Here is another letter by my good friend Michael Wolff.
Originally written for the design magazine Kyoorius and aimed at young Indian designers. But the theme is universal and something for us all to contemplate.
It's good to be writing to you again. I hope you’re managing to be well and happy. This time, with the world in such a distressing state, I’m writing about design in its widest contextual sense, because design, as a way of thinking, could help us to change direction and avoid ending up where we seem to be heading.
I think Buckminster Fuller thought and said what we urgently need to achieve. He said: “We need to move from a you or me world, to a you and me world”. ‘You and me’ is what this letter to you is about. First of all, let me explain that I’m writing to you personally. If you're reading this now, I’m writing precisely to you. It may be hard for you to believe this, because we probably haven’t met and don’t know each other. But I don’t write to groups, I write to individual people, and it is you that I’m thanking for reading this. It’s the only way I know how to speak to you personally about the daunting situation I think and feel we’re in.
Now I want to share some my thoughts with you. I think we're at the point of exhausting the paradigm we’ve lived in, called ‘more’, and it’s time for a new paradigm to live in called ‘enough’. We’ve got ‘more’ tangled up with success . So most ‘more’ is now in the hands of relatively few people. Many who feel they don’t have enough ‘more’ feel compelled to have more ‘more’ and obviously there simply isn’t enough ‘more’ to go round. If you use the statistics that define the situation we're in as a mirror, you will see how old and unworkable the ‘more’ paradigm has become.
Take a look at a website called the miniature earth, and you’ll be shocked. This site concludes that “if you keep your food in a refrigerator and your clothes in a closet, if you have a roof over your head and have a bed to sleep in, you are richer than 75% of the entire world population.” Arguments like: it’s always been that way and that these days many people have vastly improved standards of living are weak when you look at this bigger picture.
‘More’ has also corrupted the idea of competition. Instead of competing with our own past performance, most of us are still competing fearfully with everyone else, and in second-guessing what other’s might be capable of, all sorts of very unpleasant and dubious snooping and spying practices are beginning to happen around the world.
If you’re a marathon runner, what matters is how you improve your performance from your last marathon. If someone comes along who runs twice as fast as you, you can’t do anything about it. But you can, by competing with yourself, in any aspect of what you do, triumph over yourself. That's the point of competition. In the first London marathon just a few meters from the end, the leading two runners joined hands to run over the line hand in hand - you and me, not you or me. Running the fastest that they ran was enough. Winning by just that little bit more was abandoned.
Being the best you can be is ‘enough’. Craving to be the best there is becomes an obsession and an addiction. Being bigger, more famous, earning more, having more and wanting substantially more than others inevitably deprives others, and that’s what’s driving the ‘you or me’ crisis we’re facing today. It was encouraging to hear from Andrew Witty, the Chief Executive Officer of GlaxoSmithKline plc (GSK), a leading pharmaceutical company, say that they are going to give away a product they've discovered that will diminish the horror of malaria and just charge a management fee of 5% for its distribution.
It’s interesting to hear that scientists in Cambridge University may have found the means to eradicate Malaria altogether. They weren’t competing with each other in a race for ‘more’, they were competing with themselves to achieve results that will benefit mankind because they are mankind. They are you and me.
In business, mark-ups, margins and super profit have become the mantras that often emasculate quality. They’re driven by the ‘more’ paradigm. Like cancer, growth becomes an end in itself. In the US today, many brands that you would know and whose products stood for quality, now just print their logos on products that are made for a variety of brands in the same factories. They depend on their brand name implying a qualitative distinction, which is no longer there. They've been corrupted by the margin and profit mantra, and because of this, generosity of spirit usefulness, durability, beauty and mutual interest with you and me are often lost. They no longer compete with their past performance, they compete to kill each other. Ironically many of these brands are now in authoritative lists of huge US retail brands that are anticipated to fail. This is competition as suicide.
That’s enough for me to say in a short personal letter to you, other than to invite you to think about the value and place for ‘enough’ in your own life. Once again, by writing to you in this way, I’m asking you to think about the thoughts that I’m expressing. I know, although you may not, that you as an individual can inspire others and, then many others, until ultimately, between us all, we can change the hopeless direction in which I think we're all travelling.
Hope is the outer suburb of possibility and from possibility, as designers, each one of us can personally live in, and strive to fulfill Buckminster’s Fuller’s legacy: a you and me world of peace, harmony and enough for all of us.
This late 1940’s cover for an RAF information booklet has such a Boy’s Own Paper persuasive feel. The dreamy look on the face of the clean cut young man, and the exciting world of flying laid out in the background must have seduced many to pick up a pen to fill out the application form. Such innocent days.
There was a spate of IRA bombings during 1973. This one was at the Old Bailey in London
The first mobile phone was introduced
Noël Coward, English composer and playwright, died
The album cover for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon designed by Stom Thorgerson and illustraed by George Hardie
Peter Shaffer’s Equus was on at the National Theatre. It was advertised with this striking poster designed by Moura-George/Briggs, with illustration by Gilbert Lesser
Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? was first screened on the BBC
The annual Pirelli Calendar was attempting to become artistically respectable
by allying itself with the artist Allen Jones, but to many it was just more
exploitative material to hang on garage walls
The poet W.H. Auden died
The cover of the 1973 D&AD Annual illustrated by the brilliant Tony Meeuwiessen
By 1973, I was beginning to get itchy feet. What to do next? I had got my life at Heinemann running like clockwork and I wanted/needed a new challenge. I knew that I’d have to put feelers out to get it.
I’d moved house by this time, but still miles out of London in Essex. And this is a happy family snap, now all 5 five us.
Me and my then wife Margaret with our twin sons, Joe, Ben and daughter Polly
A big responsibility for a 29-year-old.
Back tucked away in my top-floor office/studio in Mayfair, Marie Clair (my secretary) and I would busy ourselves drinking coffee and checking out what was on at the Curzon Mayfair: the most stylish cinema in town at the time. Starting that week was Don’t Look Now directed by Nicholas Roeg. I had seen his first film Performance and rated it highly. I knew nothing about this new one.
The opening of Don't Look Now
We slipped out one afternoon to the Curzon and settled back into the comfy seats engulfed in the intimate darkness. And very dark it was. I was completely overwhelmed by the film’s inventiveness: its imaginative use of editing, camerawork and sound design and its ability to profoundly disturb. I had never seen flash-forwards in a film until that moment. I came out of the cinema shattered and exhilarated in equal measures.
The closing sequence of Don't Look Now
I was straight on the phone to Ken Carroll to tell him he just had to see it. We spent many animated hours chatting about every frame of Roeg’s masterpiece.
By this time, Ken and I had become inseparable: talking on the phone most days, visiting each other’s homes and planning a holiday for the following year. Ken and his then wife Sue had just moved from Camden to Tulse Hill, South London, and he had turned one of the bedrooms into a studio. He had moved out of a shared studio space in Floral Street, Covent Garden, in the building occupied by Rodney Kinsman’s OMK Furniture. This was when Covent Garden was still a working fruit market and rents were cheap.
Covent Garden in 1973: a year before it moved to Nine Elms
Michael Farrell, Keith Davies, John Gorham and John McConnell all worked out of the same building. At the time, John McConnell was doing a lot of work for A&M Records and the company’s art director was Michael Doud, who was commissioning a lot of London designers. I managed to get a few commissions from him. This was for The Ozark Mountain Daredevils.
My album cover design for The Ozark Mountain Dare Devils
It is very much routed in that ‘70s eclectic period, when anything and everything was valid. McConnell was also producing some wonderful work for the photo-setting company Face, which I think he had an interest in. He would often collaborate with John Gorham, who would generally surpass everyone with his astonishing ability to do everything perfectly.
As the year drew to a close, a job opportunity came up advertised in The Bookseller: ‘Art Director wanted for Fontana Paperbacks’. It was to become another important step in my meandering design journey.
My Albums for 1973:
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist caused a mild sensation, with help from Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (below) as part of the soundtrack
In addition to it's disturbing quality Don’t Look Now, containing one of the most graphic sex scenes hitherto shown in mainstream British cinema, was released in a double bill with The Wicker Man (below) not a brilliant film at all but, all these years on, now has a cult following.
My own bookjacket design for 1973...
You’ve probably seen them. Actually, you can’t really miss them at the moment. The new poster campaign and TV commercial for Lloyds Bank. It is amazing how both Lloyds and their advertising agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R must think that we are all brain dead because they have re-launched Lloyds as a warm, cosy, caring bank. And we are supposed to swallow it.
We are expected to forget about the bank’s PPI mis-selling, for which Lloyds has set aside £5.3 billion so far to pay in compensation– far more than any other bank. Or the sacking of 43,000 staff. Or the £11 billion of taxpayer funds to stop them going under. Following that saga, Eric Daniels (then boss of Lloyds) was ousted but stayed on the pay roll at almost £100,000 a month for doing nothing before walking off with his £5 million pension pot.
Or the fact that they paid more than 20 of their new, top staff £1 million each or more last year, while over 4,000 of their low-paid worker bees got no pay increases at all. And then there was their involvement in the Libor-rigging scandal. There are even ‘unsubstantiated’ rumours that the government used its close relationship with various members of the Lloyds Bank board to arrange the acquisition of the disastrous HBOS.
And if all that were not enough, the new chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group, António Horta-Osório, is in line for a bigger bonus than expected, after the government sold off the first tranche of its stake in the bailed-out bank for a £60 million profit.
But hey, just like magic, we are supposed to forget all that because the bank now really cares. Like hell they do. They care so much that they only pay 1.49% interest on deposits but, should you want to borrow, well, it’s only 14.4%. And God forbid if you slip into an unauthorised overdraft: they’ll have you by the short and curlies.
Forget all the above: Lloyds now really cares. It says so on the posters. And if that were not enough, they have made a commercial that takes much (if not all) of its inspiration from director Mike Mills’ graphic interventions in his film Beginners, take a look.
I find it extraordinary that an advertising agency could come up with this sanctimonious baloney with a straight face. But I guess money really talks and this campaign must have cost millions in media spend. It is quite shameful. And the irony is we still own 32.7% of the bank.
This is what Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R have to say on their wedsite:
"We're very excited to show some of our new work for Lloyds Banking Group. They have redefined the identity and customer experience of its most iconic brand, Lloyds Bank. The new brand positioning, identity and through-the-line campaign aim to demonstrate that the bank is continually evolving and truly understands what matters in life today." Now, I really belive that don't you?
If this agency pulls off changing the nation’s mind about Lloyds, think what they could do for Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Stalin and Jimmy Savile. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Some time back, I spent a couple
of years studying the Constantin Stanislavski approach to acting at the Method
School in London – originally set up by Lee Strasberg’s wife, Anna – which is
sadly now closed. I became quite obsessed and extremely passionate about the
whole thing, mainly because I was going through a bit of a personal trauma at
the time and found it relatively easy to tap into raw emotions that bubbled
away under the surface. That is the stuff that makes a performance ‘real’; that
and the fact that it was fantastic therapy to help get
bottled-up emotions out of the system and shared. I would thoroughly recommend
It got me thinking about how Stanislavski’s teaching could manifest itself in other creative areas, and illustration seems a perfect candidate.
There are four illustrators that I would class as ‘method’ illustrators: the late John Gorham, Mick Brownfield, Andrew Davidson and Mark Thomas. Why? Well, because they all have the ability to ‘inhabit’ another era in their work to such an extent that they ‘become’, effectively living in the shoes of early illustrators.
John Gorham was a man who would have been more than happy living in the late 19th or early 20th century, when craft and attention to detail were the norm. If you looked at a cigarette card from the 1930s and compared it to a Gorham rendition, you couldn’t tell the difference.
The remakable thing about the above is that it was all hand drawn and lettered by Gorham. A real labour of love.
When working, he became that artist back in the 1930s. He lived, breathed and loved it and it showed in the results. I commissioned John a hell of a lot in the 1970s and he would often bring in a new ‘treasure’, as he referred to his latest pieces of ephemera unearthed from a junk shop or (more often than not) from David Drummond’s shop of curiosities just off St Martin’s Lane. John would positively salivate over an engraving or illustration from an old annual. One could see that he was far more excited about the quality of that bygone era of work than anything that was being done at the time.
A different personality but just as passionate is Mick Brownfield: a master of his craft and drenched in the glory days of ‘commercial’ illustration when cheeks were rosy, jaws were square and highlights glistened. He has been at it since the 1970s and can still be found at his very analogue drawing board with Radio 4 purring in the background. Or at least that’s how I imagine him.
Above shows Brownfield's astonishing versatility in styles from earlier periods executed with supreme craftsmanship.
Mark Thomas, another ‘method’ candidate, is just so spot on with his pulp fiction covers…
The last of this quartet is Andrew Davidson: a wonderful wood engraver but, when not doing that, he often slips into the shoes of Frank Newbold et al. He does this with great aplomb, as you can see here…
Above the marvelously evocative work of Andrew Davidson
It is heartening that the world of illustration is not only retaining its hands on craft but that there is a whole wealth of new illustrators flexing their young wings to show that craft is alive, kicking and developing. Hooray.
For those of you who remember the wonderful last interview with playwright Dennis Potter, I think you will appreciate this touching radio chat with children’s book illustrator Maurice Sendak shortly before he died. The same love of simple things and love of nature was clearly permeating his mind in those last months.
It is made even more powerful by this delightfully sensitive animated tribute by Christoph Niemann for The New York Times.
Make some coffee, sit in a comfortable chair and watch here.