Taking the biscuit

Finding out what you’re best at doesn’t mean you
have to be the best. Jim Davies drops a few crumbs
of wisdom along the path to creative self-awareness

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When you’re asked what kind of work you most enjoy, the answer’s simple – the wonderfully well-paid, wonderfully creative variety. When you’re asked what work you’re best at, that’s a bit more tricky.

Self-criticism doesn’t come easy. You have an idea of yourself that has been carved by your personal experiences and the opinion of others. Pride and self-delusion can cloud things, the way you perceive your world changes daily, and you probably look upon yourself as an unfinished work of art, always waiting for the next brush stroke of genius.

Once you’ve admitted your strength, there’s no going back. It defines you, and you are measured by it. Besides, it’s so limiting. Imagine if I set myself up as a copywriter specialising in biscuit pack copy. I’ve no doubt I could soon corner the market, becoming the custard crème de la crème, so to speak. Lyons, Nestlé and Huntley & Palmer would be squabbling for my mellifluous adjectives.

But once I’d tired of the adulation and been honoured with a lifetime’s supply of Garibaldis, where to then? Cakes? French fancies? No, I’d want to do something completely different… that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. You may be the very best at what you do, but it’s variety and coming at your work from different angles that keeps you fresh.

I’ve recently been dipping into a book on the late Paul Rand, the mercurial New York designer. I knew of him as the creator of three of the most iconic logos in history – IBM, Westinghouse and UPS. But I hadn’t been fully aware of the scope of his oeuvre, which took in magazine design, book jackets, posters, press advertising, corporate identity, illustration, children’s books and design writing. As if this wasn’t enough, he was also an accomplished photographer, who often incorporated his own shots in his design work.

Unfortunately, we can’t all be Paul Rand. As well as being prodigiously talented, he was a pioneer, making his own rules and setting the agenda for emerging, yet-to-be defined creative industries. In that respect, the age he was born into allowed him to flit effortlessly between genres of design which have since become compartmentalised.

Rand was the natural successor to European commercial artists like AM Cassandre, whose illustrative approach happily bestrode advertising and design, but he managed to move the game on significantly. But if we can’t emulate Rand, we can take inspiration from him. To recognise that our only limitations are self-imposed, and that the real currency of design is ideas. OK, you may not be able to design a groundbreaking website yourself, but you could always get someone in who could run with your idea and turn it into something spectacular. Advertising is particularly adept at sourcing and orchestrating talent – knowing the right commercials director or illustrator to hire, where to seek out someone with a skill who can make the difference.

Rand shows us that one creative area naturally spills into another, adding new textures, surprises and possibilities. We shouldn’t be afraid of venturing into unknown territory, trying something new, looking out at another horizon. Even if you come back to where you started, you’ll come back richer and more inspired.

So, what are you best at? Maybe you just haven’t found out yet.

Jammie Dodger, anyone?

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