The Venn Diagram of Design and Art Direction

Opinion and Insight 381 Add to collection
BBH London’s newly-promoted heads of art and design have a natter about their disciplines, where they overlap and the part they play in the agency’s heritage
The Venn Diagram of Design and Art Direction
It’s fair to say that BBH London is in a transitional period right now. A few weeks ago the agency appointed new chief creative officer Stephen de Wolf to fill the shoes of outgoing CCO Ian Heartfield. But before that, the agency made a statement of intent by promoting two creative directors to more specialised roles. Pablo Gonzalez De La Peña (pictured above left) became the new head of art while Ross Mawdsley (pictured above right) took up the position of head of design.

What does this refocusing on these disciplines mean for BBH? Alex Reeves sat down for a chat with the pair at the agency on Kingly Street (don’t worry, this happened before social distancing) to find out.

LBB> Let’s start with a conceptual jumping-off point. What’s the difference between head of art and head of design?

Ross> We’ve had that debate. We’ve had to do a bit of a roadshow of presentations to all different departments and that is one of the things that always comes up. They are so close.

Pablo> If you think about cinema and the art direction awards, it’s about the set design and scenography in which the idea lives. And that’s a really useful way to imagine it because at the end of the day we have to transform an idea, which is something abstract, into something specific that you can see. Art direction is first thinking about how that’s going to look.

The difference is that art direction talks about how things feel: “Is this the right thing for the brand? Is this the right tone of voice? Is this the right answer to the brief for a particular discipline, like print or poster?” 

When we have figured that out, the guys from design have an opinion on how things look, which is the specifics: “What is the typeface? What is the colour palette? What is the layout? Where do we put this or that?”

LBB> What does the Venn diagram of art and design look like then?

Pablo> We like to think that it’s getting bigger and bigger and it’s almost like the Venn diagram is just one circle, where the art directors come from one side with an opinion, vision, point of view, with a possible illustrator or photographer to work with; and then Ross and his team bring the expertise of what are the last things happening in design, what are the latest trends that are going to make this unmissable? Then in that circle the healthy conversations happen between the art director and the designer because obviously there’s a lot of crossover. Art directors have opinions about typefaces and designers have opinions about illustrators. This is a healthy conversation based on mutual respect. That is what makes work unmissable. 

At BBH it was institutionalised that first was art direction and then it was design. What we try to do now is give the design department more prominence so that it’s almost like a collision - both work at the same time.

Ross> Art direction is how it feels and design is how it works. Design is now across so many channels. You’ve got to have a system. Before it was like “here’s a 48 sheet. Isn’t it beautiful?” That’s it. But now we have to think about how we take that concept and make it work across every touchpoint, every channel, think how it animates, how it moves. So there’s a lot more to it.

Coming from a digital background, where I started, you tend to always do a bit of everything. So the design team and art directors here are almost creatives who can design and designers who can create. They’re complementing each other rather than going from art direction and then on to design.

Pablo> And it’s not rare to have art directors who can do great design. We even have conceptual designers who have great ideas.

LBB> You’re talking about how there’s loads of overlap, but the fact that there are two of you with different departments must mean that you also believe there is value in being separated. Right?

Ross> 100%. We can both do the same things but we come from different disciplines. We started around the same time here. We were both creative directors. There’s a natural synergy, but we’re not going to take away the art director and the designer and just have one thing. Design is really all about the craft and the detail. And the art director is about how they want it to look and feel like and the emotions. There is always a need for two but we’re working so closely together that everything starts to become quite seamless, which is when you get amazing work.

Pablo> I agree. I started on the role before Ross was in his role and, being an art director and working with designers more closely, you realise that there are a lot of differences. In which I wasn’t that much of an expert. Having a counterpart in design is complementing the work beautifully. I really believe that there’s a leader that knows every part of the team. 

LBB> It sounds a lot tidier to me!

Ross> It makes a massive difference. I think in a lot of places design is seen as an extension to the creative department. So they tend to fall under whoever’s running the creative department. Now we’ve created a department that still sits under creative but has a leader and a physical area where they’re going to be. And they feel a bit more than just an extension. It's its own thing. So it’s getting some passion going.

We’re in the process of changing. Because design is now across so many different channels. We’ve got UX, UI, branding, brand experience, comms. And in a lot of agencies they are seen as these different islands. But we’re putting everyone together so they can complement each other and learn from each other and everyone becomes very integrated. You know that the creative’s there but it’s coming into this middle ground between art direction and design. The level of importance for it has been pulled up to the surface. 

LBB> That touches on something else, which is how expansive the definition of design is now. In the past it would have been mostly graphic design. But now there’s so much more!

Ross> That’s why all this is happening. It’s so important. Going back to the 48 sheet. That was beautiful art direction and graphic design. But the internet was a big turning point. You’ve got so many channels. You have to think more than just what the font that’s going to be on there is. How is it going to work? What’s the system? Digital’s changed everything.

With the 48 sheet, you’d walk past it and see it and then you might go to work and do your work and then you might go home and watch TV and see an ad. But now, people are getting bombarded with content and images 24/7. So how do we adjust and work to start to get content and design that will flex? That’s why we’re bringing everyone together.

So even if we are doing a 48 sheet and someone else is working on the UX for a different project, there has to be this collective, so when a project does come in that requires everything, nobody wonders ‘who are the UX guys?’ They all know each other.

Pablo> And not only crafting the final product. Design and art direction have become incredibly important to actually making ideas happen and getting clients to approve them. Because learning design is so easy now; with a Macbook Pro and YouTube you can learn everything. All the kids are coming here and learning Final Cut and After Effects. It’s another revolution. When I started in advertising I knew how to use the computer and the old art directors were like “Oh man! What is happening?” It’s a massive change. I think it’s happening again with the new designers learning everything. 

It’s something very human. When a client needs to choose which idea they go for, if they have in front of them beautifully crafted presentations, almost finished products, people go for it. We can present a scamp. It doesn't matter how good the idea is. Anyone would choose the most crafted product. We need to go for it, so we can make ideas happen. 

Ross> The days of an idea on the back of a fag packet are long gone. And that’s the beauty of the people coming in. They’re so much more multi-skilled now. It’s amazing really. The people we’re bringing in are influencing the people who’ve been around for a while.

We’re doing tutorials at the moment. We’ve got a young guy who’s really good at After Effects having taught himself. He’s doing a tutorial open to everyone about how to get into After Effects. I thought probably five people would do it. I think we had 70 people coming. Because everyone can see if they can do a scamp, just add that little bit of motion to it… The problem I’ve always had is you have an idea, it’s in your head and the client can’t grasp what’s in your head!

LBB> Right. You can’t do it justice!

Ross> Exactly, but the minute you can start to move it a bit, it might cut out five rounds of different ideas or revisions. So it’s all streamlining the process.

The younger people coming in are so in tune with what’s going on. They’re so DIY, making little films to put on Instagram… it’s just so refreshing.

LBB> BBH is an agency with such heritage. How does this moment fit into that story of art and design over the decades?

Ross> I think it’s a perfect moment. BBH was built on craft, whether it was the craft of a TV ad or a 48 sheet. Craft is the key. And I think because of the changing shape of the industry and the different types of work, they’ve realised they had to have these two different disciplines and bring craft back into them.

That’s not to say the work didn’t have craft before. It was the craft across the journey rather just at certain points. So Ian [Heartfield], who’s moved, his big thing was that it’s the whole journey, not pockets of craft - craft across every touchpoint. Every single touchpoint is as important as the big, glossy whatever-it-is. Even if it’s a Tesco till screen, everything has to have that level of craft. That’s why between the two of us we’re making sure that everything is as good as it can be. The littlest things have to be as good as the biggest thing.

Pablo> Absolutely. Even the presentations. We already changed the presentations that we show to our clients so we have an ownable voice as BBH. And it’s already making us stronger. You can see how the shape of our ideas has improved massively. So we therefore maximise the chances of them happening.

In terms of how it feels to be here in this agency, it’s scary!

Ross> Daunting!

Pablo> Not long ago we put the first ads that the agency did on the wall. John Hegarty, the H of BBH, always said “advertising is 80% idea and 80% execution”. He’s fucking brilliant. And he was an art director. Everyone in the industry was impressed by the craft of this agency. And you can see through the years that all that craft has been put towards making sure people talk about the ads that we put out there. It’s done in a way that feels current but at the same time timeless. 

[Pablo points to an ‘80s Levi’s campaign, shot by Richard Avedon, on the wall]
This is the 1980s, Richard Avedon!

Ross> I mean, that would live now! That is incredible. 

That campaign almost got me into what I do now. There was the Nick Kamen TV ad and you’d take it in and think it’s cool. But then when you realise you want to go into design and don’t really know what you want to do… that [he points at the Levi’s ad] has always stuck with me. I'd be proud of that now. I think everything about it is right. And that’s why on one hand you can feel daunted by the legacy here, but on the other hand it’s brilliant because they’ve given us the trust to do it. We’ve both been here for four years. They’ve realised that we have the passion for these disciplines so they gave us this task to bring it together and connect the creative with the art direction and the design, rather than just passing it along.

Pablo> It’s proved very fruitful because the advertising landscape has changed and there are so many disciplines. The truth is that there are fewer opportunities to do good print and poster campaigns. Before the brief was to do TV, print, a poster or a radio ad. And now it’s everything. The discipline suffers. When the clients ask for activations or integrated campaigns, at the end of the day it’s less single-minded and the creatives have less opportunities to create striking ads.

So I think our role as well is chasing opportunities and defending what we have. Mark Reddy [ex-BBH head of art], the master of art direction, could sit down and wait for people to come with ads because the briefs were there. But now we have to chase every opportunity to create something good.

That’s why we’ve put up the classics with Blu Tac and below them the ones that we’ve done this year with magnets, just to check that it’s not embarrassing to see them together. And that we are getting the quality that we need, if we can do something as good as the iconic Levi’s, Johnnie Walker or the Lynx Effect. It is scary.

But then you have Absolut, Burger King. I think if we keep working hard, in 20 years people will be proud of what BBH did in this era.

Ross> We have to work very hard for that! But it’s getting there. We’ve got Absolut, Audi - all these amazing clients. It’s just the way the industry is. They’re not asking for one iconic image. It is the whole journey. That’s why we work closely with customer experience, we do journey mapping and all kinds. We can identify where there are opportunities that get bypassed, so we can start to build a really holistic solution.

I think that’s why we’re really strong at the moment. Because we have these specialisms. We have a lot of weapons at our disposal now that are all coming together. And having them all quite close and connected, rather than dotted around, is really exciting.

Pablo> At the end of the day, that is a big outdoor piece [he points to a recent Absolut campaign on the wall, shot by David LaChapelle]. It’s more complicated, but you have so many more things to play with. It’s exciting.

Ross> We’re getting more of that experience-led work. We did the Samsung AR thing with Family Guy, we did the Space Selfie, we did this [Absolut].

Pablo> And Whopper Secret! That’s an outdoor campaign that didn’t happen at the time. It happened later with the reveal.

Ross> Over the year there was this thing happening on all the shoots and it’s so nice to be able to reveal it. It was really positive how much attention it got. Because it’s quite guerilla in a way, without being overly about slating McDonald’s. It was a nice little nudge.

LBB> Totally! You can see in BK work from various agencies and markets, there’s a bit of variation in how snarky it gets. 

Ross> That’s it. The stuff coming from America is amazing but I think the way we do it over here is a bit more gentle. It’s not crossing that line. That’s the beauty of BBH. It’s classy.

The way we’re doing the template that Pablo was talking about. Before clients wanted their own decks in their style and we’re trying to bring it back. It’s a BBH deck. And your work’s in it. We want to be BBH. We want to bring that pride to our work.

LBB> As an agency, you’re working to bring consistency and the right art direction and design ethics for your clients, but you also want to do that within the brand of what you’re known for as an agency, what you’re known for.

Ross> That’s it. It’s got to be that way. Why it’s happening now is that 20 years ago BBH was just here. Now we have Singapore, Shanghai, New York, LA. And we are one unit but there’s a tendency for things to get a bit disparate. So we’re bringing it back so there’s one look and feel and we have the pride in the black sheep. When you walk round and see people doing their decks from the template. It’s so refreshing to see the little changes happening.

Pablo> Definitely. And we have to define what makes BBH BBH. What is an inherent part of the brand is craft. When you see it all together, it’s our classy, sophisticated, international campaigns that are famous and they are beautifully done. I come from Spain and these [he gestures at the iconic work on the wall for Levi’s, Audi, Johnnie Walker and the like] are campaigns I see in my country on billboards. So many people started in advertising because they saw an ad from Levi’s or Johnnie Walker.

Sometimes when we’re talking about ideas we’ll say “that doesn’t feel like BBH” and everyone knows what we’re talking about because they know what the brand stands for.

Ross> The reason we’re here is because craft is king. And also the pride in what you have working here, for the legends who started it.

There’s a feeling of being a black sheep here. There are loads of good agencies, but here there’s an ethos about being that black sheep, being different, the lack of egos. It’s an incredible place to work. And my goal is to get work now that students will have on their wall. There’s so much stuff out there that’s older that they probably don’t see. I want our stuff to be on the wall and in 10 years time they’ll say “that’s what got me into doing what I do”.
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BBH London, 2 months ago