Designer’s mind

Designer’s mind

Name your best actor. What do you go for? King of the jungle Christian Bale types? Big bear action figures like Chris Hemsworth (think Thor)? Or comedian monkeys: the Seinfelds out there?

The division, by the way, is not mine. Lorne Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live, spelled it out in an episode of Comedians in cars getting coffee. (I love Jerry Seinfeld the thinker, but that you know by now.)

I have to say these days I’m adding one more to Lorne’s list. The creatives. Who would that be in the zoo? The dolphins, maybe?

In real life, that’s Ethan Hawke. Of whom I have always been, let’s say, a composed fan. I never went overboard with the Sunset trilogy and there’s only so much I can say about Great Expectations.

But I just spent one hour listening to him on a New York Times Facebook live and when did it all flow by? And why did it end?

The guy is a spilling slot machine of quotes, stories of how Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando landed on greatness their so different ways (one learned lines and rehearsed the actions ad infinitum, the other was all about spontaneity) and how Macbeth and his wife were into this happy marriage. But guess what, she said “kill this guy, we’ll have it so much better” etc.

The man is positively flamboyant. And has three movies out this summer, of which I am promoting none, but will probably see all.

But here’s what I love about him beyond the spirit, and the culture, and the presence. It’s how he picks his work avenues and cultivates them with a designer mind.

Yes, he is an artist. And yes, he is an intellectual. And he is a creator. A writer, a director etc. But it all springs from his designer mind. Or so it looks from the output, at least. We never spoke. Yet.

How can you tell someone is a designer if they never make clothes or iPhones and cars? Well, you look for the principles of design at work.

What are the fundamentally important things?

Does the creator see things as systems? See them all come together?

Is the result both beautiful and simple?

Does it fulfil the purpose?

Everything gets stripped through these lenses. And it’s all done in a string of choices. Design is about making choices. What goes in matters. As does what doesn’t.

Any object you use is a work of design. You don’t really acknowledge it as such until execution goes beyond the mark of really good into exquisite, with a message printed on ribbon: “what the artist meant.”

So I think Ethan Hawke has the mind of a designer. He designs vehicles for whatever goes into his head to live into the world and run with the banner of his message.

One of his films this summer is a biopic. Some unknown yet great country singer-songwriter. Here’s a juicy bite of a designer mind at work.

“You know what biopics are like? You like Johnny Cash, right? Well, here’s a few of his main life moments edited to his main songs.”

(I am paraphrasing all over, but that’s the gist of it). “There’s a get-discovered scene, an ego-takes-over scene, a drugs-run-the-show-scene and an I-have-to-get-clean scene etc.” With one exception: Raging bull. That movie lives beyond the life of Jake LaMotta. Hawks says. And I agree.

And then Hawke went on and made a movie without any of those scenes in it. It went to Sundance.

Because a biopic should not be the story of the guy’s life. It should be a vehicle of the guy’s message, distilled from life facts. Whatever he was out there living, that calls to a distinct group of people called the audience.

Your copy should not be about your business. It should be about what it does for those you serve. Principles of design apply here too. Keep it to a minimum and keep the magic.

I heard one designer say it’s a fantastic journey to go there every time. Tell me about it.

The way of the bootcamp

The way of the bootcamp

Are you in charge of your work or some shrinking violet? Meaning are you walking into your office with Robert de Niro confidence or are you a lamb asking for permission to breathe?

Because if you are (a shrinking violet, a lamb, etc.), it’s alright. We’ve all been there. I certainly see it around me. But I see beyond it, too.

And know this: there’s a gateway. The bootcamp.

Here I am in the middle of nowhere in Romania, surrounded by 15 bright young things on a jaw dropping mission: deliver a (festival quality) doc in 5 weeks. Find a story, persuade the characters (village people) to surrender into an adventure they may have only seen on TV, film, edit and present to an international jury.

No wonder they’re not that enraptured with the postcard mountain scenery. To them it’s all story, story, story.

So they sit around soul searching for what makes them tick, and they scout looking for the character that will call them to action. Nothing an innovator or a thought leader hasn’t done. Except in office speak it’s stare at the empty page. Surf the web mindlessly. Streamline the email inbox.

There’s a galactic difference though. The bright things have a deadline. It’s all going to happen somehow. In a few days’ time they’ll have to pick something. Anything. And make it into a movie you may actually enjoy. Make it really good.

When things go right, it all seems so easy. The subject was obvious, the characters willing, the camera ready. How often is it like that, though?

How many glorious days do you remember? No, seriously. Take a moment and count.

There was that one when I went surfing and I caught seven waves. Also an epic aikido practise I had one Thursday in October a few years ago. I left the tatami all wet and light. There’ve been some amazing talks with my closest friends, mostly in London parks (not that we were too taken with the landscape at the time). And the elation of cracking some solid tag lines, hyped on White Snake tunes.

The rest is all a stream of days and weeks trying to pick the right battles, stay the course, score, pay the mortgage, and not take myself too seriously. (Don’t you just love it when people ask “why so serious?”. And when has the cryptic “Relax!” line ever worked?)

So I play a game of frameworks now. And that’s what the bootcamp is. It’s one sprint. (Or two, with a respite in between.)

For the 15 bright young things, it’s one month to the result: the screening for the jury. For me, it’s nailing the copy on one website. Structuring and getting a course off the ground. Nailing one thought leader’s voice.

Replicate it like fractals and you’re there in a place where performance does not exhaust you, you do it while munching nachos. Because the wiring is in place. You’re not wrestling with the bootcamp, you’re riding it.

My guys will find their stories. Historically, one in three films done in this setup ends up winning awards and hearts on the festival circuit. The framework is such that it takes (occasionally) shrinking violets and turns them into Robert de Niros, completely in charge of their work.

It’s not smooth. It gets messy at times. But it sure gets done.

PS: the pic of me riding into the sunset is taken by Ioana Ophelia, one of the bright young things, as we came back to base after an afternoon of scouting. We’ll hear from her again.

PPS: but the one with me and my 4 year old friend peacocking to a peacock (how more Bob de Niro can we get?) is taken by my best friend on one of the days we’d won the lottery. Because we were together.

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