How Technology Has Changed Creativity in the Ad Business

by Dean Rieck

Note: I wrote this article back in 1995. But while the wow factor of technology has become routine in the advertising world today, the idea this article presents is still as relevant as ever.

After more than two decades of technological evolution, creativity isn't what it used to be. I don't mean that the pool of creative advertising talent is shrinking, I mean the way creative people go about creating is different. It's more than exchanging typewriters for computers or art tables for graphic design programs; it's a complete shift in the creative process.

It started when IBM introduced the first affordable desktop personal computer. With a monochrome screen, no hard drive, and an unbelievably slow microprocessor, it proved that a computer could be a practical office accessory. As desktop units became more accepted in the workplace, other computer manufacturers began churning out armies of clones, with prices always falling and quality always rising.

After years of fearing new technology (remember all those "technology gone wrong" and "evil computers take over the world" movies?), at last it was okay to have a computer. Trouble was, most people didn't understand them or feel comfortable with them since they were built by technophiles for left-brained people. Creative types just couldn't relate to this and stuck to typewriters and X-ACTO knives.

Then in 1984, in a burst of media pretension, Apple introduced the Macintosh. It happened during the NFL Super Bowl on January 22 with a 60-second Orwellian epic, directed by Ridley Scott (the guy who directed the movie Alien), in which a young woman lobs a hammer at a big screen image of Big Brother, ala George Orwell's 1984. As one industry guru put it, "The commercial changed advertising; the product changed the ad business; the technology changed the world." I don't know how much this overblown commercial changed advertising, but the product did change the ad business. And the technology certainly changed the world, or at least our perception of it.

Suddenly, it was not only okay to have a computer in the office, it was desirable. While the original Mac was primitive, it offered a new way of thinking about computers. For the first time, here was a computer built for right-brained people. Visual thinking was the key, with friendly on-screen icons like folders and trash cans and a mouse to move the cursor around the screen. And with the introduction of PageMaker software and Apple's laser printer, ad agencies and in-house communication departments could finally produce quality work on the desktop. Plus, you didn't have to be an "artist" to become a graphic designer.

Since then, the wave of changing technology has washed over us again and again. But the really interesting thing isn't how technology has changed but how technology has changed all of us in the ad business. Not only are we working more creatively, the way we work at creating is different. Just look at how writing has changed. Time was when writing was a linear process. You sat down at a typewriter and tapped out a first draft, edited it, then retyped it. No matter how many drafts you went through, you always ended up with a fixed manuscript that looked and felt official and unchangeable.

With computers, it's different. It's more than just typing on a computer screen. Now you are free from linear thinking. Copy can grow naturally from any starting point. If you get stuck, just write the next few paragraphs and bridge the gap later. If you make a mistake, just delete and write it again. Writing and editing, once two separate stages, are now one and the same.

Graphic designers have gone through the same experience, with the fixed progression from thumbnail to full layout giving way to a constantly evolving on-screen design. The printout of a design at any given stage is just a copy of the growing "ideal" design inside the computer. And never does a design reach a true final stage; it's always open for improvement.

Is this good? I think so. Technology is often criticized for taking us further away from the natural order of things. But in my experience, technology brings us closer. Today, creating advertising can be more organic and free flowing than it ever was with typewriters or paintbrushes. With such a low barrier to entry, there's more bad advertising than ever. But there's also more good advertising than ever.

And the technology we have created and with which we create is also hard at work creating us. We have become like our work — ever changing and evolving. Where will it end? It won't. Change has become the only constant.

Copyright © 1995 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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