Celebrity Designers

Back in my student days I once got talking to a girl in a pub who worked for a prestigious car dealership specialising in expensive Italian exotica. Her immaculate manicure suggested little time spent under bonnets, and she was too genuine to be a saleswoman, so I assumed she had some sort of admin or reception role. Being both a car anorak and useless at talking to women, I asked what sort of stuff they had in stock but she replied with a disinterested shrug of the shoulders. My useless bank of chat up lines now exhausted I readied myself for a rapid dismissal, but it didn’t happen. Instead she moved forward in her seat, leant over the table and conspiratorially beckoned me towards her, scanning her surroundings while reaching into her handbag. My mind started racing. Had my knowledge of performance cars finally impressed a female? Is she going to give me her number? Or am I about to be jabbed with a sedative and stuffed in the back of a van for interrogation by the KGB? She looked me in the eye and instructed me that I wasn’t to ever share what she was about to show me, before producing a small strip of paper from her handbag. “Check this out”, she said.

It was a compliment slip. A badly designed compliment slip. The logo looked like it was for a spa resort in Hampshire. Wherever it was, it was called ‘The Beckhams’. I looked back up at her expectant, excited face, clearly ignorant to the significance of the slip. “The Beckhams!”, she reinforced, impatiently and insistently shaking the slip in front of me to drill the point home. I was none the wiser. “As in David and Victoria!”. The penny dropped. Oh, I see. I asked why she had it. “They bought a car from us, and this is their compliment slip! How cool is that?!”

While my design student mind had immediately focussed on the bad typography and awkward composition of the two colour plus foil block on one-third A4 in heavy, off-white stock, I’d overlooked the real magnificence of the item. It was something from The Beckhams. The Beckhams! As in David and Victoria, the footballist and the Spice Girl! Oh em eff gee! She slipped it back in her bag and I remained baffled at its inclusion in proceedings until conversation waned and she disappeared into the night to find more interesting people to talk to; fashionable people I imagine more easily impressed by stationery items from couplings of stars sport and pop.

For the first time the reality of celebrity obsession had hit me. I knew newspapers and magazines were always rabbiting on about celebrity weddings and the lives of the rich and famous, and I’d seen the endless photos of minor royals and soap stars falling out of taxis in front of nightclubs. I’d just assumed it was irrelevant to most people, mere editorial white noise the media used to fill empty column space and airtime. After all, nobody I knew seemed to care in the slightest about any of it. Here though, for the first time in my life, I had been sat at a table with a real person who actually and very openly cared about celebrities. I was genuinely shocked by the excitement that small piece of office stationery appeared to induce in her – the thought stayed with me all night, and remained with me long enough for me to break my promise of secrecy and write about it almost a decade later.

Nowadays of course I’m well aware of celebrity obsession, as we all are. I’m still occasionally shocked when I realise seemingly sensible and respectable people read Heat Magazine, but I shouldn’t be. It’s part of British culture. So many of us aspire to live in big houses and be rich and famous for doing very little, and reading about them allows us to fantasise. It takes us into their world. It’s about aspiration. It’s utterly pathetic but worryingly, as time goes on I’m beginning to understand it myself.

As a graphic designer, I follow what’s going on in the industry. I check the design blogs and feeds, read what’s happening out there, what’s new. I read updates on the careers of successful designers and agencies, about the talented and admired pushing forward the boundaries of creativity. I take an interest from a professional point of view, but also from a personal one. I read the Johnson Banks blog, for instance, because I’m interested in the work they’re doing, but also because I aspire to be a part of it. I want to be in their world.

Do you know how it makes me feel? Well, it inspires me, but often it makes me jealous. It tugs on my aspiration strings. I imagine myself doing that sort of work, being in that world, the world I’ve wanted to join since I filled in my college application form. I look at the work of the creative elite and follow the output of gifted newcomers, all the time wishing I was there alongside them, wishing I was one of those being read about, being given awards and recording interviews for the magazines. Because I’m not in that world, because I’m just an everyday chap doing average work in a humdrum provincial town, it makes me feel inadequate. Jealous. I read what happens at the sharp edge to feel like I’m in the loop, to feel like I’m a part of the proper design world before I return to whatever normal, unremarkable job currently pays the bills.

For us designers it’s not Cheryl Tweedy we care about but Michael Johnson and his peers. The design elite are our celebrities, our heroes, our idols. While the rest of the population obsess over the holiday snaps and love affairs of pop stars, we obsess over the portfolios and career arcs of top designers, longing to live the lives they do. Longing for that same respect, that same positive feedback on our existence, the affirmation that we’re a valid part of the creative world. We look at them and we think they have it all, they are how we aspire to be. As the make-up caked teenage girl on the street dreams of being a footballers wife, we dream of running our own internationally renowned studio, its shelves bowing under the weight of yellow pencils and prestigious client lists.

On face value it sounds like a daft comparison to make. It’s a theory that I’ve had for a while and to be honest I just assumed it said more about my own professional insecurities than it does anything else. Only recently I’ve noticed something which has started to back it up.

Whenever a design website features a write-up on some new and interesting project, a review of a new design retrospective, key note speech or anything of any creative value, the reader comments sections that follow always seem to consist of aggressive and angry fault-finding. Comment after comment tears strips off the subject, the people involved are slammed and the work dismissed in all manner of harsh ways. The comments always seem to be dominated by negative feelings, by an audience seemingly baying for blood. As it happens, Johnson Banks don’t have the facility for reader commenting and there’s really no wonder. It’s as if the everyday graphic designer is hunting for a slight chink in the armour of those at the top of the tree so they can exploit it and bring them down, even if only for a moment. If only to provide a brief moment of superiority for an audience who otherwise feel helplessly inferior.

It all seems very similar to those readers of Heat magazine and other such tabloid trash; those who take great pleasure in pouring scorn over a multi-millionaire celebrity whose flabby inner thigh has been caught in the paparazzi’s telephoto. It’s jealousy.