David Bernstein: Zero in on a new style

Designers build a name for themselves by developing a distinctive style, says David Bernstein. But what if they didn’t play it safe and created a new look for each brief?

Nothing irritates a customer or client more than getting their name wrong. “Our names,” said Logan Pearsall Smith, “are labels plainly printed on the bottled essence of our past behaviour.”

I was recently invited by a design group to contribute a think-piece to the launch issue of an occasional magazine it was mailing to its clients. It appeared with my name and e-mail address and both of them were wrong. Get my name wrong and who am I? All that I might mean is wiped clean.

Mind you, that could propel me into a totally new identity. I could act out a fantasy career and dilate on subjects outside my remit and experience. For a 15-year-old cybernaut, interviewed in a research investigation, the main attraction of the chat room is the facility it offers to reinvent himself. He can be whoever he likes.

Another benefit, at least initially, is that any thoughts I express will be judged entirely on merit. The creative director judging an ad or design – or the client judging a proposal – has to dissociate content from source. Judging is difficult, more so than measuring. That’s why most of us prefer the latter. Knowing who did something may influence, even determine, your estimation of the work.

At school did you ever have to critique a poem with the poet’s name removed? It’s a tough exercise. The name brings overtones – of quality and attitude. The client who prefers to measure than judge will seek reassurance. The initials at the bottom of the page may make the difference between acceptance and rejection. Similarly, knowing the previous work of a designer or writer may act, consciously or unconsciously, as a guide to expectations. It is not unknown for an advertiser, impressed with a certain campaign, to approach the agency responsible with a request to do more of the same on his account.

To the professional communicator, of course, this is anathema: just as a solution arises out of a specific problem, so execution is organically connected to that solution. Designer Hans Schleger (also known as Zero) never wavered from that fundamental belief in a glittering career which spanned five decades, several disciplines and cities of the world as varied as Berlin, New York and London.

His work and writings have been garnered, assembled with devotion and understanding by his partner and widow Pat Schleger in her book.* It reveals not only the depth of his talent but also its breadth. The diversity of execution could fool you into believing you were holding a compendium of the work of many designers and advertising art directors.

The recent discussion in these pages concerning the relative importance of, and relationship between, advertising and design would have puzzled Schleger, amused him, possibly infuriated him. A few pages into the book and you appreciate that Schleger’s concern is the brand itself, or rather the brand idea. Everything else follows.

Zero was a man of many parts – and master of all: artist, ad man, graphic designer, product designer and writer. (It is hard to believe that some of his observations on branding were written half a century ago.) He was versatile – and versatile within each area. The style of each of his ad campaigns – eg Shell, London Transport, MacFisheries, Charnos, Martini, the Post Office and the New York clothing store Weber and Heilbroner – is unique to the job in hand.

Indeed, he promoted himself on the basis of specific difference. In an early ad in New York he wrote, “For those who do not want to follow the crowd, but want the crowd to follow them – advertising art of every type by Zero, a freelance artist.”

Why the name Zero? He said, “I have always resisted the temptation to give a literary meaning to my non-de-plume signature. It is pictorial and analysis would destroy it – it just happened.” I wonder. I believe there is a clue in the fact that he was not interested in the past as a guide to a present problem. For that reason he refused to display posters on his walls.

For Schleger the creative task begins and ends with the brand. To the task Schleger brings intelligence, perception, great analytical skill, imagination and, of course, experience. But he never seems to let experience get in the way. He seems never to repeat himself. The process starts again at Zero.

*Zero. Hans Schleger – A Life of Design, by Pat Schleger. Introduction by Fiona MacCarthy. Published by Lund Humphries, priced £30.00

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