I started off at art school wanting to be a painter.
But my problem was the subjectivity of the whole thing.
How do you know if a painting’s any good, who decides?
Van Gogh was treated as a fool in his lifetime, and died a pauper.
Never sold a painting to a gallery and couldn’t get an exhibition.
Yet after he died the same paintings were suddenly considered genius and worth millions.
Who decides and how?
What are the rules?
Well, quite simply there aren’t any.
Whether a painting is any good or not is decided by a small, influential, group of critics and gallery owners.
So, if you’re a painter, their subjectivity decides your ability.
I didn’t like this.
It was like playing football with no rules, and the referee deciding who he preferred, on whatever grounds he chose.
So, when I went to New York, I switched to advertising.
I decided that at least, that way, millions of ordinary people in the street would decide whether I was any good or not.
And, while I was there, I made friends with a lot of guys studying Industrial Design.
We talked a lot about what they did on their courses, and I learned a lot.
I thought what they did was a lot closer to advertising than painting was.
Painting was a one-off object designed to hang in galleries and be viewed, considered, pondered over, and interpreted by the cultural elite.
Industrial Design was in three dimensions, advertising was in two dimensions, but both were about the mass production of an idea.
Both had to be able to work in the real world, not just an art gallery.
Both had to be about cost, and return on investment.
Both would be judged by how they performed against measurable criteria, not just whether they pleased half a dozen critics.
I’d never heard of The Bauhaus before these guys told me about it.
But one particular Bauhaus maxim flipped the light switch on in my head.
FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION.
The most important word being “follows”.
Written in a less alliterative way, that would read, “Every part of the eventual design must have a reason, or it shouldn’t be there.”
Suddenly, anyone could take any piece of design or advertising apart and analyse it.
I loved the anti-elitism of it.
I loved the way we could lift up the bonnet and demand to know why something was there, and what it did.
This became my mantra, and over the years I’ve never deviated from it.
And yet, and yet…
One evening I was discussing this with the designer Richard Seymour.
He wasn’t quite as black and white about it as I was.
He said to me “Yes Dave, but form can be emotional function.”
In other words, a pleasing shape can also fulfill a purpose.
Just by being pleasing.
I wasn’t having it.
But, because of how much I respect Richard as a designer and a thinker, it stayed in my brain.
I know I can learn a lot about what I do, just from listening to him talk about what he does.
And then I found this extract from the diary of a British colonel, who was amongst the first to liberate a Nazi concentration camp in 1945.
“It took a little time to get used to seeing men, women, and children collapse as you walked by them and to restrain oneself from going to their assistance. One had to get used early to the idea that the individual just did not count. It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things: food and medical equipment, and I don’t know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it; it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for those internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”
And my world shifted a little bit.
It seems I was wrong.
Form can be emotional function.