Searching for the muse

There is no reason why the enthusiam and idealism of students should fade in later life says Liz Farrelly. You just have to look elsewhere for that elusive inspiration.

Inspiration, now there’s a thorny one. What is it that generates ideas? What are the basic ingredients of creativity? I’m asking myself this because every now and again I feel as if I’ve run out of ideas. So it’s time I wrote about that balance, between work and play, between stuff going into your brain, being processed and flowing out. Isn’t it that process which equals creative thought and which is design?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been chatting to graduating design students from around the country, finding willing victims for a couple of reviews I’m writing about college shows… when I’ve managed to get past the over-protective administrators that is. How useful is a college’s so-called marketing department if it works at a snail’s pace and reveals a “more than my job’s worth” mentality? Answer: extremely detrimental to the careers of the students under their guardianship. I’d love to know what these bureaucrats are worried about.

Once I actually tracked the students down for phone interviews, my worries were over. Their unbridled enthusiasm, raw talent, crazed notions, off-the-wall ideas and willingness to pull out all the stops to deliver top quality photographs, often at their own expense, is a God-send for a journo on a deadline. Far from just being eye-candy for the media’s image-hungry pages, there is a valuable lesson to be learnt from seeing student work in the context of a “grown-up” trade or consumer title. OK, so the work is “unresolved”, a long way from the production line, and there’s no demanding client getting in the way of self-expression. But my word, there are some real corkers of ideas about, with some truly lateral thinking being applied to genuine problems.

It’s inspiring, if only because such reviews demonstrate that there are plenty of motivated, talented youngsters out there, just about to enter the job market as competition. On a more fundamental level, they may remind you what it was like, back in your student days, to feel as if you’d just reinvented the wheel. A useful lesson to keep in mind when you’re dying of boredom.

Have you ever understood what it means to believe in something and apply your talent to spreading the word about that belief? A book landed on my doormat the other day, wanting to be reviewed. Entitled Suffragettes to She-Devils: Women’s Liberation and Beyond, it sports a pink and yellow cover, designed by Paula Scher’s team at Pentagram New York, which screams for attention. Author Liz McQuiston has produced a graphics source book of immense scholarly depth which documents the struggle for women’s liberation and equality, across all media, from posters, handbills, banners, magazines and badges to Internet sites.

As well as historical depth, Suffragettes to She-Devils has a geographical breadth which is rarely found in a book on graphic design, the majority of which would have you think that the process of designing is exclusive to a “professional”, “commercial”, first world industry. Here is evidence that the struggle continues on many ideological, cultural, health, economic and religious fronts world-wide, disseminated in print, paint, Xerox or on T-shirts, by women of all ages, races and “professional” status. Funny how women’s issues in other parts of the world often equate with fundamental human rights issues. Who’s fighting whose battles?

All in all Suffragettes to She-Devils adds up to a comprehensive collection of work by women designers and a lot of people who’ve simply got something to say. What’s really interesting is how so much work by familiar names – the women designers who do crop up in the design press and other mainstream source books – is so unfamiliar. For the first time we see their extra-curricular activity, the work which doesn’t pay the bills but which helps keep them sane, satisfied, challenged and challenging, and which gives them the space and opportunity to experiment with radical aesthetic solutions.

Marlene McCarty’s anti-George Bush coffee cups which question his draconian health policies;

Sue Coe’s anti-back-street-abortion illustration; Karen Savage’s two fingers T-shirt; Linder’s photomontages; Jenny Holzer’s messages fly-posted on the streets of New York – the range of work is enormous, the tactics innovative, the energy is high-octane.

Liz McQuiston shows that student idealism need not be knocked for six when you hit the real world and earn a living as a designer. After-hours activity is what keeps vision fresh and focused, whether it’s a weekend wallowing in mud at Glastonbury, or a quiet night in reading an inspirational tome.

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