The difference between design and advertising

Graphic design is the creation of visual order and meaning. It’s about bringing harmony and consistent principles to bear on the many different ways an organisation expresses itself.  It’s about rules.

Advertising is about disruption. It’s about standing in the marketplace and making everyone stop and turn their heads. Once you have their attention, you can deliver your message (which probably involves selling something).

These are two very different tasks.

Complicating matters is the fact that graphic designers often work as advertising art directors, and vice versa. Their technical skillsets – typography, image creation, page layout and art buying – are the same. They often graduated from the same courses and learned a lot about brand identity in the course of their training. Where they differ is in the way they work.

An advertising art director will be briefed to create a single-minded concept. He or she will probably work in a tight huddle with a copywriter and try to generate as many outlandish ideas as possible. Some of these outlandish ideas may turn out to be quite sensible when the ink is dry and it’s time to measure them against the brief. That’s when the team knows it’s onto something.

Only when the team feels it has an idea with the potential to cut through audience apathy will it spend time on crafting. Idea first, expression second.

Graphic designers have a different job. They may be given a rough layout and told, “Make this great!” In this case, they are doing the vital work of adding value to an idea through styling.

Or they may be given the brief to come up with a comprehensive visual identity for a company. This is what people generally mean when they talk of “branding.” It usually involves a logo, typography, colours and rules for every conceivable situation where the brand may be seen. The result will be a heavyweight brand manual like this (and a heavyweight invoice to the client).

Classic design. Spot the clever idea hiding in plain sight.

So we can summarise the difference between design and advertising as follows. One discipline tries to create order while the other is always searching for ways to upset it. This should mean that graphic designers and advertising art directors are in a constant state of low-level war. However, this isn’t the case.

That’s because the best results, as always in life, come when you have a dynamic tension between two opposing principles.

Great designers know the value of challenging perceived ideas and standing out. Great art directors know when to use the priceless tools of precision and harmony to frame a disruptive message.

Blackcurrant Tango. One of the great disruptive ads.