Ideas aren’t enough

Not long ago, in a London art school, I had a revealing and depressing conversation with two students. They had decided to offer their combined services to an ad agency.

‘Doing what?’ I asked.

‘Creating ideas.’

‘And executing them?’ I enquired.

‘No. The art director will work out the design,’ said one. ‘And a writer will do the text,’ said the other.

Had I, I mused, played a part in fostering this arrogance? Had my lectures evangelising on the primacy of the idea depreciated the importance of the craft contribution?

I was reminded of this episode when I read the editor’s Comment (DW 5 October) on ‘the interdependence of creative and technical skills’. The inspirational designers I had known and/or worked with possessed both sets of skills and were as obsessed with execution as ideation.

‘The top guys take things all the way,’ I was told by the head of an agency on my first visit to a New York creative department. My experience till then had been in a world of delegation. It seemed a good way to learn. There, however, junior creatives observed, imbued approaches and techniques by doing what an older, industrial generation referred to as ‘sitting by Nelly’.

A year later I was privileged to sit by Robert Brownjohn as he experimented projecting slide images on moving film, perfecting his titles for From Russia With Love. He didn’t just have an idea and tell someone to make it work. Making it work made the idea. His friend Alan Fletcher had the same tenacity, especially when it came to typography.

Of course, at some stage the originator has to let go and brief the technician. This is real delegation (what my students had in mind wasn’t delegation but abrogation). Delegation involves involvement, seeking improvement, even alternative routes to the solution.

‘The creative community,’ says the editor, ‘should think of technical collaborators not as “suppliers” but as partners bent on achieving great things.’

There’s something pejorative about the term ‘supplier’. It acts as a barrier between thinker and doer, client and consultant. It encourages a mindset, almost a class divide, and feeds a latent arrogance redolent of a colonial past when so-called lesser peoples ‘knew their place’. Under our guidance they could manufacture what we had designed – cheaply. They were suppliers. A supplier could never be a competitor. But today it has dawned on all but the most obtuse that India and China, for example, can design what they manufacture.

There are some clients for whom the advertising or design consultant will remain a ‘supplier’, irrespective of the level of creative service or economic advantage provided.

Yet there is nothing pejorative in the actual term as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Supplier’ began life in the late 15th century when it meant ‘one who takes the place of, acts as a substitute for another’. A century later it had assumed a further meaning: ‘one who makes up a deficiency’. By 1670 the current denotation had established itself: ‘one who furnishes something needed – a provider, purveyor’.

Maybe it’s time for the denotation to take over from the connotation, time to re-establish the term with due pride. Could I include it on my business card? ‘Supplier of genius’ maybe? Maybe not.



David Bernstein

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