I Hate Advertising

I’ve been in advertising, in one way or another, for a long time. Decades. I kind of fell into it, first as a direction to follow out of art and design school since I had majored in advertising design. I was a designer/illustrator out of the gate, doing one or the other all the time. Sometimes I did both, and later as a photographer and art director.

I got my feet wet in my first design studio job doing ads for Prell Concentrate shampoo. And I noticed right away, being in the real world, that the thing that you can slide right past—if you’re not really looking at what you’re doing—is that you’re not communicating reality to the consumer. You’re creating the best possible visual of whatever it is you’re presenting—be it a hair product, a car or even a cream pie—and saying to the prospective buyer of that product that this is what it really looks like all the time. And you’re lying.

Suppose you do an ad for a plant nursery, keying on rose bushes. You hire a photographer and head to the site of the grower (after finding and scheduling a day with good natural light) and set about shooting the best rose bushes from a few different angles. Naturally, after assembling the best images, you design the piece in question and it looks great.

Too great. 95% of the customers who order from that nursery will not be able to grow the bushes they get to look anywhere near the images you present in the ad. It’s hopeless. It’s like ordering that Big Mac from the sumptuous photo on the sign at the drive-thru and getting a slightly smashed version with sauce and lettuce running out the side.

Advertising is all about expectation and design perception. And we as designers have already sidestepped past the point of consciously viewing this process as consumers. We are inured to it automatically, like a doctor is to blood. We don’t see or even feel the expectant want of that consumer, because—from the moment we start to conceive the ad in our minds—all we feel is the art of selling. We become automatons to it. And we own it.

The car in that commercial you love to watch onscreen is not how you’ll see it on the road where you live. The car in the TV ad is the only one on the highway with mountains in the distance or a winding country lane. That imagery is what sticks in your consumer’s mind, the romance of it. But putting on your designer’s hat, you know better: that’s an illusion sold to you by the advertiser.

Later on in my career I found myself immersed in package design for a well-known food conglomerate. And one of the things that’s always done in food photography is food styling. (Styling is always a part of commercial photography, but here we’ll concentrate on styling food.)

A food stylist is brought in ahead of the final product shot to prepare the food to look the best way it can possibly be using underlying and out-of-sight artificial things to make the food look fuller, glycerin or clear glazing to make it look wet, and adding more of the included ingredients here and there to make it look more appealing, all the while using tools like tweezers and paint brushes to make things look perfect.

Is this a depiction of reality? Hell, no. Is it even possible to open a box of the food, prepare and heat it according to the package instructions, and have it look even close to that photo on the front of the carton? Sure, maybe in one chance out of a million. But probably never.

Let’s examine the packages above. The lasagna on that plate at left is probably very carefully cooked in pieces, noodles apart from the sauce, then assembled spooning the mozzarella on top, all the while leaving not a speck of food around it. Note the small size of the plate enhancing the portion of the serving.

In the center we have chocolate satin pie, which according to the box is “made from scratch”. Sure it is—by a machine. Chances are the pie shown is a composite of several dozen supplied by the food company to the photographer’s studio, which when cut open, will reveal different consistencies in the texture of the chiffon-like filling. (Design-wise, that strong vertical left by the slicing barely sidesteps lining up with the green panels, but that’s a subject for another column.)

In the package at right, the wrapping of the fork is the styling here, more than likely pinned together beneath and shot from above separately. The sauce near the bottom left on the fork was also probably assembled and enhanced “post-op” in Photoshop. That and almost assuredly they toned up the greens and reds in both shots while they were at it.

I can remember one shoot I was on once where the photographer had a few of us on set ready to drop in Alka-Seltzer tablets into a glass along with another who was pouring Coca-Cola. The idea was to have a prolonged fizz take place while getting in as many shots as possible. And it worked very well, because with all the ice in the glass, the tablets were indistinguishable.

All for appearance, all for the sell. As much as I hate it, I still love it.



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What Does it Mean to “Design” a Photograph?

(This column originally ran in March of this year. Dan Blanchette is on vacation.)

Photography has design, much like anything else. As consumers, especially with our mobile phone cameras taking snapshots, we don’t think so much about designing our photographs. And maybe that’s something we should think about.

After all, when it comes to photography, designers might think about it more than non-designers. And so maybe this column today will serve as a lesson to those of us who are non-designers. Graphic designers can follow along to refresh their memory.

When most people see a photograph, they see just the subject matter in it, be it a flower or a building or a person. And that’s the real difference between what a non-designer sees and what a designer sees. Because I’ve been a designer all of my career, I see shapes.

Photography is just another way for people to record what they see. Photographs can be planned, such as when a photographer is on assignment or in their studios to shoot certain things or people. But they can also be just snapshots, which does not necessarily mean they cannot be planned. If a street scene with a crowd milling in front of a landmark fills the bill for a vacationing tourist, why can‘t he/she design the shot?

Design is something we learn in design school: the idea of arranging shapes in an organizational manner so as to achieve a pleasing composition. We learn by using flat shapes, maybe cut from black paper, and adhering them to a white surface such as matte board. In today‘s digital formative two-dimensional design class, students might do it in Adobe Illustrator. It doesn‘t matter: the resulting arrangement is the key.

Remembering from our discussion in Tenets of Good Design, Part 1, good organizational design starts with a dominant shape’s placement followed by the placement of smaller, or subordinate shapes within a frame of reference. A frame of reference is the overall shape (usually a rectangle) within which we place those shapes.

Your camera’s frame of reference is that rectangle, and what you place into that frame is the subject matter you‘re about to record on that camera‘s CCD. So you have the device in your hands with which you’re about to record what you see.

How do you do it? Do you just snap it off right now? I know, you’re so in love with the scene you feel it necessary to catch it immediately. But is it really that necessary that you capture it right this instant? If it‘s moving, sure. If it‘s a family moment that‘s too magical to miss, of course. But what if it isn‘t? What if you can take the extra few moments to see if it can be framed in such a way that the shot becomes art?

Make no mistake: design is art. Photography is art as well. Don‘t forget that.

All of the above examples exhibit a good sense of design. Within each frame we can see the reason the shot was designed in a certain way. My friend Brian took most of these shots. He doesn’t think of himself as a designer (he‘s been a print manager most of his career), but his design acumen comes across pretty readily here.

Top left, he’s looking up at an adobe structure, and seeing the possibilities, he scopes in on the crack appearing in the wall. Does he place the window at the top in the center? No. By letting the window stay left, the interest remains the crack and the window an accent.

Bottom left, the palm tree’s intricate textures and varied patterns make for a good centered composition, closely cropped. Do you crop in-camera or afterward? Doesn’t matter, as long as you see the composition.

Center, the crop on the tall trees aids in appreciating their ascending beauty and strength.

Top right, the graceful curve of the shoreline sets up the difference in color and texture of nature‘s earth and water.

Bottom right, I just had to add this shot from Valmont, the 1989 movie from director Milos Forman and his cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek. As everyone knows, the cinematographer in movies is the one who literally designs and shoots the moving pictures you see onscreen. This still of actress Meg Tilly is one such beautifully designed image: she reposes against a wall, deep in thought, and we see the shot ever so slightly tilted left to accentuate that repose, while the rest of her world is unfocused to the right.

Photography is like any other discipline in design, and art. Shapes, placement, and visual interest.

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