Six pieces of wisdom (and one heap of nonsense)

Off the Top of My Head founder and creative director John Spencer reflects on the insights of some creative pioneers and hits out at the design industry’s enthusiasm for gibberish.

Milton Glaser said, ‘Just enough is more’

John Spencer, Off the Top of My Head founder and creative director
John Spencer, Off the Top of My Head founder and creative director

Everyone’s heard the cliché ‘less is more’. It’s about how simplicity leads to good design. Mies van der Rohe borrowed it for his minimalist motto, Buckminster Fuller reinvented it as ‘doing more with less’ and Dieter Rams rephrased it as ‘less but better’. ‘Less is more’ is an absurd notion – it flies in the face of design history. Less is just less. Milton Glaser’s ‘just enough is more’ makes a lot more sense.

Howard Aitken said, ‘Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats’

Too much design is style passing for ideas. Stylishness is easy sell because it’s undemanding and nice to have. Intelligent, boat-rocking ideas are harder to conjure up and more difficult to sell because they drag people into their discomfort zone. They take risks, challenge assumptions and take advantage of the unexpected.

Bob Gill said, ‘Each one of my jobs is about things people could have seen themselves if they bothered to look’

Design is about encouraging people to see things in new ways. It’s also about showing them things they’ve never noticed before – things that are often right under their nose. Always look for the obvious. It surprises most of the people most of the time.

Larry Smith said, ‘Constraints fuel rather than limit our creativity’ 

Creativity without boundaries is pointless. Being creative is all about coming up with ideas that have intrinsic value. Constraints define what we do and how valuable it is. Our work is a means to an end – we’re the blue-collar workers of the art world. Embrace constraints. Think inside the box. You’ll be surprised how liberating it is.

Jan Kaplický said, ’It’s not a sign of creativity to have sixty-five ideas for one problem. It’s just a waste of energy’

Doing more is easier than doing less because doing less means thinking harder. Routinely throwing together bucketloads of design alternatives is madness. Working through a problem, arriving at a clear point of view and putting forward only our best ideas takes skill and confidence. But that’s our job. A handful of ideas is enough. One good idea is all it takes.

Alan Fletcher said, ‘You’re just pissing about’

A long time ago, when I was a graphics student, I did a month’s professional practise with Alan Fletcher’s team at Pentagram. I’ve a vivid memory of my portfolio assessment. It was Plymouth Boy meets the Father of British Graphic Design. It was a bruising encounter with reality.

‘…continual optimisation activity…direct unequivocal propositions… convergent tangible context…universal functionality…competitive brandscape analysis…indispensible secret agents of engagement’

This sort of contrived, overblown and self-important nonsense does our industry no good at all. It gives the impression we’ve got something to hide. We’re supposed to be communicators, so let’s say what we mean – and mean what we say. David Ogilvy said, ’Never use jargon words like reconceptualise, demassification, attitudinally, judgementally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass’.

John Spencer is founder and creative director of Off the Top of My Head

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