Into the wild: FCB’s senior designer Nick McFarlane on hunting his own killer idea

Describing advertisers as ‘Head Hunters’ sounds like a cynical (if not sinister) ploy. But reading Nick McFarlane’s latest book, Hunting the Killer Idea where the term is used, the reasons behind the label soon become apparent. 

“Advertisers are referred to as ‘Head Hunters’ because of their ability to turn heads and capture attention,” explains author and FCB senior designer Nick McFarlane. He writes in the book that “out of all the professions where creativity is a prerequisite, there is no other industry that demands such a constant flow of ideas as advertising”.

A constant flow of ideas, of course, is not so easy to come by. In aid of this winding path towards enlightenment, McFarlane dissects the complex canyons of the creative process with the help of several prominent figures such as Noam Chomsky, Dave Trott, Askew One and Liam Howlett from The Prodigy. And in a unique and imaginative twist, McFarlane uses hunting—the most primal of human endeavours—as the book’s anchoring metaphor.

“The first thing I came up with was the title, just because it sounded cool to be honest. But when I actually got going on the book, I realized I didn’t have a unique point of view on creativity and I started to despair a bit,” he recalls. “But then I realized that it was staring at me right in the face with the title. I realized hunting was actually the perfect metaphor for creativity because there’s a process one goes through in terms of preparation, gathering one’s thoughts, and chasing down the big ideas.”

Much like his first foray into the publishing world with Spinfluence: The Hardcore Propaganda Manual for Controlling the Masses, McFarlane makes the most of his experienced design background to create a potently visual manual for cultivating ideas. Ominous skulls and peering eyes pop up throughout this twisted journey towards innovative thinking, resulting in a distinct aesthetic both visually and narratively.

“I wanted Hunting to be halfway between those little white books by Paul Arden, and the highly visual magazine Juxtapoz, which is about art and graffiti,” he says. “So I pitched the book to my publisher as a mash-up between those two styles: brutally simple about ideas, but coupled with high visual impact.”

Referencing the wise words of everyone from Aristotle and Plato, to Hunter S. Thompson and Edward de Bono, Hunting delves deeper into the history of ideas than your average manual for success. “I wanted to look at creativity from a historical perspective because I think people associate ideas with creativity too quickly sometimes,” he says. “But ideas do sometimes come out of critical thinking, which is what led me to look at philosophy and see what sort of learnings we could take.”

“The subject of creativity wasn’t even really written about or studied until the turn of the 20th century. It’s still a relatively new subject of inquiry, so I wanted to try and get some richness and depth into it. I didn’t want it to just be about artists splattering paint around.”

In a bold step outside his comfort zone, McFarlane tries his hand at the age-old art of poetry, producing a series of poems—interspersed with vivid watercolour imagery—that narrates the journey towards creative enlightenment. He says that all the poems were written by him except the final chapter, where he solicited the help of colleague Peter Vegas, a senior writer at FCB—”because at the end of the day, I’m just a graphic designer”.

Juggling tight deadlines, full time work and even a new baby, McFarlane describes the book as “a labour of love” often spending evenings and weekends immersing himself in his own hunt for the killer idea. “Once I realised that (the metaphor of hunting) was my killer idea, that was the velocity I used to go forward. That’s one of the great things about a good idea, you can suddenly work at speed because everything’s clicking and making sense.”

“I decided to challenge myself with this book. I challenged myself with things that were outside of my comfort zone because I wanted the book to be a creative process for me as much as I wanted it to be a book about the creative process itself.”

Hunting the Killer Idea is now available to purchase here.

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