In this latest letter for Kyoorius magazine in India, Michael Wolff’s view on embracing distraction perfectly syncs with my own.
Taking an opposing path can lead to chance encounters that can be both surprising and rewarding. Those of us lucky enough to inhabit the creative world have the ability of honing our antennae to take us on unexpected journeys.
Rainwater pipes in St Petersburg.
My apologies. This will be a disjointed letter because my mind’s disjointed by travelling and by being in too many time zones in too short a time.
Travelling’s always a discombobulating experience for me because the noticing part of my brain works more actively, when I’m in less familiar cities than London, where I live. I notice thousands more distinctive details when I’m in new places. For instance, rainwater pipes in St Petersburg are twice the size they are in London, and almost anywhere else I’ve been.
The traffic lights in Moscow, where I’ve been for the last few days, are much bigger and more intense than the traffic lights in London. They’re still, unlike ours, in proper bright red, yellow and green.
The rainwater pipes are huge in St Petersburg because of the dangerous amount of melting snow and the traffic lights are huge in Moscow to make sure people see them clearly through the blur of snow and rain. Their colour is so intense because they’ve not been weakened by energy efficient lamp bulbs, as have ours in London, and also because their compelling and unusual size demands attention. They sparkle throughout Moscow as the smaller brilliant red, yellow and green lights did in London when they first struck me, as a child, with their brightness and beauty. I still find those simple bright colours, made from light, wonderful. I’m always tantalised by the difference in the intensity of colour between light and pigment, and think of them as two of the wonders of the world.
I’m writing this letter to you with a sense of urgency on an Aeroflot plane flying from Moscow back home. As I write, I’m reflecting on how strange it is that, although I don’t know you personally, I write to you as my friends, and even if my letters may be more important to me than they are to you, I still enjoy writing and sharing thoughts with you more than you realise.
I stopped writing this letter for the couple of days that it took me to acclimatise to London and then I had to return to the airport early the next morning for a trans Atlantic flight, over a sparkling ocean and a gleaming snowy white Greenland, to the USA.
Now, after a day in New York and a dinner in a restaurant that I’ll never forget – Ilily (236 Fifth Avenue), I’m in Kansas City with some of my best friends and some tranquil time to continue and complete writing this letter to you. I wonder where you are now and how things are looking and feeling to you if you’re reading this letter from me.
In one of my first letters to you I wrote about the value of distractions, of being open to disjointed impressions and how essential these are to creativity. Many of us can get into the habit of believing that solving creative problems means bringing your minds to bear on them with discipline, thoughtful concentration and single-mindedness – a kind of myopic focus. I’ve never found this to be true. For me discipline, thoughtful concentration and myopic focus usually shut down my creativity and drives it straight into the cul-de-sac of reasonableness and logic.
I remember an attorney (drawn by an old friend of mine, the great New Yorker cartoonist Al Ross) stabbing the air with his finger, saying to the judge and the courtroom “Logic, the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
Hmmmm, logic certainly has its place and so do intense concentration, undistracted focus and attention to detail, but only after your creativity has worked its magic. That magic, in my experience, requires unlimited distractions to provoke your curiosity, your appreciation and your imagination, in whichever sequence they occur to you.
I was called scatter-brained at school. Teachers then believed being scatter-brained was a bad thing; anti-curricular and anti-discipline; and I thank my lucky stars that I’m still resolutely scatter-brained today.
Being scatter-brained has served me well and so I recommend it to all creative people. For most of my professional life my openness and welcome to distractions would irritate, frustrate and even madden some of my colleagues.
Sometimes they couldn’t see where my mind was going or even where to find me. Many, though not all of them, considered that reliability, and what they thought of as responsibility, towered above creative breakthrough.
To them, steady and predictable performance was the essence of professionalism and sound business. They believed that I was creating uncontrollable disruption and organisational anarchy. They saw me as a dangerously bad example to others. Although many of them respected the work born from this behaviour; work that reached for the sky, the lure of logic, good sense, reason and the value of what they already knew, kept them off the tight rope which those of us who are driven by vision and the potential of creativity, have to walk.
Of course I can see how I looked to some of my former colleagues and how disruptive and disturbing it was for them. But I see those design firms, driven by business discipline and process being inhibited and their creativity diminished. So today, although I collaborate with many designers, I rarely work with those for whom money and process rule. Those of us who remember the magic of walking that creative tight rope now want to see business and process lose their dulling grip on what’s called the branding business and let freewheeling and exhilarating creativity flourish again. Process needs to stand in the corner in disgrace for a few years.
People like Elliot Noyes, Raymond Loewy, Bill Bernbach, Mary Wells, Paul Rand, Alan Fletcher, Massimo and Leila Vignelli, Terence Conran and Thomas Heatherwick to name a few of many, never bowed to process. They all ensured that creativity led the way in their enterprises and in what they brought to their clients.
“Nothing is achieved by a reasonable man”
said George Bernard Shaw; even in science, one of our most creative quests, many scientists still explain their wondrous discoveries to us not as accidents of brilliance and inspiration, which they often are, but of feats of reason alone. It was beautiful to hear Sir Martin Rees, a past president of the Royal Society in the UK, say “We will never understand everything.” What breath-taking arrogance to believe we ever will, and what stupidity to believe that certainty and logic are the only ways to enlightenment.
I hope you can feel me jumping from subject to subject; that’s how I live and work. One moment I meet an extraordinary person who can sweep me off my feet and change how I think and feel; the next the taste of a cheese I never knew existed;
next a brilliant and rarely screened French film from the past or a new one, like Amour (illuminating dementia); next the wit of an illustration by Quentin Blake or a cartoon by that genius of humour, the New Yorker’s Charley Barsotti, that touches the essence of human nature; a timeless painting by Matisse; the look in a person’s eye, a poem by Charles Bukowski or a fruit or flower that I never knew; next an extraordinarily beautiful and scary insect moving unperceptively on my bathroom wall, and finally, for now, an astonishing smile or a life changing quote, like this one, by Lao Tse.
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
Sometime a distraction can simply be noticing a trivial and irritating moment of incompetence at an airport; a moment of extraordinary kindness; the courage of a human being living with extreme pain or disability; someone dying peacefully; the birth of a new grandson. I seem to encounter thousands of daily glimpses of beauty or horror or simply the calm of nothing much.
All of these moments flex muscles of curiosity and appreciation without which we risk living the truth of Shakespeare’s:
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Living imaginatively, generously and creatively is the only way to transcend Shakespeare’s vivid and appalling observation. Letting in daily moments of inspiration is as important as breathing.
One such moment was hearing the phrase “intense astronomy”. I came across this on television. NASA had spent two billion dollars on converting a Boeing 747 into an observatory, flying at 40,000 feet and using an entirely new concept of what a telescope is to see further into our universe than was ever thinkable before. Magnificent!
And now another distraction, or two, just to encourage you to let your mind fly. Consider the Boeing 747. These iconic aircraft are now rebuilt from the rivets in the outer skin of their immense and graceful bodies to the smallest detail of their cabins. This happens from time to time to give these beautiful creatures a new lease of life (One day it may happen for us too.)
Watching that process being completed by British Airways engineers in Cardiff is an inspiration. It’s intense work with many skilled people involved. It takes six weeks, and when it’s complete, there’s much pride and a modest celebration as a BA flight crew come to collect it.
While I’m thinking of the 747 I’m often embarrassed by the frantic attempts to paint trivial brand graphics onto these wonderful examples of engineering sculpture. The 747 is a work of art as well as a landmark in aviation, industrial design and engineering. Only Pan Am treated this aircraft with respect. Since then the quality of graphics applied to the 747 and many other beautiful planes has been crass, stunningly disrespectful and insensitive.
The designers responsible, with the possible exception of those who designed the simple Quantas, Air France and Lufthansa liveries, should be sent to stand in disgrace in the corner too.
More distractions. Last week I watched a nature programme on television. It was so extraordinarily beautiful that I could hardly breathe. It featured the miraculous shapes and agility of Japanese cranes and how they can outwit the eagles who want to eat them for dinner. Their flying dance of black and white brings Escher to mind, but with far more grace and life. Another time, a beautiful and lithe female tiger with her cubs vying with a patient vulture for the fresh meat of an antelope; all the colours and ballet of that incongruous dance. Squadrons of green budgerigars out-flying the vultures that try to catch them for a snack. The flights of seagulls and swifts, the seagulls almost effortless and the swifts faster and more deft than our most sophisticated fighter aircraft; the sure grace of a domestic cat, or simply watching and appreciating the flow of thousands of city people; seeing how they dress; wondering what they’re doing; how their lives are. All these and the satisfaction of creating instant, momentary friendships day by day, make me the designer that I’m still constantly becoming.
I hope with this long letter to encourage you to re-connect with your childlike awe and your overwhelming early noticing and wonder at life; to peel away the adult layers of logic and misplaced responsibility; let your innate creativity take you by the hand and lead you, like a guide dog, onto the tightrope from which you can create your magic, and bring your clients more than they’ve asked from you.
Remember, as I’ve explained before, a brief is only someone’s best shot at what they want. No one really only wants what they think they want, they want what they couldn’t imagine and that’s why they’re asking you.
So don’t just stroll along in a familiar way with a series of plausible alternative choices to show your clients to diminish the risk of rejection; lead, as Bill Bernbach did, with a single recommendation. Bring them what you believe is right for them and fly at risk with them into authentic self-expression, or say goodbye.
I know this letter is jumpy. I’m jumpy too. My appreciation, curiosity and imagination jump like a grasshopper, without knowing where they will arrive and what will be next. Will it be a new relationship, a new taste, a new colour, a new experience, a new vision and a genuine creation?
I'll finish this letter with a quote from a man I’d never heard of. Samuel Ullman, an American businessman and poet, 1840–1924. It’s about all of us.
“ Youth is not a time of life, it is a state of mind. It is not a matter of red cheeks, red lips and supple knees. It is a temper of the will; a quality of the imagination; a vigor of the emotions; it is a freshness of the deep springs of life. Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over a life of ease. This often exists in a man of fifty, more than in a boy of twenty. Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years; people grow old by deserting their ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Worry, doubt, self-distrust, fear and despair, these are the long, long years that bow the head and turn the growing spirit back to dust. Whether seventy or sixteen, there is in every being’s heart a love of wonder; the sweet amazement at the stars and star like things and thoughts; the undaunted challenge of events, the unfailing childlike appetite for what comes next, and the joy in the game of life. You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair. In the central place of your heart there is a wireless station. So long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, grandeur, courage, and power from the earth, from men and from the Infinite, so long are you young. When the wires are all down and the central places of your heart are covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then are you grown old, indeed!”
"I hope I never lose my sense of wonder."
Many thanks for this to one of my best and dearest friends Charles Barsotti, and to The New Yorker
With my best wishes for your success, your sense of wonder, your creativity, your usefulness to our world and your joy.