Tricks of the trade: insights from an art director turned copywriter

I was an art director’s art director. I did my training back in the day before Apple Macs. I airbrushed. I learnt visual storytelling shooting with a manual film camera. So I’ve often wondered if approaching my copy career from the art side has made for a different approach to copywriting.

Agencies have traditionally separated copywriters and art directors into neat boxes of responsibility. But experience shows us that creativity doesn’t work that way.

While creativity is powerful when it’s collaborative, it’s explosive when its generalist.

Think Leonardo da Vinci’s groundbreaking art and visionary theories, William Blake’s metaphysical imagery and poems, and Dr Seuss’s peculiar doodles and dimeters – we don’t bat an eyelid at the art/copy crossover.

Painting with words © Kim Wareham

Well, at least that was on my mind when I resolutely left art direction and started writing. At the age of 30 (something), my system had received few shocks as intense as starting again as a junior. And there’s nothing like the wild unpredictability of being rubbish one day and brilliant the next. But when I first started writing, I felt I connected to the very essence of what it is to make advertising. Yet without my strong understanding of the business in art direction, I doubt I would’ve grown as quickly.

So here are some thoughts on writing, from an art director’s perspective. I hope they’re helpful:

1. Don’t be nice to art directors

When I look back on being in an agency team, I remember it being excruciating. Like when your copywriter badgers you into selling the awesome idea that’s impossible to execute. And you’re sobbing in the studio at 4am trying to make it happen. So in my early days as a copywriter, I was misguidedly proud that my experience on the art side helped me be an ‘art-director friendly’ copywriter. However, I now realise those writers’ passion and conviction often led to brilliance. You don’t do greatness by writing for your art director’s comfort.

2. Brand like an art director

If there’s one treasure that you can extract from your art director, it’s a deep understanding of branding. Branding is drummed into art directors from day one. They’re given a big brand guideline book on virtually every new client they work on, and they have to stick to it rigorously. In contrast the neglected copywriter doesn’t always get the same guidance on writing style. Mercifully times are changing: tone of voice is now a valued commodity. And everyone can see how a brand exists more distinctively through the personality of its writing. Compare the self-aware, playful Innocent with the scientifically delicious Coldpress. We can be bolder and challenge clients more in making language branding as distinctive as visual branding.

3. Write in 3D

You wouldn’t write for an installation without understanding how the space works or how visitors would make their way around it. So it’s helpful to recognise how three-dimensional the simplest marketing pieces can be. You can peel a brochure’s pages away to a sublime reveal, a website can entice you deeper and deeper into a brand experience.

It can be as obvious as writing to fit – asking your designer if they’re planning odd shapes, formats, special die-cuts and images so that you can make your copy work thoughtfully within the print area. But there’s so much more words can do to enhance design. Like the 3 D’s:

  • Double meaning. Designers love it when you use words that conjure up ideas and suggest powerful, cinematic images. (Like, ‘chill’ instead of ‘relax’ – there’s an image there.)
  • Design elements. Supply stats for an infographic, and compelling facts or quotes that can be used as pull-outs to help break up the layout. Or bold single words for typographics.
  • Drama. Write stories and contextualise your copy in ways that will appeal to the target market. (Instead of saying ‘Don’t break down without cover’, say ‘Don’t get stuck on the M12 with half a pasty and a screaming baby.’ It instantly creates a picture for the art director to play with.)

4. Use images to brainstorm copy

Art directors constantly look at pictures to brainstorm ideas. I find this works just as well for a copywriter coming up with headlines.

5. Keep it snappy

As an art director my resentment for heavy chunks of copy was a daily struggle. Now as a copywriter I understand how easy it is to waffle. But simplicity isn’t just beautiful, it’s more effective, impactful marketing.

6. Get excited by digital design

Thanks to the web, writing is more popular than it’s been in over a hundred years (even ex art directors can be okay copywriters). You don’t need a dictionary and grammar book to be published anymore. People write in a more contemporary, authentic way, where rules go out of the window. So rather than only obsessing over SEO and web writing best practice, immerse yourself in what’s fashionable in web design.

The move towards more device- and wearable-focused pages, scrolling designs, flat pages and massive imagery mean words will become more part of the design. And need to be much simpler and smarter. It’s exciting and it’s evolving so fast. It constantly inspires me to push the limits of my writing. See the way this parallex website, Dangers of Fracking tells a complex story intuitively.

7. Ying & yang

The bottom line is that virtually every single piece of marketing is a mix of words and pictures. We can’t escape each other and we’re better when we’re together. I’m pushing all my clients to let us work closer with designers, earlier on in the process. And the results are showing in better work and more effective marketing.

Image © Kim Wareham


20th August 2015

Peter Mann

Great advice, Kim – thanks for sharing it. And I concur with your ‘writing to fit’ comment: being forced only to use 50 words or whatever is probably the best of all editing tools.

24th August 2015

Kim Wareham

Thanks Peter!

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