Turn on Mac, turn off Brain.

By The Portland Egotist / /


Or your PC. Or your iPad, iPhone or any other hi-tech gadget you cannot live without. If there’s one thing I have learned over the years, it’s that a computer is a tool, and it should be used in that way. Just like a carpenter wouldn’t use a table saw to formulate ideas for a new table or stool, you shouldn’t use a Mac to create new ads.

I’m not saying they should be outlawed. If you want to do some Photoshopping or retouching for your chosen ad, great. If you need to create a vector logo, cool. If you’re roughing a storyboard, more power to you. Macs are perfect tools for creating and honing the finished product. But when it comes to having ideas, the only hi-tech device you need is a pen, a sheet of paper and your brain. You can argue all you want with me on this, but you’ll lose.

When I first started out in this industry, the computer was a shared commodity. The copywriters used it to write a final draft of the copy. The art directors would get on one of the Macs in the design room and put together a rough comp of the chosen ad. But that was the extent of the screen-gazing. The rest of the time, our desks were filled with marker pads, pens, pencils, coffee cups, annuals, the occasional tattered stock photo book, and candy bar wrappers. Oh, and a dictionary and thesaurus (which were used for reference only).

Well my desk was like that anyway.

After I received the creative brief, I would read it several times and ask questions. My art director would do the same. Once we were clear, we’d take a walk or pop down to the local boozer for a beer and a chat. On other occasions, we’d put the brief to one side and finish off another job.

But when we were ready, we reached for the marker pads and the Sharpies and got to work. We wrote word lists. We sketched. We threw out ideas. We berated those ideas. We hit our heads off the walls. We played basketball with the rolled up pieces of paper that littered our desk. We prayed to the mighty ad gods for an idea. We sacrificed chickens to those gods (in the form of a KFC bucket and some hot sauce).

However, at no point did either of us go to the computer and start mocking up ads or trawling the Internet for ideas. It was taboo. It was something the hacks did in production shops and other design warehouses. You would actually feel embarrassed if you presented an ad to your counterpart that was anything more than a sketch.


Because in advertising, you go big on ideas and small on technology. At first, anyway. You throw down as many ideas as you can, as quickly as you can, and to my knowledge no one has invented something that helps you do this that’s better than paper and a pen/pencil.

Once you had covered the desk, or the wall, with pages and pages of ideas, you would condense, eliminate, merge and shape them into ideas worthy to present to the CD. Those ideas would get presented to the account team in the same state. Most of the time, those ideas would get boarded up as-is and shown to the client. Sometimes they would be redrawn by an illustrator…but not often.

Your big ideas stay big by being loose. They have endless possibilities. The sketch does not paint you into a corner. There is no elaborate work that people are afraid to comment on, because it’s finished already. The client feels like part of the process too, because they are along for the ride to help shape that big idea into the finished ad. And as several great designers and advertisers have said, it’s hard to kill a baby if you birthed it. And it’s in production, when the final idea is being formed, that the computers have a place. Now they come into their element. This is where a Mac shines. Here, your big idea becomes a finished idea, ready to send out into the world for all to see and praise. Hopefully.

Today, I’m sad to say, it’s a different story. Creative teams everywhere are staring at Mac screens the second after the account manager has finished the brief. A few hours later, polished comps start shooting out of the printer, and most of them are style over content. There is no depth of thinking in that process. There is not a natural progression of ideas. There is no quantity of ideas. And sadly, the quality is lacking as well.

If you’re a “modern” CD, you have no doubt become accustomed to seeing work that’s of a more finished level in the initial stages. You may even like to get it that way. Why? I have no idea. But saying yes to anything with that level of finish, even if the idea happens somehow to be killer, is dangerous. Because after you’ve dazzled the account team, next up is the client.

You know as well as I do what happens when you present something that looks like a finished ad to the client; they comment on the intricacies of the ad. They don’t like the color, they don’t like the texture on the background, they think the smile on the guy’s face is off brand, and they have an issue with the size of the logo. They can’t see the big idea because you’ve hidden it under technique (and if the technique IS your idea, I hate you and everything you stand for).

I’m not going to delve any deeper on the subject of presenting highly-finished work to a client; that’s a slightly different argument. Here, the emphasis is on thinking. And if you want to be thought of as someone who has great ideas, you need to cut the cord between you and your Mac when you’re concepting.

Blow the dust off those Prismacolor grays. Break out the bleedproof marker pads. Buy a big box of Sharpies (my preference, as a writer, is for Ultra Fine or Extra Fine) and write down ideas until your pens run dry.

All of you, some more than others, are no doubt guilty of thinking on a Mac. I’ve done it. And when I look back, it shows. I never go straight to the machine now, I am surrounded by paper and pens and every idea gets spilled onto the page before it ever sees a Mac. Even when I’m writing copy, I put my outline on paper first. So, sorry Steve Jobs. As much as I love your products, they should be banned from the thinking process; even in the new 2011, the pen is mightier than the Mac.

Originally published by The Denver Egotist.