08 December 2011

fail harder

Once upon a time, I participated in a wacky advertising collective called WK12. Wieden+Kennedy 12 is "an experiment, disguised as an agency, disguised as an ad school." We made things on behalf of brands, in order to help those brands speak more truthfully, more honestly, about themselves. It felt more like art school — incredibly intellectually rigorous art school that allowed (demanded) that we come up with six different formal executions before we started working on any of them. We used to have to come up with a list of a hundred ideas. We became idea machines. (Not all of the ideas were good.)

But it wasn't art school. We were in the business of communication. The froofie way of describing what we did is how I stated it above. The more straightforward way: We were selling stuff. Good stuff, for sure, but it cannot be denied that we were coming up with pieces of communication in the service of a product. Or an idea. Or an event. In doing that, it's important to be clear, concise, & direct. You cannot obscure your meaning. You can be poetic, but you must be succint.

This past spring, the current class of WK12 held an art show, inviting all students past & present to submit something. The theme of the show was "Fail Gloriously", a riff on the Fail Harder idea. Failing isn't always bad. Failing teaches you things. Failure is not something to be feared. It happens when you aim high & when you take risks, both of which are admirable things to do. It's what you do after you fail that makes the difference. And shit, if you aim high & then you fail big, you already know how to aim high again, right? It's not so hard the second time around. And that time, you might succeed big. I'm just saying.

Here's what I wrote:

The only books I've typeset, printed, trimmed, & bound by hand this whole year were requests for transfer from the coffee shop at which I currently work to another one.

Now, that's failure. On a bunch of levels. I love to make books — small, folded paper or hand-bound, printed or hand-written, with a cover or without. I love laying out type, I love folding, I love binding. It's a perfect little joy of a thing to hold in your hands. But I'd somehow allowed myself to believe that I was too busy or too tired or too ... something ... to do this thing that I loved. Another failure: I had attended this prestigious school, been under the guidance of some brilliant thinkers, been exposed to some of advertising's most influential & powerful people ... & now I work at a coffee shop. On paper, that looks like failure. (Off paper: The benefits of not working a 60-70 hour workweek cannot be overstated; Intelligentsia is doing incredible work for global sustainability & development, which is something I prize highly in an employer; & I really, really, really like coffee). So I made a piece which, not coincidentally, read like a book — multiple pages of text printed on transparencies mounted on a backing of shellacked, hand-lettered wood. And just yesterday, after the receipt of a piece of ancient technology that will speed up my process considerably, I re-did it. I ripped off the transparencies & painted the two pages of text right onto the wood. One on top of the other. It's aesthetically wayyyyy more pleasing than transparencies. And, it's a better failure.

Because you can't read it.

"A Failure of Communication", 2011. Acrylic & shellac on wood.

The result of submitting the piece to the show this summer was my name in a catalogue, a great compliment from the current director of the school, & a commitment to never again de-prioritizing the things that I love. And I started making books again. If I have a reason to write something down, I make it into a book. I made a shopping-list book once. I left it on a grocery store shelf. I hope someone found it. Because it was made outta love.

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