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What Sets Small Firms Apart From The Pack? They Think Big.

And ask yourself this: What would Alexey Brodovitch do? The legendary art director never settled for anything less than world class.

What Sets Small Firms Apart From The Pack? They Think Big.

I’m going to assume that you’re already pretty familiar with the Russian-born artist, designer, photographer, and educator Alexey Brodovitch. You probably know him as the long-term art director for Harper’s Bazaar. And for good reason: he almost single-handedly invented the modern fashion magazine. You’ve no doubt seen the famous image of Brodovitch surveying the spreads of a particular issue as if they were frames in a giant storyboard. Which makes total sense if you have ever flipped through a vintage Harper’s Bazaar from the forties or fifties: they have an almost cinematic flow to them, and I swear that many of his spreads would hold up today in terms of pure elegance and visual impact. I started collecting old Bazaar back issues a few years ago, and some of them are just stunning–in part because of Brodovitch’s taste level and exacting eye, but also because he was able to elevate the magazine to almost the level of a printed gallery, commissioning work from artists like Salvador Dali, A. M. Cassandre, and Man Ray and helping to launch the careers of Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and so many others–right there on the pages of a women’s fashion magazine.

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Advertising legend Hal Riney (creator of Bartles & Jaymes as well as an entire genre of wine and beer advertising) once said that “the best insurance against mediocrity is hiring the best possible vendors.” In his world, that meant hiring Joe Pytka to shoot his commercials and maybe Elias Arts to score the music. For Brodovitch, it meant being so ambitious about what he wanted Harper’s Bazaar to become that he refused to settle for anything less than “world class,” both in terms of what the publication looked like from cover to cover, as well as the quality of the work from his creative collaborators. While he was adept at nurturing and cultivating creative personalities over the years, he was also fierce in his willingness to edit and crop their work to achieve the impact he was after. “Astonish me” was his constant challenge and mantra to his appreciative and often intimidated students over the years. And he expected no less from himself, his vendors, and his magazine.

In my work with design firms big and small, I have seen sparks of this kind of Brodovitchian thinking. Some of the larger firms have in fact become large by thinking this way–by thinking beyond their market, beyond their category even. And you can see the trajectory of some of the newer firms and almost predict with some certainty those destined for rapid growth. They think big. They don’t allow themselves to be defined by perceived limitations. “The client will never buy that” is not a phrase you hear spoken at these places. And if the budget really is an issue in terms of hiring the “best possible vendors,” they work even harder and smarter to find “the next Joe Pytka” or “the next Richard Avedon.”

I have been working with a small startup firm based in Portland, Oregon. About eight or nine people, which is tiny in comparison to the Pentagrams and the Landors and the JDKs of the world. But they don’t think tiny. They only want to do world-class work for world-class brands. And so they treat every assignment as if it was the most important, most visible project of their careers. And by that, I don’t mean that they are temperamental, out-of-touch divas; rather, they try to elevate each project and get their clients to see its potential–both in terms of the project’s impact on their business as well as its cultural and aesthetic and even internal (morale-building) possibilities. They make believers out of their clients, and the results are rewarding–on a number of levels. They recently turned a relatively inconsequential PR project for Nike Running into a bit of a movement, winning international awards and sending ripples of inspiration throughout Nike, even as far as Nike’s ad agency.

The enemy of this Brodovitchian worldview, in my opinion, is the “argument of presumptive realism.” I hope you don’t work at a place where you hear it a lot, but it goes like this: “Sure, that may have been fine for (Alexey Brodovitch, Hal Riney, Nike, or insert example of someone doing things correctly here). But let’s be realistic. We are not (Alexey Brodovitch, Hal Riney, Nike, or someone doing things correctly).” The argument is intended to appeal to your sense of reality, to reason, but what is so often overlooked by the nervous middle manager or the lazy account person who resorts to the Argument of Presumptive Realism is that Harper’s Bazaar was a real magazine with real business objectives, Riney was a real advertising man with real clients, Nike is a real company with real investors and very real budgets. What sets famous, successful brands apart from obscure, struggling ones can be reduced to one fundamental value: ambition. Not the Porsche-driving, Rolex-wearing, eighties kind of ambition, but the kind that says, “We are only going to be here for a while, so why don’t we invest everything we do with real meaning? Why don’t we make every communication we put out there a gift? Why don’t we stop waiting for ‘the perfect opportunity’ and make this one as perfect as it can possibly be? Why don’t we stop making excuses for our mediocrity and use our talents and our influence to make this package, this commercial, this poster something special?” I honestly believe that this was the driving force behind the life and work of Alexey Brodovitch. I think if he were alive today he would expect us to respond to this challenge. I think he’d probably just add, “Astonish me.”

The above excerpt appears as a chapter in Designers Don’t Have Influences by Austin Howe, published in September by Allworth Press, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing.

Designers Don’t Have Influences is available on Amazon, BN.com, and everywhere books are sold.