One of our art directors, Simone Micheli, was sitting opposite me in the office, looking through The Art Direction Book.
Because he was opposite me, I was looking at the pages upside-down.
Somehow the ads looked fresher, bolder.
One of them that particularly struck me, was an ad for TWA that Neil Godfrey had done ages ago.
It had a plane in the middle distance, and a red carpet cutting across half the white page in powerful perspective.
Apart from anything else, it was a just such a strong piece of graphic design.
How come I never noticed that before?
Then it struck me.
It was because it was upside down.
So I couldn’t read the words.
Normally I take a cursory glance at something then, within a nanosecond, start to read it.
Once I’m involved in the words, the left side of my brain takes over.
The right side (the visual side) immediately gets put in second place.
That’s why I was so much more impressed with the layout when it was upside-down, and I couldn’t read the words.
For the first time I was concentrating solely on the graphic qualities.
That’s why Japanese art direction always looks so beautifully designed to us.
Our brain isn’t engaged in reading the words.
To us, there aren’t any words.
The calligraphy is just another graphic element, so we’re impressed with the design rather than getting sidetracked by the words.
This knocks on to semiotics.
The structuralist view is that we never actually see what we’re looking at.
Rather we decode it for meaning.
So actually, language is the only reality.
All we ever see is symbols and concepts.
Symbols and concepts that exist only in our minds, not in reality.
I once read a book called ‘Drawing With the Right Side Of Your Brain’.
At first I didn’t get it.
I thought the right side was the visual side, so don’t we always draw with the right side of our brains?
Apparently not.
We don’t draw what we see, we draw symbols for what we know is there.
So, if I see a face, I start to draw the symbol that I know works for eyes.
A shallow curve for the top lid.
An inverted shallow curve for the bottom lid.
Similarly for lips.
A flattened-out letter ‘M’ for the top lip.
A flattened-out letter ‘U’ for the bottom lip.
And so on.
I draw symbols for what I know to be there rather than what I actually see.
I’m drawing in language: semiotics.
Which is how pretty much everything in the world works.
Road signs, packaging, clothing, cars, offices.
Everything is designed for the signals it gives off.
Everything is communicating, so everything is a language.
Mike Gold showed me a great way to prove the power of the left brain to over-ride the right brain.
When I was making a speech, I had words printed on large cards in different colours.
I asked the audience, “Please shout out the colours the words are printed in, not the words themselves.”
Then I’d hold up the word YELLOW printed in blue.
Then the word GREEN printed in red.
Then the word PINK printed in green.
Then the word BLUE printed in red.
In each case everyone shouted out the word, not the colour it was printed in.
Try it yourself.
Your mind reads the words aloud and steamrollers right over the colour your eyes actually see.
I noticed it again this morning.
I’d been through the Saturday paper, and bypassed all the ads without even noticing them.
Then I left the paper on the table.
My wife sat opposite me and started flicking through it.
And upside-down I started to actually notice all the ads I’d ignored.
When I couldn’t read the words I started to appreciate the design.

Try it yourself.
See if it makes you think differently about how you do ads.
See if there’s an opportunity there.