Experience can be a double-edged weapon. While those who wield it are equipped to fend off whatever fortune may throw at them, those who are unencumbered by it are often more fleet-footed and flexible.
As the juggernaut of the US presidential elections begins to fuel up, the most experienced Republican candidate, Bob Dole, encountered this very paradox when he volunteered a speech (in response to President Clinton’s annual address) that backfired horribly and cast Dole in a tired, melancholy and unchanging light. Now Dole faces the prospect of a fight from a political novice, the multi-millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, for the Republican presidential candidacy.
As we know, the inexperienced candidate can bring a fresh perspective to a problem by blithely disregarding convention. The graphic design profession is full of instances where naive thinking brings innovative and influential results. Two of the most influential graphic designers around, David Carson and Wolfgang Weingart, in fact, claim to have started out with little or no formal training in design conventions.
At MTV, where the future of television graphics was changed irredeemably, new recruits are sought out with a key qualification: zero experience. In fact, such is the demand for fresh faces at MTV that no one even seems to know who works there.
Those employees who do stay for longer periods rely on the interns (students on work experience) to keep them abreast of what’s in and out. It’s a personnel structure that’s easy to knock, but it is not easy to think of an area of programming on US television that MTV hasn’t influenced.
Such instances aren’t restricted to the idea-hungry world of TV. I recently talked to the San Francisco designer Bill Cahan about his consultancy’s sudden foray out of its specialist area – annual report design – into the territory of beer packaging. The project, to package a forthcoming microbeer named Alcatraz, was received like a metal file in a birthday cake to a prisoner by the young design team at Cahan & Associates, all too used to doing annual reports day upon day.
More than 50 variations on bottle designs emerged from the enthused design team, including a bottle wrapped in fishnet, a sandblasted brown bottle with the appearance of sea-eroded glass, and the chosen design, a bottle made of shimmering aluminium, each cap stamped with a different number. The designers even turned copywriters, coming up with taglines like: “Alcatraz: Located behind bars everywhere”.
Cahan reflects: “It was such a creative infusion in our office. I honestly believe that if you have a talented group of people it doesn’t matter if they have no experience. In fact it helps. If we knew the restrictions on packaging, I don’t think we would have come up with half of the ideas we did.” He adds, pensively: “We approached Alcatraz with no restraints.” No pun intended.
Do I think experience is always an encumbrance? No more than I think Steve Forbes will be the next US president. There are times when only the most experienced communicators can handle the politics and subtleties of a problem.
My respect for Milton Glaser and Walter Bernard – the veteran editorial designers – increased tenfold last week when I saw the work they’d done on the 131-year-old political journal The Nation, the last national left-wing voice in the US. This intelligent and refreshingly dissident magazine has for years worn an ill-fitting dreary grey suit, and its writers, being distrustful of graphic design – a “tool of the enemy”, according to Glaser – fought tooth and nail to keep it.
Glaser and Bernard clung on to the project like unrequited lovers, battled resistance and ploughed on with their efforts to introduce colour, space and a sense of polemic into the journal, long after giving up the idea of it being a profitable collaboration. “It’s only cranky people who would make a product like this,” says Glaser, “because these are the people who care about injustice in the world.”
As the US presidential elections roll on, The Nation will cast a different light on the circus, and will be better dressed to do so.
Leafing through its pages, I wonder if the “inexperienced” art director of a certain illegible rock magazine could have achieved the same level of tailoring.