Let’s Make Things Difficult for Ourselves: Finding the Sweet Spot Between the Obvious and the Obscure

Albrecht Durer, Head of a Woman

Albrecht Durer, Head of a Woman

I recently attended an excellent exhibition at the National Gallery in London dedicated to painting in black and white (Monochrome, until 18 February). The show reviews how artists have over the centuries deliberately chosen to eschew colour in their work.

The motivations for monochrome were rich and varied.

In the Middle Ages there was a view that colourless imagery encouraged sombre contemplation. And so churches occasionally adopted grey, subdued tones in their paintings, stained glass and illuminated manuscripts. At the exhibition you can see a splendid sixteenth century monochrome indigo canvas that was hung over more colourful Genoese chapel walls during Holy Week.

With time artists found that, by excluding colour from their work, they could explore forms, contours, space and relationships in a more focused way. The constraint helped them concentrate. During the Renaissance there was competition between painters and sculptors as to whose was the higher art form. In ‘Portrait of a Lady’ Titian depicted his subject holding a white marble relief of herself – demonstrating that, whereas a sculptor couldn’t sculpt painting, a painter could paint sculpture.

Sometimes artists painted sculptural effects just because imitation was cheaper than authenticity. Sometimes they enjoyed creating the illusion of  ‘trompe l’oeil.’ With the dawn of photography painters vied with the medium in its realism, and occasionally they employed black and white to suggest the urgency of news. In 1929 Kazimir Malevich painted a plain black square within a white frame and declared it the dawn of abstract art.

I confess I approached the monochrome exhibition expecting it to be a rather serious, austere affair. I walked away inspired by the contemplation of looking and seeing; reflecting on the fact that blinkers can provide focus, restraint can set you free. Sometimes it pays to make things more difficult.

Titian, Portrait of a Lady

Titian, Portrait of a Lady

Of course, in business, we’re always looking to make things easier - for ourselves, our Clients and our consumers. The ever-increasing pressures on time and money demand it. But we should pause for thought: often the most obvious option gives the blandest outcome; sometimes the right path is not the easiest one.

I recall that, back in the day, our Levi’s Client commissioned a research study of their hugely successful TV campaign. They were particularly keen to learn about the media performance of their various commercials. The researchers concluded that those executions that had fast wear-in with viewers also had fast wear-out; and similarly slow wear-in resulted in slow wear-out.

Often in creative reviews at that time we’d find ourselves saying: ‘This is a great idea, but what if we strip the copy right back? What if we don’t explain everything as we go along? What if the viewer has to think a little?’

If you want a memorable idea – an idea that endures - you need consumers to invest in it. You need them to pay you some attention. In the modern age attention is actively given, not passively conceded. Attention must be earned, not bought.

So if you’re embarking on a communication task, consider making things more difficult for yourself. Set yourself a challenge: What if we tell this story backwards? What if we see the whole thing from the hero’s point of view? What if we don’t see the product until the end? What if we just watch people’s reaction to it? What if every shot is a close-up? What if we set this in a different era, in a different place, on a different planet? What if we shoot it in black and white?

There’s a sweet spot between the obvious and obscure: the point when the viewer positively engages, leans in to understand. That’s what you should be aiming for. Intrigue them, charm them, make them curious. Earn their attention.

I was confused when I entered the last room of the ‘Monochrome’ exhibition. I found myself alone in a large empty space illuminated with sodium-yellow lights. I didn’t see what was so special. I wandered back to the text by the room’s entrance, which explained that the contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson had employed single frequency monochromatic bulbs in order to suppress all other colours in the spectrum. At this point an old lady walked into the room. She appeared to me completely in black and white, like an old photo; and her rather grey skin suggested she might be off to a Halloween party. We both laughed at each other. I realised I must look the same.

And so I fled back to the world of colour, glad to have lived for an hour in a black and white world; liberated by the limitations.

Etienne Moulinneuf after Chardin, La Pourvoyeuse

Etienne Moulinneuf after Chardin, La Pourvoyeuse

'She told me once, and she told me twice.
I never listened to her advice.
Now I'm payin' a heavy price.
Maybe I'm wrong and maybe she's right.
I see things in shades of blue,
She sees things in black and white.'

Edwyn Collins, ‘50 Shades of Blue’

No. 160