A Measure of Success: GBH on what it means for creative people

Success. What hell is that? Is it about money? Is it a state of mind; a zen-like tranquillity born of rock-solid self-confidence? Ask GBH. Is it a shelf-full of semi-precious metal from our peers? Is it fame, notoriety, early retirement or is it that deep sense of personal satisfaction that only comes from sitting under a broad oak tree at the end of a particularly hard day of manual labour with an ice-cold beer and an achingly sore back?

Puma Bodywear packaging

Does it come from a moral satisfaction that we’ve mattered? That we’ve helped others, made a difference, done some good? Is it a body of work that’s stood the test of time, or is it a deep-rooted desire to be a pioneer? Oscar or Nobel Peace Prize? Fame or notoriety? Your money or your life?

A creative person’s quest for satisfaction never, ever stops. On and on we go, relentless in the pursuit of perfection. “I want it to work, to be the best thing I’ve ever done, to be the best anyone’s ever done… I want to do it again, only better. I want to make a dent, I want to be the greatest designer/art director/painter/photographer/adman of all time.” Jeez. We need to get over ourselves.

Puma Bodywear packaging: reverse side of each pack featured an alternative, x-ray image of the model on the front

All of this starts with an age-old desire to be noticed. To earn our stripes. Perhaps we weren’t top at school, but we’re not alone. Most right-brainers have an academic deficiency of some sort or another. Many creatives are dyslexic for example. We have to find another way to impress, to succeed. For most of us, ‘this’ is the only thing we’re VERY good at. Everything else is learned behaviour. Writing, strategy, presentation and people skills, diplomacy, politics, financial savvy, managing staff, resource planning, project management, business plans, setting budgets and targets, accounting, salesmanship, collaboration, competition. It’s all learnt and we have the scars to prove it.

But being creative. That’s natural. A God-given talent they say. We can think and we can draw. No one can teach that… can they?

When one of us at GBH first realised he could draw, he quickly realised he could earn. We’re not sure what this says about us, but he charged his classmates to draw Star Wars Stormtroopers or sportswear brand logos on their school exercise books. Adidas, Fila, Tacchini, Ellesse, Puma. How ironic it is that 30 years later we’ve ended up charging Puma to draw Puma logos? It’s funny how life comes full circle.

He had a little mini-business doing it when he was 12, under the school radar. He got pretty good at it. He got a lot of pleasure from it. A little bit of fame even. It got him into trouble, which was kinda cool, and he even got paid. In fact, his ‘talent’ opened him up to all the things that we thrive on today as creatives. We become addicted to being good, because it helps us to stand out and to be liked.

GBH Xmas Card, 2002: GBH rented a 48-sheet billboard near their West London studio for this seasonal message which was sent out via video

It’s our Mum who notices first. She begins by putting our drawings on the fridge. She never put our brother or sister’s drawings on the fridge. This made us unpopular with our siblings, but that was pretty cool when we were eight or nine. We were the chosen ones. It made us feel six feet tall. We got so used to this modest adulation that we craved it. We started producing more and more drawings. She had to get smart, so she became selective, otherwise she couldn’t see the fridge anymore. We all remember her standing over a curious line-up of our handiwork, a perfect storm of early 60s, 70s, 80s or even 90s nostalgia in mixed media: felt-tip, biro and those weird, water-soluble coloured pencils you could lick, depending on your age. She’d run the rule, she had her own criteria. She’d decide which were good enough and which were not. We started to learn what she liked, what she wanted. That’s where the fun started.

Later, GBH staff ‘vandalised’ their own poster, spray painting their names on the site, again captured on video

From school we found college and from the fridge we found International Advertising & Design Award Schemes. What were we looking for? Satisfaction, fame, to be noticed… a place in our profession’s history… or is the perfection we persue just a muse, an allegory for our own quest for happiness?

There’s something deeply satisfying, gratifying even about standing out. We think creative people find this need comes naturally. Since a young age, we’ve been finding our voice, honing our talents. Rightly, we’re coached to be individuals, to be unique. This takes time. Originality isn’t Xeroxed overnight and delivered mid-day tomorrow.

Deconstruct, reconstruct and re-invent. That’s the very foundation of creative education. We’re not natural employees, us creative types. There’s something very independent about being creative. A solace even. We evolve to find the confidence to be ourselves – authentic voices ready to shout and scream from a unique perspective. Yet, right when we’re ready to go it alone, we are required to collaborate by commercial realities. Designers are commercial artists after all.

The 35Tth America’s Cup identity was based on sponsor Louis Vuitton’s Gaston symbol, seen here on a bag from the archive. “We deconstructed the historic marque and used the existing triangular forms to represent the competing sail boats,” say GBH.

Once again, the challenge renews. We leave education and the first thing we learn out in the big wild world is to conform. Fuck that! We have to work with other people to achieve our aims. It’s not easy. Finding collaborators who hear our voice, speak our language and share our passion can be tough. The gears mesh, it grates. The search can go on and on… from choosing a university course to deciding on a project, a classmate to work with, a job to work on, an agency to work in, and a client to work for. Suddenly, right when we were least looking, we find a like-mind. Or perhaps two. Someone as mad as we are, who overlaps and is different all at once. Suddenly 1+1=3. It’s a joy. Our voice has grown. Finally we can be ourselves, only better. Is this success? Hell no. We’re just starting out.

At first we earn trust, not money. We complete projects, we amass experience. We become sought after, respected, even valued. Our opinion is sought and paid for. We go to expensive, black-tie award dinners to get the accreditation we crave from our peers. Our work gets put up on the fridge again. Often, it’s a commercial, profit making kind of fridge this time. We pay to win. We convince ourselves that this is ‘good business’, that we’re ‘putting something back’. That we’re building our profile, attracting better talent, clients and projects. Of course we are. Everyone does it, right? No! All we’re really doing is helping the guy who owns the fridge to get rich.

BMW FlyTime: based on the head-up display of sponsor BMW’s cars, this broadcast innovation for the America’s Cup displayed each boat’s FlyTime – the period spent above the water on hydrofoils

Is this success? For a while it certainly feels like it, yes. People congratulate you at first, and then, after a while – especially if you keep winning stuff – they stop. But in the end, we’re still looking for something better, so we keep going.

Is it fun? Hell yeah! Everything we ever wanted is now ours, almost. We’re doing great work. We’re earning trust, building a reputation. We took a risk, backed ourselves and went out on our own. Perhaps we did it with like-minds. Our company is growing. We’re paid well. We’ve won awards. People know who we are, what we’ve done. They rate us. We’re inside the circle. We’re in. So, is that success? Of course not. Well… it’s a small measure of success. A few centimetres on the yardstick of progress. All that really happened is we joined a society within which are others who are looking for something more meaningful, just like us.

Sadly, inside the circle, there are only people like us. Hunters and gatherers, feeding off one another. Incestuous and cannibalistic. Sharing their victories, pushing their profiles and fighting for scraps. We have to get outside this circle to thrive. Imagine how weak our genome would be if we had never left the cave. That’s creativity at its worst, right there.

Once we’ve achieved this ‘success’, we need to find the courage to go alone, all over again. To look at success objectively, and to see it for what it truly is, we have to get out of that inner circle. In fact, we have to work even harder as an outsider to get into the inner circles of others. That’s where next.

Italian national team football badge designed for the 2006 World Cup
The Italy job led to GBH designing this team badge for Ivory Coast
and this one for Cameroon

That’s where we’ll meet incredible people. We’ll see the same fire in their eyes. They have dreams too, but from a different perspective. We want to work with them and they want to work with us. What’s our dream project? Let’s go get it. Anything is possible. Outside the circle, its 1+1=3 all over again. We’ll find a fresh set of collaborators. We’ll learn something new. We’ll work with the best, to do the best work. It’s that simple.

Let’s be honest, as creative people, we suffer from something of a disorder. We hate to do the same thing twice. We’re all about bigger, better, next. We want to do things that have never been done before. We want to be first.

Royal Mail Thunderbirds stamps: to celebrate the work of animator and film-maker Gerry Anderson, GBH created the UK’s first lenticular stamps

Success is so relative. There will always be someone more successful than us inside that circle. Someone who has something we don’t, that we want. Even if there isn’t, it’s good to believe there is, because it keeps us honest and stops pop from eating itself. The ultimate fulfilment doesn’t lie inside these tiny circles of success, but in something so much bigger. Putting back. Help others to learn. Set them a bar to raise. Inspire them to do better work than we did. Share.

Wise people say that if we want to be remembered, we have to write a book. Well, how funny ;–) Here we are. But that’s not a measurement of success in itself. We can pay to publish a book, just like we can pay to win an award.

Becoming an educator, inspiring someone else to go further, to do better, that’s success. It’s a success so great that those we inspired will inevitably surpass our own achievements. They’ll stand on our shoulders, tread on them even, to reach even higher than we did. So is that success? Yep. That’s what success is to us, and that’s what this book is for.

Did our work on the fridge help our brothers and sisters to do better drawings? No. But that’s the theory anyhow. Sorry brothers and sisters, we guess you’ve either got it or your haven’t.

Will this book help other designers do better work? Let’s see. We hope so.

Legacy… that’s the only kind of success we’re truly interested in. It’s an ambition that’s constantly evolving. Just like the monkeys on our cover, we aren’t finished yet.

Virgin Galactic VSS UNITY: in 2006, GBH collaborated with Philippe Starck on the brand Identity for Richard Branson’s space tourism company, Virgin Galactic. The VSS UNITY, with livery by GBH, is the latest Virgin Galactic spacecraft

The above is an extract from Charm, Belligerence & Perversity. The Incomplete Works of GBH, published by Black Dog Publishing, £29.95. See more of GBH’s work here

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