FEATURE : Crises . . . or opportunity?

Many years ago, I heard an unforgettable lecture in Baltimore by Tom Bentkowski, then design director of Life magazine. As he was preparing to leave his home in New York, he accidentally forgot the tray of slides he had prepared for the presentation. (Yes, this was in those quaint pre-PowerPoint days.) His office in Manhattan was closed, and there was no way to retrieve the slides in time for the lecture. What to do? Could a designer talk about his work without the visuals? Tom proved that yes, he could.

He walked on stage with apologies for the missing slides and then did a marvelous thing. He asked everyone in the audience to close their eyes and visualize a painting. He described a work by Van Gogh—golden wheat fields, furrows of bright and dark blue paint in the sky, with strokes of black paint forming a flock of crows above the fields. Once we all had this scene of pastoral beauty clearly in our minds, Tom asked us to imagine the same painting but now with a caption that reads, “This is one of the last paintings by Van Gogh before he put a gun to his head and killed himself.” His point was that a caption can add information that can change the way we react to an image. I think it’s an excellent point and one that I remember whenever I see a photo that could’ve been more meaningful with a well-crafted caption.

What I remember even more poignantly, though, was the way Tom turned the crisis of the missing slides into an opportunity. Instead of bowing out at the last minute, he showed us that courage and quick thinking is the way to rise above a problem.