How I got the idea: Ivan Chermayeff

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To celebrate the life of Ivan Chermayeff, we would like to publish an excerpt from conversation with the legendary designer, from the latest edition of A Smile in the Mind.

"Humour in graphics is a rare commodity. There are few commercial opportunities for it to emerge, and this kind of solution requires a lot of talent and salesmanship. It is not easy to be witty in print, without a soundtrack, and with no movement. And wit is essentially fragile, in that bad wit is less productive than no wit at all.
In a design office like ours, working each year on a great many projects, witty jobs are relatively few and far between. But there is no doubt that wit communicates better, because it commands more attention, and is more memorable. What the designer does is to get people to participate in the event of finding a new way of thinking about the subject.

Mobil has given us many opportunities to produce witty solutions. In commissioning posters for its Masterpiece Theatre productions, the company has shown itself open to risk, being supportive rather than cowardly. The design work has never been approved by the committee: it has always been a smart and bright individual who has made the decisions. Our firm has not designed all the posters, but I suppose we have done more than anybody else. We have been a consultant to Mobil for so long that normally we don’t even present two alternatives.

I do the work personally. One of the privileges of being a principal in the office is that you need not give away the best jobs. One of my favourites is the poster for the play about Churchill, ‘The Wilderness Years’. What with the hat, the cigar, and the title, it doesn’t take more than a fraction of a second to figure out that the subject is Churchill, though the man himself does not appear. When I started work on the poster, the ‘wilderness years’ hardly conjured up an image of Churchill being buried in a cloud of cigar smoke. I started with some very straightforward images, and tried to make other connections.

When I think of Churchill I think of brandy, cigars, the Homburg hat, the boiler suit, the summer hat, the funny pictures and the easel. It becomes a matter of finding something you can play against that connects Churchill with the idea of being lost in the wilderness, out in the middle of nowhere, out of office and out of touch. I suppose I must have moved eventually to the idea of obscurity and of being obscured. The final connection is to the cigar, of being obscured
by smoke.

I cannot remember the exact sequence of thinking. The image has to mean Churchill, obscured but not altogether concealed, and that added a layer of difficulty. You go through possibilities, latch onto something, push it around, then ‘ha’ – cigar and smoke. The solution is logical in the end, but you do not arrive at it through logic.

I do half my work in taxis, not in the office. As I go from one place to another thinking about things, I may suddenly have an idea and will put it down on paper. Sometimes the idea is OK, but it may evolve into other forms.
My ideas may come quickly, or not at all. I have no compunction about driving around and being late if necessary. The ideas that are quick, even instantaneous, are the best.
I sometimes have a great idea while the problem is still being described by the client. I have learned that the worst thing you can do is to put that idea forward immediately, because then it has no value.

My notion of wit is essentially positive: I see it as the ability to make lively and friendly connections. It is hard to make tough wit, about a subject like the Third Reich for example. Normally a witty solution becomes relevant because of the aura of the subject matter – which lends itself to a playful attitude, an openness to other ideas. That kind of playfulness is an essential part of my personality, independent of my life as a designer. It is also expressed in my collages, which are nothing to do with commercial problem solving but are also about making connections. The delight of wit arises from unusual and unexpected observations."

Reproduced from A Smile in the Mind, bu Beryl McAlhone, David Stuart, Greg Quinton & Nick Asbury, Phaidon, 2015