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Design undefined: education for advertising is broader than ever, argues Alex Sudheim

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Recently we published an article by Cameron Temple, executive creative director at creative agency Stink Studios, in which he explained why he thinks Why creative education for advertising is stuck in the dark ages. Here, Alex Sudheim, senior copywriting lecturer at Cape Town design college the Vega School, reacts to the article.

While it is always interesting to hear what industry mavens have to say about education in this particular field, in almost every respect I respectfully disagree with Cameron Temple’s opinion that “education for advertising is stuck in the dark ages”.

Lack of academic rigour notwithstanding, in my nine years of professional experience in tertiary education at a design school, what Mr Temple refers to as “the same binary choice” students are forced to make between copywriting and art direction is a myth. The descriptors ‘copywriter’ and ‘art director’ are indeed in frequent use but in a purely semantic, entirely contingent sense and not at all in the hindbound, historically determinist sense Mr Temple would have it in. Words, as we all know, are infinitely fluid in their meaning and signification. If you were a pilot a century ago you might have been zooming around in a biplane in the skies over Normandy. Today you are far more likely be standing on the ground with a monitor and a small box full of circuitry flying a drone over distant terrain. The way in which you operate has been altered by several orders of magnitude yet you are still every bit a ‘pilot’ in every semiotic sense.

The same applies to the terms ‘art director’ and ‘copywriter’. Sure, in the 60s you were making print ads; in the 80s you were making TV ads but today you are creating branded content; UX design; search engine optimised online copy; sticky social media content; social behaviour experiments; blogs; online banners and gifs while engaged in content marketing; semantic searches and data visualisation. Ultimately, you are still engaged in the core business of creating effective, engaging narrative. The mediums may have changed but the message remains the same. As the old saying goes: plus ça change, plus ça le même chose.

In education the terms ‘copywriter’ and ‘art director’ remain loosely relevant more for broad, aptitude-based distinctions whose cogency transcends time. In very general terms the copywriter, like any writer, will always be someone with a distinct flair for creating narrative that ignites the imagination while the art director, like any artist, will always be someone with a distinct flair for creating narrative that ignites the senses. Yet together, they will most certainly not be making print ads. They are far more likely to be designing life-changing apps or plotting nefarious digital marketing strategies whereby online content can go viral.

For many years a guiding maxim in the advertising industry has been “concept dictates medium” and I have never seen a design school brief – at least not an advanced, final-year one – that stipulates the use of print or any other particular medium. Since we are in the business of preparing our students for industry it would be highly irresponsible for any design school to force students to adhere to the definitions of copywriter and art director a la Mad Men or Art & Copy.

We – and consequently our students – watch the industry like a hawk. When last did a D&AD brief call for a print ad? When last did a print ad win a Pencil or a Lion? In my experience, advertising students are innovative design thinkers first and copywriters and art directors second. They are inspired not by Ogilvy’s Volkswagen ads but by ingenious innovation such as The Next Rembrandt; Geiko’s ‘unskippable’ YouTube clips; the incredible what3words initiative; Macma’s #ManBoobsForBoobs; REI’s #OptOutside; Blikkiesdorp’s Hope Soap campaign and countless others.

A recent report by the World Economic Forum listed the top three skills required by graduates in 2020 as Complex Problem Solving, Critical Thinking and Creativity and it is these skills we attempt to instil in our students. With global paradigms shifting at ever increasing speed and the meaning of words as slippery as super-positioned photons, it makes a lot more sense to keep our definitions be elastically descriptive instead of pedantically prescriptive.