Richard Turley on the originality myth and the perks of phoning it in
To close his guest editorship of It’s Nice That, Richard Turley offers his final points of guidance to navigate the messy map of the creative industry.
This article is published as part of Us vs Them, a guest edit of It’s Nice That commissioned and curated by creative director Richard Turley. To read further articles from Richard’s takeover head here.
The features published during Richard Turley’s two-week guest editorship of It’s Nice That all developed out of lengthy conversations that started in the spring. Richard encouraged us to work outside of our usual processes, not to use any visual references, to commission individuals based on the input of AIs, not to cut down work, and even to publish lengthy (and anonymous) interviews.
But perhaps the biggest difference is a shift in tone – a publication quite literally known for being “nice” teetering over into a more overtly critical space. The series has critiqued the processes of agencies and studios that we write about often, and has forced us to become more aware of how we as a platform might contribute to the wider issues it has raised. In doing so, it’s fair to say we thought there would be a little backlash, but on the whole – and we admit there is still time – the points made have been well received. It’s as if we’ve all been thinking this stuff, yet only muttering our grievances to one another. We just needed someone – cheers, Richard – to actually voice it out loud.
Over the course of these more commentative conversations, Richard offered countless pieces of advice on creative work and creative working. And so, for the final piece of this series, we asked him to expand on some of the final points of guidance – or, as he puts it: “A random bunch of observations I’ve had over the years that may be useful.”
You have terrible taste
Maybe there’s such a thing as too much “good taste”. Too much curation. Too much collective agreement about what “good work” is, what it should look like and how it should behave. Too many blogs and social media algorithms that confirm those biases. Too much confidence in the opinions of senior decision makers, and the hierarchies they’re atop of. New ideas are rarely found by a bunch of people who “know what they’re doing”. Actually, it’s quite the opposite in my experience.
Tibor Kalman said there are ideas in high art and low art (vernacular). He spotted that a few years before vernacular design became the only thing that you saw. I think what he meant was that “vernacular” is untrained design, people who are unaware of the “rules” which trained professionals are taught. Therefore these individuals tend to approach problems from a different – and less formal – viewpoint, and “new ideas” emerge from that naivety.
But I’m not sure this approach works anymore. Are there even any subcultures left to colonise? Any more rave flyers to mine for inspiration? Any bits of culture left waiting to be recontextualised? (As an example of the drought, as I type this Kanye is back to mood boarding homelessness to get attention for his latest Yeezy drop – a preoccupation of his collaborator Demna.) But the untrained point still pertains. Perhaps the more experience you have, the less you’re able to see.
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Richard Turley/731: Bloomberg Businessweek Covers (2010-2014) (Copyright © Bloomberg Businessweek, 2022)
At Businessweek, I hired a bunch of designers with no experience of finance. Not one of the core team at MTV had ever worked in TV (in fact most of them were straight out of school). At Wieden+Kennedy, the F1 rebrand was made with a guy known for PC Music album covers and a typographer who had only just left school. I create Civilization with a strategist.
If you work with a bunch of people who all know what they’re doing, yes they’ll know what to do, but they’ll make the thing they know how to make – which is usually a thing we know already. If you shift the power to people who haven’t done it before you tend to get more interesting results. And, if you’re in a position of seniority, use that experience to defend those ideas, explain them (often you even have to explain them BACK to the people who are making them), and protect them if it goes wrong.
More practically, I think it’s good to show EVERYTHING I’ve done to whoever I’m making it for – just to make sure my own taste hasn’t made me over-edit and take stuff out that didn’t make sense to me. Only last week I presented a bunch of ideas and had my standard “overmatter” section of ideas that didn’t quite fit. Lo and behold, at the meeting just now, the client picked two things to develop from that section.
Stop making sense
As I mentioned in my editor’s letter, I think a lot of what I do comes from being contradictory. Pretending I don’t like the rules, but then following them anyway. Undermining the expectations of design whilst maintaining the fundamentals. Attacking pomposity, whilst being very pompous. Making the important things look poorly considered.
But underneath all that, I’m a boring, traditional, formalist thinker. I think the formalism aids my work to operate in this grey area, where you understand what you’re looking at but then there’s this thing that’s off, which makes you look again. Something is there that shouldn’t be, or it’s in the wrong place. Or something is missing. Or there’s far too much of something. Often the offness is buried beneath the surface, maybe in how the work is made more than how it looks. Either way, the best things are always conspiracies against the point of the work, or the way it’s been made.
I think people see irony in what I do, where I see satire. A lot of my work is self-satirising – satirising either myself or more commonly the thing I’ve been asked to do. Businessweek for sure. MTV. F1. Barney’s. That D&AD book. There are probably more. All of those examples – in their own ways – made some kind of comment on the thing itself. Often it’s a way of inducing tension in the work. I’m not sure anything is really interesting without some conflict involved.
But ultimately, I think it’s the formalism that makes my work accessible – when it all works and isn’t shit. I’m not trying to hit you over the head with craft or dazzle with excessive filigree and technical props, I’m not trying to get everything to line up and lock together. I’m trying to give you a feeling. I want to get inside your belly, not your brain. I don’t worry that much about what things look like, for me it’s what things taste like, what they feel like.
Originality is a bourgeois parlour game
Getting salty about things looking like other things has to evolve. There are no new ideas, there never have been. There are only new ways of thinking about old ideas and how they’re stitched together.
The problem we have is attribution. Or rather failing to attribute. Which, as a phenomenon, is fairly unique to our pocket of the creative world. Fashion allows itself to acknowledge ancestry. Music samples. True to the hall of mirrors that art “is”, entire bodies of work have been created celebrating appropriation. But not the “creative industry”. No. It might be something to do with the low self-esteem many in the advertising and design world have. A need to be liked generated from the fragility of the relationship between the buyer of work and the maker (“if they know we pinched it they won’t like us and work with us again”).
My entry to this discussion was from hearing the adage that originality is the art of hiding your sources. I thought then (as I do now) that if everyone is doing that, it doesn’t sound very original. It took a while for that thought to mature into anything useful, in fact until I moved to the States and started doing Businessweek. I was often asked where the ideas for covers came from – so much so that the editor invented a column in the magazine to explain it. (An idea which was – ahem – copied by The New York Times Magazine.) Anyway. When I got asked where Businessweek covers “came from”, I started showing them. From this, from that. From the internet. From this piece of work. That book. You know, the places everyone pinches stuff from. Often the more extreme and irrelevant the reference, the better.
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Richard Turley (After Tibor Kalman, Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist): Food/Clim8 strategy research 2021
Looking back, it would have been smarter to be snobby and higher-minded about it all. To have said something like: “Researching how culture influenced me as a designer meant touching on some delicate questions about influence and appropriation. It seemed important to me to ask those questions. I pinched the F1 branding because I wanted to directly address the issue of appropriation. What is a source, what is an influence, what is a copy? The answers are difficult to define.” [Cough].
I suppose I didn’t take that approach because I find design, newspapers, adverts, book covers, album covers, clothes, logos all so disposable they refuse over-intellectualisation. They’re ephemera. Shash. Momentary distractions. Attributing any sort of value to them seems such a bougie, narcissistic idea. Taking the weight out of a project allows you to see it better. It changes the nature of the object. I suppose this approach also highlights my own esteem issues.
Appropriating the F1 logo from a 90s video game seemed way more interesting than farting around trying to assert my vision by making some lofty, new wave logo. It was also your typical brief hijack. The one thing they asked us not to do was turn it into a video game, so that’s the thing I did. My first thought is we should probably just turn it into Wipeout, and over the next couple of months of intensive design innovation, it’s the one idea that stuck. It was the only good idea we had, beyond some wavy lines and a big mad new trophy thing which I’ll show you all someday. And I had the idea quickly, and once you have the idea…
Ads are fucking dull. Branding is fucking dull. We don’t need any more logos, the more we make the more valueless they all become. What makes things interesting now is the people, the networks who made them and the conditions in which they were made. The stories told of their creation. Sure, go to one of those robotic branding companies, or ad agencies, but you’ll play in the same foetid water as everyone else.
Often the best way to make something interesting is to create a conspiracy out of it. Find a hole in the brief and exploit it. Sometimes you can. Usually you can’t. And if you can’t, don’t fight the shit ideas, embrace them. Take those shit ideas and make them. It’s far more honourable to destroy something good than give up when you realise you can’t make something great. Often making it worse, makes it great.
Be careful what you moodboard – and stop THE ENDLESS VISUAL AIDS
Everyone is a designer (blah blah blah), they design every day of their lives. Anyone who applies stickers to an Instagram story is designing. There is more recognition of design and visual signals than ever before. More discussion of cultural signifiers (say, memes). So you have both a tools-led public skillset shift combined with a fascination with visual culture. And the visual culture most see is predominantly what an algorithm has deemed viable for distribution. So as the “pros” you’ve got to dig in different places. I know of someone who only looks at 18th-century art. I know someone else who refuses to look at anything, ever. They both make really great stuff. The people who don’t make great stuff can usually be found with tiny shovels at the same barren earth everyone else is digging in. Mood boarding It’s Nice That articles, following typography accounts on Instagram, etc. You have to be careful what you put in your brain. What goes in, comes out.
Dually, the need for every meeting or check-in to be accompanied by visual aids or some form of deck is really corrosive. Structured thinking works sometimes for sure, but not all the time. It’s important to include different thought processes, when coming up with ideas and discussing those ideas with whoever you’re making the ideas for. If you’re not careful, a deck will build into itself a sense of finality, of conclusion. I think this also taps into the psychology of creative teams, who tend to want to impress through having low self-esteem, so bias towards coming out of meetings with some sort of sign they’re doing the right thing.
Ultimately, decks have got in the way of a decent chat. Put the slideshow away and talk. Talk about the problems. A meeting does not always have to be a presentation of empirical fact-finding and conclusions. Instead a meeting is a moment to discuss how far you’ve got with the problem at hand.
Protect your gut
Surviving in the creative industries is the art of juggling the left and right sides of your brain. Your instinctive impulses from your logical ones. Making creative decisions is almost entirely about relying on your instincts. There are a whole set of rational, intellectual choices you make alongside, but in my experience, the “thing” people are looking for you to find is a “thing” that forges a connection with those in contact with the “thing”. That connection is more often instinctive and emotional than cerebral.
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Richard Turley, MTV No Chill Crew 2014-2016: MTV Bumpers and MTV No Chill (Copyright © MTV 2016)
So protecting your gut is really important.
Which is much easier said than done when working amidst nervy, demanding bosses and nervy, pushy clients and nervy, competitive colleagues. The world of the applied arts is a brutal, hostile world that can seem set up to destroy all and any ideas you have. Some places of work are way worse for that, by actively encouraging competitiveness and divisiveness. If you work well in that environment then good on you: navigating office politics is a skill in itself.
For those less able to navigate shitty processes, you have to be careful about how you process your exposure to those systems, and force the rational side of your brain to kick in and prop you up and protect the instinctive side when your ideas get torn apart. Only give any situation what you are prepared to lose. What does that mean? It means if you’re in a work environment where you’re not being listened to, do not expect it to change through the force of your own personality and adjust yourself accordingly: give them what they want. Care less. Pick your battles. It might be that you’re trying too hard to impress anyway – remember, not everything you do has to aim to blow the world apart with creativity and ingenuity.
If you do choose to pull back from projects you’re getting at work, then make sure you use the energy you’re saving elsewhere. Somewhere which will benefit you. I started a newspaper when I got so sick of decks that I couldn’t breathe at work.
Personally, I equate creativity to compound interest; you get a little bit and you grow. That growth gets added to the principal and so you grow a bit more, and that adds and grows. Sometimes you get a big bit of growth. All the time your confidence is growing. But if you’re letting yourself get kicked around then you won’t grow. You’ll stumble around – and it takes time to build yourself up again.
Be Your Own Agency
I believe the best way to deal with a bad job you need to stay in to pay the rent is by compartmentalising and reframing the reasons you do that job. I recommend thinking of yourself as your own agency. A big agency has a variety of clients, right? And usually (not always) the big clients are the hardest to service. They demand the most attention, usually have the biggest problems, the worst processes, the most calcified people working for them. But they pay the most. That money allows jobs to be had, rents to be paid, whole businesses to be run and so bad behaviour and shitty work is tolerated.
My advice is to reframe your job through a similar lens. Do not be entirely defined by the job you have and instead think of your employer – agency, studio or otherwise – as a client. Service them as if they were your biggest paying client, make sure they are happy, and carve out space in your brain elsewhere to do the things that make you happy, that you have much more creative purchase in.
Then make something decent on your own time. It’s fine to spend your day in meetings with idiot creative directors trying to work out ways of making fizzy beer appeal to women. Half turn up. Nod a lot. Agree with whoever is making the decision. Throw a cool but totally unworkable idea in early, then check out. You have to do this subtlely. I got away with this for about four years. I think that’s doing pretty well, but I know of many who have got it away with it for a lot longer. The key is when you phone it in, don’t waste the energy you’re saving. Make sure that bit of you you’re keeping back is going somewhere useful.
Us vs Them with Richard Turley
This story along with many others are part of a guest edit of It’s Nice That by Richard Turley. To read further pieces from Richard’s curation click on the link below.
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Richard Turley: Civilization x Calvin Klein (Copyright © Richard Turley / Lucas Mascatello 2022)
About the Author
Richard Turley is a graphic designer and creative director. He started his career at the Guardian Newspaper in London. In 2010 he moved to New York to be the creative director of Businessweek magazine before moving to MTV (2014) and then Wieden + Kennedy (2016) where he led the re-brand of Formula One. He is the co-creator of the NY newspaper Civilization and the editorial/design director of Interview magazine. He co-founded the creative studio, Food, in 2021.