I’ve just been reading a book by the celebrated US art director George Lois. Lois was not only responsible for some of the most seminal ads of the 1960s and 1970s, but his extraordinary covers for Esquire magazine are now on permanent display in New York’s MoMA. The slim volume is called ‘Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!)’, and consists of a series of illustrated lessons culled from his many years in advertising and publishing.

By George… this looks damn familiar
If you’ve read Paul Arden’s ‘Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite’ and ‘It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be’, you’ll get the gist. It’s a collection of snappy, from-the-horse’s-mouth pointers on how to be creative. In fact, the format is remarkably similar — standard paperback size, white cover with bold black type. Inside, brutally straightforward, sometimes irreverent headlines, accompanied by a couple of paragraphs of wisdom or anecdote, and a carefully chosen image that colours or juxtaposes the point being made. The pace is staccato and relentless. You feel you’re being hit over the head with page after page of ‘damn good advice’ — ‘Make your surroundings a metaphor for who you are’, ‘Never eat shit’, ‘A trend is always a trap’, ‘Tell the Devil’s Advocate in the room to go to hell’, ‘Speak up, goddammit!’. For full effect shout rapidly in a Noo Yoik accent. The first few pages are fine, inspiring even. You’re thinking, right on, don’t compromise, fight the good fight, believe in yourself, stick it to the man. But as they keep coming (and coming) small seeds of doubt start creeping in. Firstly, it starts to become apparent that a lot of the ‘damn good advice’ is pretty self evident. Like ‘Don’t sleep your life away’, and ‘Don’t expect a creative idea to pop out of your computer’. You can’t argue with either, but most people will have worked this out for themselves. Unless they were sleeping, of course.
Arden fast rules… an adman’s wisdom
Secondly, if I took every leaf out of Lois’s book, I’m pretty sure my clients would run a mile. For example, he recalls a time when he stood on a window ledge and threatened to jump unless his poster idea was accepted. Or dropped the biggest book he could find on the floor when his boss was ignoring him. It’s the kind of ‘maverick’ behaviour that pervaded UK advertising in the 1980s, ‘crazy creative guys’ throwing more and more outrageous stunts to get noticed. Of course be determined, confident and original. Of course stick up for your ideas and take inspiration from wherever you find it. And I tip my hat to Lois for his single-mindedness, chutzpah and towering achievement. But, I can’t help feeling that if there were 100s of creative people out there following this credo, we’d have mayhem on our hands. The point is, we’re all creative in different ways, and realising this is the first step on the path to originality. ‘Damn Good Advice’ is a damn good ad for George Lois, but you need to take it with a pinch of salt. Or as he might put it ‘You can’t be creative if someone has to tell you how’.

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