Art and copy: bridging the gap between design and content

In the 1960s, there was a creative revolution in advertising when someone decided that art and copy should try sitting in the same room. Applying a similar idea today, and getting content and design to work more closely, can transform your work for the better.
A bridge over a gorge

Over the last five years, my role as a content strategist has become less and less about content, and more and more about collaboration. I still call myself a content strategist. The problems I get hired to solve still look like content problems. But when you get down to it, the real problem is almost always something to do with collaboration or silos.

Collaboration and communication are under-valued and under-cultivated in many organisations. We call them ‘soft skills’, which underplays how important — and how difficult — they are. The issue is acute when it comes to how UX, design, development and content work together. All our skills are essential to building a website, product, or service, but we act like only our part counts.

So how do we bridge the gap? I think that we can learn something from the world of advertising.

A big idea

Back in the 1960s, there was an ad man called Bill Bernbach. He was an innovative, divergent thinker — a bit of a rebel by the standards of his day. He worked for the big, prestigious agencies before breaking away and starting his own — DDB.

Bill had a big idea about how things should be done. One that would change advertising:

Art and copy should sit in the same room.

I know it doesn’t sound earth-shattering, but it was. It was one part of a more collaborative approach that led to great creative and changed how ads were made.

You might know some of DDB’s ads from the period, especially if you’ve watched Mad Men. The ads DDB made for Volkswagen were iconic, effective and radically different from what other agencies were doing.

But what’s collaboration got to do with it? To understand why Bill Bernbach’s approach led to great creative, we need to look at how things were being done at the time:

  1. The account man (and it was always a man) told the copywriter what to write.
  2. The copywriter wrote the copy.
  3. The art department designed a layout and put the words in it.

That process sounds familiar right? We’re making the same mistakes today.

I was working with a client a while ago, and saw this exact process unfold before me:

  1. UX does the wireframes.
  2. Content does the copy.
  3. Design does the design.
  4. Mash it all together and hope for the best.
  5. Play copy Tetris to make the words fit.
  6. Everyone goes home sad.

No one really wants to work like this. It’s siloed, it’s inefficient, it doesn’t produce the best results. Our skills aren’t incompatible — there’s no reason it should be this way. When it comes down to it, we’re all designers. We’re just using different skills and approaches: design works with look, UX works with feel, content works with sound. Our work should be seamless.

So how do we make it better?

WWBBD? (What would Bill Bernbach do?)

Let’s go back to Bill Bernbach, and find out more about how he solved the collaboration problem.

Meet the rest of the team (the characters might remind you of colleagues, they definitely reminded me of some of mine):

  • Bill Bernbach, ideas. He wants to make advertising better, through “good taste, good art and good writing”.
  • Helmut Krone, art. “A fidgety Teutonic perfectionist” who puts an extraordinary amount of effort into creating deceptively simple layouts.
  • Julian Koenig, copy. He feels uncomfortable about working in advertising, and sounds to me like he would probably rather have been writing a novel.

Now let’s look at how they worked together to make the ‘Think Small’ Volkswagen ad.

Bill went to Germany, spent time with the client, went to the factory, and got to know the car. He came home with an idea. It was the beginning of a strategy that united what the audience cared about with what the car actually had to offer: simplicity and honesty. These things both really mattered to the audience. This was after the rampant consumerism of the 1950s, and a time when advertising was highly aspirational and idealistic. And younger people in particular were tired of it.

The team then started to collaborate on building the strategy and coming up with the idea. Rather than working sequentially in different offices, they worked together as a creative team. It wasn’t plain sailing — Krone was apparently initially uncomfortable with the honest approach and thought it would be best to glamorise and Americanise the car, and there was some friction over copy changes — but they stuck with it.

The perseverance and close collaboration paid off. The ad is a seamless union of art and copy — both aspects balanced and working together to convey the message.

The ad looks traditional at first — the big picture, three-column layout was apparently known as the ‘Ogilvy layout’ — a joke about how basic it was. But when you look closer, nothing about it is traditional. The image is a black and white photo, rather than the colour illustration that would have been typical at the time. The car is small and at the back of the image, the logo is an odd place. The messages are quietly confident, not boastful and written in an off-beat way. The copy and the typesetting feel humble and off-beat too (the widows and orphans are deliberate). Every element works together to convey a feeling of authenticity, simplicity and honesty.

Yeah, but what can we learn from it?

We can learn something from this story about how to collaborate, how to bring together design and content, seamlessly.
Bill Bernbach said:

“When a team is given responsibility for their own work, it becomes their property. They own it. And they walk with their heads up, and they walk with pride.”

For me, the biggest thing that will make a difference when it comes to improving collaboration is taking responsibility for it ourselves. Be the Bill Bernbach in your story. Don’t assume that someone will do it for you.

I think there are three things that teams that want to bridge the gap need to take responsibility for:

  • Having a strategy
  • Having principles
  • Working together

Have a strategy

Firstly, having a strategy. All too often when I ask a team what the strategy is, one of two things will happen:

  • They say they don’t know what the strategy is.
  • They say they know what it is, but all say something different.

Without a shared understanding of the strategy, you’re doomed. It should be the North Star that everyone navigates the project by, irrespective of their specialism. If Krone had gone with his strategy of glamorising and Americanising the Beetle, while Koenig wrote humble, off-beat copy, the result would have been a disaster.

So what makes a good strategy? Let’s go with Richard Rumelt: a good strategy needs a diagnosis, a guiding policy and coherent action.

  • The diagnosis is a shared understanding of the problem, need or opportunity that you’re trying to solve for.
  • The guiding policy is a shared approach for how you’re going to solve the problem.
  • Coherent action is a detailed plan for how you’re actually going to execute on that policy.

To get to a shared strategy that you’re all going to navigate by, you need to work it out together. I’d recommend using an exercise that I’ve adapted from Sara Wachter-Boettcher. Get everyone in a room — ideally at the start of a project — but it’s better to do it late than not at all — and give them a worksheet like this one:

The problem we're solving is <problem(s)>
We're going to solve this by <solution>
To make this happen we're going to <actions>
We'll know we're successful when <results>

Ask each person to fill in the blanks, then compare the different versions they come up with. Look at the similarities and differences, and then through discussion and voting, come up with your shared, cohesive version. Put it in plain sight and refer back to it as a team, to guide your actions and decision-making. I’ve done this as print-out on a project wall, or as a note pinned to the top of a Slack channel — go with whatever will work for your team.

Have principles

The second thing is to have shared principles. My former boss at Brilliant Noise used to call this knowing ‘how we do things around here’. This is really about having a common understanding about your ways of working. A set of commandments, if you like.

Here are some ideas, but really it can be anything, as long as it’s useful and meaningful for your team. (A lot of these revolve around making people feel safe and included, which are really important for building a strong team):

  • Your work is important as mine: No one’s work is more important. We’re all equal.
  • We prototype together: We make prototypes as team, so we can think about the problem from every angle.
  • No question goes unasked: We never leave a question unasked and we never assume what the answer will be.
  • We’re not defensive: If someone’s asking questions about our work or critiquing it, we’re open to what they say.
  • We give good feedback: When we give feedback we’re constructive and kind.
  • We eat together on Tuesday: We sit and eat together on Tuesdays, and talk about anything but the project.

Again, to come up with your principles, you need to get everyone in a room. This can be a very therapeutic session to run in teams that struggle with collaboration, because it lets you deal with problems in a constructive and positive way.

Ask people to write down ideas about what they’d like to see in the future. What does successful collaboration look like and feel like to them? From there, work backwards — what are the things that need to happen to get to that ideal state? What barriers or bad habits do you need to break? What new ones do you need to build?

Your principles will grow out of this discussion. Write them down, and again, put them where you’ll all see them. If you get them right and keep using them, they become like team mantras and ways of challenging one another to do better.

Work together

We love the idea of the lone genius, but it’s a myth. Edison and Morse couldn’t have invented the lightbulb or Morse code without other people — they had help, and they built on the discoveries of others. Real collaboration is transformative. Get it right, and you could find yourself doing the best work of your career.

It will give you a better perspective. With different skill-sets we can attack the problem from most angles — the look, the feel, the sound — and come up with a more holistic solution. And hopefully (although this depends on your organisation) the more people you involve, the more diverse it will be. Having a more diverse team, in terms of experiences as well as skills, can only make your work better too. Bill Bernbach knew this — he was one of the first ad men to hire women, and Jewish, Irish and Italian people, who weren’t hired anywhere else on Madison Avenue at the time.

It will make things more efficient — no more silos, repetition, copy Tetris and redesigns. You’ll spot those issues sooner and get to a more robust product faster.

Finally, it will make things more fun, even for people who are shy and introverted. Being part of a brilliant team is a great experience.
But it doesn’t just happen, you have to work at it.

We’re probably all familiar with some version of the design-thinking model. It’s a useful one for thinking about when and how we need to work together. We need to diverge and converge, come together, go our separate ways and do our own thing, and then come back together again. These are both crucial moments.

At the start you need to make sure you’re aligned and going away to work on your specific area with a good understanding of what the rest of the team is doing. And when you came back together, you need to fully understand what work everyone else has been doing too. Pairworking and critiques are two great ways to do this.

Pairworking is ideal when you’re just starting to diverge. Get your design person, UX person and content person, maybe a developer too, working around one computer. Attack the problem together, thinking about it from your different perspectives and with your different areas of expertise. It feels awful and unnatural and stilted at first, but stick with it — it yields great results.

Critiques are a common design practice, but work well for cross-functional teams too. When you need to converge, get the team in a room and have everyone fully debrief on what you’ve been working on. Ask a lot of questions, and look for the seams, the places where your work connects, and try to make them seamless

Finally, just talk. Talk every day. Respect people’s flow, but ask questions as and when they come up, rather than saving them for later and assuming the as answer in the meantime. Sit together if you can. Try and avoid having a set of stairs between you at all costs — it makes it so much less likely that you’ll actually speak face-to-face.

In conclusion…

  • So to conclude:
  • We’re all designers — our work should be seamless
  • Make sure you’re all following the same strategic North Star
  • Come up with shared principles to live by
  • Work at working together
  • Ask ‘WWBBD?’

Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy
Strategy Mab Libs adapted from Sara Wachter-Boettcher

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