At art school in Brooklyn, one of my courses was illustration.
I didn’t take it seriously, I wasn’t talented at drawing or painting, and I didn’t want to be an illustrator anyway.
So my attitude was ‘Don’t work hard work smart”, look for the easiest way of fulfilling the brief.
Before I went to New York I’d been at secondary modern school, that’s for everyone who wasn’t smart enough to go to grammar school, that’s where the main classes were metalwork and woodwork.
Then I’d worked in a factory, so I knew very basic skills like gas welding, drilling and milling, lathe work, etc.
So it was usually easier for me to knock up a project than it was to draw it.
Plus which, at art school there are no marks for precision, the rougher the finish the better, it looked more interesting.
The penny really dropped for me in one particular illustration class where the project was to advertise ourselves.
I told the illustration teacher I wanted to put my name up in lights.
Naturally he thought I’d be doing a drawing or painting.
But rather than spend ages doing a bad drawing, I thought of an easy way out.
I got a sheet of tin and bent it into the shape of a box, leaving the back open.
I bought two rows of the cheapest Christmas lights (plain white) about 40 on each row.
Then I went to the Industrial Design workshop and drilled enough holes to fit all the lights through the tin, one row would spell my name, the other row would be a frame round it.
My mate from ID told me about some 25 cent flashers I could drop into the sockets.
So it was no effort to make the name flash on and off alternately to the outside frame.
I left the back open because I was lazy, all the wires were hanging out so it looked really complicated.
The illustration teacher saw me chatting in the canteen with my mates, he asked me why I wasn’t working on my project, I said I’d finished it.
He said he didn’t believe me, I said I bet you a bottle of whisky I have.
I ran back to my apartment, got the tin box, came back and plugged it in.
What worked great was that everyone in the canteen all crowded round to see it flashing and the crowd were really impressed.
It looked like a cross between a miniature Times Square and Colossus from Bletchley Park, all because I’d left all the wires hanging out the back.
The illustration teacher gave me a great grade and a bottle of whisky.
For the first time a lightbulb went on in my head about the power of context.
Where I was from, all my mates were working class (blue collar) they could all do a much better job on that box of lights than me, they’d laugh at how crude mine was.
But in this context, everyone at art college was middle class, they were white collar and had never been near a factory.
In the context of art school, everyone could paint and draw, but no one could do basic blue collar skills.
What would have looked crude in a factory, looked sophisticated here.
Whereas a painting or drawing, however crude it looked here, would have looked sophisticated to my mates in the factory.
What makes you stand out in any context is the simple fact of being different to everyone else.
If I’d tried to be as good as them at painting, it would have been obvious that I had no talent and I’d have failed.
But just by being different, by doing something they couldn’t, I stood out as unconventional and creative.
The lesson that hit me was all about getting attention, if you can be better be better.
But if you can’t be better be different.
Strangely enough, that’s exactly how advertising works.