Product Design
  • Interview Excerpt: Ian Cohen, Owner & Creative Director, Wexley School for Girls, Seattle

    Check out the work of Ian Cohen.

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    What do you look for in a student book?

    I look for different qualities depending on whether or not I am looking at an art director or writer book. But in general I like seeing a variety of clients and voices, attention to detail, and unique approaches to solving problems.

    For writers, I look for someone who has a unique way of approaching ideas and creating different voices for each client. But it is important that those voices and tones are right for the client, not just writing different for different’s sake. I also like writing that doesn’t feel too perfectly crafted. Any writer can write a nice, crafted headline. It’s like any doctor can give someone a shot. So I am not a fan of a book full of headlines. Having some great headlines, so I can see how you tackle them, is great, but try other writing approaches too. I love writing that feels more like a conversation with the consumer than the company talking at the consumer. Also, I want to look at the writing and feel like it could only be for that company. Not anyone else.

    One problem with student books is that the student doesn’t always get into a real client’s problems enough to let those problems help them create a difference. For example, Diadora Soccer is Italian. To compete with Nike and Adidas, that is their one point of difference. But in a student book, you might still see headlines about how hard the shoes can kick. It’s more than that. And if you can find that true difference, it will help your concepts and writing and art direction stand out.

    For art directors, I look for attention to detail, unique looks, and type choice. I look for a sense of design. A lot of books come to me where all the art director did was put a logo and small line over a big picture. I want to see the craft. I want a book where the art director challenged himself or herself. The same goes for type as I said for writers above. Choosing the right typeface and creating the right tone for the client, not just because the student wanted to try a different typeface, is critical. I also look for simple art direction. It can have a lot going on, but the message has to be crystal clear.

    What are some common problems and things to avoid?

    The trend, these days, is to have tons of integrated ideas in your book. Don’t get me wrong, I love integrated ideas, we do them every day. But the problem with an entire book full of these is that we don’t get to see how you can stay on brand throughout the chain of actual campaigns or client needs. So it is great to see a great iPhone app idea, but how does the art director art-direct the rest of the brand? You can’t tell with a little iPhone app. It’s cool, but not bigger thinking if we want to hire an art director that will be actually designing across a lot of mediums. I want to make sure you aren’t just great thinkers, which you need to be, but that you can do your craft.

    I see a lot of art directors that don’t art direct and writers that don’t write. What I mean by that is that we see tons of books with great thinking and concepts, but as I said before, the craft isn’t there. There is no sense of design. No different writing techniques, lots of large pictures with a tagline. Lots of experiential creative that looks great, but is still singular in design and thought. I love these things. I truly do, but when it’s the entire book, we can’t tell if you love being an art director or writer or if you just like thinking of these fun things. You have to truly love your craft and skill in a small place like ours because we need everyone to be great conceptual thinkers, but we also need them to write and art-direct a ton.

    Ideas are great and half the battle. When we hire juniors or interns, we put them to work on real clients right away. So we need to know they can finish. At a bigger shop you can get away with just having amazing thoughts. We would still find a place for someone with the most amazing ideas on napkins if that person existed. But for the most part I am looking for someone who we can coach, not teach. So for art directors especially we need to see some finish.

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    Do you have any other advice?

    There are a ton of smart people out there with books that blend together. They are cookie cutter. Like in the real world, it is incredibly hard to stand out and do it intelligently. You have to put in the work to stand out. That extra five percent detail or extra 10 minutes changing up one word for a better one can make the difference in a piece. We can tell.

    I love to see how passionate a person is about their skill. If you are a writer, show your passion for writing and thinking. If you are an art director or designer, show your passion for the craft and details. For your generation, there is a sense of entitlement out there. We see a lot of students who just want to get into advertising because it seems fun. That’s great, but if you can prove that you understand how hard you will have to work, you will already have an advantage.

    Ian Cohen

    Ian Cohen

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