Quit Applying Old Solutions to a New World

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Articles like Dean Rieck's Creative Checklist column ("13 Quick Tips for Smart Design," Jan. 15, www.dmnews.com/articles/2001-01-15/12641.html) only serve to reinforce the idea that direct response advertising should apply old solutions from yesterday's successes to problems in a new era of communication.

Rieck's misunderstanding of design is summed up in the last line of his article: "A good designer must be a salesperson first and an artist second." Designers are first and foremost communicators, problem solvers and innovators, not artists or salespeople. A designer's challenge is to create work that is easy to use and understand, accessible and clear in purpose. This applies whether creating data tables, furniture or a direct marketing piece.

The article compelled me to respond to several points:

"Don't be afraid to be ugly."

"Ugly" and "active" design should not be applied as a blanket solution to the core problem: getting the consumer to stop and notice. Companies such as IBM and Nike have created successful solutions without using "bursts, callouts, tilted pictures, arrows" and other trite, annoying and thoughtless devices. In other words, they respect their audience.

Advances in technology and population growth have sparked a landslide of communication materials in all media. Increased competition for a moment of a consumer's time has heightened the need for an innovative manner in which to attract interest. Returning to the core problems of communication, not continuing on the same path, will yield the answer.

In a landscape full of "busy" and "active" communication, a departure from the normal might not only be welcomed by consumers but also help pieces to stand apart from the crowd. The pieces need to invite consumers to read them, then communicate. Anything that distracts from this purpose should be tossed by the wayside. This goal can only be achieved when looking at new problems in a fresh way while building upon the core knowledge that one would receive from past success.

"Make phone numbers big and bold."

The need again is to address the core problem (making a phone number noticeable) and not apply a predetermined solution (making the numbers big and bold).

Applying the same solution to different problems in different situations slows progress and innovation in communication.

"Make a letter look like a letter."

Changes in interpersonal communication have rendered once-effective rules of direct mail such as "... use a typewriter face ... double space between paragraphs ... use blue or black for the signature" all but obsolete. We're in the midst of a communication revolution, both technological and interpersonal. One has to ask the question, "Why is direct marketing holding onto the past?"

"Call attention to key words."

"... underlines, highlighting, boldface, italics and other techniques ..." certainly call attention to words, yet they do so at the cost of clear communication. Rieck stated, "Copy is not a design element." Then why use design techniques to decorate copy?

Copywriters should strive to make copy that is focused and clear without using the crutches of applying "techniques" later.

"Writers and designers are partners."

Rieck and I agree on this point. It is this partnership, with a pioneering spirit, that will give us the ability to "create a message to generate a response and make a sale."

• Paul Grachan

Senior designer, marketing group

Morningstar Inc.


• Dean Rieck responds:

When a client hires me, I'm evaluated by calculators and spreadsheets, not by someone's sense of aesthetics. So, I'll use old solutions. I'll use new solutions. I'll stand on my head and sing an Elvis medley. My "core problem" is not innovation -- and neither is yours. My core problem is selling.

I never said that any particular technique is a "blanket solution." I am forever chastising direct marketers for randomly applying techniques. But you can't create new techniques until you master the old ones. You can't break the rules intelligently until you know what the rules are to begin with! Sadly, so many designers today are so unfamiliar with these rules, so ill-equipped to sell anything, so prone to sabotaging even the simplest selling message with self-serving visual nonsense, that I must stoop to the ridiculous level of saying overly simple things like, "Make the phone number big and bold." Otherwise it's likely to show up creatively hidden in light gray, 8-point type where no one will see it or dial it.

And what "new era" are you talking about? There's new technology. New means of delivering a sales pitch. But don't confuse the medium with the message. Despite all the whiz-bang, people are the same. The psychology of selling is the same. Your comments sound like the sort of hooey that giddy investors were spewing two years ago about the new economy and the new rules of investing. We saw how that turned out.

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