A Fourth World

Trieste by Jan MorrisA few weeks back my wife – Lesley Katon – and I were sitting up a hillside in Italy pondering what she might say to the friends due to gather at her 50th birthday party. She wanted to capture her feelings for them, and to define the character of the amazing variety of people she’s become close to over the years. A tough brief.

After dinner that night we went back to the books we were reading – me Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra, she Jan Morris’s Trieste. 30 minutes later Les suddenly exclaimed ‘This is it! It’s all about the Fourth World!’ And so she described how Morris, in portraying the people of Trieste – a city that has moved between countries and provided a home to global wanderers – had got to the essence of what she felt about her closest friends.

At the party Les read out the passage below, and it resonated with those in the room. I’m reproducing it here because I think it’s a wonderful piece of writing – full of rhythm and spirit – but also because I feel we could all do with a blast of universalism.

As I write, murderous extremists are beheading those they consider their enemy, and a government has just bombed a refugee camp. Closer to home, our government has withdrawn support for rescue boats in the Mediterranean, for fear that it will encourage more migrants to light out for the UK. Last weekend a government minister described some towns as being ‘swamped’ by immigrants and effectively ‘under siege’. And on Wednesday of this week, in the House of Commons, the leaders of our two main political parties spat the word ‘immigration’ at each other as if it were a term of abuse.

It’s true that in some towns in Britain there are serious frictions between long-term residents and recent arrivals. But the bitterness of the current political language seems a long way from the open-minded approach to otherness I see and hear on the streets of our cities and towns most days. There are incidents and idiots, there is prejudice and anxiety, but in general people seem to rub along pretty well.

Of course, people’s feelings about immigration depend on where they live; their own experiences and circumstances; their ideology, if they have one; and how much they believe that immigration is responsible for our economic woes, rather than the main parties’ inability to imagine and pursue material progress. For some, it’s easier to project blame onto someone ‘other’ than to deconstruct the complex systems that affect our lives, or unpick the collapse of the Left, or question why successive governments have failed to create the infrastructure needed to support a growing population. Isn’t it absurd to blame the least powerful in our society for the failure of the most powerful to create the foundations for growth?

But once again, despite the resounding drumbeat of anti-immigration politicking, I’m constantly struck by how cohesive our cities are. Most people seem less and less interested in a person’s colour or creed and more interested in what they believe, say and contribute. We can all think of exceptions, no doubt, but in my experience they really are the exception rather than the rule.

True to the spirit of Trieste, I’ve wandered, and so I’ll bring this piece back to Jan Morris (who certainly knew a few things about identity and prejudice). Her words portray a minority, but a minority that in spirit is open and inclusive. It is a love letter to what can unite us; perhaps even a glimpse of a future world without borders. Sometimes that seems a very long way off. A very, very long way off. Cynics would say it’s a hopeless idea. It’s certainly true that we will never get there if we always see difference as a threat, rather than something that can make us stronger and better.

From Trieste, by Jan Morris (Faber & Faber)

There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own.

They are the lordly ones! They come in all colours.

They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists.

They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor.

They may be patriots, but they are never chauvinists.

They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding.

When you are among them you know you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically.

They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean.

They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion, or political correctness.

They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it.

It is the nation of nowhere.



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On Elfgate

Magical Journey?In the earliest days of writing for the Internet, there were few places to go for advice on how to structure and present online copy. A book and some posts by Jakob Nielsen was about all that was available. Over time, good work and user testing helped writers understand how to best build a cogent pitch for whatever it was they were talking about or selling. As users got smarter, the writing had to get better – as did a sense of the intricate choreography of Internet content.

I was prompted into this rumination on the pioneering days of the late 90s by a far more recent news story, namely the temporary closure of The Magical Journey. Readers may already be familiar with the brouhaha that has shaken the synthetic snow from the non-native pines at this new Midlands attraction, already re-dubbed a winter blunderland by the less Christmassy members of the press. A farrago of Christmas theme park and Lapland-lite, the whole thing has been created in association with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.

Naturally, having read of anguished children, truculent parents and the tragic disappearance of Rudi the reindeer, I went to the Internet to find out more. Arriving at The Magical Journey’s homepage, I clicked on ‘The Experience’ only to be greeted by the question ‘Whats going on?’ [sic]. ‘What indeed?’ you might ask.

For the disappointed folk who trekked to Sutton Coldfield’s newest attraction on opening day it would probably have been the first question to pass their lips, the second most likely being ‘Can I have my money back?’ If only the omission of the contractual apostrophe were the end of the site’s woes.

Any laws governing hyperbole are clearly suspended when it comes to describing the velvety landscapes developed ‘in association’ with Llewelyn-Bowen who, it ought to be said, appears to be an all around good egg who may well be wondering – like those who went onto social media to complain about the thing – just how his vision got so poorly translated into reality. That said, and with all due respect, it defies several species of irony to suggest – as the site does – that Father Christmas has personally selected The Belfrey Hotel & Resort and ‘his close friend’ Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen to create this North Pole Outpost right on the not-at-all-Fennoscandian outskirts of Sutton Coldfield.

As the copy unravels, distracted by the glint of its own gilding, it suggests that The Magical Journey is (or rather, was intended to be) ‘a truly incredible and extraordinary development’. It ‘will be’ a winter wonderland of ‘magic and drama’ at the ‘amazing and legendary’ Belfrey Hotel & Resort (which swiftly denied any responsibility for the debacle). The site also claims that this is ‘an entertainment production the likes of which has not been seen before in the UK’. Sadly its like has been seen before, as anyone that visited ‘Lapland New Forest’ in the dark days of winter 2008 might attest.

Often, the linguistic quibbles that arise when distinguishing between what an attraction says it offers and what it actually offers can be settled in a website’s FAQs. In this case, the FAQs reassure potential attendees that the experience is for everyone – facilitated by the dispensation of ‘appropriate humour’ as you depart on your journey, ‘suitable for both adults and children!’

In the early days of writing for websites, when the Internet was still barely off the edge of Sir Timothy Berners-Lee’s desk, this sort of content, measured in volume and not clarity, was a form of the blight known as shovelware. In the case of copy, it stood for material that had simply been written and deposited into a website with no thought for the early adopters trying to make sense of the medium. Here, it’s as if the words came tumbling head over heels into The Magical Journey’s website when even a cursory edit (and some sub-headings) would have improved matters greatly. So although most web writers have put Nielsen’s seminal works to one side, a glance at online content structure over the last 10 years would have shown how far we’ve come in helping users understand and navigate online writing.

Lifting word-weary eyes from the website for a moment’s respite, the naming protocols across the physical aspects of the attraction also warrant scrutiny. A casual glance suggests that the organisers might have co-opted some of Llewelyn-Bowen’s celebrity pals in order to lend the staging points on this magical journey a bit of additional elf dust. You can step inside the kitchen of Mrs Clause (her maiden name is Mary Holly-Berry – you know – the woman off the baking programme). And we can also visit Simion Cowelf’s Academy… my assumption being that the additional ‘i’ was required to forestall legal action.

Magical JourneyThe rest of the topographical titling only exacerbates the breathlessness of this yuletide prose. During your visit, in addition to Cowelf’s Academy, you will be able to spend time at The Magical Cafe, The Christmas Market, The Christmas Tree Glade (which lies within Christmas Tree Wood), The Father Christmas Lodge, The Snow Covered Enchanted Wizardry Woodland (just a hint of the Potter about that one), The Magic Giant Gate, Uncle Holly’s Hut (just a hint of the Shane Meadows about that one), before pulling into Snowflake Station and pottering around Father Christmas’s Museum – where no doubt you will be able to look back on other attempts to mount a winter wonderland in the Midlands.

One of a number of recruitment ads seeking men to perform the role of Simion Cowelf strikes its own interesting tone. It makes it clear that verbal engagement will be involved, so applicants need an excellent grasp of the English language as there will be a ‘vague written narrative to improvise from’. No doubt the vague narrative includes phrases like “I know, I’m sorry about all this’, “Yes, you’d expect more from the bloke off of Changing Rooms’  and ‘Do you wish you’d gone to the Bull Ring?’

It seems even the operators of the PR machinery at The Belfrey – the ‘spectacular’ location of the attraction – were tongue tied by the affair, which Llewelyn-Bowen himself has called ‘Elfgate’. A message at www.thebelfrey.co.uk (since removed) stated ‘The Event is not operated by the Belfrey’, dropping their own capital T in the process. What they did say is that the operators would make improvements to ensure the ‘Event’ (just a hint of the M. Night Shyamalan about that) ‘is truly magical’. If to be magical is to be removed from everyday life by something delightful, then it is hard to imagine just what the improvements might be – certainly Laurence’s ‘undoubted artistic eye’ and ‘innovative genius’ will have been pushed to the limit over the three days of closure. The Belfrey also make it clear that they are pleased to be working with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowens [sic].

After a much discussed period of radio silence, Llewelyn-Bowen (singular) took himself to Twitter and suggested that it was time ‘for sleeves to be rolled up’. In fact the BBC news website quoted a spokesman for Mr Llewelyn-Bowen saying his involvement had been ‘purely creative’ and that the closure will allow the owners time to get things closer to the original ‘ravishing’ vision.

For the sake of the hundreds if not thousands of people who have already shelled out in advance to visit The Magical Journey, the organisers ought to get the thing sorted out. But in and amongst giving the Santas extra training and decorating the tepees, they might also want to consider reviewing the content on the website. Other than the (mainly negative) press reports and staged PR shots, it’s the only place people can turn to get information on what to expect.

This may sound like a last little bit of bah humbug being coughed up all over the starbursts of the attraction’s website but it was just this sort of mismatch between promise and reality that got Lapland New Forest into such serious trouble.

It might help if Llewelyn-Bowen cast his ‘undoubted artistic eye’ over the rampant hyperbole of The Magical Journey’s website, and capturing the winning sense of self-deprecation detectable in the comments of employees on the day of re-opening would be a good place to start. After all, it would be a pity if Llewelyn-Bowen’s close friend Father Christmas had to think twice about leaving Lapland ever again.


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The Serious Business of Stories

A few weeks back I had the pleasure of speaking to 180 fellow writers at the Professional Copywriters’ Network’s second conference. Terrific the conference was too, with a smart, friendly audience who didn’t throw things; a variety of insightful speakers not scared to express an opinion; smooth organisation, with no crashed laptops or cold tea; and a memorable venue in Haberdashers’ Hall, Smithfield. If you don’t know the PCN I recommend you drop by their lively website, and look out for details of the next conference.

My talk was on stories. Given that hardly anyone in our industry bothers to define their use of the term, I set out to answer the question what exactly is a story? Also, why are so many people in marketing and branding talking about stories (but failing to tell them)? And how can businesses and writers use story structure and techniques to communicate in more interesting and memorable ways?

Other speakers and talks included Rory Sutherland on behavioural economics (perhaps more accurately, behavioural psychology), or what copywriters have always known but have often found hard to explain; and Dr Jillian Ney on how social media measurement can help inspire effective writing. There were also packed break-out sessions led by the likes of Andy Maslen and Bill Hilton. And all of this was woven together into a coherent, well paced day by PCN founders Ben Locker and Tom Albrighton, the Fry and Laurie of 21st century copywriting.

Enough preamble. If you’d like to see my 30-minute talk you can watch the video here. I can promise you conflict, strong views, a horrendous piece of jargon and a nice photograph of Zippy and George from Rainbow. Videos of the other sessions can be seen here.

Le Carré gets to share stage with Tim Rich

Rather dull screen grab featuring a brilliant quote by le Carré.


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Yes, no, definitely maybe – part 2

A banner at the Trafalgar Square rally in support of the Union

A banner at the Trafalgar Square rally in support of the Union

More excellent writing on Scottish independence has emerged since my post on Friday.

Two particularly well-wrought comment pieces in favour of a No vote both describe the intellectual journey of the author (apologies for employing the ‘journey’ metaphor there – must have been watching too many TV documentaries).

In Justine Brian’s Why I hope that Scotland votes ‘No’ she reveals that “over the past three years, I’ve become an ‘accidental Unionist’.” Quite an evolution for someone who was an ardent supporter of Irish freedom.

Justine  – who heads up the brilliant Debating Matters competition – attacks the fragmentary character of the Yes campaign, characterising its hardliners as:

A broad mix of everyone that’s fed up with the status-quo: those cynical about Westminster politics and politicians; those who think capitalism is unfair but doesn’t know what to do about it; those who used to be part of the Left but, disgruntled by defeats in the 80s, and disgusted by a society that doesn’t look as they wish it did, are quite happy to trash their own nation as a minor act of anti-Tory revenge, in the hope that they might be slightly bigger fishes is a much smaller pond.

As with the superb Kenan Malik article highlighted here, the powerful momentum of her analysis sweeps us towards a hard-hitting conclusion:

If we want to change the world, to reinvigorate a sense of agency, to reclaim politics from a detached political elite, we cannot do so through narrow identity politics. We need new ideas and an understanding of why the world looks the way it does, and we achieve this better together.

Debate figures large in author Ewan Morrison’s Yes: Why I Joined Yes And Why I Changed To No. It was what he describes as the cultish, brook no argument character of the Yesses that made him question whether he was on the right side.

 I realised there was no absolutely no debate within the Yes camp. Zero debate – the focus was instead on attacking the enemy and creating an impenetrable shell to protect the unquestionable entity. In its place was a kind of shopping list of desires that was being added to daily.

The atmosphere amongst the Yes campaigners he encountered reminded Ewan of his days within the SWP:

As a ‘Trot’ we were absolutely banned from talking about what the economy or country would be like ‘after the revolution’; to worry about it, speculate on it or raise questions or even practical suggestions was not permitted. We had to keep all talk of ‘after the revolution’ very vague because our primary goal was to get more people to join our organisation. I learned then that if you keep a promise of a better society utterly ambiguous it takes on power in the imagination of the listener.

He picks apart what the chaos of yesses hiding under the Yes banner will mean in an independent Scotland:

The dream will die as soon as the singular Yes gets voted and Scotland then turns into a battleground of repressed and competing Yesses. Once the recruitment machine has served it purpose it will collapse and the repressed questions will return with a vengeance.

It’s not proved easy to find great writing for the Yes camp, which has surprised me. There’s been little to match Jamie Jauncey’s rhetoric, as discussed here. Perhaps that’s my prejudice in the matter showing itself – I’m a universalist, so I want to see fewer borders and greater common cause, not atomisation. That’s why I particularly enjoyed John Simmons’ recent post on writers and connections – A state of interdependence – and his powerful deployment of John Donne’s No man is an island entire of itself.

But I did find one more notable Yes piece. I disagree with just about everything Russell Wardrop argues for in The Aye Road, but I enjoyed every word. It’s a punchy, ruffian of a piece, somewhere between a transcript from a heated TV discussion and a speech to a mixed crowd at a referendum debate held on a hot Friday night in a distillery. It had me smiling all the way through. Here’s a gobbet:

I’m taking the Aye road. Since the massacre at Kelvingrove I have been looking for evidence this precious Union is worth the candle; concrete proposals the poor cannon-fodder of No could posit with poise; one or two reasons to be cheerful, not three.

I envy anyone who has had certainty this past while and I can groove to a narrow Naw if that’s the will of my fellow voters. In Mibby Aye, Mibby Naw I said I might bite yer hand off for 49% for Yes because that could be the best of both worlds. I no longer believe this and reasons for me to cast Naw vamoosed with my trust in Better Together.

And finally, the London Loves Scotland rally in Trafalgar Square last night was also a warm spirited affair, but a touch refined – more Laphroaig than Bell’s. I’ve never been to such a polite public gathering. Two animated women near me chanted ‘Please say no! Please don’t go!’, which sounded like a well-mannered lyric by Noel Coward.

On stage, Dan Snow set the historical context brilliantly, Al Murray made us laugh, Jenny Colgan read a poem about what the United Kingdom means to her, Eddie Izzard was wry and imploring and beautifully manicured, and then – against my expectations – Bob Geldof delivered a moving, progressive speech big on universalism and democracy. We also had a rousing recital of Auden’s cross-border epic Night Mail.

And that seems like a fair point on which to end this two-parter. If you know of other writing of merit please tweet me @66000mph. Now we move towards the time of last-minute interviews, speeches and soundbites – short-form punches to the other side’s nose, perhaps even a poetic line or two that voters will carry in their hearts to the voting booth. The election draws close, the result just a few days away. To recast some of Auden’s words, All Scotland waits for her.


PS Just seen Strategies to save the Union by Rishi Dastidar: don’t share the sentiments but love the style.

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Yes, no, definitely maybe

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Street art echoing this author’s sentiment on the matter.

The battle for and against Scottish independence is inspiring some fine writing. You would have to go a long way to find a more thoughtful, subtly reasoned essay than Kenan Malik’s Scottish Independence – from what, for what?. He leads us with great care to a powerful conclusion:

The challenge we face is to build new social mechanisms that can overcome the fragmentary character of contemporary politics, reverse the replacement of broader political and cultural identities with more narrow, parochial ones, confront the shift from the politics of ideology to the politics of identity. Scottish independence will not help achieve any of this. In fact, it will only exacerbate those very problems.

On the other hand, writer Jamie Jauncey has produced a remarkable piece of warm, rhetorical writing that gently guides the reader towards voting Yes. A letter to the undecided is beautifully crafted, its evocative and touching language powered by smart persuasive techniques. It begins:

Dear Friend

I’m writing this on a spellbinding early Indian summer’s morning in Perthshire. The mist has burnt off and the sky is cloudless. The trees and bracken are just starting to turn. The hills are within touching distance. All is still and clear. Or is it … ?

Only the most hard-hearted of Unionists would fail to read on.

Writing in The Telegraph, Rory Bremner does a good impression of someone who feels unable to leave the middle ground, although in his piece he tells us that he has finally decided to vote No. The article has neither the depth of consideration of Kenan’s essay nor the emotional power of Jamie’s letter, but there are some good gags along the way:

“I see and feel the appeal of independence to the heart, and have entertained the vision of a Nordic social democracy, with progressive politics, Scandinavian lifestyle and exciting crime dramas (“Herr Taggart, there’s been a mørder ”).”

Better still is this anecdote, used to illustrate that what many people in Scotland really want is to be able to choose their country’s status for themselves:

Some years ago, British Rail removed kippers from the menu on the London-Brighton line. A campaign sprang up to bring them back, and Laurence Olivier was its patron. BR relented, and the following week, Lord Olivier was greeted on the train by the steward. “Ah! Lord Olivier! I expect you’ll be having the kippers?” “No, dear boy,” he replied, “I’ll have bacon and eggs.” “But… I thought you wanted kippers?” said the steward. “No, no, dear boy,” replied Lord Olivier. “What I wanted was the choice.”

A lovely story, cleverly deployed. No doubt there will be plenty more narrative expertise applied to the issues before the people of Scotland get to exercise their right to choose.


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A letter from Michael Wolff

This letter from Michael Wolff was originally commissioned by Kyoorius magazine in Mumbai. Michael contemplates the machinations of the design business, collaboration, humility, and the pitfalls of vanity.


Dear Reader,

I’m starting with an apology. I promised to write you an autobiographical letter about the things and images that have inspired me and still inspire me in what I do. But writing this has overwhelmed me and I’m still working on it for you. Please be patient with me.


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At the same time as writing the letter I promised, I’ve been distracted by a quote. It’s a quote that’s caused me to reflect and think. It relates to our behavior as designers and in particular to the magazines that serve our business.

I think you know by now that I’ve always thrived on distractions.

I don’t always arrive at destinations that I intend to reach. I let distractions take me on extraordinary journeys. I think not knowing where you’ll arrive is the essence of creativity. If you already know you won’t be surprised by the magic of what you can create. I hope you’ll find these reflections useful, and that maybe they’ll become thoughts you’ll want to reflect on too.


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Finding this distracting and insightful quote was a surprise. I wish I’d seen it many years ago. It was by a man called Norman Vincent Peale. He was born in the USA during 1898 and died twenty years ago. I’d never heard of him. He was best known for being the champion of ‘the power of positive thinking’. I think he coined the phrase.

He said many inspirational things including this. “The way to happiness: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry. Live simply, expect little, give much. Scatter sunshine, forget self, think of others. Try this for a week and you’ll be surprised.”

But the quote that’s caused me to stop in my tracks was this:


“The trouble with most of us

is that we’d rather be ruined by praise

than saved by criticism.”


I’ve always valued criticism. I’ve never done flawless work. Criticism is nourishment. It’s the sharpener without which our blades grow blunt.

But I think craving praise, the way it seems to me that we often do, is ruinous. I think many designers are easily seduced into self-adulation. We seem to be too easily herded into mutual admiration, ceremonies and awards that focus entirely on praise.  How many doctors compete for ‘the annual kidney transplant of the year’ awards? Yes, the Nobel Prize gives honour to work of great distinction. But for an ad or a piece of graphic design, come on.


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It seems as if awards or being published in a magazine have come to be the most important measure of the quality of a designer’s work – less banal than “was it effective”, “did it sell more stuff” or “how much money did we make out of this client”.

Despite those feelings, “Congratulations” has always been the first thing I want to say to anyone whose work is honoured by winning an award. Of course it’s an achievement to win recognition for the quality of your work from juries or judges made up of people whose work you may admire.

In the past I was always excited to have my work and my name included with respect, and sometimes even envy, in any selection of excellence by my peers. It always felt like having climbed to some sort of summit – my head clearly seen above the sea of normality. But, and there’s always a ‘but’ for me, the chosen work always had flaws – flaws that taunted me and always insisted on being noticed. They still taunt me today.




I don’t think flawless work exists any more than flawless people. In life – with a little humility – there’s always the possibility of addressing flaws and correcting them. With work, it’s usually too late. By the time you see the flaws, the work’s been produced. Even a car as sublime as the Citroen DS had flaws, and like every other car, or ad, or brand identity or any piece of work from the world of design, flaws are usually there.


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Occasionally something like the Red Cross appears – more or less flawless. Or a poster by a ‘master’, a timeless piece of architecture, a fantastic ad, a breath-taking product or a perfect piece of writing by a great copywriter. These iconic pieces are rare. Why so, when there are so many brilliant and talented people in our wide world of design?

I think there are two main reasons. The first is vanity – a deadly state of mind that settles for substituting a craving for credit and recognition for simply doing a service. That’s a personal issue. Most people can recognise when they’re drinking from the intoxicating chalice of recognition.

The second reason is more serious and profound. I think it’s a flaw in how the design industry has expanded. The design industry has slid relatively unnoticed into the clothes of mediocre and conventional business. Wanting recognition and wealth has been the basis for this evolution.

As the design business was born out of the design profession, we believed that being like our clients and being reasonable would somehow validate our efforts and we would glide into business life like lawyers and management consultants. What happened then was that we were swept up into the world of process, deadlines and project management. Serious time for thought, reflection and criticism was eroded and design became a day-rate affair.

In the early days of Wolff Olins we were free to introduce six-week holidays to encourage an input mentality over an entirely output one and an appetite for curiosity beyond just reading magazines, to balance what was sometimes an atmosphere of stressed output. We encouraged someone to take a three-year course in anthropology, on full pay, so that through this person’s evolution we too would learn more about how people behave in groups.

We collaborated with writers because an obsession with the visual aspects of design often ignored the power of language. Almost endless criticism was not seen as disloyalty, time wasting or sabotage, it was integral to honing a good solution. And it took time, because it often meant, ‘throw it out and start again’.


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We all know that creativity can take minutes, even seconds, and it can take weeks and months. A moment of insight turned into a creative idea can change the world. Months of mediocre process can produce the Emperor’s new clothes – and it often does. Project management and pressure to deliver in a conventional, unquestioned time frame, can often blind us to opportunities we need to see.

How can we reclaim the creative, artistic, expressive, original and intuitive initiatives that define us as designers, from the grinding, boring, greedy and uninspiring businesses that are subsuming so many of us? Just as with energy and how we use it, and architecture and how we live in it, and money and how we think of it and use it, we always have to start all over again. A maxim of mine is ‘Always be starting’.

Although awards deserve congratulations, don’t be seduced by them into thinking everything is fine and rosy. It isn’t. The world needs our insights, our imagination, our thinking and our inspiration to a higher purpose for our clients more that it ever did. Too often, we’re still more pre-occupied with useful things for ourselves – recognition, growing our companies and gaining material wealth – than useful things for the world we live in.


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Hopefully this worn out old paradigm is dying.
Long live a new and more fruitful one.


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This letter is also published in Mike Dempsey’s Graphic Journey and you can read more from Michael Wolff here.





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26 Words

Vinca – 26 WordsLast year writing organisation 26 and lettering artists’ group Letter Exchange collaborated on an exhibition. 26 Words paired writers with visual artists, setting them a brief designed to explore the visual and verbal representation of language. First, each creative pair was asked to select a word to represent a particular letter of the alphabet. They were required to do this by inserting a knife into the relevant section of a dictionary, which added a touch of fortune to proceedings (and ensured there was no debate over which word to choose).

I was paired with James Salisbury, an accomplished lettering artist who often works with limestone, slate, paper, brick, steel and glass. Given the letter ‘V’, the word selected for us by the dagger of fate was ‘Vinca’, which is a periwinkle. The road from dictionary to exhibited work took us through misunderstanding, bloody history, the birth of a new verse form, extraordinarily precise letter sculpting, experiments with glass and long hours of work in dangerous air. We describe what happened, and set out the thinking behind our piece, in a short diary, below.

From random selections to choosing to create a strict Vinca verse form, this project was brought to life through the liberation of constraints. This is something John Simmons has long appreciated and talked about (and he was one of the initiators of this project). The toughest brief is the open brief, partly because it often seems to close down your imagination. Set limits and the mind works harder in search of connections. Like a plant crawling across dark ground in search of light.

One observation I failed to make in the diary: proofreading words to be sculpted wracks your nerves. There are no tracked changes when you’re working in stone.

26 Words bookAll in all, I’m rather late in covering this project as it launched last year, but I’m delighted to say it continues to tour the UK and the Continent. The show is currently in Bruges and will visit Snape, Hereford and Cambridge before the year is out. It may go on from there. But you can see and read about the pieces online over here (make sure you read Neil Baker and Mark Noad’s simply stunning ‘Hearse’). There’s also a lovely catalogue.

In the meantime, here’s the story behind ‘Vinca’. And the poem is reproduced below too.


The selection of ‘Vinca’ didn’t overwhelm me with creative joy, but the word began to bloom as I unearthed its etymology and history. Vinca is a flower that we know better as the periwinkle. Verbally, the Latin root takes us to ‘bind, fetter’, perhaps because the plant grips the ground as it spreads. As a species it’s invasive but pretty and useful. Today alkaloids are extracted from it for use in chemotherapy, but its healing properties have been recognised for years. In Germany it was considered by some to give immortality. There again, in Italy it might decorate the bier of a dead child. In England, garlands of periwinkles were sometimes placed on the head of a despised political prisoner en route to prison or execution – an ironic crown. It continues to be used to treat haemorrhages. So, we had something to work with and I was looking forward to meeting James.


It proved difficult to get together. Finally we arranged to rendezvous in the Sherlock Holmes pub near Charing Cross. I had a rough idea of what Tim looked like, but after 45 minutes no one fitting his appearance had arrived. Appropriately enough given the pub, I had to solve the mystery and try to find him in the crowd. This proved far from elementary. Then my phone went and it was Tim. He was sure we were due to be meeting the following week. A shaky start to a creative collaboration.


At last, our paths crossed over a beer in Kennington. That meeting was all about sharing ideas, but also sharing something of ourselves and how we work. I was struck by the solidity and significance of what James produces – careful, thoughtful, hand-carved stone pieces that mark a place, an event, a life. Here we were at the opposite end of our creative process, where thoughts and words are quick and malleable and disposable. He sketched as we spoke, and something lovely started to take shape when he illustrated each of the five letters of our word as standalone elements. I pointed out that our periwinkle has five petals. And then there’s the V of Vinca, of course…


We agreed that at each stage we would share our work with the other and only move forward once we were of one mind. From my side, I didn’t want to spend days cutting letters for a work that meant nothing to me. I awaited Tim’s draft with some anxiety.


I felt the piece should be a story. I particularly wanted it to capture the potential for a medicine to free someone from the captivity of their injury or illness. Also, the brutality of the prisoners’ garland had stayed with me. When they arrived, the words came out unexpectedly bloody, with a life and death of their own. It’s written in what I now call Vinca form – a prose poem with five verses of five lines of five words. Each verse starts with its corresponding letter from ‘Vinca’.


The written piece is complex and dark. I felt I could certainly work with these words. Tim had picked up on my sketches of the versals and I started to develop them and the lines that follow. There’s no specific period in the piece, but the reference to All Hallows church – by the Tower of London – took my thoughts back to its founding years around the seventh century. I found myself drawing softly rounded uncials in a tightly packed form. I felt that copper might make a good material for the versals. And I thought it would be interesting to introduce glass into the piece but wasn’t sure how.


I had two main concerns about the lettering work. First, it should reflect the atmosphere of the piece without feeling like a pastiche of a historical period. Second, it had to be readable. The sketches-in-progress James sent were intriguing – almost like ancient musical notation. We pressed on.


Working with glass artist Lizzie Davison, I embedded the copper versal letters in two sheets of glass. For the body of the piece, I used York stone. This gives a soft and gritty look and feel, as if it’s already been worn by the passing years. The Vinca literary form is lovely but required a Herculean effort, each verse taking about eight hours. It’s ironic that, given the health properties of our subject, I had to wear a medical mask while carving. The silica in the stone is dangerous if you breathe it in.


I’m writing these final words on a Mac in a clean, quiet office while James the stone surgeon is in his dusty workshop, pushing on through the tiredness to chisel and chip our shared piece into permanent form. He told me he started from the bottom, so he began with a line about immortality and it probably now feels even longer than eternity since he began. The deadline keeps him working through the nights. At project’s end we will have a remarkable piece. We have no idea where the work will live or how people will feel about it, but I sense it may end up leading an interesting life.




Verses and prayers failed to

calm the high tide of

blood washing across his boneyard

of a chest. He panted

hard, like a trapped fox.


Insolent traitor, the guards said,

but we knew that the

life pulsing from those wounds

carried with it our hope

of liberation from kingly terror.


No bandage could seal his

gashed flesh, so we went

to the scented ground by

All Hallows to find the

Madonna-blue blossom called Salvation.


Cutting each head from the

limbs that bound flower to

earth, we made a tonic

from the petals and hurried

back to heal the prisoner.


A laughing sentry lifted our

friend’s shoulders and poured the

solution into his unblinking eyes.

Flower of death! he shouted.

Flower of immortality, we thought.


Posted in 26, Art, Design, Editing, History, London, Poetry, Storytelling, Typography, Vocabulary, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Me, you and the goats

What can copywriters learn from behavioural economics? Can social media measurement improve the way we write? Should writers turn to neuroscience to better understand what’s going in readers’ minds? What exactly is tone of voice? How do you write memorable strap lines? Could you make more money as a writer? Does storytelling really have a powerful role to play in business? Are questions an effective way to start a piece?

These issues and many more will be discussed at the Professional Copywriters’ Network annual conference in September. This is a rare chance for all sorts of commercial writers to gather, learn, debate and make connections. I’ll be there, talking about stories and listening to the other speakers. They include the wonderful raconteur, e-cigarette guerilla and Ogilvy vice-chairman Rory Sutherland; and Dr Jillian Ney, the first Doctor of Social Media in the UK and chief executive of consultancy Disruptive Insight. There’s also a great line up of experts taking training sessions.

Here are a few more words on my talk:

Almost every business now claims it has a story. And terms such as ‘brand storytelling’ and ‘corporate narrative’ have become commonplace in the communications industry.

But, in truth, relatively few people really understand what makes a story a story. And the ‘stories’ shared by most businesses and agencies just aren’t that interesting, memorable or inspiring.

Tim Rich will look at what makes a story, why stories can be so valuable, and how to overcome client anxieties about telling a great story. He will also consider how storytelling can help writers to promote their own business.

Haberdashers' Coat of ArmsIf all this sounds interesting, come and join us at the lovely Haberdashers’ Hall in the City of London on the 26th September. While we’re there we can try to find a haberdasher and get them to tell us the story behind the Company’s punchy strap line and extraordinary coat of arms, with its:

‘two naked arms embowed holding a laurel wreath all proper, on either side a goat of India argent flecked gules and membered Or’.


PS If you haven’t heard Rory Sutherland speak, enjoy his talk for TED in Athens.

Professional Copywriters' Network

Posted in Brand, Business, London, Storytelling, Tone of voice, Writing | Tagged | 3 Responses

First principle

Economist Designated Thinker‘Digital first’.

It’s such a harmless phrase, almost inoffensive in its bland yet bald stating of what is an obvious truth.

Except it’s not – not harmless, and not even necessarily a truth, obvious or otherwise.

Start with a simple experiment: you would not say ‘Electricity first’ as being the aim for your agency or brand, would you? And yet you don’t get to be digital first without the presence of a current. Does that not therefore make electricity more important?

Of course not. And yet, many of us working in marketing and communications persist in this notion that ‘digital’ is a thing that in some way should be venerated above all other things.

Edward Boches for one. He apparently thinks that agencies should:

Think digital experience first, tv and messages second.

That he can say this without possibly stopping to think that might be as important to define the messages that go into a digital experience makes me worry for the state of marketing education in the US, but that’s for another day.

Anyway, such shallowness was enough to prompt the following observations, naturally enough spewed out on Twitter:

- Honestly, some of the stuff I see extolling ‘digital first’ as a mindset make me want to rend my garments, and wail.

- Someone’s just said, ‘think digital first, TV second’. What, even if your brief is for a telly ad?

- I thought the point was for the idea to be brilliant, and then you bring it to life in the best media possible for it.

- Can you imagine Michelangelo being told, ‘yeah, all very well about that ceiling, but where’s the digital bit?’

- The main thing to remember is that it is very rare that new media ever fully kills old media. Both adapt, change in reaction to each other.

- Does no-one read McLuhan any more? This stuff is 50 years old. It’s not hard. Really, it’s not.

And yes, I am aware that I am tilting at windmills here. But this post by Dave Trott about the late David Abbott makes the point far more eloquently than I ever could. The famous poster campaign for The Economist actually started as a conversation about a TV brief. But instead of thinking medium first, the idea won out.

The point is not that we should be doing digital first, or digital only, or half analogue, half digital or whatever. It’s that we should be aware that media ‘technologies’ – and yes that means paper, as much as it means anything mostly composed of bits – should always be subservient to the ideas and the messages we want to put in them, and that we should work with their affordances to make the best things we can.

That should be the first thing to remember – always.

Rishi is a Senior Writer at RAPP and a director of 26. He has worked as a writer and brand strategist both within agencies and client-side. He blogs at Being Beta  and tweets @BetaRish.

Posted in Advertising, Brand, Design, Digital, Internet, Marketing, Media, Writing | 1 Response

Slave to the rhythm

I recently judged D&AD’s Writing for Design category. While browsing the tables of entries I bumped into Brazilian journalist Claudia Penteado, who was there to write about the work entered and the judging process. A few days later Claudia asked me for some longer comments on the topics we discussed at Olympia, from the quality of copywriting today to my own approach to writing. If your Brazilian Portuguese is up to scratch you might prefer to read Claudia’s cut of the interview – for Epoca Negocios – which is here. If not, there’s an English version below. Please drop me a line in the comments, or on Twitter, if you disagree with my views or have something to add. And apologies in advance for using the p-word. Obrigado.

What is good creative writing, in your opinion?

I think we need to separate creative writing as art from commercial writing here.

For me, the artist or creative author is free. They may choose to adhere to constraints – for creative, financial, technical or personal reasons – but that’s their choice. Good creative writing makes a deep impression on you as a reader, perhaps because the story draws you in or because the language and the ideas conveyed are beautiful or surprising or enlightening.

Good commercial writing marries creative writing techniques with a clear purpose and within limitations. It uses the power of language to convey a message or idea. The writer is in a three-way relationship with the reader and the client, but the reader must always come first.

You were recently a judge at the D&AD looking for the best work in Writing for Design category. What were you looking for?

Meeting of the Minds

Meeting of the Minds campaign by Whybin\TBWA\DAN, a nomination in the D&AD Awards Writing for Design category.

I was looking for work where the written language drew me in, made me think, perhaps surprised me, and certainly left me with a memorable message or idea or experience. I was looking for a smile in the mind, but I was also happy to be unsettled or challenged.

I also wanted to see a strong relationship between words and design. And the writing had to be so well crafted that it felt natural, in the same way that a great photographer disappears, allowing you to move into the world of the subject. I’m always looking for writing that does something new, but most of all I want it to take me somewhere interesting.

Was good writing in design hard to spot?

Yes, partly because there are relatively few entries in that category compared to, say, the graphic design category. There’s some terrific work being done out there but the general standard of writing in design is simply not good enough. There are many reasons for this – from the limitations imposed by inexperienced or ignorant clients to the quality of writers. We writers need to work much harder to inspire companies to commission and support great work, and to develop our own abilities and confidence. We must fight to create better work on behalf of our readers. That’s one reason why I and others set up 26, a collaboration that brings writers and editors together so we can learn from each other and raise standards.

Why is it so hard to find good writing in advertising these days? Or in journalism?

There’s great writing out there but it’s surrounded by a huge swamp of mediocre copy. As content multiplies so good writing becomes more and more of a potential differentiator. This is something that most clients and agencies pay lip service to while in reality creating standard work. You can talk endlessly about brand storytelling and content marketing and tone of voice but unless you have people who can really write you’re just generating more noise.

How creative were you as a kid?

My obsessions as a young kid were football and reading. Then I got into music and writing lyrics. I was a drummer and I think that has helped my writing enormously. Rhythm is the hidden magic within great writing.

Can good writing be taught?

No one is born with a gene that means they’ll be able to write well. Good writing starts with good reading, which should start in school and hopefully at home. But even if you have an awful education you can still learn to write well later in life.

I help people to write at work through training – horrible word ‘training’ but there you go – and I run workshops for designers helping them to develop their confidence and skills with words. The change in their ability with language can be remarkable. But the person must be hungry to keep learning and developing their skills once the teaching stops.

You also have to remember that good writing starts with good thinking. As David Ogilvy wrote: “Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.” You must develop your intellect if you want to write well.

Can creativity be taught?

I think you can inspire people to have the confidence to think creatively and you can teach techniques for helping the development of ideas and expression. But the student must go on to think for themselves and express themselves. There’s a restlessness about creative people – unless someone has that constant desire to do things in a new way all that teaching will be pointless.

What does it take to be a good writer?

It starts with having an interesting, curious mind and ends with knowing which words to leave out, and there are a few things in between too.

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 12.01.31

How did you become a writer?

My mother worked in a newsagent’s shop so I was surrounded by newspapers and magazines as a child. From comics to Vogue to football magazines to broadsheets and tabloids, I read constantly and soaked up written language. But I also became interested in how the words related to the visuals, the type and the layout, even the inky paper itself. I went on to study English Literature and Film at university, then managed to get a job as a writer on a group of magazines for the creative industry. I ended up editing Graphics International magazine (now Grafik) and writing for titles such as Print in New York and Design Week in London.

Now I work as a writer and communications consultant for businesses and organisations, specialising in helping companies when they’re in crisis or going through a major change or need help to define their purpose. I write for myself in the spaces between work projects.

Can you describe your creative process?

With my commercial writing it’s all about knowing who the readers are, what they care about, what we need to say to them and what we want them to think, feel or do having read our words. Then I investigate what the company’s story is, test and develop their arguments, and search for facts and examples. I don’t start writing until I’ve thought through the argument or developed my story structure.

Story structure is vital to almost everything I do. I define story in terms of challenge, action, transformation. There must be a danger, problem or mystery to be solved or overcome – that’s the challenge. An individual or group of people must do specific things in response to the challenge – the action. The world must be a substantially changed place as a result of their actions – the transformation. This structure gives your narrative energy and momentum.

Businesses tend to shy away from talking about the difficult issues they face, but by bringing out the challenge you can make their story or campaign or speech powerful and persuasive. The more you humanise the story the closer you get to evoking emotion in your reader. I use story as the basis for helping companies to transform their entire way of communicating. But they must be prepared to talk about what they’re against – the challenge – as well as what they’re for.

Do you believe in creative blanks?

Yes. They happen to me when I don’t have the right raw material – an understanding of my reader, the client’s story and the argument. Until the foundations are in place I can’t build something.

Does the creative process cause you anxiety, pain, little sleep? Or is it easy, natural, light?

When I’m struggling with a brief it feels like I’m lost in a maze by the sea, with the tide coming in. It’s become less worrisome as I’ve gained experience. But it’s rarely simple. As American journalist Gene Fowler said; “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

What inspires you?

The older I get the further afield I look for inspiration. Next week I’m going to hear a diplomat talk about how to negotiate. The week after I’m spending the day with a police hostage negotiator so I can learn how he uses language to persuade people to act in a certain way, in life and death situations. I’m also inspired by scientists who refuse to accept conventional principles and engineers who redefine what’s possible physically. When you see what great architects and engineers create, there’s no excuse for dull, badly structured, badly presented prose.

I’m also inspired by people who argue a line that’s unpopular. There’s a journalist in the UK called Brendan O’Neill who interrogates orthodox thinking brilliantly. I believe passionately in free speech, not least that people should be free to say things that others find deeply offensive. I’m surprised so few people working in advertising, design and communications care about this issue of freedom and self-expression.

The creative industry likes to think it’s full of brave thinkers and imaginative souls but in my experience agency people are usually politically correct and socially conservative. They’re happy to support obviously liberal causes but rarely want to engage in debate about complex or controversial matters. They think climate change is awful but very few think about how restrictions on energy supply might keep billions of people in the developing world in poverty, for example.

What turns you off?

Corporate jargon. And companies who have nothing interesting to say about themselves. I ask new clients ‘if this company disappeared right now would the world be a worse place?’ If you don’t believe in what you’re doing why should anyone else?

Do you prefer to create alone or are brainstorming processes interesting or even necessary?

I like to collaborate first, then take away the material and work on a first draft on my own. Then I’ll share that draft, discuss with everyone again, then go away and rewrite. I’ll keep doing that until we get to where we need to be. Sometimes I’ll bring in a second writer for part of the process.

Collaboration is vital; so is concentrated solo thinking. But it’s important that the draft becomes everyone’s property, not just yours. The final piece should be the result of all the minds that were involved.

As the writer you need to fight like mad to protect the story and the words while recognising that ultimately they are the client’s story and words, not yours. You must be protective but not precious. I always share my rationale for why I’ve written the draft a particular way – that’s something I learned working on high-profile crisis projects for BP. I never say ‘it just sounds right’, always ‘I believe this is right because X’.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I write for myself – poetry, stories, essays – though time is tight. My wife is a creative director and film maker, so we talk a lot about the world, particularly art, music, politics and food. We travel as much as we can, particularly to Italy, the Middle East and North Africa at the moment. And we watch football. I support Chelsea and she’s Arsenal, so sometimes it gets heated in our house.

What would you do if you were not a writer?

I would love to be a politician, artist, photographer or vet!

Josef Muller-Brockmann – great visual editor

Josef Muller-Brockmann – great visual editor

Who are some of the most creative people who inspired you along the way?

My writing has been helped by many of the designers I’ve worked with and met, particularly those who have the conceptual talent to transform complexity into simplicity without losing subtlety. They include Josef Muller-Brockmann, Alan Fletcher, Mike Dempsey and David Stocks.

I’ve also collaborated with some great commercial writers such as Jim Davies and Nick Asbury, and a commercial writer with an unusual mind called Tom Lynham. He’s been a product designer, photographer, cartoonist, tree surgeon and furniture exporter and he brings an incredibly imaginative approach to language, as if words are tactile materials. I’ve also been fortunate to collaborate with the author John Simmons, who has probably done more to inspire clients to think creatively about words than anyone else I know.

What do you recommend to young people who want to become good writers?

Read everything, from great novels to the copy on the back of shampoo packs. Read books on writing by George Orwell (Politics and the English Language), Harold Evans (Essential English), William Safire (On Language), David Ogilvy (On Advertising), Stephen King (On Writing), Peggy Noonan (On Speaking Well) and John Simmons (We, Me, Them and It). But start with Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick. Read great poetry, both old and new. And listen closely to the lyrics of the songs you love. Then find other writers and talk about writing.

Don’t confuse creative writing and commercial writing – they are related but have different ends. Don’t be afraid to develop your own way of writing or your own voice – the world needs new writing not a poor imitation of what’s already been written. Don’t worry if some people hate what you do – that’s better than being considered just ‘OK’. Always read your words out loud – you’ll immediately know what works and what doesn’t. And finally, don’t mistake talking or thinking about writing with getting on and doing it. Writing is first a verb, then a noun. In other words, get to work on that draft!

Inspector MontalbanoWhich books/films have you read lately? Why did you love them?

I’m on holiday in Sicily right now, so I’m reading some of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano detective thriller series. The plots keep you hooked but it’s Montalbano’s character that gives the books such depth and charm. He’s a man of principle grown weary of a world led by compromise and corruption. There’s murder and fear but also wonderful moments of humour and friendship and loyalty – and Sicilian food.

On film, I prefer documentaries, or films set close to everyday life. I just saw Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah for the second time, which is based on journalist Roberto Saviano’s non-fiction book of the same name. It looks at life in modern Naples, particularly the toxic effect of the Camorra on the poorest in the city. Dark and fascinating.


Rhythm and writing

Keith Moon – an inspiration for writers



Posted in 26, Advertising, Authors, Books, Brand, Business, Corporate communications, Design, Editing, Education, Free speech, Magazines, Media, Reading, Storytelling, Tone of voice, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Response