What is Art Direction (No. 9)

Alive Day Memories - Home From Iraq

This outdoor ad, newly posted on a phone kiosk, arrested me as I strolled down Lexington Avenue last night. Its explicit content can be summarized as follows:

A young woman, facing the viewer, holds what appears to be a prosthetic arm—her own prosthetic arm, one infers. The young woman is casually dressed in a sweater and jeans. Her expression borders on neutral. Where her right arm should be, the sweater has been pinned back. The poster also contains words advertising a new HBO documentary, executive-produced by James Gandolfini, concerning the difficulties faced by a new generation of American war veterans returning home from Iraq.

That is a pictorial inventory, but the poster contains more content than I have listed. Most of that content is externally located. For this poster has been framed and shot, and its subject styled and posed, almost exactly like an American Gap ad.

Consciously or unconsciously, an American viewer will almost certainly make an uncomfortable connection between the disfigurement and sacrifice portrayed in this ad, and the upbeat quality of the Gap’s long-running, highly successful clothing slash lifestyle campaign.

That connection is content. And the non-verbal information that triggers that content in the viewer’s mind is art direction.

Wordless and full of meaning

What is the art direction saying? What is it adding to the content that is already there? Surely the sight of an attractive young woman who has lost her arm fighting in Iraq is loaded enough as an image. Surely a non-combatant, far from Iraq, safe at home, already feels plenty of complex emotions when confronted with this one veteran and at least some of the visual evidence of her sacrifice. What additional statement is being made by the art director’s decision to style this poster like a Gap ad?

Here is a possible reading:

While many Americans are well aware that their country is at war, many others are doing their best to blot that thought out of their minds. In this effort at collective amnesia they are abetted by many retail advertisers and TV programmers, including not a few TV news programmers. Ratings-wise, the war is a bummer. Sales-wise, it is a drag. America wants to shop and move on. (Interestingly, the fashion industry is the one segment of America’s consumer culture that is paying attention. The 691 pages of the new September Vogue are filled with skirts, shoes, dresses, and jackets that obviously resemble armor or in other ways clearly invoke awareness of war and warriors.)

In conceiving the way this poster would be shot and styled, the art director was not holding the Gap responsible for the war in Iraq. Nor was he or she blaming the viewer. But by carefully echoing the imagery of an ad that epitomizes our comfortably shallow consumer lifestyle, the art director does indict the complacent among us and challenge us to think about something besides our next new sweater or iPod.

The placement of type ensures that the words are the last thing we see on the poster. We absorb and are discomfited by the rich, non-verbal text for several beats before our eyes take in the explicit, written content announcing a documentary.

That is art direction. It is not art. It is not design. It is something else. It makes us feel. It makes us think. It holds up the mirror to our desires, our regrets, ourselves.

[tags]artdirection, whatisartdirection, alivedaymemories, iraq, gap, veterans, advertising, iraqwar, wariniraq, posters, thesis, antithesis, synthesis [/tags]

41 thoughts on “What is Art Direction (No. 9)

  1. Go figure. I was just thinking about incorporating non-verbal cues in a website design when this pops out of the reader.

    A side note: these kinds of articles, and those on ALA as well, do a great service for the web in general. While I occationally miss the CSS-trickery articles, there’s a greater value to be found here. Occationally supplying source code doesn’t compare with thought-provoking and well written articles.

    Your work improving the quality of writing on the web might prove to be as substantial as all those years of web standards advocacy.

  2. Wonderful read. It seems that the flame is burning again and the old passion and fire is back.
    Best read in years.

  3. Excellent. And I agree that ALA could benefit from this sort of article.

    Though I’m currently writing my own article for ALA, so I’m glad I don’t have to compete with this article for the next issue :)

  4. I wanted to say thanks for the uptick in entries.

    After not seeing much more than pointers to ALA recently, the last few days of ‘Content’ have been great little surprises at the end of my google reader list (sorted A to Z!) .

  5. very insightful real world example. when i notice and say things like this at work, people look at me funny like i don’t know wtf i’m talking about. i guess insights like this only apply in nyc. but thanks for the quantification and validation. i needed to hear it.

  6. Thanks for making me see. I consider myself visually literate, but would have missed this without your post.

  7. Guess I don’t have the cultural vocabulary to see the similarities between this and a Gap ad. That either means one thing… I’d make a crap art director or the Gap ads aren’t as iconic as some people think.

    I think what’s good about this ad is that it’s powerful and striking without “getting” the unspoken Gap reference. The Gap reference is just gravy for the initiated.

    I had a very successful boss who would tell me that when I was working on site navigation for his site, I should go look at Amazon and Yahoo and cherrypick the best stuff from them.

    It wasn’t to create an unconscious association between the site I was working on and Yahoo or Amazon. It was because these were sites who were working on solutions to issues I was dealing with, but who had teams of designers and extensive testing labs. So when I “cribbed from their exams”, I was getting free design cues that had been highly tested for effectiveness, saving a lot of reinvention of the wheel.

    So the question is whether the AD was going for the Gap comparison, or whether he was just using a tried-and-tested style to churn out an effective poster on what may have been a low budget (it may well be that this project was a carrot to get Gandolfini to do the final season of “The Sopranos”).

  8. I’d put money down that the AD had no intention of evoking the Gap.
    A white/empty bg in print is definitely not a visual cue to the Gap for most people. In video, absolutely, but certainly not in print.

    On that note, I can’t think of a more effective way to make you look at that woman for what she represents than to show her for what she is…an everyday woman (read: in jeans and an earth-toned sweater) who lost her arm defending her country.

    That connection is content
    This I whole-heartedly agree with. The core of an ADs mission is to solicit from the viewer a connection (subconcious in most occasions) to something familiar, then either play to it, or rail against it.

    I think the connection you’ve drawn isn’t exactly on the mark. Gap ads, 99% of the time, feature a full figure, not the 2/3 we se in this ad. The contrapposto of the typical Gap model is nowhere to be found in this ad…her stance is confrontational and forward, removing any hint of the ‘cooler-than-thou’ that Gap ads wreak of.

    My 2 cents.

  9. The soldier’s name seems to be Dawn Halfaker, and a websearch turns up many interviews.

    (When I see cultural instructions these days, I tend to check background.)


  10. She is not arresting, nor is the message. Why not say “My Arm was Blown Off in Iraq and Now I’m in for a Life Full of Hardship”?–OR–“The US Military is Evil (and to make it worse “I look like Sean Penn)”.

    Creative does not mean cryptic.

    Is this is a cheap, dull way to demonstrate the horror of war?

    I’m not up on my Gap-speak, and never would have seen the connection.

    How do our kids react to this ad–did anyone ask? Who’s the target?

  11. I agree that the art director had no intention of evoking the gap. (Since when did the Gap own the white backdrop??) That is what’s called a ‘reach’, when one is interpreting and trying to pin meaning on art. Why not just say they’re evoking an Apple ad? Just as iconic. Same white background. No- the white background is what it is. A straightforward, no-nonsense backdrop that’s only there to not be there- to not get in the way of the focus. Used in hundreds of ads without any thought of the Gap. And unfortunately, without that thread, the thesis here just falls apart.

  12. This ad reminds me a lot of the conference ad in Cryptonomicon. I think it’s just about the opposite, of course, but it really rings a bell. Does anyone else agree?

  13. The portrait of Dawn Halfaker, the soldier in Alive Day Memories poster, was taken by the photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sander, for whom I work.
    Timothy was invited by HBO to take portraits in his inimitable style of the soldiers who appeared in the documentary.
    There was no art director involved.
    Gap ad were not the paradigm for this poster (Gap ads are medium grey backgrounds usually, btw).
    No one was told how to dress or given instructions as to what he or she should wear. They showed up in their own clothes, some in jeans, some in uniform.
    Thought you might like to know this…
    and…www.greenfield-sanders.com is Timothy’s site if you are not familiar with his portraiture.

  14. Nice citation on art direction. Taking the time to direct thought with context really distinguishes both editor (me) and art director as story tellers and thought makers.

    PS to posters: Though I’m not a target of Gap marketing and therefore see little of it, yet I have no problem using it as a generational icon for “comfortably shallow consumer lifestyle” and getting Zeldman’s point about art direction. Because the Gap reference is just context for Zeldman (here we go again) and not a fact he’s reporting, the thread holds whether or not Gap holds true. Think of it as the Gap gap.

  15. Thank you, Mico. I’m grateful to you for supplying this information.

    Art directors are present on many shoots, but some great photographers work without them, essentially art-directing their own shoots. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, one of our great photographers, clearly falls into this category.

    Although the soldiers dressed themselves, out of all the soldiers Mr Greenfield-Sanders photographed, and the all shots he took, someone at HBO (an art director?) chose this particular shot, and created a poster around it. The person who chose this shot, I suspect, did so at least in part because of the resonances I wrote about. That’s my hunch, anyway. And regardless of anyone’s intentions, conscious or otherwise, the resonance is there.

  16. The Gap? Old Navy? The Limited? The Whatever.

    Do you care to know what she is thinking?

    I am just a woman, an average woman, who was doing my job to fulfill a mission. I am not a hero even if some consider me as such. I was trying to stay alive and keep those around me alive. I am not disabled. I am definitely not disfigured. I have just begun to live my life. Know that and treat me as such. This is not my arm that I am holding. That was left on the battlefield. There are many who have left much more behind. For those who may wonder what visits me when I am alone and in the dark, those things are no one’s damn business. Oh, and for those who wish to view me as being evil or a part of something evil, you should consider what I am holding as a club.

    What the advertisement is truly trying to communicate to the masses, I simply do not know.

  17. Perhaps one of the truisms of good art is that it inspires discussion. Both the photograph and its manner of use within the poster have spawned a lot of commentary. So, regardless of a number what we may think about what it communicates, consciously or unconsciously, the fact that we have this diversity of opinion and is a testament to the power of this poster.

    As for the woman in the poster… What she is actually thinking is sort of irrelevant. Art is about what it evokes in the viewer, not what the subject was thinking at the time. Quite often, knowing what the subject was thinking diminishes the power of the art.

    You’re looking at a photo, seeing this anguish in the model’s face, and you think of sorrow, loss, etc. It’s powerful. Then you find out the model was really jonesing for a cigarette and it ruins the photo for you.

    What’s important is what the photo makes you feel when you look at it, not what the artist or the model intended.

  18. Bulmash–

    What she is actually thinking is sort of irrelevant. […] Quite often, knowing what the subject was thinking diminishes the power of the art.

    The “power of the art”, in this specific piece, speaks differently to those who have been there and done that. That is not irrelevant. Simply a perspective presented from a different mind, nothing more and nothing less.

  19. It’s very rare these day that we see art direction produce a simple ad that is this conceptually dense. Of course, Greenfield-Sanders, the photographer, comes out of a long tradition of clean, fashion-referential photography. Think Richard Avedon and his In The American West series…hardly a stone throw from a lot of his fashion work for Vogue and celebrity portraits, but riddled with images of migrant farm workers, meat packers, etc.

    Some people leaving comments seem to be missing the point. Not everyone is going to get “Gap” from this ad, but it carries enough of the visual language of a Gap ad to produce symbolic reference to the fashion of clean stoicism and beautiful ennui. It’s very much referring to our desire as a culture to live in a psychologically ahistorical mode of self invention as “clean living” – like a Gap ad – juxtaposed with what we might consider the antithesis of this – the remnants of war and destruction of the integrity of the human body.

    Very effective ad. It’s a rare moment where advertising and fine art connect. Thanks for a great post! Cheers!

  20. Thought provoking ad. Ads like these make the consumers think more about their responsibility as citizens or as buyers, it is not just about buying the product but more than that

  21. FWIW, here is my reading which I got after reading some of Jeffrey’s introduction and before reading any comments. I give it because I think ads are mostly about first impressions and have different meanings for us all. It would have been interesting if everyone had given their readings to see if there was a consistent meaining common to everyone.

    I don’t know anything about Gap and my first impressions of the image above (I haven’t seen the actual advert) are of a young woman holding a right arm which is possibly prosthetic. I associate right arm and right hand with something or someone you are very dependent on, almost like how people talk about their ‘other half’ or ‘better half’. Therefore the image’s immediate impact is to display great loss. I then read the text and say to myself ‘ah yes, it’s an anti-war thing’. Then I look at the image again and wonder if it means she has lost her ‘right hand man’ (ie her husband) or if it means her young married life has been coldly and surgically cut away. Is it drawing my attention to the devastated lives of young people in their prime?

    I always think of soldiers in Iraq as male, although I know there are some female but don’t know how many. No doubt I would have got a very different reading if I knew more of female soldiers.

  22. Nice post, and thoughts on a well art directed ad campaign. This is my first time viewing the poster, and I’m sure seeing it large and in print is more impactful, then me stumbling upon it on the web, but it still did alot of the things you wrote about it doing, as far as emotionally impacting me (the viewer.)

  23. This one had me thinking. Do we subconsciously art direct ourselves, as well as other people? I guess we do. Our lives are full of non-verbally triggered content. The clothes we wear, the context we put ourselves in, “books we like to be seen reading”…the list goes on and on. We hope to inspire the right thoughts, but every now and then it all goes wrong. No matter how hard we try. Great many minds don’t think alike. It explains a lot, really. Great post.

  24. J,

    Here is tonight’s free proofreading: “…challenge us ^[to] think about something besides our next new sweater or iPod”

    Because writing this f%king good shouldn’t be forced to prepose its own prepositions. Okay, it’s late, that’s the closest I can get to wit right now. Seriously, though, a great piece. Hope all’s well!


  25. Of course, there is no intended connection to the Gap ads. It is all our Zeldman directing his own intellectual fantasies and attributions.

    Nothing wrong with that, though…

  26. An image can often be more effective than many words if it is created with a lot of thought about what the message is about. It tends to have great impact especially for social change issues. eg. anti war, environmental, poverty issues.

  27. I think the image is very effective, because it could be an ad for clothing or even the watch, it certainly made me pause and think for a sec.

    I also like how the content keeps getting smaller on each line, so you have to get closer as you get more curious.

    I’m sure a lot of thought went into it.

    nice article!

  28. “challenge us to think about something
    besides our next new sweater or iPod.”

    Beautifully written, thought provoking and insightful. Nothing like images invoking thought in an ordinary individual.

  29. This is a great artical because in my oppinion it raises the alarm about the war and the kind of people that are serving at war i.e. the “model” in the ad. The ad speaks very loudly through the image, and it has a much larger impact on me than if i was to come across an artical with no image, that was talking about the war. The idea of it being styled and framed almost exactly like an american Gap ad, reflects the way the american culture sees the war, and how serios it really is to them and also how the American Culture is so based on consumerism. The way i see the ad is that it is mimmicking the way they would advertise for enrolling to be in the army as a good thing for you and your country, and because people are emotionally envolved in their country and thier culture they would also see it as a good thing. . .I think i went a bit off track:)

  30. Mmmm…. Well, no…Not like a gap ad at all, unless we concede that all visual styles which employ a white background are based on ‘Gap Ads’. The ad (particularly the font and font placement) actually references and evokes much of the aesthetic of the ‘Why We Fight’ campaign employed in the 40s (updated of course, but notice the stiffness of the woman’s pose, a graphic outline brought to life), and throws light upon the fashion in which that historic epoch was evoked in the drive to war (ie the rambling line about how Saddam, with his broken shambles of an army, was somehow comparable to the Third Reich.)

  31. I do wonder, however, how many people will really pick up the message through the art direction or they won’t think about it at all? In other words, is it only artists and creative individuals who pick up those things or does the ordinary person actually register the message in such an entirety? I know a lot of people who don’t seem to really get the message in its entirety because there are a lot of things they don’t know about what the message is saying / where it’s placed etc.

Comments are closed.