Good advertising (n): When an argument always ends in harmony
Understanding Copywriting as a Designer to Further Push a Visual Argument
One of my biggest pet peeves is when a design peer decides that they don’t need to know how to write. “That’s what we have copywriters for… We should never have to write our own copy.” While that may be true in an agency setting, I firmly believe that knowing the basic techniques and strategies of copywriting as an advertising designer will lead to a more refined design strategy and stronger, clearer, better work.
Visual argument has a twin named verbal.
What is a visual argument? A visual argument uses images to try to prove, establish, or support a claim. They usually add drama and power to the claim being made and ask for a more emotional, immediate reaction which leaves the viewer more invested in the argument. Where do we see visual arguments? All over — nearly 5,000 of them a day, in fact. Visual arguments are most prevalent in advertising.
Every advertisement is not a visual argument. Product placement, for example, is sometimes considered a form of advertising, but there is no argument being made besides “hey, look, we’re reminding you that you love drinking Coke!” But most really memorable advertisements utilize visual arguments because they are so effective in quickly giving a claim. When the average American has an attention span of eight seconds, advertisers need to grab the attention of consumers as quickly as possible.
It’s not a surprise that a great ad has two parts: the image and the headline. For a designer to completely ignore the headline and rely on a copywriter means they are only contributing 50% to the overall visual argument that the ad is trying to make. This division between image and text is because of the dual nature of visual arguments. In order to interpret a visual argument, you must translate it into a verbal argument. If they really wanted to, advertisers could ignore the translation part of an ad and just present the argument visually, but they risk those pesky, easily-distracted consumers not focusing on the ad long enough to understand it. This is why advertising requires such a strong grasp on both design and copywriting: you must know how to create a visual argument that can be enhanced by the verbal argument in a way that is not too obvious or too difficult to understand.
The Two Professors
Let me explain this from a different angle. I had a very highly-esteemed copywriting professor tell me the very first step in creating an ad is to write a compelling headline. It was more important to have the words first, because you can then develop a visual that relates. I also had a very highly-esteemed design professor tell me the very first step in creating an ad is to make a sketch. It was important to have the visual first, because then you can write a headline that relates. So who was right? As someone who considers myself both a graphic designer and a copywriter, I know they both are, with one teensy, tiny little change in their reasoning. In their different processes, they’re not actually coming up with a sketch or a headline first. They’re brainstorming an argument, or the message they want their advertisement to deliver. From there, the designer and copywriter must determine how to transcribe that message into one that will immediately impress the viewer (visual argument) and assure them they interpreted the message as intended (verbal argument). Both professors used the same process; the designer just finds it easier to think of the argument visually, and the copywriter finds it easier to think of it verbally.
Harmony is advertising’s middle name
This is why it’s important for a designer to understand copywriting (and likewise, a copywriter to understand design). As a designer, you don’t need to know the exact copywriting techniques, but you do need to know enough to test if your idea can hold up to both a visual and verbal argument. Are you going to insult the intelligence of your audience by making it so obvious that they’re bored and ignore your ad? Or are you going to make it so difficult to understand that they’re bored and ignore your ad? By understanding the argument from both a visual and verbal perspective, you can recognize where the argument weakens and be able to make the edits needed to strengthen your message. A designer doesn’t need to know how to write the headline, just how to interpret it in relation to their visual. Similarly, a copywriter may have an idea of how the visual component of the ad may appear, even if they are unsure exactly how to implement it. By constantly checking their work against the other’s and making sure the message continues to be conveyed, the advertisers can be sure they achieve the harmony that comes from a perfectly compatible visual and verbal argument.
This harmony of copy and image is difficult to achieve, but by understanding both the verbal and visual components of an advertising argument, a stronger, clearer message can be conveyed. It is so important for a designer to not ignore copywriting as they are working on a design because an audience needs both effective writing and effective imagery to quickly understand an advertising argument. By acting like the verbal argument is “not their job”, a designer immediately lessens the effectiveness of their visual. Like yin and yang, copywriters and designers rely on each other to present a compelling visual and verbal argument from ad-beginning to ad-end.