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an Interview with John Gillard

John Gillard

The School of Communication Arts lasted from 1985 to 1995 before Gillard retired, I went to that school in 1994 and like the other ex-pupils of Gillard, I'll never forget what he taught us. -- Dabitch

" John Gillard taught me more than I know."

-- Graham Fink.

Other peoples heroes are always disappointing.
John Gillard founder and principal of the School of Communication Arts, may possibly appreciate the aphoristic tang of that opening sentence.

Gillard is an aphorism man. Pungent one liners from the wise and the witty appear all over the 'communication and problem-solving' school that he founded in 1985. Aphorisms also crop up in his stream of conciousness conversation, rocks to which the listener gratefully clings for a moment or two before being swept on by the remorseless flow of the Great Communicators words. Okay, admittedly it wasn't the best time to interview the man, a couple of weeks before this years students complete their 36-week course. But even in more relaxed circumstances, talking with Gillard is like wrestling with an amoeba. "Our job," he says of the students, "is to communicate not irritate," but it's a lesson he doesn't always apply to his own public utterances. And yet, and yet...as a teacher Gillard inspires the most heartfelt endorsements from the great and the good in advertisiNg and design. From John Hegarty(to Michael Peters, the verdict on Gillard is the same: the man is a genius, one of the few people in the world who has cracked the problem on how to teach "creativity". Professional Creatives have a tendency to inflate their most ordinary achievements to heroic dimensions, but the reverence afforded to Gillard is widespread, and over the years, has remained remarkably consistent. The roll call of his ex-pupils is impressive, and whatever it is they got from him they remain grateful to this day.

Q: Why was it necessary to set up a school outside the conventional arts school system?

I would never have started a private school if there had been an alternative. I tried nine years to do it in the system. I could write one or two books at whats wrong with art education, but I don't want to. I want to somewhat much more pragmatic.

Q: So where does the present system fall down in your opinion?

When I was in america I met Bill Bernback and I remember him saying, " two or three of the best people we've had here came in off the street." And I thought ,yes, he's right. Because I believe everyone is basically creative.

Q: Are you saying that Art Schools draw on too small a pool of people?

Exactly. Like minds select like souls. Here, we've had performing artists, lawyers, architects, a bus conductor, a poet...four poets actually..all from different backgrounds and countries, aged 18 to 45. There are one or two other places beginning to work this way, so I've heard, which is a joy to me because although I am a critic o the system I genuinely would like things to get better.

Q: But generally you would argue that art schools have built-in problems because of the narrow spectrum of people selected to go there?

Art Students are too precious by half. In the first week here, our students have to go out and talk to people the street- and it's a terrible shock for some of them. They talk to people who make things, buy things, sell things, need things, use things, to get an overview, because they are going to be potential problem solvers, communicators,and unless they get involved with people.....I don't think I could go to an art school anywhere in the country and find final-year students who could do what our students, working in groups of five, are expected to do their first week here. And most of those students will never have done work like that before.

Q: What specifically was wrong whith the art school system at the time you decided you'd had enough?

All the emphasis was on how you did something rather than why you did something. The word 'creativity' was hated, and they didn't like the word 'proffesionalism' much either. One of the problems now is that a lot of arts schools depend too much on the various competitions that are around its very good for a colleges prestige if one of their students win a prize but, with all respect to the companies behind these schemes, they simply give students far too much time to work on their projects. We hardly spend more than three weeks on a project, and that includes all the research and writing of reports. What bothers me about these competitions is that they become an excuse for not setting projects.

Q: The educational establishment has always had its doubts about the school, but the advertising and design industry have been very much in favour. Why have you had so much support?

As soon as I said I'm going to start up a school the agencies and design groups said "We need such a place". One hundred and thirty four people immediatly said they would help teach for nothing. Now we have over 260 who support us because they believe in it.

Q: But what exactly do they believe in?

That we get our students to think. This school is about feeling, Empathy. peoples responses.... You see the agencies and design groups were seeing all these folders of students work and they weren't impressed. Then the people I had taught before would see the effort I had made to produce a certain kind of student, they'd see the work that was coming out of my college and they'd see that there were ideas and communication and empathy, a lot of things that they wanted to have and that they couldn't get elsewhere.

Q: On a more mundane level what kind of success rate do your students have when they leave and try to get jobs?

The success rate at the moment is about 80 percent, and that's jobs in top ad agencies and top design groups. One student has become creative director at saatchi & saatchi in Amsterdam. But it's a question I don't like answering, because so many of them are doing well.

EDIT: John Gillard passed away 2000 , campaign headlined it : "the pied piper of advertising dies". Gillard inspired many new generations to create, including his four children.

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