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

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

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.

10 public speaking tips from actor Sharon Duce

How to own the room

When we give a presentation, we turn into animals, according to actor and public speaking coach Sharon Duce. Our bodies break into fight or flight mode, anticipating an attack. Our hearts race, our mouths go dry and our jaws tense up. We scan the room for predators. Will they come from the left or the right, through the door or the window, or burst through the leaf canopy above our heads?

“We can’t help feeling nervous when we’re in front of a crowd,” says Sharon. “As an actor, my advantage is that I know how my body’s going to react, so I can consciously help myself to relax.”

Actor and coach Sharon Duce

Here are some of the physical and psychological tips that Sharon passed on to an audience of writers this weekend at Wordstock, a day of writing inspiration organised by writers’ collective 26.

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Practise what you’re going to say out loud, even if the audience is only the bathroom mirror or kitchen table. The more you practise, the more secure you’ll feel during the presentation.
  2. Stake out your territory. Animals assess the lay of the land and mark their territory. For a speaker, this means checking out the room where you’re going to be talking and ‘occupying’ the space by placing your bag and papers around the area where you’ll be standing.
  3. Trust yourself. If you want an audience to trust what you’re saying, you have to trust yourself first. Boost your confidence by doing those practice sessions in the kitchen, and reminding yourself that this is not a life or death situation, however intense it feels right now.
  4. Breathe. Always recommended, but particularly during a presentation. Take deep breaths from your belly to calm yourself and get some oxygen to your brain so you can think more clearly.
  5. Slow down. Allow yourself to feel your emotions and breathe if you need to gather your thoughts. You don’t need to speed up to retain people’s attention. The opposite is true.
  6. Use a prop. Psychologically, we feel more secure when we have something to hold onto, which is why you often see speakers staying close to the lectern. Increase your comfort zone by holding a prop related to your talk.
  7. Imagine your head is a ping pong ball on a jet of water. When you tense up, your neck stiffens and adds to the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ feeling. Do the ping pong trick and you’ll relax your muscles and your head will move more freely.
  8. Relax your jaw. A closed mouth and tight jaw are clear signs of tension. Relax your jaw and you’ll instantly feel calmer.
  9. Wear flat shoes. When your feet are flat on the floor, you feel more grounded.
  10. Stand squarely on both feet. Don’t lean on one foot; distribute your weight evenly over both feet. It’s harder to push someone over if they’re standing squarely, so this stance will make you feel more powerful.

Sharon’s feet: firmly grounded, of course

And if you want to tap into some more presentation tricks, read my Guardian article on How to do hypnotic presentations.

How do you celebrate a petabyte? A party planner’s dilemma.

The other day, sitting in a yard in Shoreditch, in front of luminous orange glasses of Aperol and Prosecco lined up on a garden table made of an old pallet, Charlie announced that his boss wanted to celebrate a petabyte.

Well, of course you’d want to celebrate a petabyte if you had one, wouldn’t you? Although I wasn’t too sure what it was. Possibly a gaggle of gigabytes crossed with a distant breed of dinosaur. I visualised a giant hedgehog bristling with USB sticks, rumbling towards the horizon with storage on its mind.

A hedgehog: Charlie’s power animal

But, as Charlie patiently explained, a petabyte is not a giant hedgehog. It’s actually a million gigabytes. If a gigabyte can store 7 minutes of HDTV video, a petabyte can store 20,000 Blu-ray movies. (Apparently this is comparing apples with pears, compressed with non-compressed material. Let me know if you have a better comparison.)

But how do you usefully celebrate a petabyte? From a party planning point of view, the first challenge is understanding something that is essentially zeros and ones, digital soup floating in the ether. Charlie showed me a picture of a bit of a petabyte. Looked like the black pipes on the back of a fridge. Not very inspiring.

Charlie tried another tack. Apparently a petabyte has the same storage capacity as 40% of a human brain. High IQ or low IQ? We weren’t told. This was more concrete, and conjured up images of frontal lobes seeping with memory and knowledge. Still not very festive, though. A brain is essentially offal and even if you call it party offal, it’s tricky to get excited about it. Put a party hat on a brain in a jar and only its mother would call it beautiful.

A brain: party offal?

Three ideas

So after some thought (using only a tiny fraction of a gigabyte), here are some ideas of how to celebrate a petabyte in style.

1. Pet bites

The literal approach. Each guest brings a pet to the party and there’s a competition to see which will produce the best bite in a selection of fruit and vegetables. NB: Whoever has a tortoise is already the winner. There’s nothing more perfect than a tortoise’s gummy chomp mark on a slice of cucumber.

2. Brain dump

Everyone brings a memory to the party, writes that memory in unravelled brain lobes and throws it into a hot air balloon which is then launched into the atmosphere. In a neat reversal, a brain dump becomes a brain rise. NB: Try for sponsorship from a camera company, who’ll have the opportunity to save memories in a new and visceral way.

3. Gin mist

Fill a replica of The Golden Hind with gin and tonic mist, and let people take it in turns to sail it across Limehouse Basin while singing sea shanties. This idea bears absolutely no relation to a petabyte, but really, can you go wrong with a ship full of gin?

A petabyte fights back

Meanwhile a petabyte the size of a tick slides down the bottle of Aperol, falls through the missing slat on the garden table and hitches a lift on a passing cat. “Petabytes and party planners don’t mix,” it declares. “Me and a few gigabytes are off to the pub. Don’t wait up.”

Glitter, goals and getting ahead in business

Here’s some advice for entrepreneurs that you probably won’t read in the Harvard Business Review. You have to know when to hit yourself on the head with a rolled-up newspaper.

More of that later. But first, here’s what people said when I asked them for their best business tips.

Have a big hairy goal and beware of glitter

“Futerra, the sustainability communications company, advocate having a Big Hairy Audacious Goal goal’ in their Santa Sustainability Report,” says Jenny Searle of Jenny Searle Associates. “I love this idea, and their Rules of the Game are well worth a read too.”

Jenny also mentions the perils of being distracted by shiny things. “When I was at college Graham Clarke, the etcher and engraver, told me to ‘reject 90% of what comes your way in life’. In today’s multi-information world this sounds a bit unfeasible, but I think he was right. It’s easy to lap up too much and drown with a gurgle as your hand reaches up trying to click on another link….or even back in the 80s to be influenced by too many glittery things at the expense of the one pure goal.”

Know when to go… and stop

“Generally, I’d say ‘You reap what you sow’ and ‘If at first you don’t succeed…’”, says Fred Rutter of Spring Communications. “But on indecisive afternoons, I follow Mark McCormack’s advice – ‘If in doubt, delay!’”

A positive attitude draws in new business

“With 25 years of working for clients in the management education and consultancy sector, I’ve read more business advice than any entrepreneur has the right to receive,” says Victoria Jebens of Jebens Design.

The two best bits of advice she’s received are:

  • Don’t fret about starting a new business in a recession – it’s often a great time to start.
  • Don’t be afraid to expand. For a micro business, taking on those first one or two extra team members seems like a huge step, but you won’t regret it.

And the advice she’d give is:

  • Success breeds success – it’s remarkable how much new business a positive attitude brings in.
  • Always give your clients solutions not problems. Don’t explain to a client why something won’t work – give them something that will.

Be useful and know your value

The first, succinct piece of advice from Andrew Waller of Remit Consulting is: “Be useful.”

His second piece of advice could be summarised as ‘Know the value of your experience’.

Andrew tells the story: “A man retires from a factory where for many  years he has looked after the big machine that runs the production line. After a few months the machine stops working and, having exhausted all other avenues, his old boss rings him to ask if he would care to do some consultancy to fix it. He looks at the machine for 10 minutes, scratches his head, walks around again and then carefully places a cross on the machine with a marker pen. ‘Look there – that’ll be the problem.’ Sure enough, they find the problem in that precise spot and fix it; and the factory returns to making money again. Then his bill arrives and his old boss rings him up in a lather. ‘What’s this bill for £10,000? All you did was walk around and mark a cross on the machine – the least you can do is give us a breakdown of the costs.’ The man obliges with a revised invoice – ‘For marking the machine with a cross: £10. For knowing where to put it: £9,990.’”

Read the ‘E-Myth’ book

For Madelyn Postman of Grain Creative, the best business tip she’s ever received was to read ‘The E-Myth Revisited – Why most small businesses don’t work and what to do about it’ by Michael E Gerber. “This led to me signing up for a year of coaching from them – a real game-changer,” says Madelyn.

Buy time in presentations

Mark Johnson, the manwith3heads, shares this advice about presentations.“The ideal is to get beyond any sense of acting and performing. Just be yourself.  My aim is to try to talk to people as if it were a relaxed conversation rather than a presentation.”

But what if you get that heart-stopping moment when your mouth dries up and you completely forget the subject or why you’re even there?

“If you’re in doubt – as in, it’s not going well in your head – read the slide out slowly,” says Mark. “Then ask: ‘Has anyone got any questions or comments?’ It will calm you down and buy you some time.”

Don’t wait for opportunity to knock

Helen Fisher of Fisher Consulting advises: “You don’t get new work by staying in the office. Get out and about.”

Slam a newspaper on a table

And finally, the newspaper tactic. This comes from Choiyen Leung, who draws on many years’ experience of working in London design firms. “My tip comes from someone I used to work with – Simon Carter.  Immediately before making a difficult business call, he recommended getting a rolled up newspaper, slamming it on the table three times in quick succession, then doing the same to your head even harder. Then call your client.  I don’t know if it worked, but I liked doing it!”

Watch your eyes

The last word comes from Simon Carter of One Three Four Ltd. “When you’re slapping a newspaper against your head, mind you don’t poke yourself in the eye. It’s hard to concentrate on a client phone call through a veil of tears.”

Fiona Thompson, Wordspring

How we reveal ourselves through metaphor

Apparently, we use a metaphor every seven seconds. Unless, of course, you’re Dr Gregory House, the embittered anti-hero of the US tv series, whose speech consists almost entirely of metaphors. House is a one-man metaphor factory who spits out pithy phrases for every possible ailment and situation. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • “I’m a very high-strung little lapdog.”
  • “Infections are criminals; the immune system’s the police.”
  • “There is not a thin line between love and hate. There is in fact a Great Wall of China with armed sentries posted every 20 feet between love and hate.”

The dictionary definition of a metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable”. Clearly, House is not literally a little lapdog, infections are not criminals and there is no Great Wall of China between the emotions of love and hate.

The language of the unconscious

Sometimes we consciously use metaphors to make our language more vivid and striking. However, more often, they spring automatically from our lips.

“Metaphors are fascinating because people use them subliminally,” says Martin Lee, co-founder and strategist at Acacia Avenue, the qualitative research company. “People don’t consciously understand the extra layer of meaning that they add, but the metaphors they use are a choice. They reveal a great deal about what a person really thinks and feels.”

Acacia Avenue uses ‘discourse analysis’ to uncover the deeper meaning behind metaphors and analyse the implications for clients who want to connect with their customers in a more authentic way.

Chaos overhead: one man and his bank

Martin gives the example of a businessman interviewed about his relationship with his bank. A discourse analyst identified the metaphors in the transcript of the conversation, which included the businessman talking about ‘seeing chaos overhead’, ‘taking a chaotic road’ and not wanting to ‘let people down’.

“You don’t literally see chaos above your head, a road can’t be chaotic and you don’t actually let a person down,” says Martin. “All these metaphors reveal the underlying concerns of this customer. Also, it’s typical that so many of his metaphors are about position, direction and space; we understand the world in relation to ourselves.”

The customer wanted a “beautifully constructed” business relationship with his bank, some kind of order and solidity to counteract the chaos he perceived overhead. However, he said that his bank manager gradually became more “distant” and eventually he became disillusioned. “The story is more powerful in the metaphor than in the bald text,” comments Martin.

What’s your cultural anchor?

When people use metaphors, patterns emerge which reveal their ‘cultural anchors’ or ‘area of discourse’ – the way they see the world. House frequently uses the language of battle and control to describe his fight to diagnose unusual medical problems. His chosen metaphors underline his combative nature and approach to life. You’re left in no doubt that this is one little lapdog with a nasty bite.

The marketing profession is also known for its use of military language: it’s all about targeting, battles and campaigns. Meanwhile, other people or professions might choose metaphors that reflect the discourse of friendship, sex, science, medicine or education.

Listen to Gordon Ramsay, who surfs between the discourses of manual labour and sport in this interview for The Daily Telegraph, thereby reinforcing his hard-man reputation. “I’ve been at the coalface for 20 years now,” he says, adding: “I’m back in the ring now. The gloves are off.”

Equally, it is little surprise that Nigella Lawson borrows from the language of seduction when she describes a fruit cake as “the fruity blonde sister to the brunette temptress overleaf”, or that Jamie Oliver draws on rebellious rhetoric to inspire people to follow his ‘Food Revolution’.

“In my field,” says Martin, “I’ve noticed that sometimes when researchers are dealing with the messy stuff of human motivation and psychology, they might feel the need to prove themselves and use scientific discourse, such as ‘the spectrum of opinion’.”

Understanding our hidden emotional relationships with companies

So what are the implications for companies? “By analysing the metaphors that people use when they talk about organisations, we can see where the public position that brand emotionally,” says Martin.

At the recent Wordstock festival for fans of the written word, Martin ran a metaphor masterclass. “I asked people to talk for 30 seconds about two different companies – Tesco and Apple – and transcribe what they said word for word,” he says. “Strong patterns of metaphor emerged. When people talked about Tesco, the language of mythological monsters came out clearly, through words such as ‘behemoth’. Whereas they used the language of love to talk about Apple, such as ‘beautiful’.”

Acacia Avenue has used discourse analysis in various projects to help companies understand the hidden relationships that customers have with their brands. “With a well known package holiday company, quantitative research suggested that customers perceived the company as very efficient,” says Martin.  “But even when customers were talking favourably about them, there were clues as to how people really felt about them. Customers would say “They’re geared up”, “It’s a well-oiled machine”, or “It runs like clockwork.” Much of the metaphorical language was related to the discourse of engineering. People were using a stripped-down mechanical language to describe a good service, but they felt no warmth or emotional connection towards the brand. We recommended that they should keep the efficiency, but also engage with customers at a more human level.”

In another project, Acacia Avenue analysed the language that a cruise brand was using to sell its holidays. The conclusion was that modern-day travellers were alienated by cruises with names such as ‘Jewel of the Nile’ which evoked an archaic ‘golden age of travel’. Unconsciously, the language of the brochures betrayed a deep bias towards a rather stiff, old-fashioned attitude.

Speaking your brand’s language

“It’s all about choice,” says Martin. “A purist would say there’s no such thing as neutral language.” But in practice, some words are more neutral than others.  If you use the word ‘nose’ to describe the smelling organ in the middle of your face, you are not drawing attention to the choice of word, but if you choose an alternative word such as ‘conk’, ‘schnozzle’ or ‘proboscis’, they all have additional layers of meaning and convey subtle additional messages to the listener.

“People are very susceptible to the discourses they read,” Martin adds. “By being aware of the discourse you’re using, you can help influence people’s impressions of your brand in a positive way. Equally, by listening to the way that customers talk about your brand, you can understand the authenticity of your relationship with your customers.”

Appropriately enough, his final thought involves metaphors. “The voice of the brand has to be conscious, and the best brand writers have an intuitive feel for the discourse that their brand is swimming in. They can deliberately evoke a metaphor that suits the brand and literally speaks the brand’s language.”


Fiona Thompson, Wordspring