Category: about rat

Design in Texas

Quite possibly, AIGA-Texas’ 1986 tome Design in Texas had more influence on me than any other book. More than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Alan Fletcher, or any of the numerous books I’ve previously cited here.

I stumbled onto this book during Christmas break after I had finished Intro to Design Comm as a sophomore at Tech. By this time, I had drunk the Kool-Aid and been fully indoctrinated into the Cult of Good Design.

Being a good young designer, I trolled the bookstores, and grocery stores for that matter, seeking out finely designed ephemera. At the now defunct Bookstop, I found Design in Texas, and life would never be the same.

Not sure why it hit me, but I pulled the book down off the bookcase last night and thumbed through it. My heroes still live in here, with their work coming to life on every page. You know there’s work from Fred Woodward in there, long before he reinvented magazine design at Rolling Stone. I thought Woody Pirtle was a genius. Still do.

The book is also evidence that some of the premiere photographers on the planet are here in Texas. In Houston, in particular.

And of course, brilliant design work from all over the state, but primarily from Dallas.

Dallas was exploding back then, and where I figured I’d end up after graduation. Being a Creative Giant, Stan Richards would bring me on as a power forward for the company basketball team and then we would make history. Didn’t really work out that way. He did hire a girl from my class, though.

There are lots of people in the book I’ve met over the years, some are merely acquaintances, others can I proudly call friends. Many I’ve had the honor and pleasure to collaborate with.

I used this book as a guide to look for a job after graduation. If you were in Design in Texas, I wanted to work for you. I interviewed with Chris Hill (a great story for another time), who taught me a valuable lesson in humility. I wrote to Jerry Herring to try and get in with him. He wrote me back what is quite possibly the nicest rejection letter ever. Beautiful stationery. I held on to that letter for years and told his son, Stephen, about it over lunch one day a couple of years ago. He was mortified.

Texas needs another book like this. Another time capsule, if for nothing else. Another book that will fire up the imagination of a young designer here in the Great State of Texas.

Advertising Emergencies

Dave Trott posted a piece recently about taking the creation of adverts too seriously. He’s spot on.

Who hasn’t gotten that call, usually after hours, from your client/marketing manager/whoever, screaming, with their hair on fire about missing a deadline. Something fell through the cracks. Someone bought an insertion and didn’t bother letting anyone else know. Armageddon was at hand.

Your career might not survive, but it’s not like anyone has ever died because an ad wasn’t released on time.

This isn’t open heart surgery after all.

None of what I say is to minimize the work we do. Quite the contrary, I whole heartedly believe creative marketing work is more valuable than ever.

But people freak out about marketing work. They really, really, really stress out about things. Why is that?

Like so much of life, it goes back to confidence. Confidence is the antidote to stress. If you feel confident about your ability to get things done, why stress out about them.

Early in my career I almost died because of an advertising emergency. We were pushing a deadline and needed to get film up to the publisher in Chicago. I was voluntold to deliver the film to the FedEx up at the airport, the last pick up of the day. Doors close at 9:00.

It was after 8:00 when I hopped onto the tollway up to Intercontinental. And, of course, a huge thunderstorm was blowing in. One of those storms where the windshield wipers have a hard time keeping up with the ocean of rain coming down.

I’m driving like a madman. Minutes are ticking off as I start to hydroplane. I start to lose control of the car. I have never been so scarred in my life.

Right there and then I decide to slow down. I might miss the last flight out. I might have some explaining to do the next morning, but it beats being in an accident over some film.

Nothing we do is worth that kind of worry.

I made it in time and drove home slowly.

There is no such thing as an advertising emergency. Get your act together, do the work, follow through, communicate. Just do your job and you’ll alleviate all the emergencies.

Be the audience

A while back I wrote about being a chameleon and started off by addressing my lack of style in the way I dress. In reality, it is not truly a lack of style as much as it is that I want don’t want there to be any barriers between me and my clients, so I dress like them.

I’ve held this practice for years. Never one of have a closet full of black t-shirts and jeans to match, I dress conservatively at work so that I can easily go meet with anyone at any time and look appropriate. Yes, it can be and often is very square.

This basic way of thinking applies to other parts of my life, too. I’ve gone down his path for very specific reasons.

I never dated another design student while in school. I spent so much time with my classmates, that I wanted a break from them. Needed to. I never  wanted to spend all my time talking about design; There is a bigger world out there. Yes, my wife did teach art, and I relish conversations with her on aesthetics and other issues around making and appreciating art, but that is little of what we talk about. We mostly talk about life.

For the past 25 years I have chosen to live in suburban west Houston. It is amazing to see how things have changed over the years; our area that was once quiet and rural is now bustling with commerce, traffic and tons more people. Living out here has been deliberate. There are more trendy places to live, places where I could be closer to more culture, but living in the ‘burbs definitely keeps me grounded. Also forces me to seek out new things to see and do. A very different mindset than when you constantly are immersed in that lifestyle.

Why is a creative person forcing himself to live an “ordinary” life? It is very much by design, and largely because I never want to loose touch with the real world, not live in the ones we create. I want to be grounded. I want to have the perspective of someone NOT in the business. I want to be the audience.

Rory Sutherland and Dave Trott continuously rail on Twitter about how out of touch the advertising industry is. They could not be more right. Last weekend the Houston Ad Fed held their award show and I reviewed the many of the winners online this past week. There was beautiful work, don’t get me wrong, but how effective/affective was any of it? The work spoke to me as an ad man, but how much of it resonate with me as a consumer? I’ll bet you know the answer.

I went back and forth on where I was going with this post, when I happened onto this tweet. Me and Austin Kleon are simpatico on this subject.

As a creative practitioner, you should feed your head constantly. Actively seek out things that inspire you and get your juices flowing. Just never forget, you’re not working for other creative types — you’re working to make some change for people who are not like you. They won’t analyze or spend time with the work the way you do.

Don’t loose touch with the real world. You may not live in it, but your work will.

Having agency

There are a few sayings I find interesting. One such term is “having agency”.

We’ll start with a definition:

The sense of agency (SA), or sense of control, is the subjective awareness of initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own volitional actions in the world. It is the pre-reflective awareness or implicit sense that it is I who is executing bodily movement(s) or thinking thoughts.

In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions.

 

A sense of control. Isn’t that what we all want in life, even the most meek and humble person. The capacity to make your own choices, actively making your own decisions that determine your own future.

Of late, I have had little agency. In my full-time job, decisions are made for me by people who feel perfectly at ease filling up my time. Needless to say, life has not be fulfilling in recent times.

I am tired of it.

Back on September 26, 2016 I started this site as a way for me to share things I find and think about. If you read through these pages, you’ll find I think about a variety of different things.

But I also started this site very much with the intention of morphing it into a business. My business. My agency. I ran a small one-man freelance business for about a year and half starting at the end of 2008 when I lost my job. It was hard having my own business and I worked incredibly long hours, but I loved it.

My business was called it Ratcliff Creative because I did not want to get pigeon-holed with the word “Design”. There’s nothing I relish more than being a Designer and practicing Design, but sometimes there is a stigma attached to being a designer. I chose to avoid any form of negativity.

I do not want to relaunch Ratcliff Creative, even I though I still own the name, the domain and have a bank account for it. Rather, I find the “Creative” part of it now limiting. Creativity is a tool. A verb, not a noun. With that in mind, I wanted to come up with a name that had no boundaries. Thus was born rat etc. A business, a blog, or both?

Will rat etc become a business? Maybe. Is it top of mind for me? Absolutely.

A long story about brothers & the choices we make

Judd Apatow made a beautiful documentary that aired on HBO recently called May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. I am a fan of both Apatow and the Avett’s. 

Seeing the brothers away from their music, leading their lives in North Carolina roused some distant memories.

I am a brother of Pi Kappa Phi, and in the fall of 1988, I moved into the fraternity’s house on 19th Street, across from the Texas Tech campus. This was my senior year in college. 

Pi Kappa Phi’s Founding fathers from the College of Charleston. I am a founder of the chapter at Tech, initiate #13.

I lived on the second floor of the house with seven other brothers. Being an upper class man, I was given a small room in the corner at the top of the stairs, all to myself. No roommate. Two of the four walls in my room were windows. The southern windows opened unto the roof, which I could climb out the window and sit out there under the stars on pleasant west Texas evenings. For all the noise and chaos of living in a frat house, I look back on that time fondly. 

My room was packed tightly with my bed, a bookcase and my drawing table. I also had a portable drawing board leaning against a wall that I had bought from the architecture department a couple of years earlier. This is back in the days when we hand-painted out comps. While one was drying you could be working on another – you needed two boards. 

In the spring of 1989, I was heading towards my final portfolio review. The big one before graduation. My room was covered with boards, drawings, pieces being cleaned up, 4×5’s that still needed to be mounted. A beautiful mess. 

The Pi Kapp chapter had worked hard to raise funds and awareness for the Lubbock State School and our efforts had paid off. Our national board had granted the School a PUSH unit. PUSH stands for “Play Units for the Severely Handicapped”. These units are installed in schools to give handicapped children sensual stimulations that engage them in ways that help lead to better lives. It’s a great cause and I am proud of our efforts. 

The Pi Kapp National Board and Executive Director flew to Lubbock to meet with the State School, and of course, meet the chapter that had led the charge to get the installation. We had scrubbed the house to make it more presentable to our guests, but as mentioned, my room was a disaster. 

I was upstairs at my drawing table plugging away when these gentlemen popped their heads in. I got up, introduced myself and seeing the disarray, they all asked what I was doing. I told them I was a Design Comm major and I was getting ready for my senior review.

Most of the board members raised an eyebrow, scratched their heads and moved along. Generally speaking, Pi Kapps study business or engineering, rarely are they art majors. 

One board member stayed behind. He came into my room and started looking at the posters, books, spreads and other bits covering on my bed. He introduced himself as Jim and asked me a few questions. I was distracted and barely listening to him, doing  just enough to to be polite so that I could quickly get back to work. 

He said he’d never seen a book like mine. He also said he ran an ad agency back in Charlotte, and that if I’m ever out that way to look him up. I don’t recall what I said, but he left to continue the tour of the house and I got back to work.

A few weeks later, the brothers got together for our weekly chapter meeting. Our chapter advisor happened to be attending. As the meeting was winding down, Bob, our advisor, had a quick announcement. 

Bob stood up and said that he had a round-trip ticket to Charlotte, where the national office is, that he could not use. He was supposed to fly over to meet with the council, but had some local business to attend to so he could not go. The tickets were paid for, all you had to do is go.

Suddenly, Jim’s words from a couple weeks earlier came to mind. “If you’re ever in Charlotte, look me up…”. I thought about it for a bit, but didn’t say anything and to this day I have never been to Charlotte. 

A couple of years go by. I’ve graduated and am living in Houston, working at a small design studio. Like all good young designers, I spend my spare time studying graphic design. The latest issue of Communication Arts had come in mail and I get busy devouring it. Turning the pages, I come to the feature on an ad agency and who do I see? 

LKM did these beautiful, clever series of tourism ads for North Carolina back in the 80’s and 90’s.

Jim Mountjoy, Creative Director of Loeffler Ketchum Mountjoy. A fraternity brother. This guy who is being featured in CA had been standing in my room, looking at my book and had told me to come see him. My head exploded.

This is a long story about choices. And paying attention. And taking action. Watching the documentary the other day and seeing the beautiful North Carolina countryside made me think about what my life would have been like had I taken those plane tickets, or had the wherewithal to ask for a business card from Mr Mountjoy. 

Where would I be? I’m pretty certain I would not be married to the woman who is my wife nor would I have my three children or sitting in my living room thinking about a day from almost 30 years ago. Life would have been very different. Not better or worse, just different.

We all make choices and do lots of things, but how often are we aware of things that go on in our lives. 

I’ve gotten to the point where I get so annoyed with interviews of designers, entrepreneurs and the like. I’ve read and listened to them for years, but cannot stand them anymore because more often than not, everyone credits luck to getting the big break that made their career. Mountjoy might have been a lucky break for me but I did not realize it at the time. 

How much of success is luck and how much of it is paying attention to the world around you?