Big Issue Foundation poster
Big Issue Foundation poster
Agency: TBWA London. Year: 2001.
Art director: Paul Belford. Copywriter: Nigel Roberts.
Agency: TBWA London. Year: 2001. Art director: Paul Belford. Copywriter: Nigel Roberts.
Crap, dickhead, arse.

I wonder how many clients would agree to copy containing those words? Their use is not gratuitous in the example above of course, but it’s fairly shocking to see in an ad nevertheless.

They’re there to add realism. And to make the message more memorable. ’Yeah but no one reads copy anymore’ you say. ’Crap’, I say… it depends on the copy.

I worked on this print campaign for the Big Issue Foundation with writer Nigel Roberts. So when this poster went up on the London Underground, I used to watch people reading it.

Often, every word.

But never mind the body copy, what about the headline?

Surely a 29 word headline on a poster is asking for trouble? And it might help if it actually made sense?

Most clients would have laughed you out of the room by now.

This headline is an unusual way to dramatise drug addiction. Yes, it’s weird. But that’s what makes it more noticeable.

And once the headline has grabbed your attention, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to start reading the rest of the ad. Especially when your opening gambit is: ‘You’re freezing your arse off in some doorway every night…’, who could resist? The peaks in the copy that keep the reader addicted include ‘it’s a holiday for your brain but it’s only a short trip…’ and ‘some dickhead in a duffel coat who’s read a couple of Irvine Welsh books…’.

My job as art director was to do everything possible to make sure that these words were read. So it seemed like a good idea to make the body copy as big as the headline. And the same bold weight as the headline.

In a millisecond it says to the viewer that this is serious stuff. The copy is set in the sans serif typeface Akzidenz Grotesk for the same reason; it’s very legible yet also looks powerful and important.

Making the headline red catches the eye and differentiates it. But then, without missing a beat, we’re straight into the copy. Received wisdom would say make the headline bigger and have at least a bit of a gap between it and the body copy to give the eye a rest. It would also say put some paragraphs in the copy to make it easier to read.

I very rarely pay any attention to received wisdom. It tends to make your work look just like everyone else’s; an unwise approach for any art director.

I actually did try it with paragraphs but it suddenly looked more polite and normal. It somehow lost any urgency and gravitas. But a poster entirely full of dense copy would have been just too much. Hence the top and side margins. Creating a useful contrast of white space that really helps the words stand out and stops them becoming completely overwhelming.

The rag in the typesetting down the right-hand side is also deliberate. Alternate long and then short lines create a pleasing balance to the typography. It takes quite a lot of work to achieve this using a combination of rewriting the odd word, and subtle adjustments of horizontal scale, tracking, kerning and word spacing. It’s a pain in the arse (sorry… I’ve got rude words on the brain now…) but worth the effort.

And now the really controversial bit. There’s no logo.

In this instance, I believed that the ad would be more likely to be read if it didn’t look like an ad. Just powerful, intriguing words about a social problem. The plan was to then introduce the Big Issue Foundation once people were more receptive because they were already reading.

The client agreed. We didn’t fight about it at all.

Whilst the imagery here is not a major element in the layout, the apparent random positioning of discarded needles adds a useful visual contrast to the dense regimented copy. The needles are actually simple scans on the cheap studio flatbed scanner.

So there you have it. This is probably one of the least compromised pieces of advertising design and art direction that I’ve done.

Hopefully these notes give you a few arguments to use next time some sod in a suit who’s read a couple of marketing textbooks is trying to ruin your work.