Guest blog: What’s the Big Idea?

Maybe it seems weird to have a writer contributing to a blog for designers, but it’s not. It will be a rare thing for you to work on a project that involves designing without any headline or copy.

Many graphic designers approach words as simply another design element, and in bad advertising, that’s about all they are. But in good advertising, the design, headline and body copy work seamlessly together to communicate something powerful to the audience. Remember, you’re not enrolled in the Graphic Design program. It’s called Graphic Design & Communications.

The Holy Grail of communications is to fully grasp a core thought and express it in a way that stops people in their tracks. It’s called the Big Idea. Big ideas are not just bigger than small ideas. They are completely different.

Small Idea: Hurry in to save 50 cents on milk!

Medium Idea: Drink milk because it’s good for your bones.

Big Idea: got milk?


The big idea can be pictures, words, or both. You’ll see “got milk?” on its own, simply the words, or with the famous milk mustache portraits. It took courage for the graphic designer to keep it so simple as lower-case letters reversed out on black. So guess what? The words ARE the design, but only because they are so recognizable, thanks to the perfect font choice and all that other stuff you are studying right now.

I had the privilege of hearing Jeff Goodby, one of the creators of the “got milk?” campaign, describe the process they used to find that big idea in 1993. They invested more months and man-hours than you can imagine. Was it worth it? Of course. Imitation is the sincerest flattery, and you see more imitations of this campaign than any other. I  guarantee that some day, a client will ask you to create something like “got tires?” Don’t do it. Better to lose a client than your self-respect. Besides, it’s illegal.

You may spend 80% of your career laying out coupons and catalogs. But if you can spend 20% of your time focusing on Big Ideas, it will make it all worthwhile. Why? Because discovering and communicating Big Ideas is that rewarding.

There are no shortcuts to the Big Idea, but if you go it alone, you’ll seldom get there. You may not be able to do this now, but when you enter your professional life, team up with a good writer. I can think of very few times in my life when my idea for a project was not improved by the graphic designer I was working with, and I think they would say the same.

If you can drop the “I Made This” ego trip, you’ll find yourself at the award podium a lot more often. You just may not be there alone. Big deal. I don’t think I’m qualified to instruct you in how to create Big Idea designs, but I can recommend a great book to get started. It’s called, “What’s the Big Idea” by George Lois. Lois is a visual communicator like you, so he’ll probably make more sense to you than I do. You know his work: “I want my MTV” and a host of other big ideas. He’s done some good interviews that are on YouTube, if you need more convincing.

Study hard, do good work, and always search for the big idea. You’ll be glad you did.

jeff_eslingerJeff Eslinger is the Communications Manager for the ND Association of Counties. He has been a copywriter for an advertising agency and was the ND Commissioner. When he’s not writing what he gets paid to write, he occasionally writes as a freelancer in advertising, websites and a local magazine.

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