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How Art Directors can command attention

The Founder of GBH Design shows us unusual ways to make our creative work ‘sticky’

Illustration by Julia Wytrazek

We are bombarded with hundreds of images and videos every day, and in a sea of visuals, it can be hard to stop people in their tracks. We spoke to Mark Bonner, former D&AD President, founder of GBH Design, and course leader of our Art Direction for Brand Communication Masterclass, who explained a few outside-the-box ways of thinking to create unforgettable work.

Release your grip on control to surprise yourself and your audience

Knowing audiences are hungry for details and a story, Art Directors often plan every detail when creating work, deciding on styling, props and the smallest easter egg visual in advance. However, Bonner cautions against letting the need to be in control become paralysing – especially when it comes to perfectionism. “Imperfect work can be perfect,” he says. 

Bonner gives the example of The Beatles’ album cover for Abbey Road shot by Iain Stewart McMillan. Shot very quickly, it’s full of startling details that came about via happenstance: the Volkswagen Beetle in the background, Paul McCartney’s bare feet, the curious passerby. None of that was planned but it makes the image more interesting. “Notoriety and fascination develop around things that can't quite be completely resolved by the audience,” Bonner says. “That makes the work sticky, which means people can’t shrug it off easily.” Essentially, if you’re willing to “let accidents happen” and lean into the unexpected or off-kilter, it might be even more memorable than anything you could have storyboarded.

Let yourself be inspired by others

Creatives are often told to focus on their own vision, as it’s all too easy to be too influenced by what other people are doing. However, Bonner says closely dissecting the work of others who have produced inspiring work is beneficial. He recommends studying famous photos and “ingrained images” from the 20th Century to better understand what makes an impactful visual, paying close attention to the choices made by the image maker or picture editor to shape both perspective and narrative – the vantage point of the photo, the selection of the final image or sequence all have an effect. 

He also suggests looking at other forms of art. Commercial art direction has its own specific aims, but it can absolutely learn from its creative cousins. He gives the example of Jeremy Deller’s performance installation we’re here because we’re here, a 2016 immersive work commissioned to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, featuring thousands of volunteers at railway stations around the UK dressed as soldiers. Bonner points out all the decisions that went into making it such a powerful performance; “[Deller] decided that the uniforms should be pristine, because he wanted people to think about the day they left us to go to the front line.” Through analysing every choice made by Deller from concept to the minutest detail of execution, Bonner says, you can see how “a perfect project” is built.

Bring in specialists in their fields

In order to get it right, Bonner says, you’ve got to be willing to be a part of a cohesive whole and pay attention to all parts of the creative process. “Even if you're working in quite a big team, you still have to be across the image making, the writing, the editing,” he says. “It’s challenging because you end up feeling like a jack of all trades. But you've got to be able to collaborate with specialists to do work of a very high level, because I don't believe that there's anybody who can deliver all these multiple functions themselves. You've got to be brave enough to bring in people who are better than you [while retaining] the purity of the vision."

Remember that you’re competing with Mother Nature

When it comes to benchmarking your progress, Bonner suggests an unusual competitor. “Mother Nature is the greatest art director of all time,” he quips. “She's got the best portfolio in the world. You just can't compete with that.” It’s useful to think about, he says, because the natural world provides the perfect example of relentlessly innovative and beautiful work. “She invents all the time, and it's constantly being rethought and redone and evolving.” 

You have to set your sights just as high. “If that's out there for people to see for free, why do they get up in the morning looking forward to seeing advertising or graphic design? They can look at the mountains.” Ultimately though, it’s a good reminder that simplicity is key. “That's why we all yearn to go on holiday. That's what people really want to enjoy. Sometimes it's the simplest, humblest things that people fall in love with, right? So the message is to not overcomplicate it.” 

Mark Bonner’s D&AD Masterclass Art Direction for Brand Communication packs thirty years of insight into a day. Through a series of workshops and visual exercises you’ll learn to analyse what makes an image work, improve your own ability to bring ideas to life, and hone new ways of viewing the world. More information and sign-ups to the course here. You can also explore do at your own pace courses here, as well as upcoming in-person and online teaching here.

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