Mature reflections

From youthful hankerings for Action Man to lucrative contracts with big-name retailers, the desire for design doesn’t change – the priorities do, says Jim Davies.

Being born and brought up abroad gives you a particular appreciation of things British. What kids over here took for granted seemed peculiarly exotic to me, their scarcity lending them a special aura of mystery and romance. How I longed to make short work of a 99 ice cream, scoop up some Heinz baked beans, don a pair of Clarks Tracker shoes, with animal prints (various) on the sole and a way-finding compass on the inside.

But, more than anything, I hankered after an authentic Action Man, with a fine tuft of acrylic hair. Instead, I had to make do with GI-Joe, the decidedly inferior American version, which had a crudely painted-on regulation crew-cut.

Looking back now, this yearning seems laughable, embarrassing and even a bit dodgy. Not that I had any notion of politics or correctness at the time. But the point is, as you get older, your priorities and preferences change. You’re influenced by the context of the time and place you live in, the stage of life you’re at, your peers and your position.

And the same is true of design companies. As they evolve and mature, so their concerns and preoccupations change. This is a fictional, though typical scenario. Three amigos meet at college, do a short apprenticeship at a big-name design house and then decide to set up their own company. They give it a slightly wacky name like Ton-up Design and start touting for business. At this stage, they’re very into the integrity of their work and gravitate towards the more left-field clients like theatre companies, art galleries, record labels, bars and clubs.

Once die-hard Modernists, they’re now favouring a kind of ‘Helvetica-with-a-twist’ aesthetic. Their reputation is sound and business, well, it’s not exactly soaring, but it’s stable enough. Though they don’t have much truck with awards, they’re chuffed enough when they win some.

And then a really big project from a high street retailer comes in. This isn’t really the kind of profile they want, but it’s ongoing work and extremely well paid. In fact, there’s so much of it that they need to take on staff and move to new premises. At which point, one of the founders decides he wants to jack it all in and become a chef. Another gets hitched. The third has a wee baby.

Almost without realising it, everything is different. The office dynamic, the house style, working methods, the principles and focus. Ton-up want to be taken more seriously now, to be pitching for those juicy contracts, to be on those prime rosters and mixing it with the big players. Personally, they have mortgages, pensions and families to think about. And more than anything, they’re really starting to regret that night down the local when they came up with the flip name.

Selling out? Not really, it’s just growing up. Realising that you’re responsible for more than just yourself. Learning to inject your own excitement into an apparently dull job. Taking satisfaction in a neat, hard-working solution for a tricky mainstream client, rather than a virtuoso performance for a funky one. And what about that all-important creativity? Well, once the business is well-oiled and thriving, you have the luxury of being able to do just what you want. You can pursue those personal projects with the passion of an 18-year-old. Plus, you’ll have a fantastic studio to do it in.

As for me, I’m well over my Action Man fixation – particularly once I’d discovered that my long-discarded GI-Joes had become collectors’ items.

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