A copywriter in his first semester, on his first assignment came to me for advice. He was trying to do a campaign for Invisible Fence, a kind of invisible barrier for dogs. One of his ideas was to show a patch of ground the dog had mischievously dug up. The dog would be next to the big hole smiling innocently.
"The dog is smiling?" I asked.
"Yeah," said the student. "See?"
I looked at his Sharpied sketch. Sure enough, the dog was smiling.
"Would this be a photograph?" I asked.
"What does a real dog look like when it's smiling? Not a cartoon dog. A real dog."
He hadn't learned to think visually yet. Thinking visually isn't just coming up with a cool image and putting the client's logo in the corner. It's the ability to know exactly how an image is going on a page or a screen.
In portfolio school, some of my classmates had an idea for a TV spot that opened on a marshmallow.
"How are you going to know it's a marshmallow?" asked our professor.
"Because it's a marshmallow."
"How will I know it's not a pillow?" asked my professor. "Or a cloud?"
"Because it's a marshmallow! It will look like a marshmallow because that's what it is!"
But sure enough, when we saw that marshmallow on film, it was surprisingly hard to tell it was a marshmallow. Maybe Pytka could have pulled it off. But not us. We hadn't learned to think visually yet.
For more tips on thinking visually, read this article by Hal Curtis.