Article by Anna Ochmann
The author of the graphic: macrovector – Ludzie plik wektorowy utworzone przez macrovector – pl.freepik.com
Posters filled the entire wall over the desk like giant colourful wallpaper promoting everything that could help in reaching eternal bliss in the 1990s. From a toothpaste that would ‘whiten your teeth even more’, through ‘paradise’ vacations in exotic destinations with a specific tour operator, to ‘an amazingly fabulous gastro-point in Krakow’. I loved reading those texts, drawing pleasure from the unusual collocations and the attempts to define the reality of the times in a kind of newspeak.
The space around the desk was cluttered with piles of test print-outs, heaps of gadgets meant as product samples for clients. There was too much of everything, it was overly colourful, as if this excess of colour and its saturation were to compensate for the bleakness of the earlier decades in Poland.
On adjacent shelves the letters of the alphabet were screaming out in bright colours on the covers of business card holders. I remember that the ones with the letters ‘K’ and ‘N’ were most numerous. I still don’t know if it was the Kowalskis and the Nowaks (the most common Polish surnames) that dominated the client list. Below rested thick telephone directories from the previous few years – the older ones well worn with bent corners and disintegrating covers.
To the right of the desk there were two telephones (both bright red), and next to them a sizable fax machine. The remaining part of the desk was occupied by three computers – standing there with pride. Each consisted of a large central unit box and a heavy monitor. Each computer was assigned two chairs – one for the technician who operated the software, and one for the designer, meaning the artist…
Welcome to the place I worked at as a student…
I used to spend long afternoons, and too often weekends and night hours here. I was part of a team with Ula – my personal computer operator. My duty was ‘creation’, creating, designing, telling her what to do and correcting if necessary. Her job was to use graphic programmes, prepare the designs for print, and send them on to contractors. I remember that we laughed a lot. She would tell me about her daughters and I talked about my days at the Academy of Fine Arts. We had our rituals – when I made extra strong black tea for myself I would make chicory coffee (INKA) for her as well. The bright multicoloured mugs were ornamented with some not-too-clever captions, which was supposed to be funny, but it usually boiled down to being coarse or crude…
Welcome to an advertising agency at the beginning of the 1990s…
I got here by coincidence, when the first exam session at the university clearly showed what expensive studies I had chosen, and that being an artist required quite substantial financial input. Having bought all the canvas, paints and pencils, brushes, materials to make a sculpture and paper sheets I was broke and decided to find myself a job that I could do outside my university programme.
The first job turned out to be a total catastrophe – I can still remember the chapped skin on my hands and forearms, which looked as if they had been frost-bitten, when I worked for a few weeks as a kitchen help in a salad bar. In fact I worked as a dishwasher, so one wintry December evening, after numerous hours with my hands immersed in hot water, when I returned to my student room (and usually I would forget to take gloves with me) I had a skin reaction. My hands were red, dry and I felt they were burning. What with the clay left after sculpting classes and traces of oil paints under my fingernails, my red hands looked as if I was suffering from an unusual and terrible disease… After a month I would fall asleep standing at the easel, and was spending more money on hand cream than I earned. Nevertheless the ‘dishwasher’ friendships would last for many years. I worked there with a marvellously introverted philosophy student, a marvellously extroverted biology student, and a number of girls from towns and villages near Krakow, who were looking for the meaning of life…
Just then, on the door of my Alma Mater I came across a note – an advertisement saying that a creative, rapidly developing advertising agency with “long-term plans” (whatever that meant) was looking for artists. At that time I represented all the complexes that a first year student had, raised in the spirit “sit quietly and they’ll find you.” Going to the interview with my future boss I met a colleague who earned additional money by drawing caricatures of tourists in Florianska street (and the rest of us envied his pencil strokes and skill). He said he would keep his fingers crossed, and that he was sure “they would readily take me on.”
They did take me on. I could start working full time, double full time, or even treble full time. I could work 24 hours a day, as designers were really worth their weight in gold. That was a crazy time in Poland. The time of emerging capitalism, development of private enterprises and businesses (bars and restaurants were opening on practically every corner), selling from displays set out on collapsible sun beds in open street markets, and whoever graduated from London School of Economics or returned from a Fulbright scholarship rapidly climbed the career ladders at banks or corporations.
At that time I was not aware that this kind of learning through practice in the workplace has its own definition (WBL). It quickly turned out that I am not only able to design but, more importantly, I enjoyed doing that, and that my speciality are spatial elements, advertising stands, and light boxes. That was the time when trade fairs and exhibitions of all kinds were developing dynamically. So I designed exhibition spaces for numerous companies for the Poznan Trade Fair, AGROTECH in Kielce, the trade fair in Dresden, or CeBIT in Hannover. I can still remember the trade fair in Bielsko-Biała, where I prepared a stand for a company, who monitored overhead power lines with the use of helicopters. I was then invited to take part in a helicopter flight in order to have the first-hand experience of how it is done and to inspire me. Together with the camera-man, who was to make a film for the exhibition, we were numb with fear when the helicopter got near the high-voltage lines. We admired the pilot’s skill manoeuvring in close proximity to the pylons and lines. The cockpit was really small, the camera hit my arm whenever the camera-man changed his position (it was a bulky TV camera, nowadays we would be able to get the same quality using a mobile phone or simply by preparing a computer simulation, but we couldn’t even dream about such a thing in those days).
During the flight the pilot explained to us technical details about different kinds of insulation (even today I can recall they can be made of electrotechnical ceramics, tempered glass, and possibly some kind of plastic), or the characteristics of climate zones in Poland in the context of power lines (in Poland there is a division into wind zones and rime zones).
These were the months of work, when I learnt the difference between brand and product. I learnt which exhibition systems and materials I should use to create a stand in a few hours, and so that the transport wasn’t too expensive. How to organise and supervise a team and the assembly process. How to talk with clients.
It was the time when advertising experts were often seen as experts in… culture. They were invited to “important” conferences, contributed to discussions about culture…
This job was not only a source of income for me. It became an inspiration when it came to choosing a direction at the university, it helped to gain knowledge and skills that I would otherwise never have gained. During this time I met a lot of wonderful and inspirational people who supported me both in my professional and personal life.
Contemporary apprenticeship is becoming one of the most important tools helping in professional development, and more and more often defined as the key tool in improving employability, especially of young people.