Like many of his design peers, John Blackburn, 59, started out in advertising, setting up his own company aged 28. ‘I got into design by accident when [advertising agency] Collett Dickenson Pearce asked if I knew about packaging, which I didn’t. I said yes, as you do, and they asked me to do Cockburns Port.’
From then on, he specialised in packaging, working on key brands such as Silk Cut (coming up with its trademark purple), Bensons & Hedges and Harveys Bristol Cream. ‘I’ve been very fortunate – landing a job at a top agency, then getting that phone call from CDP,’ he says.
In those days, he says, there was less emphasis on research and what you did usually went ahead – the Silk Cut purple failed in research, but still went ahead, likewise his Bristol Blue bottle for Harvey’s Bristol Cream. ‘It’s a harder environment now because there’s too much caution. If I’d started now I’d have stayed in advertising, where you can get better work through,’ he says.
One of his keys to success has been enjoying his work, and dealing with top management who, he feels, are more receptive to ‘the big idea’ than more junior staff. ‘You have to make it fun because it can be awful. The clients can be ghastly and you have to control them for their own ends,’ he says, also taking motivation from the energy of the designers he employs to keep him young at heart. He has seen the phenomenal impact of the computer on his profession, but personally has never used one to design (‘I can’t even switch one on.’) and doesn’t allow them at workstations, believing that designers should think first before going to the screen.
Still driven by coming up with that big idea, he plans to keep going for a while longer. ‘You know when your time’s up. You never stop being creative – the moment you stop thinking, you’ve had it. When he does retire, Blackburn wants to spend more time on the piano to realise his last big ambition – to write a successful popular song.