Jack Nicklaus’ Playing Lessons is ostensibly a book about golf, but it also contains teachings that can be applied to design and, more broadly, to living. No, that’s not true. It is just a golf book. But in our studio, books like this one are among the most valued resources we keep on the shelves. They’re a history of rich, romantic imagery and copy. And, importantly, they make us laugh. They remind us that we should be having fun, we should be playing.
Playing Lessons was published in 1981 – a time when golf was a game that consumed the lives of corporate, sporting and recreational types alike. Back then, golf was the subject of movies like Caddyshack, with Chevy Chase as the fabulous and wealthy slouch Ty Webb spouting glorious one-liners such as, “Remember Danny – two wrongs don’t make a right, but three rights make a left.”
Yes, it’s a guide to playing golf, but it also offers up advice with a naive sense of certainty that doesn’t quite fit into the self-help revolution that was gathering pace at the time. The chapter “How to get yourself mentally ready to play” includes such nuggets as, “The most important thing for me in preparing for major tournaments is basic peace of mind.” Agreed. Suggest widening application beyond major tournaments.
More of this kind of gold can be found throughout. “I’m a firm believer in the theory that people do their best at things they enjoy”. Whilst I wasn’t aware that this was once theory, again, I wholeheartedly subscribe. As an aside, this truth is (at least to some small degree) why you’re reading this. I started Alter also believing that doing what we love would free us from the bonds of labour and though I no longer labour under this particular assumption, the labour is bearable.
Humour aside for a moment, I love that Playing Lessons reminds me of what it was like to love books as a child. There’s beauty in the problem solving and the sheer joy and detail of the craft expressed combine as entertainment, imagination and carefully refined skill. There’s a lot going on here. A lot to digest. In a Readers Digest kind of way.
The work of illustrator Jim McQueen, a long time friend of Jack Nicklaus, is rich and somewhat romantic. His wistful, thoughtful portrait moments are retrospectively hilarious. There are some great studies in colour, lighting and composition, alongside strange graphic devices helping to describe and explain the sport (it was an 80s thing). We also learn that Jack Nicklaus has more pants than any other man alive. If you would like to draw pants, I recommend this book. Typographic gems like “Powdery sand think shallow” abound. There are endless strange cameo portraits to investigate. Mysteriously, there seem to be mob guys plotting something on one page and a guy who looks like John Wayne on another. Have a look at the picture below. I’m pretty sure that’s Tony Abbott. At least that makes sense.
I love books like this because they offer so much to interpret and enjoy. They’re our studio ‘playing lessons’. That wasn’t so awful, was it? They are invaluable, not because we’d love to produce faux-retro imagery even half as good, but because they’re layered with insights, craft, ideas, moments, solutions and well, lots of curious stuff. Amongst our collection we also have books on skiing, bicycle maintenance, horse riding, dressmaking, bird identification and many other disparate subjects.
Another reason I’m attracted to somewhat obscure or older resources like this is that I can look at them more objectively. Examples like this are not mired in the current tropes of the zeitgeist which are sometimes more difficult to see past than the past itself. I don’t know much about golf. Or Jack Nicklaus. I don’t know how much it cost to make, what compromises had to be carefully negotiated or whether ultimately, Jim McQueen could keep up with his mortgage repayments. None of this matters to me. I’m just an observer, deconstructing stuff, looking for a brief flash of inspiration. And I think maybe I CAN find advice for designers in it after all.
“Don’t be too ambitious with your approach shots. If you are a beginner or high handicapper, your goal on all approach shots should be to get the ball anywhere on the green, not next to the hole.”
Or, better yet, this: “Your powers of observation are your first strategic weapon. Second is your imagination.”
Jim McQueen is such a cool name too.