At art school I always think you learn more from the other students than from the teachers.
For instance, when I started at art school I was studying fine art, and I was confused.
Were we supposed to be painting as realistically as possibly, or not?
Were we supposed to be representing movement, or space, or evoking an emotion or feeling, or what?
No one would say.
It seemed to be what was wanted was whatever the lecturer thought was currently fashionable.
That didn’t seem very creative.
So, when I went to New York, I switched to Graphic design.
And on that course I discovered advertising.
At the same time I met a guy studying Industrial Design, and we ended up sharing an apartment.
His name was Elliot Rudell and he was from Brooklyn.
Everything you’d expect from a Brooklyn wiseass.
Sharp, funny, argumentative, inquisitive, entertaining, and fast.
Two things I learned from Elliot changed my life.
The first was Bauhaus.
Because Elliot was in Industrial Design, Bauhaus was a massive influence on his course.
It was the first time I heard the mantra: FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION.
When I heard it a light went on inside my head.
Suddenly I didn’t have to listen to anyone else’s opinion about what I should be doing anymore.
Now I had a brief that superceded whatever any of my lecturers said.
The solution was dictated by the problem.
It wasn’t dictated by fashion, or my lecturer’s opinions.
The solution was dictated by the problem being solved.
You see Industrial design is mass production in three dimensions.
What I was doing, advertising, was mass production in two dimensions.
So it fitted perfectly.
Just apply the mantra from his course to mine.
Suddenly it unlocked everything that had been confusing me before.
Suddenly I understood what I was doing.
I understood the purpose of advertising.
The second thing I learned from Elliot was to question everything.
Don’t obediently sit back and be grateful for what you get.
That’s not the Brooklyn way.
We’d see a car in the street and I’d say I thought it looked great.
Elliot would say, “Yeah it’s not bad, but they could’ve made it lower and wider. It would’ve been better. And the front’s good, but it looks like they got bored by the time they got to the back.”
And I’d look again and think, yeah he’s right.
I wonder why they didn’t do that.
We’d have those conversations about everything I’d never noticed before.
Chairs, tables, bottles, staplers, typewriters, road signs, phones, pens, bathrooms, blenders.
And the format was always the same.
It was always objective, never subjective.
Always “It would’ve worked better this way.”
Never “I don’t like it.”
Those two things taught me more about advertising than any lecturer.
But even Elliot had to learn there are times when it’s better to keep your mouth shut.
During the protests over Vietnam all the students marched on Wall Street.
Hundreds of construction workers were building the World Trade Centre.
They came down from the towers and began beating up students.
The cops stood back and watched.
One cop said to Elliot, “Dirty hippies. Why don’t you take a bath and get a job?”
Elliot said, “Yeah, I guess I could drop outa college and become a cop.”
And the cop hit him with his night-stick.
So I guess Elliot learned Form Follows Function in action.
If you don’t want to get hit, don’t open your mouth to a cop.
A little while later he and another guy and their girlfriends wanted to drive to Florida.
This was not such a good idea, because they had to drive through Georgia.
Elliot had long hair, scruffy clothes, and a red VW Beetle with massive chrome alloy wheels.
Okay in New York, but not in the Deep South.
And of course he was pulled over by a cop in a Smoky Bear hat and mirror lens sunglasses.
Elliot said, “What seems to be the problem officer.”
The cop looked in the car and said, “Are you-all boys or girls?”
Elliot thought this wasn’t a good sign.
The cop said, “Ya’ll were exceeding the speed limit.”
Elliot said, “But we were only going the same speed as everyone else.”
The cop spat on the floor and said, “Ya’ll calling me a liar boy?”
Elliot thought, “This isn’t Kansas Toto.”
But he’d learned his lesson so he just shut up and paid the fine.
Elliot eventually ended up in California, as hippies do.
He runs his own company designing toys and selling the patents to the big manufacturing companies.
I got an email from Elliot recently.
It said, “Good to hear you’re still a troublemaker Trott”.
It cheered me up to think that somewhere people think that’s a compliment.
It reminded me why I got into advertising all those years ago.
What I loved about it.
It also reminded me of a quote I read last year from the 85 year-old Tony Benn.
He said, “I got a death threat recently. I was so pleased. I haven’t had one of those for ages. It shows I’m not past it.”