavy congas and the people dance around and chant together in what feels exactly like an inner city Latin American church (I have been to a few in my childhood). Then it takes a more ‘pentecostal’ turn and the people allow themselves to be filled with some sort of spirit ghost. Some of them bump into each other, some fall down, some cry uncontrollably, others shout unintelligible sounds. I’ve witnessed this behavior in a few evangelical churches too. The Argentinian next to me was very uncomfortable. Myself, I can only say that I felt..well, a little bored. I used to get bored in church when I want as a kid and it felt exactly the same way to me. This brings me back around to my previous post…self obliteration. Religions, meditation, concentration are all the same experiences. Dare I suggest that evangelical worship, at least its Latin American expressions, derive from Candomblé and Africa?

Traveling and Self Obliteration

Traveling in Rio, the idea came to me that Self Obliteration seems to be what everyone seeks and what everyone finds in a multitude of different ways.

I write these thoughts as we’ve just hit the road again and a week into a 9 week journey through South America. We leave Rio de Janeiro tomorrow morning and fly to Salvador.

On the way up to see the famous Christo Redentor statue I was struck (like many others) by the beauty and vastness of the city and landscape of Rio. I then began thinking about self obliteration. Self obliteration is certainly not a violent or negative thing at least as I’ll describe it. It seems to be what everyone seeks and what everyone finds in a multitude of different ways.

The obvious example of Self Obliteration is the Buddhist pursuit of Nirvana…to achieve that great spiritual nothingness, the ultimate self obliteration. In a very brief interest in Buddhism years ago I came to realize that the pursuit of self obliteration (meditation) can take on many different forms in addition to purposeful meditation. I found that my major ‘meditations’ are work, art and music. In these actions, when I’m un-distracted, I am totally self obliterated. I believe this kind of obliteration of self occurs for the devout of most religions. And of course on the negative end of things it’s also the same drive to obliterate the self that drives people to vices.

So why was I thinking this atop Mt. Corvocado? Because I realized that moment that traveling to marvel at the wonders of the world is also the pursuit of that same, self obliterating goal. Traveling is often just a hard slog of plane tickets and bus rides, but the payoff is the destination…the Nirvana.

Why do we desire self obliteration? Most everyone is afraid of death, the ultimate obliteration of self. We desire living self obliteration because it’s our way of transcending our own bodily limitations. We connect with the world better. Nothingness becomes oneness. Inspiration becomes euphoria. Concentration becomes inspiration.

Self obliteration often never feels as grand as it sounds. This elemental mode of being is often over trivialized when really it’s not very complicated. It’s the same for the Buddhists, Artist or the Tourist.