Courting genius

Adrenaline-fuelled work to tight deadlines is all very
well, but real brilliance emerges when you allow time
for a bit of tinkering and gazing, says Jim Davies

If Thomas Jefferson had been working in the 21st-century design industry, there’s no way he’d have coined the saying ‘Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today’. Glancing up from his extended Mac keyboard, he’d quickly realise that he was among a breed of out-and-out procrastinators, always wanting another tinker, never quite satisfied, experimenting in micro-millimetres until every possibility is exhausted. In fact, he’d be saying to himself there’s only one thing that gets the job done around here, and that’s the client deadline.

We curse them daily, but deadlines are something of a blessing. They sharpen the focus and concentrate the effort. They create urgency and purpose. They mean that a task is finite – that planning, co-ordination and execution can march on resolutely to a given end. They are the full stop on the last page of a novel, the credits rolling at the end of a film, the discreet, satisfied belch after the last plate’s been removed. Then we know it’s time to move on, embrace a new deadline and lock horns with the clock once more.

Of course, there are slack deadlines and ridiculous ones. And at the moment, with screws being tightened and anxiety in the air, they tend towards the latter. Quick-turnaround work can certainly be exhilarating and inspired. The number of silk purses that have been honed from seats of pants are quite extraordinary. Ideas fuelled by coffee, adrenaline and a ticking clock often feel raw and spontaneous – probably because they are. However, they can also be cack-handed and unconsidered, more about immediacy than finesse. And you can’t keep churning work out in this way week after week – energy levels wane, inspiration fades and the results become jaded.

Ideas need fuel and gestation. A well-judged deadline takes this into account, allowing just enough time for digging around. To take in the brief, chew it up a bit and digest it. To think around, above and under the skirts of a subject. Meanwhile, down in your murky subconscious, strange shadows and mutations miraculously take shape, like a cerebral lava lamp pulsing and weaving. When you least expect it – in the shower, boiling a kipper, leafing through the pages of Design Week – out it pops… the answer. Something so inevitable, so right, and yet until just a few moments ago so elusive.

Next time you catch a junior designer gazing vacantly off into the middle distance when they have artwork to finesse, give them the benefit of the doubt – particularly if they claim to be deep in thought. Who knows what sparks of brilliance and ingenuity lurk behind that dull, glazed exterior?

However, thought of the idle variety won’t tend to lead anywhere interesting. To create anything of value, thinking needs direction and intention. Which is why deadlines shouldn’t be too slack either – they need to balance realism with expediency. They are so vital because they recognise a simple fact of human nature. If we don’t have a time frame to achieve a certain goal, we will (sorry Thomas) put it off until tomorrow. More pressing matters will muscle in, kicking the less time-sensitive task to the back of the queue. You always need a finishing line.

So next time a client sets a tight deadline, embrace it. Unless, of course, they want it done yesterday.

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