A lesson from history

What the US Declaration of Independence can teach designers and creatives. Or, why clients can sometimes be right

What the US Declaration of Independence can teach designers and creatives. Or, why clients can sometimes be right

I’ve just started reading Richard M Ketchum’s Saratoga, a book about the American revolutionary war (there was a Burgoyne involved somewhere, apparently). In it, Ketchum relates a now-famous story about the drafting of the US Declaration of Independence.

After originally writing what he thought was a well-nigh perfect draft of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson (above) submitted it to fellow members of a Congressional committee for what we might now term ‘client feedback’. Unsurprisingly, Jefferson was worried that his colleagues would ruin his work with their helpful suggestions, a situation no doubt familiar to all CR readers.

Jefferson shared his concerns with Benjamin Franklin who, in order to reassure him, told Jefferson a story from when he was a ‘journeyman printer’.

A contemporary of Franklin’s, a hatter named John Thompson, was about to open a shop and needed a sign for it (a corporate identity, if you like). Thompson decided his sign should read ‘John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money’. This was to be set alongside a picture of a hat outside his shop.

Then, a friend pointed out that the word ‘Hatter’ was tautologous, followed as it was by ‘makes hats’, so he took it out. Someone else commented that he didn’t need to state that he ‘makes’ hats as, so long as they were good quality, no-one would care who made them, so he took that out as well. And a third advised him to remove the words ‘ready money’ as nobody would expect him to sell on credit.

That left ‘John Thompson sells hats’, with the illustration. As his friends pointed out, no-one would expect Thompson to give his hats away, so a bit more editing was introduced. As Ketchum writes “Finally, all that remained was his name, ‘John Thompson’, and a picture of a hat.

Fortunately, as Ketchum states, most changes made by Congress to Jefferson’s draft were also improvements and history was duly made. And the lesson is, the right feedback can help improve an original concept. Sometimes.

Unfortunately, I suspect that most of our readers’ experiences would be almost the exact opposite of the John Thompson story. Who hasn’t proposed their version of John Thompson and a picture of a hat, only to see assorted stakeholders stick their oar in until today’s equivalent of ‘John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money’ becomes the final, client-approved version?

 

 

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The July issue of Creative Review features a piece exploring the past and future of the dingbat. Plus a look at the potential of paper electronics and printed apps, how a new generation of documentary filmmakers is making use of the web, current logo trends, a review of MoMA New York’s group show on art and type, thoughts on how design may help save Greece and much more. Also, in Monograph this month we showcase a host of rejected design work put together by two Kingston students.

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