Crumpled paper and the witch doctor

July 14, 2009

This is a story that I like to tell my first year students. It illustrates the importance of seemingly unimportant activities and how they can help you later in your career.

I had landed my dream job at a downtown ad agency. I had only been out of school four years and looking back, I was still pretty green. I hadn’t worked there long when I was assigned a pro bono project for the Arthritis Foundation. Of course, pro bono mean basically no budget. So, working along those lines the writer and I came up with the concept that centered around the image of a witch doctor wearing a mask with a smiley face on it. I hand created the mask myself, borrowed a grass skirt from a co-worker and found a male model willing to donate his time. I lined up the photo studio, set the date and assumed that they would have something in their collection of backdrops that would work for the photo shoot.

The day of the photo shoot came. I got there early to select the backdrop and get everything set. As we went through the background options I quickly realized that there was nothing there that was going to work. There wasn’t time or money to create anything elaborate. What the heck was I going to do?

As I searched my mental archive for common materials the might work I remembered a seemingly useless project that I’d done in collage. The assignment was to take 10 4-inch by 4-inch pieces of paper and crumple them in interesting ways. I remember thinking at the time, “You have got to be kidding, how am I ever going to use this in the real world?”

Well I’ll be darned if I didn’t actually use that experience to pull my behind out of the fire. The photo studio had big rolls of brown paper that they lay on the floor to walk on after they painted the sets. My solution was to tear off big sections of paper, crumple them, smooth them out and hang them behind the witch doctor as a back drop. It worked great, see for yourself.


It looks like he’s in a cave.

It is said that we learn more from our mistakes then from our triumphs. I learned several lessons that day. First, don’t assume anything. Assuming they had a backdrop, big no no. Second, never pass up and opportunity to explore different materials in ways you normally wouldn’t. You never know when they might come in handy. And third, always do pro bono work, especially when it involves a male model in a grass skirt.

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