In the early days I worked in isolation, and would get very grumpy when ideas didn’t come as quickly as they should. The identity for CJS Plants (a company which provides plants for offices) was a tough job. There was a richness in the subject matter, but I could use nothing from the name of the company. Playing between two aspects of a subject often creates wit – almost like flints striking each other, which create the third element, the spark. I had the plant aspect, but not the other piece of flint to spark against. The first solutions I tried seemed rather aimless and empty, and certainly not memorable, which is what is needed in an identity project.
It was the quality of the plants and plantings CJS installed that gave me the beginnings of an idea – green fingers (or green thumbs). I remember sitting down at a table, copying a hand from a book, colouring it with fleshy pink tones, and putting green tips on the fingers. It looked absolutely horrid. Yet it seemed such a promising idea, because it told you what Charlie Short did and also how he did it. It took a lot of headbashing to realize that perhaps you don’t actually show the green fingers, but the result of green fingers, which is fingerprints.
The idea developed on the letterhead. The obvious idea is to put fingerprints on the front. But if these were really Charlie’s fingerprints, he’d be holding the letter, so it would be a thumbprint on the front and fingerprints on the back. There’s wit on wit there. Sometimes people perceive wit as happening in a flash, as a one-hit event, but you can build on an idea. I think the best part of the whole identity was having fingerprints round the handles of the doors of his vans.
It not only worked in the sense that it was pleasing and charming, it actually helped his business. The bank manager he asked for a loan remarked that anybody who had such an interesting and intelligent letterhead was worth investing in. Someone saw his van in the City and shoved a business card under the windscreen wiper saying ‘please ring me’ – which led to an important contract.
What is great about wit is that it triggers questions in people’s minds. They start imagining – what would a person be like who has a van like this? What kind of work would he do? And these are questions they want to resolve. Curiosity must be satisfied. I don’t believe any of these thoughts were in my mind when I did the job, but that was the effect of it.
As it was lonely thinking of ideas on my own, I gravitated towards working more sociably in a team. The ideas in my team have always been more collaborative than individual efforts. Our poster for an exhibition of flower photography was one of a series of jobs for the Association of Photographers where we’d been playing with the structure of the poster. We also did a print in a paper bag for the black and white print exhibition (p. 166) and silkscreened lettering onto a black plastic sack for The Throw Away Show of photographs from disposable cameras.
The flowers poster came from one designer’s idea for a poster wrapped to form a cone imitating the shape of a bunch of flowers. You look inside to see the type – a witty way of interpreting the structure of a poster and using it to carry an idea about flowers. I thought of printing both sides of the sheet: giant flowers on one side, type in a repeat pattern to mimic flower tissue on the other. Each designer can elevate the level of wit in a job, or engage with an aspect of an idea that isn’t quite right and move it on.
The magic is in the combination of thoughts. It is when you bring ideas together that interesting things happen. That said, I have never felt comfortable in a think tank. I prefer to work on my own initially and then share ideas when they are half-formed. You can cover a lot of ground more quickly by yourself than you can in a team.
I’ve never felt it helpful to go off for a walk or found it easy to work in another environment. There is something about the discipline of sitting at my desk, with all my things around me, which somehow kicks me into mode. I still find it amazing that I get any work done, considering the ambient noise level. I think the reason is I am basically lazy. I only get ideas when I have to. To set myself going, start the adrenalin flowing and focus my mind, I will even fix a meeting a few days ahead. I commit myself to presenting a solution before I have even begun to think of ideas.