This is a piece I wrote and read out in a lecture a couple of years ago, just before I left my teaching job to move back to Germany. Lots of students have often asked me about it since, so it’s here for posterity.
To my students - some thoughts about life as a creative individual
I went to a private boarding school in the UK. I’m not quite sure why my parents sent me there, after all, my Dad was an artist and my mother always wanted to be a vet. They probably assumed (quite fairly) that I would get better academic education than at a state school.
Most of the people I was at school with are now accountants or lawyers, investment bankers along with the occasional cricket star. My school, like most others of its kind didn’t really cater for people who were interested in the arts. So it caused me a lot of confusion and a real problem deciding what my purpose in life was – it still does to some extent. When people ask me what I do, aside from teaching, I don’t really know what to say. I usually say something like “interactive designer, you know websites and stuff”. They usually tell me about their 12 year-old nephew’s computer skills and how he makes websites too. I sometimes yearn to be in a trade and craft that is hundreds of years old that everyone understands. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy writing so much these days, except that everyone still thinks it’s easy. It’s not.
[UPDATE: By coincidence, I have recently been in touch with David Smith, my art teacher from my school, and I had been thinking for some time that I didn’t give him any credit here. He was a real breath of fresh air at my school and did make a real difference to the way I thought about making art. Sadly, he arrived right at the end of my time at school.]
I don’t know what most of you plan to do with the skills you’re learning here. Many of you may not know yourselves. But it really is a golden time, even with all the financial pressures, because you have the safety of trying things out, without someone telling you it’s not right for their brand, or they haven’t got the budget but they still need it yesterday.
Not knowing what your future is doesn’t change. It is rare for a day to go by when I don’t wonder what an earth I’m doing this for, or whether I have the skills to do it. I stand up here and lecture to you and worry that you’ll ask me a question that I don’t know and think I’m an idiot, that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I took on the head of school role with the same worries – there’s no manual or online tutorial for it.
That fear of the future, of the unknown, is inside everyone in this room, and it often rears its head when you present your projects and ideas in tutorials. When you are timid or afraid of being wrong, as if there were a right answer. So the best thing you can do is to support each other by giving fair feedback and criticism as well as encouraging compliments and accepting praise.
In my first lecture, I talked about this being a young medium with a limited language compared to literature or film. It will change, and it is maturing. You are of a generation that will discover and create that new language, and that means that most of what you are doing will be new – and that’s a really scary prospect.
Don’t be frightened of making things that are simple. Things that just entertain, or just communicate a single idea, just make sure you do it well. We’re often educated to believe that complex things are inherently better. They’re not always. Football is essentially 22 people kicking a pig’s bladder around a field – it’s come a long way.
We also taught that to being creative person is self-indulgent and not a ‘proper job’. People say ‘you’re so lucky to have that talent’ or ‘ah yes, I think I’ll take a bit of time off and do some art’. These attitudes sting and they sting because they are really saying ‘what you do isn’t hard work’. You’re either talented and it comes easily to you, or it’s something that anyone could do given the time off their ‘real work’ and you chose the ’easy’ road.
Certainly governments don’t support the arts and our school systems hardly recognise it. Mine didn’t. Rugby captains were the heroes of my school, not musicians, artists or designers. I imagine, in Australia, that the emphasis on sport is even worse. Some of you must have had a hard time being the sensitive ones who weren’t into competing on the track or field. Art, after all, is for the thickies isn’t it? I even know of one school art teacher in Australia who got into art because he was made to do it at school as a punishment.
When you leave here, you will suddenly find that you have reached the point you have been aiming for all your life: getting your degree and getting out in the world. Of course, the next dilemma is that, having spent all that time becoming skilled, everyone thinks you know nothing. It can be scary – I spent 6 to 12 months in a blind panic. What could I do for a living?
It isn’t something that goes away. My father had a promising career as a painter and sculptor in his mid-20s. He had to do national service, and by the time he got out, all the people who knew him in galleries around London had moved on. He became a graphic designer and formed an ad agency. The agency went under in the recession of the late 80s, sending my Dad back to the same fear of the unknown that you will all experience when you leave Uni. And so the whole process starts again and it is important you understand how to deal with it.
My dad is now 68 and has started painting and printmaking again. I’ve not seen him happier for years. 40 years later he’s had more work accepted into the Royal Academy – it is a whole lifetime he might have spent doing what he loves. He did enjoy being a designer and the ad agency, but for a long time he lost that spark passion and sense of himself when it went under.
Coming here and teaching you every week, and watching you all come up with new ideas are a great reminders of that spark and, I have to tell you, it is a constant inspiration to me. It always makes me look at what I am doing and want I want to engage in.
We all need to make a living, but always keep something of your own in your work. If you are designing something for a client, at least put a spin on it that you are truly interested in.
You have a new medium in front of you. Explore it, find out what it can do that no one has seen before. Don’t be afraid to show people your experiments, especially the ones you are most afraid of showing – they’re usually the good ones.
If you ever wonder if it’s all worthwhile, or whether making something that just makes someone giggle for 5 minutes is enough, try this thought: Imagine a world without investment bankers and lawyers, without politicians and middle managers, without accountants and money. It doesn’t seem too empty does it?
Now imagine a world without artists, musicians, writers and performers. There would be no newspapers in the morning, no book to read on the bus, no music to listen to on the train. No TV in the evening, no cinema, no art, no design. No one I know would want to live in that world and all those other people take it for granted.
Remember, being a student isn’t a rehearsal. A Zen master once said (though I’ve never found the source of the quote), “You are today what you have done in the past, what you will become is what you do today.”
Thanks for all your hard work, keep at it.