Go forth and multiply

Richard Murray mourns the decline in creative fertility in packaging design and suggests designers should take the initiative and get those creative juices flowing. Richard Murray is the “suit” at Williams Murray Banks.

Creativity is the lifeblood of design, however, in the context of packaging design we may be staring an evolutionary U-turn in the face – a fall in the level of creative potency. We’re familiar with the reported falling level of fertility in men. Tight trousers, stress, and atmospheric oestrogen are being blamed. So to what can we attribute this decline in creative fertility?

First, look at art education. The desire to apply a commercial spin starts very early. A teacher friend recently sought my approval for a “brief” given to a group of 13-year-olds, for a packaging project. I was appalled to see so many constraints putting a dam in the flow of youthful creativity. Similarly, in the desire to produce “job-worthy” graduates some colleges are conditioning students to think too commercial, too soon.

Second, though the issue has been debated to death, I believe there is a continuing over-reliance on the Mac. Technology is clearly a tremendous asset when used as a tool and not a substitute for an idea. The crux of the problem, however, is that virtually anyone with even basic Mac skills can produce something which looks credible – good technique can compensate for the absence of an idea. It effectively acts as an equaliser between the good, the bad and the mediocre. Put the concepts in front of a client and it can become a lottery.

Third, there’s an alarming numbers of “suits” who have little appreciation of design. Creative standards cannot be the sole responsibility of designers. People who sell design should understand design, or at the very least have an interest in it. After all, that brilliant solution rests not only on the quality of the brief but, crucially, on how effectively the work is sold to the client. Armed with four or five concepts, it’s easy to feel a “result” is gaining approval of any one route, regardless of whether it’s the right one or not.

Also in an attempt to be taken seriously as a profession, many design businesses have understandably placed strong focus on the strategic output. At times, however, this means taking their eye off the quality of design. What’s the point of great strategy if the resultant products are lack lustre?

We’ve heard – again perhaps too often – that during the Eighties many design groups were filled with inflated egos and a false sense of importance. I believe the post-recession design picture is even sadder. A lot of spines have been replaced by jelly. Clients are now the “empowered” species. As recession has see-sawed our relationships and budgets have been squeezed, businesses have collapsed, and creativity is often dismissed as “self-indulgent”. I don’t aspire to a return to past excesses, but I would like to see design groups exercise the courage of their own convictions.

For an industry supposedly in pursuit of the next new thing, it’s noticeable that people now tend to stay in the security of a job or shuffle between similar companies, rather than seek new territories. Breakaways are pretty much a thing of the past. Look at our fertile forefathers and their off-spring. Take the old Michael Peters Group as an example. It sired Wickens Tutt Southgate, Pearlfisher, Miller Sutherland and Tutssels, to name but a few.

My views may not win me any new friends, but my concern is genuine. If we don’t go back to our loose fitting creative boxer shorts the industry could run the risk of becoming extinct. We grew up subscribing to the view that Man was put on the planet to reproduce, but now we are witnessing an era of copulation in a test tube!

Design too can increasingly be constructed artificially, or certainly without passion – mostly in the confines of the clients’ in-house studio. The real pity is that designers are putting up such a poor fight against this form of creative castration.

British Design and Art Direction chairman Anthony Symonds-Gooding often says “design isn’t easy, otherwise anyone could do it”. Unfortunately, with sagging self-esteem we are allowing design to become a formula or equation, ostensibly easily learnt. We have become almost apologetic, lacking confidence, not in the thinking but in the delivery. We should believe in Symonds-Gooding’s words and become more inspired, if not for our own sake, then for that of future generations.

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