The Ogilvy Sign

I first heard this story when I read Frank Chimero’s brilliant little book ‘The Shape of Design’. It’s now one of my favourites and I’ve told it to friends, family and a client or two. It’s a simple tale; a man helps another man through the beauty of words and an understanding of the human spirit.

The story is about a man called David Ogilvy. He was an advertising executive who was known as the father of modern advertising. In 1962, Time magazine described him as ‘the most sought after wizard in advertising today’. He’s rumoured to be the inspiration for Don Draper, the inscrutable anti-hero, in the popular TV series Mad Men.

One morning Ogilvy was walking to work in New York city. He was in tremendous spirits, the sun was shining, summer had nearly arrived and work was going fantastically well. He was on top of his game, the best ad man in America. As he was walking toward Madison Avenue, where he worked, he noticed a beggar slouched on the street. He was holding a paper cup with a few coins in it and he had a sign around his neck. The sign read…

I am blind

As he was in good spirits he decided he would help the man. He approached him, dropped a couple of coins in his cup, told him what he did for a living and asked the man if he could write a few words on his sign. The man agreed and Ogilvy went on his way.

Later that day as Ogilvy walked home the same way he noticed the man again. He approached him once more and asked how his day had gone. The man was smiling from ear to ear and his cup was overflowing with coins. He told him it wasn’t the first time his cup had been filled that day, thanked him profusely and asked him what he had written on the sign. He had written…

It is Spring and I am blind

I love that story for a few reasons:

1. On a human level, it shows just how kind we can be to each when we have the inclination.
2. It showed Ogilvy’s genius in manipulating the mass market.
3. It shows the power of adding meaning and context to a message. By adding a story to the simple message the man had written, Ogilvy was able to induce empathy from the passers-by, who otherwise would’ve ignored the man.

And in essence Graphic Design can do the same thing. Graphic design can add meaning and context to your message and to your brand. And like that too, it can induce a feeling; happiness, sadness, revulsion. Or empathy just like Ogilvy’s sign. Whatever the feeling an impression has been made. When you feel you remember and when you remember you can take action and that’s the ultimate goal of any message.


You can download Frank Chimero’s book ‘The Shape of Design’ here for free:

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