Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas cards

The other day I was sent this picture of reindeers pulling Santa’s sleigh. The child who drew it has cancer and is being helped by the Teenage Cancer Trust.

Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas card picture

Santa’s sleigh: a picture drawn by a child supported by the Teenage Cancer Trust

It’s all to do with a new writing project that brings together copywriters like myself from writers’ group 26 and children supported by the Teenage Cancer Trust and the It’s Good 2 Give charity.

The writers were asked to write a sestude – 62 words – inspired by children’s pictures. The sestudes and pictures will go live in an online advent calendar starting on 1 December.

In the meantime, you can support the work of the Teenage Cancer Trust by buying Christmas cards of the sleigh design, as well as cards featuring a Christmas tree and Santa in a jaunty submarine.

Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas card

Buy Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas cards featuring Santa’s submarine

The Teenage Cancer Trust does some amazing work, helping children and young adults to receive care from teenage cancer experts, in surroundings tailored to their needs.

Read more about the charity’s specialist work and read young people’s stories.

If you’d like to know more about Edinburgh charity It’s Good 2 Give and their work with young people with cancer, check out their website.

And watch this space to discover more about my 62 words on the flying reindeer of Finland…

Christmas tree card from Teenage Cancer Trust

Christmas tree card from Teenage Cancer Trust

Designer soapbox: Tim Foster


“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 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

Soak it in a pond, soak it in the sea

I caught the Stradivarius exhibition at the Ashmolean on the very last day. Had forgotten all about it until the curator, Jon Whiteley, popped up on the Today programme, talking about how people behave in museums. He told the story of someone who came in to show him a violin, convinced it was a very rare Stradivarius. Even more rare because it was made in Czechoslovakia, which didn’t exist in the 18th century.

So I rushed along to catch the show before it finished. Because who knows when I might need to identify a Strad? It could be me, sitting there in an internet cafe, being offered a violin for 100 pounds by two shady characters who’ve just stolen it from a Korean violinist in Euston station. And, in that highly likely scenario, I need to be able to recognise the quality of the instrument, so I can buy the violin immediately and return it to its owner. But not before unobtrusively taking a photo of the thieves so the police can set detectives on their trail.

So in case it’s you, not me, in that internet cafe, here are some of the things to look out for:

  • Asymmetrical f-holes
  • A black, worn-away edging around the scroll
  • Twiddly bits (base bar and pegs) added by Vuillaume in the 19th century, possibly
  • The tiger glow of Cremonese varnish
Distinctively asymmetrical f-holes

Distinctively asymmetrical f-holes

The exhibition was extraordinary. I loved the workshop and the display where you could see how violins are made. The scroll carving, in particular, was fascinating.

And there was a wonderful example of a letter from Stradivarius, one of only two in existence. Written in a shaky hand, it apologises for the late delivery of a violin to an unknown buyer.

I also enjoyed the language used by Charles Beare, the violin expert, in one of the videos. According to him, no one will ever be able to divine exactly what makes Stradivarius’ instruments so special. “You can soak it in a pond, you can soak it in the sea,” he says. “We’ll never really know.”

What a wonderful expression: ‘soak it in a pond, soak it in the sea’. Scientists have tried all kinds of methods to unpick the magic of Stradivarius, from chemical analysis of wood shavings from instruments under restoration to x-raying violins to establish the precise thickness of the maple and spruce components. Beare’s phrase conjures up an image of immersing a Strad in salt or fresh water – a transgressive and shocking idea – and still being none the wiser.


Venice Lagoon – with pre-soaked wood
Photo: Katie Homan

But maybe there’s another link between Stradivarius and Beare’s inventive expression. Joseph Nagyvary, a biochemist at Texas A&M University, believes that some of the wood that Stradivarius used may have previously been waterlogged, soaked in the water of the Venice lagoon. Apparently woodcutters sent the logs down river from the forested regions of Northern Italy and the Navy took their pick first, so subsequent buyers were looking at wood that may have been lying in water for months.

Soak it in a pond, soak it in the sea, soak it in the Venice lagoon. The truth or just another layer of varnish on the Stradivarius mythology? We’ll probably never know.

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.

Being interesting: a QI masterclass

John Mitchinson, the ubiquitous and ultra-bright co-founder of QI, made his way up the hill at Glastonbury to tell a packed tent how to find any subject interesting. Here are his ten insights into how to investigate the world through the lens of  QI’s patented curiosity goggles.

Crowd-pleaser John Mitchinson of QI

Crowd-pleaser John Mitchinson of QI

1. Everything is interesting if you look at it in the right way. Look closely and even the smallest thing can be captivating. John gave the example of the tardigrade – a tiny, water-dwelling creature that moves by being splashed.
2. Ask more, better questions. Kids ask questions until around about the age of 8. To stay interested, we need to keep on asking questions as adults.
3. Find new connections between things. Everyone knows about William the Conqueror and 1066. But investigate a little further and you discover that the name William was unknown at the time in Britain. William swiftly became a popular child’s name, suggesting that the Norman conquest represented a complete takeover of the existing culture.
4. Be precise. Apparently, zoologists have no use for the concept of ‘fish’, as what we call fish is just one type of fish. Plus, there are 21 types of possible fish that qualify as ‘sardines’. The closer you look at something, particularly something familiar, the more interesting it becomes.
5. What you leave out is as important as what you put in. Everyone knows that kangaroos can jump. But did you know they have three vaginas? Search out lesser-known facts and you’ll be rewarded.
6. Take your time. Be persistent and get into the zone. John told us that researchers trawled through books about basketball. Eventually they discovered that, for the first 21 years after the invention of the game, there was no hole in the bottom of the basket.
7. No one knows as much as they think they know. As Socrates said: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” We swim in a sea of ignorance, but questions are our lifeboat.
8. Walk towards the gunfire. Don’t be afraid of asking awkward questions and challenging accepted wisdom.
9. The digressions are the point. For example, why don’t pigeons go to the movies? They probably wouldn’t enjoy films made for humans as they have three times our visual processing speed.
10. We live surrounded by wonder and mystery. There’s no reason ever to be bored. The brain plus time plus desire equals progress.

Thanks to John and the Free University of Glastonbury for a fascinating talk. I’m off to swim in my own sea of ignorance and see what I discover next…

Hairy hounds and the harp

When I’m not writing for a living, I play the harp. The harp has been a passion since I was nine years old – pretty much a constant companion.

Helping to raise money for new kennels at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home

Helping to raise money for new kennels at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home

I’ve played the harp all over the place – including the Sydney Opera House when I toured Australia with a youth orchestra. But the other day I played in one of the most unusual venues so far – to one of the most unusual audiences.

A friend who works at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home asked me to play at a fundraising event. The guests included a St Bernard, two poodles and several terriers. I accidentally kicked over a water bowl, but the dogs were impeccably well behaved and didn’t howl at all.

A St Bernard who was rescued and rehomed by Battersea

A St Bernard who was rescued and rehomed by Battersea

The event was to raise money for new kennels at Battersea. Some of the kennels date back to the Victorian era, and urgently need to be updated to provide a welcoming home for the thousands of lost and abandoned dogs that arrive at the home each year.

According to Battersea experts: “A neglected, confused and frightened dog doesn’t show his true character and is more susceptible to infection.  By replacing our oldest kennels, we will be able to provide them with a healthy and secure environment where they will feel safe.”

Got a biscuit?

Got a biscuit?

To help upgrade the kennels so Battersea can keep on caring for dogs like the ones you see in these pictures, please donate here.

Photos: Mariana Bassani

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 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.


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’.

Story 2013: a kaleidoscope manifesto

Believe in clouds. Be stubborn. Keep your rococo aesthetic. Lob your opinions upwards. Rise up like an octopus, like a rubber parachute, like a chewy umbrella. Don’t believe the hype. Investigate peace. Be joyously, defiantly subjective. Send your characters to remedial school. Talk to the person next to you. Walk into a story. Listen to the voice in your ear. Be careful because it’s pretty hardcore. Form the dough into convex sets and place on a separating hyperplane. Put on yellow wellies and walk into a flooded room. Make important decisions in the moment. Have your superhero and eat it. Put a little piece of your heart into everything you do. Orchestrate emotion on a massive scale. See the new world through the tear gas. Don’t be afraid.

Pic: Steve Kay http://www.flickr.com/photos/nifmus/

Picture by Steve Kay

This is a snapshot manifesto drawn from the words of the speakers at a brilliant, inspiring day yesterday at The Conway Hall for Story 2013. Here’s who said what…

Believe in clouds. The Children’s Republic of Shoreditch at The Ministry of Stories.

Be stubborn. Singer Edwyn Collins.

Keep your rococo aesthetic. NYC artist Molly Crabapple.

Lob your opinions upwards.  Rob Manuel, co-founder of B3TA.

Rise up like an octopus, like a rubber parachute, like a chewy umbrella. Children’s writer and illustrator Laura Dockrill.

Don’t believe the hype. Public Enemy / Digital consultant Alex Balfour.

Investigate peace. Film producer Rebecca O’Brien.

Be joyously, defiantly subjective. Molly Crabapple.

Send your characters to remedial school. Ben Boucquelet, creator of The Amazing World of Gumball.

Talk to the person next to you. Mary Hamilton, zombie herder.

Walk into a story. Playwright Alecky Blythe.

Listen to the voice in your ear. Alecky Blythe.

Be careful because it’s pretty hardcore.  Ben Boucquelet.

Form the dough into convex sets and place on a separating hyperplane.  Economist Diane Coyle.

Put on yellow wellies and walk into a flooded room. Fiona Romeo of the National Maritime Museum.

Make important decisions in the moment. Animator Michael Please.

Have your superhero and eat it. Academic and writer Alice Bell.

Put a little piece of your heart into everything you do. Ben Boucquelet.

Orchestrate emotion on a massive scale. Alex Balfour.

See the new world through the tear gas. Molly Crabapple.

Don’t be afraid. Molly Crabapple.

Designer soapbox: Anja Wohlstrom

Anja grew up in the Swedish countryside outside Helsingborg, near Copenhagen. Now Art Director of the New Statesman, she steps onto the Designer Soapbox to talk about her love of illustration, the Swedish design aesthetic and having ideas in airports.


Anja Wohlstrom

Swedish Art Director Anja Wohlstrom likes clean lines and white space.

What’s your day job?

As the Art Director of the New Statesman magazine, I’m responsible for the overall look of the magazine. I work with my team of picture editors and designers to design the magazine and get the right ‘pace’ and balance of text and images across the magazine as a whole.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I really like the arts scene in London. It’s amazing, compared to Sweden, because there are so many places to visit. I recently went to see the new tanks at Tate Modern. It’s a great space.

I’m trying to find time to work on some personal projects as well. I have loads of ideas but don’t seem to be able to find the time at the moment!

What do people get wrong about you?

Although I tell them that I’m from Sweden, people tend to mix it up with Switzerland. And of course spelling my name.

What do you appreciate about the Swedish design aesthetic?

Swedish design is very clean, light and airy in everything from architecture to graphic design. That’s something I like in design – clean lines and white space combined with great ideas.

Rodeo, Swedish magazine

Rodeo, eye-catching Swedish magazine

Rodeo magazine celebrates Scandinavian creativity; its creative director is Stefania Malmsten. Swedish design duo Studio Yra do great products inspired by typography that I really like, and of course I’m also a big fan of the classic Scandinavian furniture designers. I admire some Danish design studios, too, like Hvass & Hannibal, for their colourful, simple graphic designs.

What first inspired you to become a designer?

I always wanted to be an artist when I was growing up, but my parents thought I should get a proper job. So I studied physics and maths A levels, then moved to London and met a graphic designer. I thought, ‘That’s interesting – it’s like being an artist, but it’s a real job.’ So I did a foundation in graphic design at LCC, then studied editorial illustration as part of an BA LCC course in Graphic Media Design.

How did you find your first job?

During my degree I did lots of internships with design companies, including a freelance role with a company called Itchy Media which turned into a full-time job. Then I worked as a graphic designer at Time Out.

How did your career develop from there?

Three years ago, I went to the New Statesman as Art Editor, then became Art Director two years ago.

new statesman cover

What do you love about your job?

I love that it’s a weekly magazine, so things move quickly and you really have to think on your feet. I find that quite exciting. It’s great to work with really bright, interesting people – writers and journalists. And personally, I’ve learned a lot about politics. I’ve re-designed the New Statesman website and I’m working on a new iPad app and it’s great to be able to design on different platforms for a magazine. I’m really exited about the opportunities for editorial design on tablets and within digital design.

How do you decide which images to use?

Sometimes the editor will have a very clear idea of what needs to be visualised. Other times, we’ll choose an image or layout that goes with the particular headline or type of article. It’s all about looking at the magazine as a whole. To get the best pace across the magazine, we work closely with the editorial team.

Infographics have become really fashionable in the last couple of years. They bring something new; you can visualise quite hard-to-understand topics in a really simple way.

For other pieces, a good illustration by someone who can really draw adds so much value. I try to use illustration for the cover when it’s suitable. I work with one artist, David Young, who paints very realistically, which works really well for humorous political subjects and offers a fresh alternative to cartoons. With artworks like David’s illustrations, you can see that they took time and they have that human element that you can connect to which I think adds value. There are so many talented illustrators out there and the world is pretty small, but with email we have the opportunity to work with people around the world which is really exciting.


Which other magazine art directors do you admire?

I really like Italian IL magazine, art directed by Francesco Franchi. It has a bold design which feels current. Bloomberg in New York do exciting things like using graphics throughout the whole magazine. Acne puts together a beautiful magazine every six months on newsprint. THE GERMANS is a magazine that launched last year that looks really good.  Another favourite is Apartamento, a Spanish ‘everyday interiors magazine’ that is full of great articles. The format is like a small book with really organic layouts – I think it’s really lovely.

What do you like about working with writers?

I really enjoy working with journalists and writers, and have learned a lot working on the New Statesman. Sometimes there’s almost no contact with a writer, other times there’s a lot. It depends on the writer. Some have very strong ideas and want to be involved with the choice of visuals, and it’s always fun when a writer is engaged and wants to contribute ideas.

What drives you mad about writers?

It can be frustrating when a journalist has written too much and doesn’t want their work cut!


Infographic from Delayed Gratification magazine about Booker Prize plot lines

What do you think about the trend towards long forms of writing?

The print version of the New Statesman features articles several thousand words long, and I think there’s a need for long articles that are a counterpoint to the quick, short pieces people read online. They’re the kind of thing you want to read on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon – longer printed articles can really expand on ideas. I’m interested in a quarterly magazine called Delayed Gratification, a ‘Slow Journalism’ publication, which is all about taking a slower look at news, months after the event.

What’s your favourite gadget?

I use the Next Bus app a lot. Does that count?

What’s your favourite place for creative inspiration?

Waiting in an airport is good because you have time in between two things. I quite often find myself drawing ideas on the back of the boarding card.

Esquire cover designed by George Lois

Esquire cover designed by George Lois

Who’s your design hero / heroine?

George Lois changed the idea of magazine covers in the 60s and his covers for Esquire are great. Some of the East European designers like Roman Cieslewicz are very inspirational as well.

What’s your favourite book?

Things As They Are – Photojournalism in context since 1955′. Photo essays are presented in the original context of the magazine that they were published in, so it’s really interesting in regards to layouts.