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Sunday, 22 January 2012

A far better Bird than me - but sad mistakes spoil his efforts

When you get to my age, unless you're one of the Army of the Smug (you know, those who stride along the street looking pleased with themselves) you start to wonder whether you've done much good with your life.

Well, at least one member of the Bird tribe has done a lot more good than me. He is John Bird, who founded The Big Issue, a magazine sold by street people as a better alternative to begging. A wonderful idea that has spread around the world. I envy him.

I buy the magazine, but not as often as I should. This is partly - believe it or not - because of the layout. For the first few years most of the mag was set in sans serif type with a lot of it reversed out. A deadly combination - proven to be almost impossible to read and comprehend.* More recently the type has usually been serif (far easier to read) but still with a lot of reversing out.

Design is a tricky thing, and most young designers are utterly unaware of what makes for easy reading. Nor are they aware of the observation of the great typographer Stanley Morison, who designed the Times face: "Any disposition of type that comes between the reader and meaning is wrong."

But they have just had a redesign. Whether this makes things better I don't know as I haven't bought it yet. However, since Dennis publishing are responsible I imagine it should be an improvement.

There is an excellent article, full of good sense, by Lucy Headley about the need to change - http://www.marketingweek.co.uk/blogs/lucy-handley/why-the-big-issue-brand-needs-a-rethink/3030458.article. Below the article is some good sense from a former vendor, too. I think John Bird's brilliant idea has never been marketed as well as it could be, and you can see why from the article and the comment.

That being said I just had a small fit when I saw an ad in The Week (a Dennis mag I read diligently) announcing the redesign.

The headline was "NO MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC WERE HARMED DURING THE MAKING OF THIS MAGAZINE." Oh dear, oh dear. That really is sad. Go to the back of the class.

There was a short cliché-strewn block of copy, starting with "All new magazine. Same old values." The whole ad reads like it was written by the caretaker at Dennis Publishing in about twenty minutes after a couple of pints.

There was the predictable wanky slogan: Journalism worth paying for. Why do so many fools think slogans are so important?

But there is also one rather clumsy sentence: "Your Big Issue seller has paid half the cover price of each magazine". Without clear explanation the significance of that is not that easily grasped. I'll lay money that even most of those who buy the mag are only vaguely aware of how it operates. More to the point, what about prospects?

That sentence, easily missed because nobody is going to read the copy after such a poor opening, sums up the very essence of John Bird's idea. The sellers do pay for the mag and sell it. The idea of those in distress helping themselves has enormous appeal. Who can decry it? Moreover The Week has God knows how many readers, and I wager they are disproportionately likely to be charitable.

That ad is a disgrace. Amateurs should never be let loose on something that affects so many lives.
What an opportunity missed to do some decent advertising that tugged at the heartstrings and opened the wallets of all those people!

And now I come full circle. It may not be like heart surgery, but time spent telling people how to create stuff that gets people to do something is well worthwhile.

*If you want to know what makes for design that works, I shall be talking about it in Spain during my copy weekend. Or you can read pages 311-18 of that excellent doorstop, Commonsense Direct and Digital Marketing, written by a less worthy member of the Birds than John.

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