When to put your design sensitivities aside, a tale of pretty Durex and juicy oranges.
When asked to communicate to a specific audience, especially when you’re a young whipper snapper designer in an international agency, it best to pause, think and ask, ‘Am I really putting my clients’ best interests first, or is this an opportunity to prove how creative I am?’.
What Not To Do If You Don’t Know
There’s no real rules in the creative industry (and you really do need to be experienced before you break them), but it is advisable to have a least one eye open on the brief and its objectives, otherwise, you’re going to get it wrong. Ask any designer, a blank canvas is a hard place to start!
Learning From My Failures
It’s important to take risks and sometimes ignore market research (like the time focus groups told Sony, the Walkman would be a flop), but it is important to ask questions, and get them validated, before too much work and effort is carried out.
Here’s two times I failed in a big way, by not listening to the client’s brief.
My First Failure – Durex Elite
One of my first jobs in London at the tender age of twenty three was in a sales promotion agency. When I joined (in the 80’s) it was the ‘full monty’ in terms of Porches, pinball machines, ‘away days’ to Brighton where the whole creative team were whisked off, much to the annoyance of the ‘suits’, a sort of ‘Madmen’ office, on speed.
What I didn’t really grasp though, that this was sales promotion, not the graphic design and advertising trades I was used to in past Dublin agencies. This firm was about marrying one product to another in order to boost sales, ‘buy one, get one free’, ‘20% off’, that sort of thing and boy, subtly was not in their vocabulary.
Problem was that I lived in graphic ‘la la land’ and when asked to ‘marry’ a set of carving knives to Durex Elite (I kid you not), my solution was to illustrate the knives in the same dreamy manner as the floating boat on the pack. Now it might have looked pretty, but what the client wanted was the punter to go, ‘oh boy, if I buy two, three or four packs (this was on the assumption that all his Christmases had come together) I could get a set of carving knives!’
Naturally, the client rejected the softly softly approach, he wanted something harder, something that stood out on the pack in six inch letters and certainly not in pale wispy blue. Durex was not the only product I tried to plant my artistic sensibilities on and when my swan song of dressing as up a flasher for the company party went down like a lead balloon, I was let go.
My Second Failure – Outspan Oranges
The next agency was definitely more suited to my needs, not too many Porches, but lots of great creative opportunities, I was in my element. Not that they came that easy, everything had to be earned in those days, just like the two hundred page Poundstretcher holiday brochures I was asked to design in the first weeks. This wasn’t my idea of creative heaven, so I hatched the route of producing them steady but slow and when a real creative job came up, worked over the weekend to really make an impression. The concept worked and soon I was given most of the interesting jobs, much to the annoyance of my colleagues.
Maybe I was becoming too big for my creative boots, but nothing could stop me now, holiday promotions in the Oval cricket ground, brand launches in the London Planetarium, I was on fire!
So, when the brief came to design eye catching leaflets for Outspan oranges (the trade, not consumer), I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I designed colourful flyers with whimsical acrobats and dancers juggling with oranges. I even commissioned an artist to illustrate these fantasies, all to considerable expense!
However, all came tumbling down, when the agency owner instructed me to meet him at 5.30am the next morning. Off to New Covent Garden we went, to walk around the stalls, to really look at what the predominantly male greengrocers, had on their walls and it wasn’t pretty pictures of clowns and dancers! With their strapline of ‘Small ones are more juicy’ the semi-clad ladies were anything but ‘small’ on the pin-up posters. Ok, it was the non-PC 80’s, but I had completely misread the audience and what really attracted their attention!
The eventual accepted literature was far more racy than my ‘Nancy’ concepts of jugglers and dancers and all I could do was watch in amazement as another designer art-directed a shoot of a well endowed lady ‘sunbathing’ on a diving board over a swimming pool filled with juicy oranges. ‘’That …’’ the agency owner crooned, “… is knowing your audience!”
With anything in life, it’s a good idea to stop, listen and study the task in hand, before diving into unchartered waters. Certainly, I was young, a little naïve and probably too quick off the mark, but I learned the hard way in those early years. It’s really important to take risks, crack the mold and shine, but master the rules before you break them and always have a plan B up your sleeve.
Take time to do your research and ask as many people as you can for their opinion, the inside story, the way it really is, before setting down the wrong path. You may decide to not listen as Sony never did about the Walkman, but at least you can say you took the time to do so and present those findings in your defence, if the proverbial hits the fan!