OILS & INCS
NEGOTIATING THE BALANCE IN COMMERCIAL ART
by Anne Prowell
A friend once gave me a trick pen that embodies the conflict in
producing commercial art. With a nib at each end, the pen illumes
ART on the barrel if used in one direction, or whn inverted, it glows with
COMMERCE. The only way to get the combination to shine is to hold
the pen level and inert.
If you are managing a creative commercial project, coaxing this
hybrid through production and into life, you know the dilemma. You
stand between lions and tigers daily. Artists and marketing MBAs,
poets and engineers, musicians and lawyers, programmers and actors
are all on the set, tossing manes and tails around in magnetic opposition.
However jazzed they are about their role in the project, they're also
utterly baffled by a counterpart's brain. And wary of motives they
don't understand.This dazzling mix of people would never congregate
on their own and if you threw a party for them, it would be over at
nine. But youˇthe producer, creative director, managing editor ˇhave
been commissioned to forge a bond here, to mate reds with blues, and
hold them through the interminably long gestation until this profitable
child is launched.
If you're good, you understand both species, their motivations and
the technicalities of their expertise. You're of the mix and above
the fray diplomatically, yet you need much more than a harmonious
and stablized team. You want speed and muscle. New heights! You need
balance at the fulcrum of the see-saw with airborne thrills in the
Usually, the most critical choice you will make in the success of
the project is up front, in which design process model you're going
to adopt. Some of you will scoff at adopting anything so rigid as
a process template, particularly during the honeymoon phase when you're
still holding client meetings at the wine bar. But bear in mind that
mismatching the commercial project and the artistic process is the
fast track to mediocrity. After you've landed the bid, while you're
studying the players and the project, consider how the governance
In broad strokes, here are the three primary process models to choose
Intuitive design process
Intuitive design occurs within one mind. It is Einstein in his little
room near the Patent Office, mulling quirks in the universe. Jenny
Yin's contest entry for the Vietnam Memorial. Carl Jr.'s Happy Star
slumped in a chair.
The point is to give a single artist maximum rein and hope for exceptional
results. If the artist and the client are in sync, it can happen,
which means that you, the intermediary, must step back. Micromanaging
the intuitive process is lethal. Your mediating influence is preferably
administrative and personal, providing support or relief to each end
of the equation. In this situation chances are that either you or
the client has worked with the artist/studio many times before and
trusts each other professionally. The artist knows the client has
the necessary clout for approvals and the client knows the artist
produces reliably stunning work. You can go from concept to delivery
on a single sketch or key message if the team is well chosen.
There are other instances when you may choose this process, though
at high risk, without any previous working history together. If a
client is a non-profit organization, or for some other reason the
budget is unrealistically tight, you have an opportunity to try out
fresh talent who will work at a discounted rate. They may be students
from the college or a new freelancer building a portfolio. The discount
buys the artist a certain creative freedom but you may have to nudge
them through revisions to meet the client's standard or tastes. And
you'll need a full dose of tact and patience if they are young and
hormonally opposed to protocol. If you are also on a tight deadline,
you can expect high stress, because you are the buffer, the sponge
for stress, in this "more art faster!" situation.
The more dangerous pitfall in the intuitive design process, however,
is ego. The artist may suddenly assume the persona of auteur, or the
client's boss has a brainstorm in the wake of a fourth-quarter loss.
One is tempermental and the other one terrorized, and you end up taking
off your gloves. You have to power your way in-between, and you might
have to sub-in for the one who storms away. Usually you don't want
that one to be the client.
I have been on all three ends of this process: artist, client and
creative director. I've won awards and I've eaten dirt. If you are
a novice at any of these roles, I suggest a more linear approach.
Linear Design Process
Only rarely do you find a commercial client like Apple Computer,
for instance, with a visionary design mind at the helm. More often
the corporate approvals structure overwhelms aesthetic values with
practical salesmanship. The obvious conservatism of business and the
equal inclination to risk in art will therefore jointly benefit from
a series of scheduled reality checks.
The linear design process is the standard in advertising. A Request
for Proposal goes out to several agencies and they each return a slate
of ideas. One is chosen and developed by consensus to a pre-formed
objective. On large budget projects there is a client, an agency and
a production studio, all of whom gnash over the interim output. The
artists resent the young know-nothings at the agency, who have the
client's ear. The client contact in the marketing department does
not have approval authority, so wants to schedule meetings twice a
week. The agency wants the corners on the budget so cuts out all-night
press checks or location scouts, whatever. It sounds like bedlam,
and that is your job.
You have everybody's ear. You call meetings. You go to the press
checks. You oil the machine and -- most importantly of all -- you
defend the customer, or viewer. As in the intuitive design process,
the linear model rarely includes real public response testing until
most of the work is done. In well-run corporate campaigns, there may
be focus group testing for the key messages early on, but it is an
exception. Instead, all the best minds involved do their utmost to
divine the consumer, but the creative services director knows that
these players are all rare birds. They probably never lived in a 3
BR ranch in Kansas City, haven't had time to sit on Little League
benches for ten years, don't know anymore about Spanish than they
learned in the grade school cafeteria, and think we should all get
into configuring networks. You are the person between them and ordinary
In running a linear process, logic favors momentum. Keep the energy
and creativity up without over-analyzing or weakening confidence by
prematurely showcasing an unfinished work. Use small workgroups with
peer reviews on frequent schedules, then bring multiple sessions together.
This isn't a shortcut model. You build time into the schedule for
simmering the idea and honing it internally as a group. You do not
rush to market relying on the artiste/entrepreneurial sensibilities,
as above; you ease both sides into the final form.
In my circle of writers we have a saying, "The purpose of a first
draft is the second draft." And at the California College of Arts
and Crafts a student paints an object 100 times to learn the lesson
of loosening up. Nurturing this culture, with a timeline to back it
up, is really the key to the linear process. Without it, as KFC found
out in its zeal to air 13 new spots in three months, the result can
be embarrassing: Colonel Sanders doing a jig for popcorn chicken was
plain old undignified.
Iterative design process
And so we come to the in-house corporate design process, where functional
objectives rule entirely. This is the graphics department at Clorox,
the marcom team at Charles Schwab...it is ubiquitous and tedious...and
tempting. Companies who prioritize cost-management employ it exclusively,
because, though it's lean on art, it produces clear marketing measurements.
If you're working on this kind of project, you must embrace this culture
of the spreadsheet.
To give an example, I recently observed the marketing staff at Clorox
rise in jubilation at the new market share numbers for their Toilet
Wand product. This is a clever product and it's won prizes for being
so, but the competition was much more exciting to them than the product
design. And when I brought in a copy of a brilliant print ad, full
of humor and personality, it got barely a glance.
Understand this; accept this. Send flowers from the creative studio
when the numbers come in, proving your worth. And explain it to the
creatives this way:
Changing the label on a bottle of Drano will ultimately involve hundreds
of employees, maybe thousands around the world. Each graphic change
initiates months of accounting work up and down the supply chain,
assigning it new parts numbers, matched to new written standards,
print orders and even orders to destroy what is left of the old label
in plants from Boise to Buenos Aires. Brand repositioning has an awesome
domino effect on production and supply. But they've changed the formula
slightly, based on volunteer testers (also known as "employees") and
you need to rush to market with these unique customer insights before
Liquid Plummer signs its deal with Walmart. That's the business. It's
completely different than redesigning a wine label for a boutique
No one person is ever in control of this in-house process.
If you're the fulcrum of the see-saw on a project like this, take
the opposite strategy of the first and simplest design process. Rather
than hold back, letting synergy between the client and artist grow,
ramp up your presence. If you're a control freak, all the better.
Starting with the initial bid, build in contingencies and expect constant
change orders. Keep a tight grip on the accounting. Be firm on deadlines
and develop a loud voice that carries across departments. Do not sit
at your desk answering phones or studying timelines. Form a half-dozen
key relationships across the organizational structure, and hold high
level meetings late after the day's changes so each morning the troops
know what to make of yesterday's tangle.
And remain the Impressionist illusion of calm.
At the time of the dotcom crash I was supervising copy for a dual
function Inter/Intranet at a consulting company. The Iterative Design
Process went on forever. The Creative Director was an engineer. The
Information Architect was 22. The lead designer was a whiz at rapid
prototyping, pulling variations on a rectangle out of his machine
Long meetings on mission statements and key messages. Formal objectives
for each page of the site: here we want a sense of excitement, there
a warm comfortable sigh - all nebulous goals that design and writing
teams interpreted differently. The size of the site grew to third
and fourth level navigational clutter.
Design died and copy grew stale. Expert reviews, usability tests,
navigational scavenger hunts, and the endless tweaking produced in
the end a big contagious yawn. And then the layoffs began. The common
hazard in this process model is that nothing gets final approval.
Expert reviewers and marketing research specialists frequently advocate
this type of design process with the adage, "Two heads are better
than one." Not on the same body!, the creative would shriek. My professional
experience is more equivocal. Studies out of AT&T on the web design
process, for example, show that users want more changes in site navigation
than expert reviewers do. Expert reviewers want more tests. Expert
reviewers never reduce the quantity of what they wantˇalways more
testsˇbut users' requests for changes decline across revisions. The
conclusion is: Users can be satisfied. Experts cannot.
The same friend with the art-or-commerce pen is nudging me to end
this article. "There's no getting it right, just get it written."
It's a little epiphany when I lay down the pen. Commercial art is
at some point finished.