A Ping Pong Match between Text and Image: Semiotics, Magritte and Why Creatives come in Pairs.

First Principles

“Between words and objects one can create new relations and specify characteristics of language and objects generally ignored in everyday life” – Magritte

Rene Magritte Portrait

Rene Magritte was a Belgian Surrealist. Surrealism was a Freudo-Marxist art historical movement of the twentieth century that sought to explain how our imagination can help us escape from an all-consuming (by which I mean consuming us as we consume the world) Capitalist system. Surrealism ran into problems when the likes of Salvador Dalí (a.k.a Avida Dollars, as the movement’s leader, André Breton less than fondly dubbed him) started flouting the Marxist political emphasis of the movement by making ‘Surrealist’ window displays for Bonwit Teller and expensive jewellery. Soon Dalí provided the front cover of that not-exactly-Marxist magazine, Vogue. 

Dali's 'The Persistence f Memory' used for cover of Vogue 1939

If you have read my other post on Baudrillard and the question of Freudo-Marxism and consumer-orientated Capitalism, you could well see how Dalí had managed to flip Marxism into Capitalism via Surrealism’s interest in psychoanalysis and dreams. Surrealism, to make a sweeping generalisation, was born out of the idea that imagination is what sets us free from our worldly humdrum existence. Tickling the consumer’s imagination, as well as helping to humanise brands and objects by giving them meaning and personality, are, for me, two principle components of advertising.

For me, imagination is ‘creativity’ – that horrible word that gets brandished around ‘creative’ agencies. I humbly suggest we all start thinking of ‘creatives’ as being imaginative and avoid that mythical, over-used word that has become so difficult to hear in any sentence that starts with a pronoun. It would be nice if ‘imagination’ was separated from the word ‘spark’, but hey, I’m probably just being a bit grumpy.


Rene Magritte always described himself as a philosopher who paints. There’s a reason why he painted rather than wrote (like any normal philosopher) and there is a reason why he is a philosopher rather than just a painter. This philosophical painting is why:

The Treachery of Images - Magritte

This work is possibly the philosopher/artist’s most famous. Conceived in 1928-9, it encapsulates a whole branch of philosophy, semiotics, in one image. For those of you who don’t read French, this picture of a pipe boldly proclaims that ‘This is not a pipe.’

Well, what the fuck is it then?


It’s a riddle. It’s asking: “Do you believe the image or the text more? Is it a pipe, like the image suggests, or is it, as the text tells us, ‘not a pipe’?”

A clue to help you answer the above questions can be found in the work’s title: ‘The Treachery of Images’ 1928-9



(Place Hand on Chin + Stare Broodingly into Camera = Generic Philosopher Pose 2)

Foucault wrote in a one-hundred page book that there are actually numerous ways in which this painting tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth even though it initially seems to be telling one big fat porky. As is the case with most philosophers, he probably could have explained himself in a page. Here are a few of those ways:

Foucault this is not a pipe

The words spelling out ‘This is not a pipe’ are not a pipe. They are squiggles of black paint that happen to suggest to us the idea of a pipe.

The illustration of a pipe is not a pipe. It’s just squiggles of brown, black, yellow and white paint that happen to suggest to us the idea of a pipe.

The whole canvas is not a pipe. (OK, fine, it could be if you were sad enough to fashion a smokable pipe out of the image/canvas – I have trawled the internet and am shocked to have not found some deeply witty [saddo] individual smugly puffing away at such a contraption.)

Foucault not a pipe

Of course it’s not a pipe. You can’t pick it up and smoke it. It’s a representation of a pipe. In fact, it’s two representations of a pipe, one verbal (in the painted word ‘pipe’) and one pictorial. Even the two representations together do not constitute a pipe. It would be deceitful to suggest that the word and image were really a pipe. So why were we so hell-bent on the idea of there being a pipe there in the first place? And why did we immediately think the words were lying? Why did we then think, OK yes the words are right, it’s ‘not a pipe,’ but what the hell is the image then?

Unimaginative people would have got bored fairly soon of being stuck in the mental loop of being presented with a picture of a pipe, then being told that this isn’t true and the picture isn’t a pipe at all. They would have simply labelled it a ‘contradiction’, the artist a ‘facetious pretentious arse’ and moved on with their prosaic little lives.

A planner’s job is to try and rationalise something as irrational and nebulous as ‘creative’ thought for the more rational mind. This is why we are called the left-side of the creative brain. Planners also inject briefs and brainstorms with some creative fodder that transform otherwise dry stats about engagement KPIs and the competitive market place. Planners might put some weights on the bar in order to get people to flex their imaginative muscles.  This is why we might also be called the right-side of the logical, sequential and analytical mind. 

This image is interesting for planners as it helps to explain a way in which imagination can work. A typical Suit will have not seen this image as an opportunity for lateral thought. They may have thought to paint over the ‘n’ pas’ in order to resolve the contradiction and thus apparent problem. A ‘creative’ team, by contrast, together would never have dismissed the possibility of both the word and image being true. One would perhaps have believed that the image held greater truth (likely the Art Director), the other the text (the Copywriter) but they would have found a way to reach an agreement. When a creative team is presented with a contradiction, they use their imagination together to try and resolve it. This is why, I think, a planner might present a business problem to the creative team as a simple tension or contradiction.

Planners will circumscribe the box that the ‘creative’ team need to think out side of. Planners have to think a bit like Magritte.

Think out side the box


This is an imaginary conversation that a copywriter and art director could have had about Magritte’s painting:



Copywriter: “Dur, of course its not a pipe.” *thinks of other meanings of the word pipe* “I mean, a plumber wouldn’t be able to use that to fix a sink.”

Art Director: “Well yeah, precisely. I mean, it could be something else entirely.” *Other similarly shaped objects crop up in their mind’s eye* “To be fair though, that wouldn’t make a great sound if you blew down it. Its definitely not a musical pipe.”

Copywriter: “I get you on that. Well, what is a pipe then?” *Thinks of ways of writing down what a pipe actually is or does*

Art Director: *hastily sketches various tubular objects* “Well, I suppose pipes all look a bit like this.”

Copywriter: “Yeah, I suppose, it’s more like a ‘tubular vessel’.” *types in ‘pipe’ into dictionary.com* “Yeah, see.” *Swivels laptop to face Art Director.*

Art Director: “Yeah, but it could also be any one of these things.” *points at his own google image search results.*

Copywriter: “Yeah, maybe its like a metaphor for what a pipe stands for, because now that I look at it, it really doesn’t look much like a pipe.”

Art Director: “If you turn it on it’s side it looks more like a backwards seven.”

And bingo. The ping pong match between text and image has started, and already the two have branched out by imagining all the possible scenarios that could solve the contradiction inherent in the image. On the one side the copywriter is racking his brain to find a way to conclusively define the pipe, on the other the Art Director is trying to draw what a pipe is, in its most essential visual form. A winding thought process ensues along which they generate and throw out ideas as they crane their heads and minds to see it from a different point of view and more importantly, from each other’s point of view.


“We never see but one side of things. It’s precisely this other side that I’m trying to express.” – Magritte


I see creative teams, particularly working in print, as using text and image to create works that can be arranged along a spectrum of how much they want the viewer to ‘join the dots’ versus ‘tell’ the viewer something specific. When the team want to convey something more abstract, like with Lego and the concept of imagination (appropriately for this post), they will mis-match text and image in order to generate an imaginatively fertile advertisement for the viewer. Abstract concepts, like imagination, exist only in the imagination.


The more the text and image agree with each other, the less the viewer has room for manoeuvre with respect to their own imaginative input. Less abstract concepts tend to be advertised like this.


Like a calligram, this Ronseal ad is tautological. The advert’s function is one of de-mystification, practicality and conveying simple information. ‘It does what it says on the tin.’ There can be no mistake what this image means. There is no room for imagination here.

Semiotics is the study of how we generate meaning. It’s concerned with how words and images are merely approximations of what we experience in the real, tangible world. Words and images are nothing but a code by which we can communicate to other people who know the same code. We use this code to approximate something more real and abstract, or real and tangible that exists either in our minds (as concepts) or in our experience of the world (and experience of things). Both our thoughts and our world are real, but words and images are not. They merely allow us to re-present reality in a way that others can understand by means of a shared code. Reality is ‘present’ and words and images are ‘representations’ of what was once ‘present.’ Words and images point to reality. They are not reality. When both words and images point to the same bit of reality, we are less likely to be mistaken as to what that reality is.

Ron Weasley woah

For example, if a law was passed proclaiming that all washing machines should be called ‘enicham gishnaws’ the real-world object and concepts associated with it wouldn’t change. Just because a dog in French is a chien, doesn’t mean that the English concept of a dog is any different to the French’s. If I went around telling everyone that a hoover is no longer called a hoover, it’s called a Dyson, this won’t change the concept of what a hoover is for anyone. It might change how people refer to it. We can give objects different names, or even change their design entirely, because essentially words and what things look like are not real in comparison to the concepts that we relate to them and our experience of their material existence. 

This is what Magritte explored. He realised that words are essentially meaningless and that images are deceptive too. Meaning only exists in the spaces between words and images, because imagination/concepts, for Magritte, where more real/true than anything else. Thus it makes sense as to why Magritte is both a philosopher (in using words) and a painter (in using images).

I managed to drag my long-suffering boyfriend to a university lecture on Magritte and all he said afterwards was “I can’t believe you are learning about somebody who doesn’t know any basic nouns.” He was joking (he loves state-the-obvious-jokes; his favourite is ‘why are giraffe’s necks so long? because their heads are so far away from their bodies’). My boyfriend had this work in mind:


Imaginative people can genuinely cite a ‘coherent,’ nay even ‘logical’ reason why Magritte labelled a leaf ‘the table’ or a penknife ‘the bird.’ Creatives see more when they look at shapes in the clouds, they hear puns when people talk. They can draw lateral lines between things that seem entirely unrelated, sometimes including each other’s thoughts.

Thus, when I first started in the industry I remember not batting an eyelid when I was told that creative teams come in pairs. I consequently found it strange that a Suit, on encountering the creative department’s peculiar Noah’s arc arrangement for the first time, called it “creepy” and “unnecessary.” Fuck knows how he’d managed to be in the marketing game for three years before coming across this. It was probably born from the attitude that can be found in a lot of agencies and that was summed up by a former colleague in the pub one time after work: “I think it would be cheaper if we didn’t have a creative team all together – we [us suits] are all creative and can come up with the ideas ourselves, together.”


Let me just say here that I have utter respect for this particular colleague. This colleague is fucking brilliant at what they do. There is no way that I could do her job. As anybody who has worked with me will testify, I would make a terrible Suit. But, at the time, I stood gawping at my colleague, incredulous. Is it not a little arrogant to suggest Suits are as ‘creative’ as the agency’s award winning creative pairings? I don’t think I have ever heard a ‘creative’ moaning that they could draw up a better spreadsheet or handle a difficult client better than a Suit. Is it not illogical to suggest that a ‘creative’ agency be filled with Suits and Suits only (many of these types of agencies don’t rate planning as a discipline either)? The bowler hats in Magritte’s most famous paintings represent the antithesis of imagination: conformity.


In my mind’s TV screen I imagined striker Ronaldo picking up the goalie gloves, and, in an attempt to be the hero, he tried and failed to save the deciding shot of a World Cup final penalty shoot out with his feet. I’m sorry to piss on anybody’s parade – but we aren’t all ‘creative’, and some people are definitely more ‘creative’ than others. It’s about using a different part of your brain and interacting with the world in a completely different way. It’s like playing football with your hands rather than your feet.

Emerging from my dumbstruckness, I attempted to reason why creative teams are essential to an agency, but my speech was slightly slurred and my brain was as agile as my one-eyed geriatric arthritic ginger tom cat by that point in the evening. What I was trying to say in my drunken stupor is that I can see why agencies want to work in this way. It’s a way of working born from the golden-hearted democratic principle – ‘together.’ I have a deep respect for the kinds of agencies whose whole philosophies are born from the beautiful principles of democracy and equality. As democracy gives everyone the chance to give what they have to give, great ideas can come from anywhere in such an agency. Democracy is hard to get right, however.

Thus, it was the word that preceded it, ‘ourselves’, that concerned me. This word preceding ‘together’ belies some fundamental human impulses that fight against the noble democratic principles at play. Human beings are hardwired with Neanderthal impulses: to instil a pecking order, to be competitive, to be self-centered. We derive a sense of self, or ego, from understanding one’s position within a hierarchy. Teams are inadvertently plagued with hierarchy. Read Lord of The Flies if you disagree. Hierarchy or ‘teamwork at all costs’ is creatively stifling. Sabotage, put-downs and one-up-manship can plague brainstorms, as we all know. Sucking up to people higher up the chain, or appeasing people to look like ‘the nice guy’ always leads to ‘group think’. ‘Teamwork’ in our often embarrassingly corporate world can mean a room full of non-autonomous thinkers saying “I don’t know. What do you think?” To quote ‘creative’ Hugh Macleod (who wrote ‘Ignore everybody’) “Team players are not very good at creating values of their own” – they need the team’s constant reassurance to survive.

We all rationally know that, in theory, (to quote Neil Hourston from The Corner) “no one of us is as effective as all of us.” You will see on any agency’s website under their ‘culture’ or ‘about us’ tab words to the effect of: “we have an open collaborative environment that allows each of the diverse voices in a room to be heard.”

A little thing economists call ‘Division of Labour’ is what has carried human progress since the Industrial revolution. I am not advocating rigidity, as that too is stifling, but there is something to be said for not invading the ‘creatives’ territory. ‘Creatives’ simply think differently to Suits, and consequently, when they do their bit we must trust that they are doing it right. Democracy also works on trust. Each person in a creative problem-solving situation needs to be comfortable with knowing where their strengths lie relative to those of the rest of the team. This way they can pipe up (no pun intended) when they want to *gasp* disagree with whatever the person with the most inflated job title is saying or have the courage to be in the minority with a certain view.

Suits (although there are exceptions and frustrated creative-suits, my aforementioned colleague is probably one of them) think in rational, sequential, straight lines that join problem to solution. Creatives see squiggly routes from A to B, associations, combinations and the like where most people cannot see any.

Creatives are more than just lateral. They intuitively grasp how imagination exists in the gaps between things and comes from the right chemistry between people. Creative problem solving is not about striking bargains, assigning tasks, ‘feedback’ or getting shit done: It’s about banter, carelessness, freedom and often a lack of sense of purpose that allows people to meander sideways.

Creatives aren’t in a hierarchy either when there’s only two of them. They don’t work in a team, really, they work ‘together.’ They seem to evade the office politics which can be so very toxic for creativity.

Therefore it is what exists ‘between’ the copywriter and art director, however, that Magritte’s peculiar text and image paintings show to be important. Creatives intuitively understand the nuances of being creative together. They understand the ping-pong game of imagination and the optimal conditions for a good game: a friendship of mutual respect.

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