Category: about rat

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, of 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?

The man in the avocado colored jacket

In the summer term leading up to my senior year in college, I took a sociology course as prescribed by the Design Comm syllabus. Class was held in a small lecture hall seating less than a 100 students.

For the life of me, I cannot remember my professor’s name, but I do remember lots of things about him. He was in his early 60s and had been tenured more than a decade, maybe two. He wore a jacket and tie straight out of the 1970s every day, even though we were in the heat of the summer. And, he was completely out of touch with the times and his students.

One of my fellow students who sat near me on the front row was a big smart ass. He always had an inappropriate question for every topic, most of which the professor did his best to answer authoritatively, but often times missed the mark. The boy did served up constant jabs to get laughs out of the girls sitting around him.

One day we were discussing matters of a sexual nature that I will not delve into here out of respect for gentle readers. The boy on the front row posed some questions that were clearly out of line, but the professor trudged on. He tried to answer intelligently, maturely and with some dignity. But the boy pressed on him new levels of absurdity.

Truthfully, I did not learn much in that class. But I did learn one lesson that day that has stuck with me and I will try my best to relay it here.

On that day, I watched the professor closely as he was being grilled. I looked into his face, into his eyes. I saw fear. His confidence was gone. His authority had been undermined. I watched him being torn down and witnessed him fall apart. It was truly horrible.

I think about that professor when I publicly post these ramblings I scrawl together. I hope that I am not out of touch like him and that I have something of value to offer — a word of encouragement, a worthwhile opinion or a fresh idea.

Much like my sociology professor, I take great pleasure in sharing my knowledge, but in our society today, where it is so easy to instantly offer up a backhanded remark, it makes me nervous to step out on the limb for fear of being attacked or ridiculed. The lack of civil discourse today perhaps is a post for another time.

I also think about my professor when I am presenting — actually getting up in front of a group of people and sharing my knowledge or selling a new idea. For me, I’ve found it’s harder to get up in front of people I know rather than a group of strangers. If you know the audience, there is an inherent bias one way or another towards you. Everyone has this bias in them as we spend time with and get to know people. This makes presenting hard at times because I work with people who can resemble the boy from the front row of my sociology class. I really start thinking about the look I saw in my professor’s eyes and pray I do not have the same look of dread.

It’s hard to get in front of people – online or in person – and share yourself, but this is the single most important thing we can do. Not we as creative people, but we as humans. If we make like a clam and hide away in our shells, we will never make progress on pushing humanity forward. As designers, as writers, as producers or developers, isn’t that the crux of what we are here to do?

The lesson I learned that summer day all those years ago was about courage. The day after that horrific incident where the professor had been shredded in front of his class, he showed up again, dressed in one of his vintage 1970s avocado colored jackets with an equally ugly wide tie, and conducted class.

When I grow up

This past week I listened to a lengthy interview with Paul Weiland. If an interview is a good one, it gets you to thinking. About the interviewee’s life and yours.

I heard a number of parallels between me and Weiland. A passion for advertising, hard working and asthmatic to name a few. But I also heard differences.

He talked a lot about wanting to be a director, even from early on in his career. This got me to thinking about why I got into the business and where I want to go.

I never wanted to be an artist or a photographer or illustrator or painter or printer or anything else other than a designer. Part of it is that I’ve always had a passion for ephemera and communications that are of a graphic nature.

Ahhh … a page from the 1977 Letraset catalog. Heaven!

The other part of it is that I could never be an artist. Really.

I could never be an artist because I’m not particularly good at initiating a project out of me own head. Yes, I have inspiration and I think about things all the time — like a series of t-shirts I have in mind at the moment — but I’ve never have this burning urge to express myself that way artists do.

Latest idea rumbling around in my head – a series of t-shirts.

Rather, I take immense pleasure in helping other people realize their vision and bring their ideas to life. Even better, if someone tells me what they are wanting to do and they let me go figure out the best way to achieve it. Problem solving.

I’ve always wanted to be a designer, never anything else.

Sure, I might call myself (and even be) an Art Director, a Creative Director, Production Artist or a Webmaster, but at the heart of it all I will always be a capital “D” Designer.

This is mainly because I have a very designerly approach to life and work. It doesn’t matter if I’m working on a new ad campaign, a fresh graphic identity or writing a business proposal, I use the same methods every time.

Charles Eames, considered one of the greatest designers of the 20th century, always thought of himself first and foremost a craftsman. I’ve always liked that. Too many creative folks struggle with who they are and who they want to be. If you want to make art, grow a pair and get your art out into the world. If you want to write novels, get out of the agency biz the Peter Mayle did.

Be true to yourself and you will come out in your work, even if you feel you have nothing to say.

Lineage

From Wright to right: Wright, Lustig, Danziger, Cheatham

Last week I shared a link to an article about Elaine Lustig Cohen and quipped about going into a little more depth about her husband, Alvin Lustig. You can find great info about him all over the web, but here’s a little known fact:

Lustig and I are connected.

Here’s how: 

Lustig was a prolific, albeit short-lived, modernist who also happened to teach at what became Art Center in Los Angeles. 

His N+1 was none other than Frank Lloyd Wright, whom he studied with at Taliesin West in Arizona until he got fed up with Wright and left.

One of Lustig’s students was Lou Danziger, who became a long-standing fixture on the West Coast design scene and later an AIGA medalist. He also taught.

Frank Cheatham, who I studied under at Texas Tech, was one of Lou’s students. Frank had great stories about going over the Lou’s studio.

That’s my backstory. It’s starting to make me feel bad that I haven’t taken up teaching yet. 

Michael Reckless

How I picture Michael Reckless: As Red Hotter Rider from Warner Brothers’ 1944 “Buckeroo Bugs”

 

A few years ago, while working at PULSE, I wanted to listen in on a presentation the president of the company was giving to a industry group. I dialed in and the person who answered asked for a few details before letting me join the call, like “Your name, please.”

So I gave her my name and other sundry details and listened to the talk for the next hour. Enthralling stuff.

Afterwards, my manager hollered over to me, asking me to come into her office. I walk in and she asked if I listened into the call. I said yes and she started laughing. On her screen was the list of attendees to the call, and down towards the bottom of the list was

Michael Reckless

Generally I spell my name when I give it out over the phone as I not only hear with a southern accent, I speak with one as well, and often times people do not understand Ratcliff, no matter how many times I say it. And for whatever reason, no one can spell it properly.

We hee-hawed about this for a while. But the funny thing it, Michael Reckless does rear his head every once in a while. He’s a big part of chances I’ve taken and boundaries I’ve pushed.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am a law-abiding, God-fearing, loyal, hard-working, straight-forward guy. So much so that while in college, I was voted most trustworthy in my junior printmaking class and was responsible for collecting everyone’s money to buy paper at the art supply store. It would never have occurred to me to take the money, run to Mexico and carouse for a weekend.

But there are times when you can’t be straight as an arrow. You have to take a risk. Beg for forgiveness later. Here’s one such adventure:

Again, during my time at PULSE, I was working on a direct mail piece – an invitation to a customer event. My pal Steve O was helping me print and ship, but he was new to the vendor’s list and I was having issues with the postage. I needed to pay for it up front and would not be able to roll it into the total cost. Accounting was running slow (go figure) and I was going to miss my deadline. This was time-sensitive material – it had to go out in order to get customers’ butts in seats. What to do?

Michael Reckless rides again.

I bought the postage and figured I’d expense it afterwards. So I do it.

The next day, the VP of Marketing comes by, I show him the piece and tell him I have good news and bad news. He sits down.

The good news is that the piece shipped yesterday and they should start landing on customers’ desks later in the week. Awesome! “Great news” he proclaims. What’s the bad news?

I tell him I bought all the postage. Unapproved. But I made it happen. I explain the situation and tell him I felt compelled to take action, bend the rules a little so that we would meet our deadline. And promised I wouldn’t do it again. A slap on the hand was the worst I got and the event was a huge success.

I have the utmost respect for rules and authority, but there are times when you have to bend the rules a little. Now, I don’t want anyone to get in trouble or have people say “Michael Reckless told me it was okay…”. You have to be smart about it, and make absolutely certain you will come out smelling like rose on the other side.

It’s hard to argue with success, and sometimes it’s messy getting there.