I just finished reading a blog post written by my d.trio co-worker Beth titled, “Is a designer an artist?” In the excellent post, she explores the differences between a designer and a fine artist—writing that she usually feels more like a craftsperson than an artist. Beth says it’s partly because the things she makes is in service of her client’s heart, not her own.
I’d like to look at it another way.
In my early career days, my extremely supportive mom used to ask why the ads I worked on didn’t have my signature on the bottom. While I appreciated the sentiment, I had to explain that the client paid for the ad, and so even though it was my concept, it was supposed to be coming from the client directly. It was their message. I might have done the work, but they bought it—and the right to put their own signature on the bottom in the form of their logo.
Sure, it’s a silly question only a mom would ask. But I can see her point. I believe there is a personal side to this kind of work. When I’m concepting an ad or writing a headline, I may be speaking through the client’s mouth, but the sense of humor, the way of looking at the world, the word choices—those are mine. It makes me feel a little bit like Cyrano de Bergerac hiding in the bushes.
While the message is the client’s, it’s the humanity that brings it to life. Great marketing makes a genuine personal connection with its audience. When a headline puts a smart universal truth into the world, there’s a bit of me in there, too. Because I’m tapping into what I know to be true about the world.
As designers and copywriters, everything we do has a client logo on it. Even so, if you look at a designer’s or writer’s portfolio, you can pick up a distinct overall style. Why? Because we each put ourselves into our work. Even though the work is technically for someone else, we all have unique personal styles that come through.
The mere fact that it’s possible to identify one writer or designer’s work from another says to me that what we do is a kind of art. Which isn’t to say that clients are our patrons, paying for us creatives to do whatever we want. It’s all about delivering strategic communications that satisfy a client’s communication goals. But within those boundaries, we writers and designers need to access our own feelings, experiences, and understanding about the world in order to create marketing that works.
It’s not always smooth sailing. Sometimes our point of view and the client’s may not align. But even so, throughout my career I’ve had a lot of fun expressing my own humor and sensibilities through my marketing work in all kinds of ways. In fact, it seems like the more of myself I put into a project, the better it ends up—and the more strongly people respond to it.
Even though I don’t sign my work when it’s finished, every marketing piece I’ve ever worked on has in some way been a personal reflection of myself.
And to me, that’s what being an artist is all about.