"In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” Andy Warhol famously predicted in 1968. Could the world, in the twilight years of the swinging sixties, imagine to what extent Warhol’s statement was to ring true decades later? How very different the 1960s were from today. Television had come of age during the start of the decade with families huddled around TV sets to watch the first live televising of a presidential election; John F Kennedy taking the White House in 1961, and the pictures of Neil Armstrong taking man’s first steps on the moon in July 1969. TV was the event; all a far cry from the 24/7 and the 360-degree total web coverage we expect, enjoy and endure in our interconnected society today.
Warhol, like Marshall McLuhan – the philosopher of communication theory best known for coining the phrases ‘the medium is the message’ and the ‘global village’, predicted a world where fame for fame’s sake, unlike presidential campaigns and moonwalking, might be the norm. And so arrived reality TV; a world where members of the public were either plucked out or fought their way out of obscurity to be lit briefly under the spotlight of fame – think Jade Goody of Big Brother; think Joey Essex of The Only Way Is Essex; think Susan Boyle of Britain’s Got Talent.
So across our 21st century planet, which has an unimaginably different media landscape from the utopian McLuhan and Warhol era, what has the impact of the promise of TV’s instant celebrity been on the design world I wonder? How have we assimilated this not-so recent cultural phenomenon across the creative industries and to what expense? Do designers crave fame to the same extent as TV’s Z-Listers do?
I have been teaching for almost as long as I have been designing and illustrating, and an initiative I first introduced at Camberwell College of Art in the early 1990s – exported to the University of Brighton and Kingston University – is a lecture series entitled ‘How I got to where I am now, from where you are now’. A simple format – every week an alumnus of the graphic design or illustration courses would present their body of work, explaining the highs and lows; the good, the bad and the ugly of their career to date. This was an opportunity for students to hear first-hand how commissions had been tackled; how careers had been shaped and how awards had been won.
It was a platform, ahead of the glut of design conferences recently popping up across the globe, to look, listen and learn from the best creative practitioners explaining their process of design – it was always about the artwork and never about the adulation. Students learnt about design thinking and doing, and not about design ‘stardom’. And at London College of Communication, where I am Dean of the School of Design and Professor of Illustration, we have recently appointed alumni Angus Hyland of Pentagram and Jonathan Kenyon and John Glasgow of Vault 49 as Visiting Fellows. Not because of their fame, although admittedly it’s done no harm, but because of their expertise across solidly built, and solidly maintained, careers in design.
However I wonder whether, in our oh-so-noisy Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / YouTube-dominated world, a newer generation of designers is clambering for attention before that attention is really due. Before the web – and some of us actually inhabited the planet BC (Before Computers), a vastly different place from AD (After Digital) – was a place where designers built their reputations with solid portfolios of great work. Many of today’s new blood, however, seem to believe that there’s something special to be found in the instant gratification of a Facebooked / Tweeted / Instagrammed / YouTubed project. I am witness to a glut of digital self-promotion that’s seemingly thrust upon an audience with the sole intention of staking their claim to 15 minutes, or 15 seconds according to Snapchat, under the spotlight. They’re all attempts to establish a reputation ahead of a reputation being truly deserved.
Strong reputations are built out of strong careers, in turn built out of strong bodies of work. My advice is simple: hold tight, and resist the temptation to make a claim for fame. It will surely come to those that deserve it, but all in good time.
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