David Bernstein: Creative chaos theory

Michael Peters hit the right note in his John Gillard obituary (DW 3 November). Gillard was colourful and controversial. I knew nobody in teaching quite like him. Peters is right, too, when he says, “sadly, one-off characters are rarely recognised by decision-makers in design education”. I would go further. Lack of recognition is the rule in business and is not unknown in so-called creative disciplines such as advertising. Gillard, says Michael, “was discarded as a bit of an educational madman”. “Discarded” would have hurt Gillard. Being called mad, probably not. As John Dryden pointed out, “Great wits are sure to madness near allied, And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

“If an idea doesn’t at first seem absurd,” said Albert Einstein, “there is no hope for it.”

Working with Gillard at the School of Communication Art was often a shambles, but always a joy. Its setting-up was a challenge to conventional design education. Not only did it fill a gap, it also recognised the danger of stifling specialisation. The expression “communication art” embraced many disciplines. Its inclusiveness attracted lecturers from a wide field, myself included: those, I like to think, with specialist skills but generalist mentalities.

This, remember, was 1985. It would be a decade or more before, for example, the term brand communication would begin to replace advertising. I don’t think Gillard saw himself as a prophet. What he thought – and taught – was to him common sense. He was puzzled why others, especially in design education, couldn’t see what he saw. For example, that the most important and basic of skills is the ability to think. Fail that and all else becomes irrelevant.

Those who shared Gillard’s vision – those who masterminded his school – constituted a minority. The majority, as usual, regarded its invention as intervention. An idea, after all, is criticism. A new product idea (which the school was), doubly so. It implies that the status quo is inadequate. No wonder that ideas bring out the worst in people.

Gillard’s parting fills me with regret. I should have done more for the school, not merely out of altruism. Visiting lecturers didn’t so much give up their time as invest it. There was payback in the learning and insights provided by the students and their mentor.

The class was smart, intelligent, adroit. It applied an intellectual rigour on a par with that of a graduate business school. Students dared to question and were unafraid to make fools of themselves. To paraphrase a Chinese maxim, “Ask an obvious question and you may be embarrassed for five minutes; don’t ask it and you could be embarrassed for life”. Questions would bombard you from all directions, a myriad of backgrounds. The class was multidisciplinary, cross-cultural and spanned a broad age range. Ideas, we know, happen when thoughts collide. An appropriate descriptor for the teaching programme would be “collision course”.

I hope I’m giving you a flavour of what it was like. And you can probably guess that for the educational establishment it wasn’t exactly flavour of the month. A collision course is all very well, but isn’t it akin to anarchy? Undoubtedly, and to make it work, conventional wisdom demands the operation of a countervailing force of discipline. Visit the school and discipline was hard to spot. Gillard was no organisation man. So the overt signs of discipline such as administrative machinery were lacking. But Gillard was, paradoxically, a stickler for discipline, the brief, and that vital component of true creativity, self-discipline. Solving creative problems at the school was always fun, but serious fun. The art in communication art was never decorative, except as a bonus. If the process became a game then, as in all games, there are rules to be obeyed. But covert discipline escapes the eye of the bureaucrat. Had Gillard’s school endured the equivalent of an Ofsted inspection, it would assuredly and gloriously have failed.

But, as the recent ad campaign asserts, you always remember a great teacher. The nicest compliment I received as a creative director was from two former members of my department. They were working in a different agency and had created a notable campaign. Their starting point, they informed me later, was to ask themselves, “How would David have tackled this?” I am confident that many key players in many areas of communication art are asking themselves similar questions in relation to John Gillard.

Like most mavericks, Gillard never made big bucks. But he made ripples. His influence was beyond price.

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