The Honeymoon period

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Once or twice a year a group of earnest twenty or thirty something designers sit in the johnson banks boardroom and grill me about setting up in business. It’s flattering to be asked, and I try to impart any useful things I can actually remember about the early days of setting up in business, some 14 or so years ago.

Several of the things I say come as a shock. The first is that, statistically speaking, at least one of their happy bunch will become seriously unhappy, is going to want out, and quickly. I urge them to arrange it so that parting is merely sorrowful rather than expensively litigious.

But what incurs the most spluttering into the Sauvignon is the news that they will do some truly dreadful work in their first few years. This always comes as an huge affront and they of course maintain that they will only ever do award-winning projects, they were the best in their class, they all got A stars in DT, etc etc etc. But it’s true. And what’s interesting is that doing terrible work won’t matter. For a bit.

I call this the Honeymoon period. It lasts on average about three or four years. From setting up to breaking through, companies and individuals have time and space to find their feet, their graphic voice, if you like. They have time to get things wrong because, by definition, not that many people are watching. No-one will hold it against them, no-one will post it on the pages of Design Observer or the like and say ‘˜now this is truly awful’ (well, not yet anyway).

Very few design companies start-up perfectly formed and producing perfect work, even those starting straight from post-grad perfection. One of the most admired ‘˜straight out of college’ companies, Graphic Thought Facility admit their first few years were less than memorable. When approached to design a sleeve for Spiritualized in the early 90s (the album ‘˜Fucked up inside’), they freely admit that the project spiralled into chaos and acquired a studio nickname of ‘˜Fucked up outside’.

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‘˜We had proposed a combination of process and subject matter that could have been used in a very fresh way but ended up very obvious and heavy handed’ explains Andy Stevens. ‘˜This was really to do with naivety in controlling the personalities and politics of the situation and we in effect lost creative control of the outcome – a crying shame but a good learning curve. We were that fed up with it that we didn’t bother to get more than one file copy’.

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Of course they were only really a short step away from producing work like this for the Oki Nami restaurant (about three years after they started), which opened people’s eyes to the kind of work that they could do if left to their own devices. Stevens admits that this was the project that ‘˜gave our folder a great boost to secure similarly interesting jobs’.

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It takes time to establish yourself in the eyes of peers, students and, most significantly, potential clients. Designers often naively assume everyone will clearly understand them, how they work, be up to date with their entire portfolio, know their star-signs and their favourite colours. But it’s not true. London, where I’m writing this, is awash with designers and design companies, all claiming to be the most creative or award-winning, often showing decidedly similar projects for decidedly similar clients. Cutting through takes a lot of doing and a sharp edge.

Hopefully, eventually, a project like Oki Nami puts a company on the map. It may be a piece of work that wins an award, gets publicised somewhere, is talked about, or is just plain different. It doesn’t really matter. Heads are nodded around town. Those who said ‘˜they’ll never make it’ have to carefully re-assess (often to something like ‘˜I taught them everything they ever knew’). A metaphorical bedpost has been notched.

As an example, NB Studio left Pentagram in 1997 after serving their collective apprenticeships and may have had some suspecting they were just ‘˜Pentagram-lite’ until the arrival of this series of posters for Knoll in the late nineties. They had busied themselves re-working US film posters for the UK market but Knoll defined them and helped move them away from their illustrious alma mater.

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The honeymoon period also seemed to apply to johnson banks. Whilst I would have strongly denied it at the time, our first few years were filled with projects that promised much and failed to deliver, like this identity for Monotype that lasted only six months before new owners changed it.

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Or this identity idea for a the National Film School that only ever got used on one prospectus.

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Or endless and portentous broadsheet nonsense like these, selling paper (here exploring ‘˜thinking’ and ‘˜freedom’). Dutifully crafted, at the time. Dreadful, in retrospect.

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It took the obligatory three or four years before we produced a set of posters for McNaughton Paper and an identity for the William Morris show at the V&A that finally felt like a significant step forward.

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When others are asked to reveal their mistakes during the honeymoon period, most designers are understandably reluctant to point out their howlers. Luckily a brave few have stepped up to the plate, such as Stefan Sagmeister. He nominates his H.P.Zinker Mountains of Madness CD cover as his breakthrough project.

‘˜When I first arrived in New York, I saw an old, quite distinguished man coming towards me on the sidewalk. Just as he passed me, he freaked and started to shout obscenities at nobody in particular. When the singer of the H.P.Zinker told me that the lyrics of the album deal with schizophrenia and the different ways the city can make you sick in the head, the old man came to mind again. My friend Tom Schierlitz took a calm and a frantic picture of an old man. Then we printed the calm image in green, and overprinted the frantic image in red. If you put this now into a red tinted plastic case, because of the fact that red and green are complimentary colors, the green image turns black and the red image becomes invisible’.

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What Sagmeister had also done was deftly re-apply the principles of op art onto a CD case, which most album sleeve designers of the time were busy denouncing as a format from hell.

His nightmare project, a videogame package, is just as interesting. ‘˜The standard American packaging system for a video game at the time was a jewel-case inserted into a gigantic cereal box to cheerfully dupe little boys into thinking they might be buying something bigger and better. My first presentation to the client was somewhat below mediocre and it went downhill from there – with enough people, money and meetings involved we managed to quickly pass awful and moronic to end up with the remarkably pure piece of shit you see below’.

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Daniel Eatock’s response to my question was different. To those who saw his degree show in 1998 there were already signs of what was to come, and it was probably his work on the UK Big Brother a few years later that broke him through.

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His memory of a project he wished he hadn’t done has two parts: initially this standard billboard for a TV programme about Ernest Shackleton ran as a normal poster in January 2002.

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But then the poster turned into a roadside installation involving 100 tons of ice placed neatly in front (presumably destined to flood the entire road, drains and pavement for days afterwards). Eactock admits ‘˜I hate it, find it wasteful, dumb and silly without any kind of intelligence. Can’t believe I was part of it.’

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There may of course be companies out there who negotiate their first few years, stay in business, but don’t break through. You could argue that any company that produces nothing of note for more than half a decade seems doomed to mediocrity. Or maybe it just takes them longer to get their break? Maybe.

When the honeymoon is over and clients have a fix on a company and what it does, that brings new issues. Once any company’s ‘˜brand’ is defined, it takes an enormous amount of effort to change that to something else. (But that’s another topic entirely).

Most small design companies know they have to make it clear what they are, and what they do. The honeymoon period has to end, eventually. They just have to hope they come out of it still married to design.

Michael Johnson