Theoretically speaking

Designers are expected to take an intuitive rather than intellectual approach to design.

The best definition I’ve heard of an academic came from a lecturer at Strathclyde University: ‘An academic is someone who sees something working in practice and wonders if it will work in theory.’ Beneath the dismissive one-liner lay a fundamental truth: unless we learn what is at the heart of a new development, we are unlikely to build upon it. The new theory questions the old and will, in turn, be interrogated. Thus we progress. Without an academic analysis of what we are about, can advance be other than haphazard?

But a career in commerce makes me cautious when broaching this subject. Critics doubt how my trade can connect with academia or its disciplines. When I described to my Polish immigrant uncle how I had spent my day, an early one in an ad agency, he paused, considered and said, ‘For this you went to Oxford?’ It became the subtitle of my first book, itself an attempt to answer his question.

A decade later, in my office, an account manager, noticing a volume on my bookshelf, cried in astonishment ‘Logic! You’re creative. Why do you want a book on logic?’ Actually, I was creative director. Ads may be created instinctively and initially judged by gut-reaction, even by the creative director, who is as emotionally driven as anyone else. However, he or she is failing in their duty by simply responding ‘I like it’, or the reverse, without immediately explaining why. Work – good or bad – deserves to be rigorously judged. To some, mining reason from an emotional response may be dismissed as an academic exercise. I maintain that it is professional and fair, the proper way to behave.

I had my creative director behaviour recalled at a meeting last year of typographers. ‘Your pencil would hover over the paper,’ said an ex-colleague, ‘but never touch it.’ ‘Unless I got permission,’ I replied. The creative director’s job is not to create but to suggest directions – and explain. (The first person I had to explain to was myself.) But often my approach was met with incomprehension. ‘What is your model of the advertising process?’ I used to ask. ‘How do you think advertising works? Not generally, but in this instance? What is the ad supposed to do?’ If I were really sly I’d ask the writer and designer individually, out of the hearing of the other, to reassure myself they shared a view. Had they been surgeons or car mechanics I’d have expected them to have had a common game plan.

Another interesting task to set a creative is to define the company’s philosophy of advertising or design. I was surprised to find that the question had never before been asked of them. But then intellectual argument is uncommon in British marketing communication companies. The French, on the other hand, relish it. When I launched my company in London, the advertising trade press wanted to know about personalities. At the Paris launch, a few years later, we had a working breakfast and, long after the croissants had disappeared, three journalists were still quizzing us on the company’s raison d’être.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating academics taking over the asylum. I’ve seen what can happen when corporate communication attracts the attention of pedagogues. Wally Olins and I were the only practitioners speaking at a conference in Amsterdam and sat bemused as the questioners from the floor (and another world) tried to fit us into pre-ordained boxes.

Nevertheless, some rigorous analysis of what we are doing, of the premises on which it is based and what new hypotheses it may suggest would benefit the practice of marketing communication. Alan Topalian, though wary of abstruse academicism, pursues such objectives in the worthwhile series of discussion evenings at his Design Leadership Forum. The meetings, by invitation only, are attended by senior practitioners in design and management and, of course, design management. They are not publicly reported so I can reveal only the subject matter of the last two meetings. John McConnell, partner at Pentagram, looked at the role of the designer as an in-house consultant and/or non-executive director of a client organisation. Harry Rawlinson, managing director of the showers division of Baxi, examined how design affects company valuation. Each speaker cited his own experience and made observations.

Conclusions, however, under the shrewd chairmanship of Topalian, were arrived at, in the discussion which followed, by the members of the audience. Here, indeed, practice generated theory.

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