Inferior Design: Do Our Offices Inspire Creativity or Express Uniformity?

Matisse in his Studio

Matisse in his Studio

‘Objects which have been of use to me nearly all of my life.’
Henri Matisse, Note on the back of a photograph of his possessions, 1946

I recently attended an exhibition presenting works by Henri Matisse alongside the treasured personal possessions that inspired them. (Matisse in the Studio, The Royal Academy, London, until 12 November.)

Photos of Matisse in his studio revealed a man surrounded by carvings, bottles and textiles, porcelain bowls and pewter jugs. There were Arabic screens and African figurines. There was a Cambodian statue, Kuba embroidery and a Spanish vase. These artefacts were not particularly valuable, but they were more than just decorative. Clearly Matisse found them meaningful, provocative, suggestive. And they were very much present in his art.

Matisse, 'Purple Robe and Anemones’ and the C18 pewter jug that inspired it.

Matisse, 'Purple Robe and Anemones’ and the C18 pewter jug that inspired it.

A silver chocolate pot Matisse received on his wedding day was depicted repeatedly, with differing degrees of abstraction; African masks prompted a serene style of portraiture; a Venetian rococo chair with a curious seashell design was interpreted from various perspectives; a marble Roman torso and a Chinese calligraphic panel induced vivacious colourful cut-outs.

‘The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures.’
Henri Matisse

Clearly context inspired the content of Matisse’s art. And he was not just representing these objects. They were catalysts, starting points, springboards for other thoughts and ideas.

‘For me the subject of a picture and its background have the same value…There is no principal feature, only the pattern is important.’
Henri Matisse

Legendary New York art director and designer George Lois took a different view of the work environment. For him decorative objects, furniture and pictures entailed distraction rather than inspiration. His office resembled a monastic cell - albeit a rather spacious and lofty one.

‘The only thing I ever permit on my desk is the job I’m working on. And, in my work place, there is nothing on the walls (except my nineteenth century Seth Thomas clock) to distract me from what I’m supposed to be thinking about on my desk.’
George Lois

George Lois’ office at Lois Holland Callaway, 1969

George Lois’ office at Lois Holland Callaway, 1969

Matisse and Lois had decidedly different perspectives, but they shared an understanding that their working context contributed to their creative content.

I’m sure every one of us can recall distinctive work environments that we’ve come across over the course of our careers.

When I joined BBH in the early ‘90s, its Great Pulteney Street offices boasted an austere industrial aesthetic. It was all black, steel, chrome and glass; racked televisions, exposed pipes and rubberised flooring. This look was completely consistent with the Agency’s positioning at the time as an ‘ideas factory.’ It had an attractive tone of confidence and professionalism.

In John Hegarty’s office at BBH you found a painting of an empty box, a large Q & A design and a stuffed black sheep - constant reflections on the power of ideas and the imperative of difference. Next door you could see Nick Gill’s wall of punk singles, which called to mind his personal passion and independent spirit. Nigel Bogle’s space was closer to the Lois model: simply furnished with a few framed award-winning ads, just to ensure we all knew the standard we were aiming at.

I’m afraid my own work environment was often overrun with piles of paper. I could trace files and documents chronologically by their distance from the top (like the layers in the archaeological site at Troy). Nigel rather generously once suggested ‘untidy desk, tidy mind’, but I fear the towers of A4 just betrayed my paranoia about lost knowledge. I changed office many times over the years. And wherever I laid my hat, I hung twelve photos by Daniel Meadows. In the rarefied world of Soho advertising, I found these ‘70s images of ordinary British folk gently nostalgic and reassuring – a land that time forgot.

Clearly an office speaks – about each of us as individuals, and all of us as a company. So we should give proper thought to what we’re saying.

‘Your working surroundings should not be a presentation to your Clients…And your home should not be a presentation to your friends. Surroundings should relate to who you are, what you love and to what you deem important in life.’
George Lois

I confess I’m no fan of the current conventions in creative office design - conventions now shared, with bigger budgets, by our Clients: the reclaimed wooden tables, the high chairs and industrial lighting; the brightly coloured walls and quirky shaped sofas; the suggestive neon words and slogans; the themed breakout areas and table football; the juice bar, coffee station and artisanal cookies; the beach-hut workstations, the meeting rooms named after Bowie songs; the climbing walls, playground slides and bouncy castles…

Sometimes we equate juvenility with creativity. Sometimes our work environments encourage recreation rather than inspiration, conformity rather than diversity. Sometimes they seem designed for longevity of attendance, not quality of output.

Of course, nowadays few of us are fortunate to have our own personal offices. Whilst we can create context on our desks and screens - and we can create seclusion through our headphones - for the most part our employers control our environments.

Nonetheless, we should still ask ourselves how we’re using the space that surrounds us. Where do we stand on the spectrum from Matisse’s gallery of mementoes, to Lois’ self-conscious minimalism? Does our office environment encourage inspiration or concentration? Does it provide stimulus or distraction?

Environmental design is strategically critical to the culture that a modern business is trying to encourage, and the sense of self it’s seeking to convey. Shouldn’t a creative business curate space, stimulate ideas, spark the imagination? Shouldn’t we be developing diverse, productive studio environments, not happily homogeneous corporate habitats? Shouldn’t our context inspire our content?

Daniel Meadows 'National Portrait' 1974

Daniel Meadows 'National Portrait' 1974

No. 146

The Memory Machine

It’s almost a year since Gwyn and I left BBH. This is a piece I wrote soon after our departure, reflecting on my time at the Agency and the broader theme of memory.

It was first published in the Winter 2016 edition of You Can Now magazine.

'I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn.’

I Remember, I Remember/Thomas Hood

When I was a child my mother often read this piece to me from The Golden Treasury of Poetry. I could tell that nostalgia was a powerful thing, even when I’d not lived long enough to experience it.

Now that I am of robust middle age, memory and remembrance of things past are powerfully present. I’m increasingly drawn to reflect on my history in order to make sense of my future. And increasingly I have to guard against the corrosive force of sentimentality. (As Lou Reid said, 'I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.’)

I have recently left the advertising industry after twenty five years’ happy service. It’s interesting to consider what I can and can’t remember.

I have forgotten endless meetings in poorly lit conference rooms at home and abroad. I’ve forgotten the compromises, the arguments, the politics. The indignity of labour. I’ve forgotten the decks and documents, the Power Point and power plays. I’ve forgotten many of the Pitches that we won and lost. I’ve forgotten entire strategies and campaigns. Clients that were good, bad and ugly, often at the same time.

People, events and things that once seemed terribly important are diminished by time, their memory fading to grey. All forgotten.

So what do I remember?

I remember Dav on the harmonica, Reddy on the ukulele, Kev on the penny whistle. I remember Kidney conducting, Kendall coaching, Pollard swearing, Wardy giggling, Stacey smoking, Charlie punching the palm of his hand. I remember Ben’s acrostics, Nigel’s aphorisms and JB’s acid wit.  I remember Bish on the table, Fernanda on the dance floor, Dylan on the football pitch. I remember Joe having fun, Blatch having disasters, Pepp having a quiet word. I remember John Hegarty singing Fairytale of New York. And more besides...

It seems that I can recall with vivid clarity faces, phrases, places, gestures, and moments. It’s a kaleidoscope of trivial detail. Why are these the dominant memories of my employment?

Virginia Woolf once said, ‘I am writing to a rhythm, not to a plot’. I think perhaps that’s how my career recollections have played out. I have lost the plot, so to speak. The grand narrative of success and disappointment, trophies and triumphs, has slipped quietly into the night. I’m left with this curious soup of the incidental and the inconsequential. I guess it’s the rhythm of the Agency’s culture that I’m recalling; the rhythm of a great Agency working in harmony, marching as one to the beat of a creative drum. I’m inclined to say that my memories are predominantly of people and personalities because culture matters; because culture is the critical determinant of career success and fulfilment. I do believe this.

But I’m also conscious that we can’t entirely trust the evidence of our memories. We are unreliable narrators of our own lives.

I have read that, according to the science of memory, we generally do not recall actual events. For the most part we call to mind the memories of those events; and sometimes the memories of the memories. And so our recollections of the past can adjust and evolve with retelling and remembering. Memory has been compared to a palimpsest, a parchment on which the original script has been erased and overwritten. In other words, memory is a ‘multi-layered record’. It is flexible and plastic. It is creative, reconstructive and autobiographical.

That’s why so many people swear that they saw Bugs Bunny in Disneyland and the Sex Pistols in Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. Some call it False Memory Syndrome; others call it wishful thinking.

Some time ago I attended a performance of Harold Pinter’s Old Times in which Pinter considered the malleability of truth. As the character Anna put it:

‘There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things that I remember which may never have happened, but as I recall them so they take place.’

Harold Pinter/ Old Times

The play’s programme notes helpfully explained the psychology of memory.

‘Two forces go head-to-head in memory. The force of correspondence acts to make our memories true to the way things were, while the force of coherence acts to tell a story that suits the self. We know that autobiographical memory is a reconstructive process, drawing together different sources of information and putting them together in ways that can differ subtly from telling to telling. These dynamic reshapings often serve to make memories as true to how we want the past to be as to how it actually was.’

Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light, quoting Psychologist Martin Conway

So my recollections of my time at work are both a reflection of the truth and of my own sense of self. I make my memories and my memories make me.

It strikes me that the communications industry has long put the creative, autobiographical nature of memory to good use. It has supplied contexts for experiences, ways of remembering; reconfigurations of events, so that we feel more positively disposed to repeat them.

That beer was more refreshing, that holiday was more rewarding, that car was more thrilling, that conversation was more entertaining.  It was the real thing, the ultimate drive. It was the happiest place on earth, the best a man could get. It got you back to you. You loved it.

Advertising is more than a promise for the future. It is a reconstruction of the past.

Of course the past and future are inextricably linked. I recently read an interview with Sir Nicholas Penny, the outgoing Director of the National Gallery, in which he made the case for respecting our heritage: ‘Real concern for the future is always more persuasive in those that have a genuine feeling for the past’. I’m sure he’s right. By giving a brand historical context, we give it a narrative that makes sense of its promises for the future.

Critically, memories can sustain consumers through a brand’s absence.  Memories excuse marketers from the expense of ‘always on’, ever-present media strategies; and consumers from the waking nightmare that these strategies represent. Because memories endure when we’re not around. At its most powerful advertising supplies the recollective material for enduring experiences and relationships. Advertising is a Memory Machine.

I wonder do we properly appreciate this? Are we so concerned with momentary messages that we ignore more meaningful memories? Do we ever ask what memories we are seeking to inspire for our brand, lest perhaps it is forgotten in our absence? Are we so eager to create a vision of the future that we disregard our vision of the past?

To conclude where we began. In another verse from The Golden Treasury of Poetry, Christina Rosetti made a plea that resonates through time and particularly rings true for a middle aged ad man looking for a new frontier: remember me.

‘Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell of our future to be planned:
Only remember me.’

Remember/Christina Rosetti

No. 69

Branded Gentry

Branded Gentry

Why assign your own name to a brand? What drives the founders of eponymous brands? What lies behind the success of the successful?

These are questions addressed by Branded Gentry, an engaging new book by Charles Vallance and David Hopper. The book comprises a series of interviews with people who ‘made their name by making their name into a brand’. The likes of Johnnie Boden, the founder of the casual clothing company, James Dyson of the innovative household appliance brand, Jonathan Warburton of the baking dynasty, and our own John Hegarty.

I found it a refreshing read. Conventional business books encourage us to think of commercial success in terms akin to scientific case studies. We isolate key learnings, critical success factors, best demonstrated practice. We are introduced to models, mantras and metaphors. We are given a picture of achievement which is ordered, constructed, replicable.

Branded Gentry invites us to consider the psychology of the founders of successful brands. Their relationship with their parents, the view from their childhood bedroom, the emotional milestones that mark out their career. Each chapter is a character study, an elegant pen portrait of often charismatic, compelling individuals. Consequently it paints a picture of success that is disordered, spontaneous, instinctive. And of business that is personal, passionate, human.

The decision to give one’s own name to a brand is significant. If brands are fundamentally about trust, then a brand that carries a founder’s name has a particular sense of integrity. The tag-line of Warburton’s bread is: ‘We care because our name’s on it.’ And as Boden puts it, ‘If you don’t believe in your name, how can you expect other people to give you money?’

Inevitably perhaps, there is a consistent theme of ‘failing forwards’. Tripping up on the way to success, maybe being humbled by mistakes, but also seeing in them learning and experience. The eponymous brand owners come across as enthusiasts. They’re often breezily confident and positive about life. Many of them seem more emotional than you might expect, more active listeners.

But there’s also a dark undertow. A wariness of good fortune, a suspicion that bad times may be round the corner, a fear of debt (which many of them have experienced). The Branded Gentry are restless souls. Listen to James Dyson: ‘I’m not satisfied; I’m still not satisfied. The moment you’ve done something, then you’re onto the next thing, which is full of new problems you’ve got to solve …It’s a life of failure and dissatisfaction whatever your private wealth’. Or as the potter, Emma Bridgewater, puts it: ‘The trouble with being an entrepreneur is that you never think you’ve finished. You’re always thinking of things you haven’t done… I’ve got a lot of parallel lives unlived, but you suddenly realise it’s probably not going to happen. It’s the inherent sadness of ageing.’

I guess I had imagined that success came easily to the successful; that they had had a leg-up from life, a helping hand to get them started. In fact I was rather struck by the fact that, whilst some of these entrepreneurs were born into material wealth, most of them had rather tough childhoods.The broken home, the unsympathetic father, the parents that passed away before their time. Illness and ill fortune seem never too far away. (Dyson points out that over 80% of British Prime Ministers lost a parent before the age of 10, compared to only 1.5% of the general population.)

I grew up committed to a clear separation between work and life beyond it. Of course in the modern age it’s increasingly difficult to sustain the divide. For these Branded Gentry life is work and the eponymous business is fundamentally an expression of self.  According to Dyson, ‘I had developed a latent desire to make things around me better and that desire was the very part of whom I was.’ The authors conclude that their subjects ‘didn’t go out into the world to fit in with it. One way or another, they set out to make the world fit them.’

Branded Gentry is very well written. There is a commendable amount of descriptive detail and direct speech. One often feels one is in the room with the interviewee, observing his or her furniture, inflections, physiognomy. I welcome the book’s commitment that business is about people, not just processes; passions, not just practices. For Vallance and Hopper the personal is professional.

First published: BBH LABS 28/03/2013

No. 19

Singing In The Cemetery

“Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.” Bob Marley

Bob Marley, photographed by Jill Furmanovsky

Bob Marley, photographed by Jill Furmanovsky

I recently saw the Bob Marley documentary that came out last year. Insightful, inspirational, touching stuff.

I was quite struck by a story relating to The Wailers’ early career in Kingston. Their manager would take them to rehearse late at night in the local cemetery. He believed that if they could conquer their fear of ‘duppies’ (spirits), they could also conquer any stage fright.

We often talk of advertising as a business fuelled by confidence. And it’s true. Confidence gives you the courage to be honest, to be different, to challenge conventions. Confidence is the foundation of sustained success.

But I have also found that the reverse is true: agencies run on fear.

Fear of corporate change, competitive threat and Client whim. Fear of forgetting, of fluffing one’s lines. Fear of fashion, of falling behind and falling apart. Fear of failure. Fear that the latest success may be the last. Fear of complacency, of hubris. Fear of lost relevance. Fear of irrelevance. Fear of redundancy. Not just losing your job, but losing your utility. Fear that your best years are behind you. And your worst meeting is in front of you.

As Nigel Bogle has been wont to warn, even in the good years, ‘We’re three phone calls away from disaster’.

I still go into every presentation with an awkward feeling in the pit of my stomach. And under sustained pressure I develop painfully itchy shins. Hardly the romance of a saint’s stigmata. Faintly ridiculous really. But nonetheless a physical manifestation of stress, anxiety, doubt.

John Hegarty once bumped into our Levi’s Client in Reception. The Client said he was worried because the proposed print route was a bit risky. Rather than reassure him that it wasn’t at all dangerous, John said, ‘You’re right. It is risky. I’m worried it might even be a mistake, possibly a disaster.’ And then he marched briskly on to his next meeting.

I think a successful business should be fuelled by confidence, but oiled by fear. The one delivers ambition, the other insures against complacency. I’m drawn to the same qualities in people too: I like enthusiasm, appetite, optimism; tempered by a little self doubt, angst and humility. (‘Once a Catholic…’, I guess…)

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
Bob Marley

But whilst fear in moderation may be useful, attractive even, fear in excess is paralysing, corrosive. You see it in the eyes of the team whose competence has been questioned, whose business has been put up for pitch, whose job is on the line.

So I suspect we could still do with a little singing in the cemetery. We still need a means to confront our darkest paranoias, to defeat our deepest doubts. Of course in a modern, sanitised age we don’t have ‘duppies’, ghosts and ghouls. Maybe, post Freud, just articulating our misgivings is healthy. Maybe we ought to give more time to sharing our angst, anxieties, apprehensions.

Maybe I’m just singing in the cemetery right now…

First published: BBH Labs 26/02/2013

No. 18