Ten things I learned at The Story 2014

You never know quite what will happen at The Story, except that it will illuminate distant areas of your brain with unpredictable copper sparks for some time to come. Here are a few of the things I learned from this year’s gathering of storytellers of all stripes – from film makers, writers and artists to illustrators and singers.

1. You have nothing to fear from a jelly hand grenade

Kyle Bean's 'Soft Guerrilla' materials for Cut magazine

Kyle Bean’s ‘Soft Guerrilla’ materials for Cut magazine

Artist / designer / illustrator Kyle Bean goes to painstaking lengths to create extraordinary images. When Cut magazine asked for pictures to illustrate a feature on guerrilla gardening, he came up with the feather knife and jelly grenade shown here, as well as toast knuckledusters and sticks of mini-milk dynamite.

2. The truth is over-rated

In the pursuit of a good story, you sometimes need to bend the truth, twist it or step neatly over it. “We have a really dodgy relationship with reality and are not really interested in it at all,” said Jane Pollard, talking about the documentary she and Iain Forsyth made about Nick Cave.

Kenyatta Cheese agrees. As he says: “It’s not the facts that are important. It’s the emotional truth.”

3. A story needs a ‘yay’ bit at the end

Not all stories end well, but Stella Duffy prefers it if they do. “I believe in a story having this ‘yay’ bit at the end,” she said. This was after she’d told us: “Two weeks ago I had eight hours of cancer surgery. I’m still a bit bloody and very bruised, but isn’t this a lovely frock?” She’s devoting her considerable wit and spirit to inspiring a series of Fun Palaces across the UK in October 2014.

4. Celery and pasta make good gore

Barnaby Smyth is a foley artist: one of those fascinating behind-the-scenes people who creates rustling leaves, rattling chains and footsteps for film and television. He asked us all to close our eyes as he recreated a ghostly story for us in sound. “For decapitation scenes,  I twist a head of celery mixed with boiled penne pasta,” he said. “But you can use tagliatelle too.”

5. Children have great instincts

In a Ministry of Stories project, 13 year old Teodor says you can mould an idea any way you want

In a Ministry of Stories project, 13 year old Teodor says you can mould an idea any way you want

Performance artist Bryony Kimmings worked with her nine year old niece, Taylor, to come up with Catherine Bennett, a paleontologist popstar who is the epitome of the anti-twerk, the un-Thicke of it. Schoolchildren suggested lyrics for CB’s song, The Future, including the brilliant line: “We need at least four more ways to eat potatoes.”

6. We find joy in unusual places

  • Bill Wasik gets his kicks from going viral, and was responsible for gathering a 200-strong flash mob in Macy’s carpet department who claimed to be commune members looking for a ‘love rug’.
  • Tony Ageh loves lists. “A proper list is democratic, neutral, useful and empowering,” he told us.
  • Philip Larkin is partial to procrastination and Vines. Here’s the impromptu Vine made during his talk, part of his ‘What happens if I press this button?’ series.
Lisa Salem with her mobile recording buggy

Lisa Salem with her mobile recording buggy

7. All stories are the same

Feeling lost and alone in Los Angeles, Lisa Salem took an unusual approach in the city-where-no-one-walks. She attached a video camera to a baby buggy and invited people to come and walk with her while she videoed the conversation. “The talks quickly became intimate and personal, and I discovered that everyone tells the same story,” she said. “Everyone wants to be heard, to be seen, to be understood.”

8. Writing a novel is like riding a horse

Novelist Meg Rosoff solved a mystery while she was practising dressage. Why, she wondered, were so many of the novels she was asked to review so mediocre? Her theory – convincingly put – is that you need a good flow and mastery of the unconscious to write a novel. Just as a good dressage rider channels the power of the horse, a writer needs to use the deep, unconscious areas of the brain to create writing that resonates. “Write fiercely with resonance from a really deep place,” she advises.

9. It’s not easy to destroy a computer

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, gave his insights into the Edward Snowden leaks of NSA material. In July 2013, GCHQ supervised the destruction of Guardian computers containing some of the leaked information. “It’s more difficult than you’d think to destroy a computer,” said Alan. “It’s not enough to wipe it clean, hit it with hammers or put superglue in the USB drives. We had to dismantle them, then use angle grinders and drills on the internal components.”

10. It’s never too late to travel with an ancestor

Gruff Rhys gets mystical following in his ancestor's footsteps

Gruff Rhys gets mystical following in his ancestor’s footsteps

Gruff Rhys, the Welsh singer and all-round good egg, told a fascinating story of his 2012 American Interior tour which retraced the steps of a long-dead ancestor, John Evans. Evans was quite a man: he left Wales in 1792, hung out with tribespeople, became Spanish and then French, and ended his days in New Orleans. Gruff was accompanied on the tour by a felt model of Evans, complete with period costume and a pioneering stare. Gruff completed his story by playing us a song about Evans, with around 29 key changes reflecting the many twists and turns of his ancestor’s adventures.

Thanks to the intrepid organisers of The Story for assembling such a brilliant mix of people and ideas. When can I book next year’s ticket?

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Auxiliary verbs perish in boating accident

Duck Boat catches fire on the Thames

It’s yellow, it’s on fire, it’s a Duck boat. Photo: Tony Margiocchi/Barcroft Media

Do you know those Duck Boats that roam up and down the Thames? Bright yellow amphibious boats. Great fun for kids and tourists. Well, one caught fire the other day. Luckily no people were injured. But a load of innocent auxiliary verbs perished in this ITN report shortly afterwards. Have a listen to the story.

Keep these small verbs alive

Auxiliary verbs – typically be, do and have – are only small, but they perform an important function. They give meaning to a sentence. Without them, phrases seem breathless, truncated. Here are extracts from the report, with the missing verbs in brackets.

“The emergency services (were) called after a Duck suddenly caught fire.”

“Passengers (were) being forced to jump into the water to escape the fire.”

“The World War II vehicle (was) eventually towed away by the fire brigade.”

“Luckily this woman (was) not involved in the emergency.”

Are we really so short of time that small verbs have to die to satisfy our tiny attention span? I hope not. Sink or swim, this is a plea to keep those little verbs alive.

Designer soapbox: Tim Foster

Tim-Foster-graphic-designer

“Designers need to get out of the studio” – Tim Foster, graphic designer and art director

Born in Yorkshire and raised in Kent, Tim Foster trained at Ravensbourne and since then has worked for everyone from the Observer magazine to Dorling Kindersley and Mitchell Beazley (twice). Here he talks about combining his roles as an editorial designer and art director, why he loves working with text, and what inspires him.

What’s your favourite tip for getting inspiration?

Designers who work on their own need to get out of the studio. Stepping away from the computer is a good thing. You can search and find anything you like online, but I don’t think it’s inspiring to huddle over your computer wearing ear phones.

I live in East London, so if I need inspiration, I usually go to a gallery – Tate Modern, the Whitechapel or the National Gallery.

I keep my eyes open and normally get inspired by something I see on the journey. It could be a poster on the tube, the cover of a book someone’s reading or a shop window. It’s about picking up one thing that triggers off a thought so you have a new idea. The process – going out, putting myself in front of material and coming back – shifts my thinking.

I also love visiting the London Review Bookshop and Waterstones in Piccadilly, where I head for fiction to look at covers and also cookery books. The majority of best selling, illustrated non-fiction books are cookery and that means there is a decent budget for designers to be creative with layout, photography and print finishing. 

Tim finds cookery books inspiring

Tim finds cookery books inspiring

What first made you want to become a designer?

I liked drawing and art and at 16 decided to go to art school. I never really thought of any alternative. In the ‘60s and ‘70s art schools were places where musicians and designers could be creative and experimental and I was attracted to the idea of a non-conformist environment. I went to Ravensbourne, which was very typographically orientated, so the course pushed me towards a greater understanding of graphic design. 

Cover designs by Tim Foster

Cover designs by Tim Foster

How did your career start?

My first job was working for a direct mail advertising agency, where I learned about coping under serious pressure. Next I went to work for Frances Lincoln, a publisher of illustrated reference books. The market in the 70s had really opened up for lavish educational books with a high illustrative content. After that, I worked for National Magazines on the Observer colour magazine and subsequently as an art director for a variety of publishers.

Which do you prefer – designing or art directing?

I like doing both, and wouldn’t want to do either exclusively. Having spent many years as an art director  managing a large number of projects it’s great to get back to designing pages because I still enjoy the craft of it. I like working out the puzzle of how to get the different page elements to fall together naturally. But I also enjoy art directing, which is about guiding illustrators and photographers to produce work that is aesthetically right and fits the editorial content.

Tim-Foster-books

Tim has worked on books on everything from antiques to stone circles

What are the different challenges when you’re working on books compared to brochures or reports?

Well, a book can be 440 pages long and involve 1,000 images, so planning and control are vital. The decisions you make in the first few weeks are really important because a book that’s off schedule can’t be fixed by a couple of people working all night. It’s like turning a tanker around. 

Also, working with a publisher has more of an in-house quality. There’s usually an in-house team and you’re working closely with an author. Whereas with a company report, the external client might be less familiar with the design process.

What work do you most enjoy?

I’ve always naturally gravitated towards design that’s generated from text. When I was at Frances Lincoln I worked on a book called Rings of Stone about stone circles, and discovered that I really enjoyed getting the pictures to work with the text. I also enjoy designing covers and the challenge of reconciling the needs of marketing with an attractive visual solution. But I’ve never done decoration for its own sake. I start with the text and enjoy getting familiar with it and working with the author to define the best artwork or photography to define that content.

What do you enjoy about working with writers?

"If an author has command of their subject, it's a joy"

“If an author has command of their subject, it’s a joy”

 

If an author has command of their subject, it’s a joy to work with them. I did a big book on the guitar with Richard Chapman for Dorling Kindersley. It was great because we were able to work together incredibly closely for nearly two years to flesh out the subject in detail. He had a massive knowledge of the subject and I was able to channel that into a manageable form for a book. It helped that I play the guitar too. It was very exciting to be part of that kind of collaborative process – a virtuous circle of skills. It’s very different from just being given a Word document of text when you’ve never met the writer. 

What drives you mad about writers?

I was once in a meeting with a very senior publishing executive when he said that authors are the most unreliable suppliers on the planet. That seems a bit harsh but the late arrival of text ripples through the whole process and limits the time available for designing, so it’s a challenge to maintain quality. I’ve worked with authors who are years late. That’s the stuff that drives designers mad.

Leon Kossoff's 'View of Hackney'

Leon Kossoff’s ‘View of Hackney’

Three minute insight

  • Who’s your design hero/heroine? I don’t really have one. I’ve always seen design as commercial art. The creative people I admire are usually musicians and painters. Hockney for endeavour, Velasquez for skill, Keith Jarrett for exploration and Keith Richards for surviving…
  •  What’s the last exhibition you saw? Leon Kossoff at the Annely Juda gallery. He does these wonderful drawings of London: big, bold and scribbly. There are lots of the East End, Ridley Road market and Battersea Power Station. I just love them – they have a real energy.
  •  What’s your favourite gadget? It’s a little tuner that you clip onto the headstock of your guitar. When you hit the string, it senses whether the note is sharp or flat. 

    This guitar tuner is Tim's favourite gadget

    This guitar tuner is Tim’s favourite gadget

Once upon a housing estate

Since Procter & Gamble hired Jim Bangel 40 years ago and made him their official ‘Storyteller’, the profession of ‘corporate storyteller’ has become increasingly mainstream. Storytellers now pop up all over the place, not just in their natural habitat – marketing and advertising – but in oil and gas companies, the automotive sector and software firms.

Still, it was a surprise to discover a corporate storyteller who works for housing associations. Appropriately enough, I met Rob Doyle at Story, a once-a-year one day jamboree devoted to storytelling in every form: film, song, animation and art, as well as fiction.

Rob Doyle would like to tell you a story

Rob Doyle would like to tell you a story

Here Rob talks about how he came to be a storyteller, and shares his wisdom about how to use storytelling to make a difference.

Why do people love stories?

It goes back to humanity’s origins. People used to pass on information sitting around a fire telling stories either about where they wanted to go or what they’d done, using their imagination. People tend to forget facts and figures but they remember stories and empathise with the people in them. We’re just addicted to stories and always will be. There’s something magical about stories and storytelling is about bringing some of that magic into the grey world of business and government.

How did you become a storyteller? 

I worked as a journalist for many years and was looking for a change. I saw an advert for a not-for-profit housing organisation looking for a storyteller. We met and liked each other, so I started working there and developing the role. This was a new idea at the time. They wanted to be innovative and use their communications strategy to stand out from similar organisations. They had big ideas and thought that storytelling was the best way to get those ideas out there.

What did this job involve?

Usually, housing organisations let the world know about their work by sending out press releases with lots of facts and figures and quotes from the Chief Executive. Instead, my job was to tell the story of the company through the voices of its customers. So if they’d spent money doing up a community centre, I’d find someone who’d used the centre and interview them to find out how the new facility had changed their life.

Listening is crucial for storytellers

Listening is crucial for storytellers

It wasn’t superficial at all. I’d talk to them and ask about their life story to build up a picture of who they were, where they were from, the challenges they’d faced and their life and loves. Then I’d tell their story and mention – almost in passing – how the organisation had helped them.

How did the organisation use the stories?

Sometimes we’d get a newspaper or magazine feature out of it or something in the local tv news. But I developed a storytelling portal – a website that was filled with written stories, audio files and video footage. The stories could be long or short. The idea was to keep up a constant narrative, going from one story to the next, with the underlying message being that the organisation cared about its customers and lived up to its values and mission.

What did the interviewees think of it all?

Customers absolutely loved it. That’s why this is such a good strategy. They’d probably never had an opportunity before to tell their life story to people. When someone sat down with them and showed an interest, took down everything they said, they revealed things that they normally kept to themselves. Of course, some didn’t want to tell their story. But nine times out of ten, it made people feel good about themselves. Usually, once they started talking, they couldn’t stop. That’s where the power of the story comes from.

What kind of problems did you have to overcome?

There was a bit of resistance to the idea at the beginning. The people at the top of the organisation got it, but the people in the middle were less keen. I had to demonstrate the value of storytelling a lot of the time.

A good story needs both light and dark moments

A good story needs both light and dark moments

Also, I had to show that a story has to contain both the light and the dark side. It can’t just focus on the positive. One time, I was talking to a man who lived in an area that had become really run down before the housing organisation helped to turn it around. He told me that his next door neighbour had killed himself with a shotgun. Some people within the organisation thought it was too controversial to include that detail.

But I convinced them we needed to tell this as part of a story about the triumph of the human spirit.

What are the crucial elements of corporate storytelling?

You have to take all the techniques that you’d use in fiction – conflict and suspense etc. – and use them to take people with you on a journey. I’ve got an MA in Creative Writing so that, together with my journalistic background, really helped me.

Psychologists at Washington University in St Louis tested people as they were reading stories and discovered that they had a definite effect on the brain which seems to encourage us to relive similar experiences and in that way understand real-life experiences better. So by using fiction techniques, you can help bring that same dynamic into play and encourage people to relate stories to their own lives.

How can stories convey a corporate message?

You have to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve. In my new role, I’m working for a housing association that’s challenged by welfare reform and the bedroom tax. Our aim is to encourage people to seek help if they can’t pay their bills. We’ve created a range of stories about what people fear and how they’ve coped with the changes so far. This brings the issues to life because other people can see those stories and empathise with the person telling the story. They think, ‘I’m like that.’ It delivers a positive message, but not in a bland, corporate way.

Get your message across through storytelling

Get your message across through storytelling

Is it worth a try?

Storytelling is a very powerful way for businesses to get their messages out there. Businesses need to get into a more show business frame of mind, thinking about how their communications can entertain and delight people. And once you get going, the results are incredible. It helps get your messages out there and helps you become more connected to customers. If you’re thinking of trying storytelling, take the plunge, because it really does work.

Rob’s storytelling tips

  •  Be authentic. Tell the truth.
  • Write about the dark side too – don’t whitewash your story.
  • Sit down face-to-face for the best results.
  • Be a really good listener.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the right questions.
  • Go beyond the facts and figures to get people talking about themselves.

Language: with extra chilli sauce

‘Arrange the langoustines on top in a wigwam fashion’. This instruction caught my attention when I was cooking dinner the other night.  I’ve never made a wigwam of langoustines before, but this was an admirably clear piece of stage direction. Of course, if the shellfish had been alive it might have been tricky. But as it was, the cooked langoustines perched together perfectly, holding claws on top of the risotto.

roger_portrait

Roger Horberry: language wrangler

When I went to hear Roger Horberry give his ‘Pimp my Words’ talk at the Language Consultancy Association the following day, the langoustine wigwam matephor/simile* sprang to mind.

Soundbites from a Grand Sherpa

Roger says he’s an enthusiast rather than an expert on figures of speech, but frankly, that’s not true. As well as being a highly respected copywriter and prolific author, Roger is the Grand Sherpa of the Metaphor Mountain. The Purple Prince of Paradox. And quite possibly the High Priest of Hyperbole.

Here are a few soundbites from his talk:

  • Irony just is, whereas sarcasm usually has a purpose.”
  • Chiasmus adds instant profundity.” (Chiasmus uses mirroring e.g. ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’.)
  • Paradox creates a mental double take. It makes you slam on the brakes.”

“Figures of speech are not widely appreciated or understood,” says Roger. “But they add spice and seasoning to our everyday words. They’re the chilli sauce of language.”

A thrilling journey from anadiplosis to zeugma

Roger took us on a whistle stop tour through figures of speech, from anadiplosis to zeugma (but not in that order). His talk was all about using language to create little jolts of verbal electricity to capture people’s attention.

Uncle Fester

Living in shame and the suburbs

We kicked off with zeugma, where a verb or adjective applies to two or more nouns. As when Uncle Fester from the Addams Family said: “I live in shame and the suburbs.”

Next up, anadiplosis – repeating the last word of a preceding clause to create a list. So we have Yoda saying: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

The third example was tmesis, where you split a word or phrase apart and add an extra word for comic effect. For example, “abso-bloody-lutely”.

Entry level word play

According to Roger, some figures of speech are relatively easy for anyone to pick up. His entry level figures include metaphor, simile and alliteration.

Coke_open_happiness

Open happiness. Not literally, obviously.

“Metaphors and similes are word pictures that are tailor-made to create striking images in a reader’s mind and pack plenty of meaning into a minuscule space, making them useful if your word count is restricted,” says Roger.

A metaphor makes an implicit comparison between two unconnected items. Recently, journalist Caitlin Moran described Twitter as the Electric River, which created a wonderful image of people throwing tweets into the water and watching as other people’s thoughts flowed past.

In contrast, a simile makes an explicit comparison between two unconnected items, and is usually signalled with the words ‘as’ or ‘like’. The best simile I’ve come across recently is “as happy as a rat with a gold tooth”.

Flying Fish

Alliteration: don’t come a cropper with a carp

Alliteration is the repetition of the initial consonant, as in ‘Guinness is good for you’, ‘Beanz meanz Heinz’ or, my favourite, ‘Fend off Flying Fish’ – an Illinois campaign about protecting yourself from jumping Asian carp.

Taking an idea for a walk

Roger showed us a wonderfully written example of prosopopoeia, more commonly known as personification, which involves attributing actions and character to inanimate objects.

Three sisters

Personification: the Ellipsis Sisters aka Dot, Dot and Dot

In a series of ads for Penguin Books, punctuation marks come to life and become characters in short stories. The Three Ellipsis Sisters do everything together, but have a bad habit of leaving conversations hanging…

This reminded me of a brilliant story by my friend Sean Murphy. In The Tale of THE, a definite article decides to leave the safety of his own paragraph. His grandmother tells him he just needs to find a nice noun and settle down, but he ignores her and sets off to seek adventure outside the margins.

The power of two; the magic of three

Roger talked about so many figures of speech, it would be foolhardy to try to name them all. But let’s finish with parallelism, one of my personal favourites.

“Parallelism is the copywriter’s friend,” says Roger.  “It involves presenting two or more parts of a sentence in a similar way to give the whole a well-defined, regular form.”

The bicolon is also known as ‘the rule of two’. Copywriters have used this form to create lines such as ‘Everything you want, nothing you don’t’ for Nissan and ‘Takes a licking and keeps on ticking’ for Timex.

The tricolon, or ‘rule of three’, is a powerful tool for any copywriter. Words, phrases and sentences in sets of three are memorable because they have a satisfying rhythm and sense of completeness. They can also have a natural linguistic timeline, encompassing a beginning, a middle and an end. Think of Caesar’s famous phrase – ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’.

“With a little imagination you can use parallelism to present a complex group of ideas in a way that doesn’t read like a list,” says Roger.

If you’d like to know more, check out Roger’s recent two-minute summary of figures of speech. Meanwhile, I’ll get on with the successor to my langoustine wigwam: a potted shrimp simile.

*A ‘langoustine wigwam’ is a metaphor, because you’re saying that the wigwam is literally made of langoustines. In the recipe, though, it’s a simile, because it asks you to arrange the langoustines in a ‘wigwam fashion’ – ‘like a wigwam’.

Designer Soapbox: Dave Petherbridge

Dave Petherbridge is one half of the Two Teas design partnership based in West Yorkshire. As ‘Purveyors Of The Finest Pamphlets, Motifs, Slogans & That’, the agency works with clients including the RSPB, Kelly Hoppen, Motorola and WharfeBank Brewery.

They may work with a brewery, but these are people with a serious love of tea. Catch up with them on Twitter @Two_Teas, as they send their tweets from inside a giant teapot on top of a hill in Yorkshire, looking out at the world using a periscope through the spout. Just don’t mention coffee.

Here, Dave talks about what he loves about his job, what drives him crazy about writers and how to find inspiration in a packet of frozen peas.

All this - and a proper brew too

All this – and a proper brew

What’s your day job?

Being half of a small agency with some big clients, I share responsibility for everything from bringing in the work to taking out the trash.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Spare time is a rare and cherished thing for anyone with their own small business. Fun and fresh air are usually a top priority.

What do people get wrong about you?

Forgetting the sugar in my tea.

Why did you want to be a designer?

Every time we returned from the shops, my mum discovered me clutching anything from brochures and pamphlets to simple handouts, promoting everything from films to frozen peas – if I liked it, I picked it up.

Almost 30 years on and the attraction has become a career driving passion. I’m still collecting imagery, ideas and ways of working. Thankfully the collecting has become digital these days.

The supermarket as source of inspiration (see Sainsbury's Own Label book)

The supermarket as source of inspiration (see Sainsbury’s Own Label book by Jonny Trunk for striking 70s packaging)

What was your first job?

I started my career at a small agency in East Yorkshire with a despotic but brilliant Creative Director. It was both a baptism by fire and a wonderful way to learn my craft, at speed – especially after the indulgent deadlines of university.

How did your career develop from there?

I moved to West Yorkshire and spent the ensuing years working for a handful of very different agencies. Art Direction became a passion, allowing me to work with photographers and also directly with writers as more of an old school ‘creative team’. Working with passionate, creative, positive people is a wonderful privilege.

Traditionally a print designer, I have had to evolve over the last couple of years as our work is now 98% online.

What do you love about your job?

Every day is different. Things change so fast that even after all these years it still excites and challenges me. I’m fortunate to have seen such seismic changes in the industry. I started in 1996 on a drawing board (you may want to Google that, kids) and now find myself working in ways that seem to completely change with the seasons. I always said it was the best job in the world, and it is.

Ad for the A.B. Art magazine. "The text on the strap is a day in the life of the owner," says Dave. "The writer typed the text into a mask I'd created,with me kerning the type to fit exactly. I just about drove him nuts."

Magazine ad for a.b.art Swiss watches. “The text on the strap is a day in the life of the owner,” says Dave. “The writer typed the text into a mask I’d created,with me kerning the type to fit exactly. I just about drove him nuts.”

How’s business?

Despite all the portents of economic doom, our clients have managed to continue to grow and be successful due to their positivity and ability to work smarter, as well as harder. Being a small, agile agency with a non-traditional model, we are able to service international brands and one-man bands without difficulty.

What do you enjoy about working with words and writers?

Words originally meant typography to me. During my time at university I was actually taught how to hand render type. Can you believe that? And I have been much the richer for it. Understanding type is key to working with it. Too often, designers confuse typesetting with merely typing in words. Letters are a thing of beauty to be individually appreciated. They can be kerned and aligned in order to create something beautiful. With more typeface and combinations available to convey and reinforce any point or emotion, words will always be an intrinsic part of how I design.

As my career developed I was fortunate to work with many, very different writers – each as individual in approach as the typefaces available to set their work. I have always envied good writers in the same way I do actors, for their ability to portray any character, delivered in any tone of voice – and especially their ability to switch between styles.

A Boys' Own style brochure for a brand strategy agency

A Boys’ Own style brochure for a brand strategy agency

What drives you crazy about writers?

Apart from envying their understanding of the richness of the English language, it does sometimes seem that writers feel the need to give us quantity instead of quality for fear of not earning the money.

How do you see the interplay between words and design changing in your work?

The way we use words as a company has changed drastically over the last couple of years, essentially due to the shift towards digital work. SEO changed words into a very functional element, removing the need for any real depth or audience engagement. Now that has all changed once more thanks to Google’s new machine-learning algorithm developed by Navneet Panda. Google Panda has seen the rise of ‘content’ as a driving force in search engine rankings. It has brought depth, interest and engagement back to the fore. Essentially it rewards site content that’s written by humans for humans – and punishes those who fail to engage. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for writers.

What’s your favourite gadget?

For my 12th birthday I received my very first Sony Walkman – half the size of a breeze block and about as sophisticated. Through countless evolutions, reinventions and more ‘AA’ batteries than I care to remember, the mix tapes have been replaced by playlists. My iPods may be infinitely more advanced, but the experience is still as enjoyable. That said, I do have real trouble rewinding MP3s with a pencil. It’s not all progress.

What’s your favourite place for creative inspiration?

I’m usually at my most inspired when I remove myself from any deliberate creative process. I also crack problems by going for a walk, and am regularly thankful for having a camera on my phone.

Who’s your design hero?

Harry Beck created a true classic with his 1931 London Underground Map.

Designer Soapbox: Gill Thomas

Gill Thomas has played many roles since she left Liverpool Poly with a fresh BA Hons in Graphic Design. She’s been a designer, team leader, creative partner and board director. She’s worked for some of the most influential design agencies around, including Pentagram, Newell & Sorrell and The Partners, and her clients have ranged from the BBC and Virgin Atlantic to the Design Council. She’s also witnessed huge changes in the design industry.

Here she talks about her work in the new Throwaway Lines exhibition, her latest role as an independent creative consultant, and her thoughts on writers and the design business today.

Gill Thomas at a D&AD event

You’re currently taking part in the Throwaway Lines exhibition at the Free Word centre. What was it like creating a frame for the short story?

Andy Hayes gave me the scrap of paper that inspired the short story ‘Ella does some remembering’ by Nick Parker. The writing said ‘TWIST STEPPER WITH BUNGEE-CORDS’, and the story was about a woman who tries to recreate happy childhood memories. At the beginning she’s on an exercise machine, imitating the feeling of running on the top of Box Hill with a kite; at another point, she’s microwaving geraniums to remember the smell of summer at her grandparents’ house.

I liked the fact that the story was about a woman going back to her childhood, so I created a childlike Teletubby-esque frame that was covered with very green fake grass and daisies, with a kite that flew away from the frame. I researched sticking Astroturf onto wood and ordered lots of artificial daisies. I had to order the daisies twice. A hundred daisies are still on their way to me from China! Then I took all the elements into the kitchen and stuck them together with a glue gun. I felt it looked quite naive, which was the point.

What is wonderful in the exhibition is the contrast of so many different ideas. People put a lot of thought and effort into them. A lot of the stories were quite dark and challenging. I was pleased I got such an optimistic, fun, energetic story.

One hundred artificial daisies:
in transit from China

Going back to the start of your career, what first inspired you to become a designer?

I was always good at art at school and thought it would be a good thing to do as a job. But it turned out that there’s a bit more to it than that!

How did you find your first job?

I found my first proper job by chance. I was helping out a friend in a small design studio in Notting Hill. While I was there someone mentioned that there was a company around the corner who were looking for junior designers and maybe I should go and see them in my lunch hour. I’d not actually heard of them but thought it would be worth a look. That company turned out to be Pentagram – and after three interviews I was in.

“There’s this place around the corner…”

What work do you do?

I do three types of work.

  1. I work with boards and brands on positioning. Because of my experience in both the visual and strategic sides, I’m a good bridge between an organisation that’s commissioning the positioning work and the agency that’s going to bring it to life visually and develop the final communications.
  2. I also help smaller agencies decide where they’re going or help them refocus how they work. I started as a junior designer, then moved up to being on the board of a reasonable sized business, so I more than likely have the breadth of experience to relate to the issues that a small business is likely to be facing. I can work with them to review where they are, where they want to go, and give them pointers on how to get there.
  3. My other area of work is naming. I really enjoy the challenges of naming projects, because they combine logical and creative thinking. A name has to be spell-able, say-able, url-able, culturally accept-able, own-able and it needs to be the start of a story. The legal aspects can be a real challenge but sometimes if you come at it from left field, you’ve got a chance of finding a name that will really make a difference to an organisation and please the lawyers.

How have your thoughts about writing changed over the years?

As a junior designer, I was always more interested in pictures. I thought the copy was just grey stuff to drop into the visuals and probably didn’t even read it. But after a few years, when I started working at The Partners and gained more experience, I realised that the copy had a job to do. The words had to communicate something and make a difference. They are, of course, very important in creating a brand and positioning a business.

What qualities do you look for in a writer?

Apart from having a talent for writing, it’s also important that writers listen, and understand that they’re part of a team.

If I put a writer in front of a client, I want to be confident that they’re informed, that they understand the client’s business, their peers, their competitors and their offer. They have to be keen to find out about the client’s culture, how they like to work and what kind of people they are. A writer will be brought in at a certain stage of the project’s journey, so they need to understand:

  • What stage the client has reached
  • How they have got there
  • What has worked well so far
  • What hasn’t
  • What’s appropriate to say at that point.

If a team has just spent months defining a brand and its positioning, we’re not necessarily looking for new ideas. We’re probably looking for a clear and concise articulation of the information we’ve gathered so far.

Particularly in this climate, it’s vital to make sure the client is comfortable with what the project team is doing. So that means building on the trust that the agency has already created, and not throwing in a curve ball or lots of options when that’s not part of the brief.

What kind of writing do you prefer?

The Partners was a highly creative world, and we often used to work with writers who’d been in advertising, ideas-based writers who wanted to play. They wrote witty, clever headlines, and I enjoyed that playful, creative approach.

A playful, creative approach

But sometimes a more straightforward approach is needed. It’s important that writers enjoy what they’re writing and are passionate about their work, but sometimes overly complex language can get in the way of the message.

Occasionally writers seem to think they need to do more, add more, when in fact an extra metaphor can confuse a positioning statement. More often than not, I need writers to be clear and precise.

How’s business at the moment?

I’m as busy as ever, but no one’s taking any risks at the moment, so there are more smaller projects and tactical work. But because clients are nervous of making big decisions, they are looking for a more focused approach. As an independent, I can offer the perspective and experience of years spent working for large agencies, and I can also be flexible, offering a few days here and there which can really make a difference to a project.

It will be interesting to see what happens when we finally come out of this recession. Clients have got used to being pragmatic, pared down and engaged at a real level, working with agencies and consultants who understand and focus on where they can add real value to a client’s business. I think they’ll still want that approach, but will also appreciate fresh thinking, confidence, directness and the energy of good ideas.