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?

Mike Paisley – Designer Soapbox

Mike Paisley

Mike Paisley

Mike Paisley loves simplicity, making things and tinfoil gadgets. We first met when he was involved in Throwawaylines, a wonderful project which treated rubbish like royalty. Mike is a Design Director at The Partners, where he’s solved brand and communication problems for clients as diverse as LV=, eBay, Allen & Overy, HSBC, Penguin and Richard House Children’s Hospice.

Here he talks about design and his love of words, and why he’s started to make geodesic domes out of old bits of fence.

What does your day job involve?

Aside from making the occasional round of tea, I’ll usually be working on or overseeing a number of projects in any given week. It might be working with the strategic consultants and design team to create the visual identity for a brand, based upon the underlying strategy and positioning. Or with the design team on briefs relating to more specific pieces of communication – like a brochure of some kind, a poster or a website or app. Typically these will be for bigger organisations but in amongst these bigger jobs we also work on some smaller projects. Sometimes these are more creative on paper, in that the solution is less constrained by scale and politics, or perhaps it’s just simply a more ‘fun’ industry; pharma versus cake making for example. We try to maintain a balance between the big and the small and make the most of the opportunities in each, regardless of scale or constraints.

What do you love about your job?

I like solving problems – fixing something that doesn’t make sense, isn’t working or just doesn’t look right. That’s pretty much what we do and the problems come in all shapes and sizes. I also like not wearing a suit, and not ironing a shirt.

Learning about new things is also a nice by-product of the job… from James Bond to diabetes, friendly societies and the Magic Circle for example. Working with interesting people is good too, both those at work and those we collaborate with, such as film makers, animators, illustrators, typographers, photographers, and of course writers. It’s great when they enable you to create something better than you could on your own. Or they help realise the idea in a way that surpasses what was in your head. That’s always particularly nice.

What are your favourite projects outside work?

Taking type for a walk: Mike's favourite student project

Taking type for a walk: Mike’s favourite student project

As a student I particularly enjoyed a project called ‘Taking type for a walk’. I took a walk around where I grew up (in a suburb of Glasgow) and noted memories along the way. A typographic central narrative mapped out path and the memories surrounded it in the form of little typographic anecdotes. These featured landmarks like the Big Dipper – a hill where we used to sledge, or The Burn – home to the Death-slide and the arena for Kick-Start and two-man hunt. Some parts are better than others and there are things I’d change from a design point of view, but it captures memories from a past, which is now 17 years and more behind me. I’m especially glad I did it now and I enjoyed the play between writing and designing. The writing was central to the setting of the type; writing more or less, or changing one word to another all had knock on effects. So there was a fair bit of wrestling between the two.

I also enjoyed taking part in Throwaway Lines last year, an exhibition inspired by scraps of paper discarded in the street, collected by Andy Hayes, a friend and old colleague. It was lovely to work like a student again, finding and gluing things together ­– a chance to use my hands in a literally more hands-on way. And also work with words and a story in a more direct way too. The Throwaway Lines website has all of the stories and frames, including the story by Kate Baxter about ‘Robert’, inspired by the scrap of paper here.

For the Throwawaylines project, Mike created a frame using old type blocks

For the Throwawaylines project, Mike created a frame using old type blocks

The whole idea of taking care in the making of things provides the central discussion/premise of a book I’m reading at the moment too: The Craftsman by Richard Sennett. In it he investigates the pleasure and value in making something well and proposes that that, in itself, is a reason to do it in the first place. I don’t seem to have the time to do that very often, which is something I’m keen to address, especially given the fleeting information hits of the digital world and how I’m finding that’s changing my appetite for single-focus concentration.

Why did you originally want to be a designer?

I’d always gravitated towards drawing at school and I enjoyed Art, English and History. I think I knew that things were designed to some degree but I certainly didn’t know that ‘graphic design’ was a thing, I just enjoyed drawing, and simplifying things. Somewhere in the middle of my schooling I was sat down in front of BBC micro and a careers questionnaire. A little while later a dot matrix printer noisily prodded out ‘graphic designer’ in the number 1 position. So then I knew there was this job called a graphic designer. I found out more about it and it sounded quite good. That focused me a little and a few years later I applied to art school.

I ended up studying at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, firstly doing a year’s general course, where we did a bit of everything – from life drawing, sculpture and drawing and painting, to animation and making chairs. It was great fun, aside from the crits and suddenly feeling less than confident surrounded by all these other people that could also draw, in many cases better than I could. Then I specialised in graphic design for the next three years. Making it out into reality in 2000.

What was your first job?

Junior designer at The Partners. My college was showing at New Designers and Jack Renwick, who was a designer at The Partners back then (going on to become Creative Director until a few years ago), came along with Dana Robertson to see our stand and her old tutors. I got talking to them, they liked my work and I got an interview off the back of that. It was luck, really, that Jack had gone to my college and came to visit the stand. She’s got a lot to answer for, in a good way.

Jack Renwick, aka Wonder Woman, talent spotted Mike

Jack Renwick, aka Wonder Woman in her Twitter profile, talent spotted Mike

How did your career develop from there?

I’ve been at The Partners for about 13 years now and have worked my way up over time. It’s changed a lot since I started, when David Stuart and Aziz Cami still stalked the floors like benevolent/malevolent uncles depending on whether things were going in the right direction or not.

In terms of my role I think the biggest change for me has been moving from being a doer to an overseer, with more responsibility. I like trying to see the bigger picture and it’s great when the designers you are working with come up with good ideas. But for me personally, it’s important to maintain a balance, to not lose touch with the design skills I’ve taken quite a long time to develop.

How has the business changed?

The business has evolved from being a graphic design business to becoming a branding agency. So not just tackling specific communication problems (an annual report, a website, a poster etc) but rather getting to the heart of a business’ brand, and then figuring out how that manifests itself in actions, behaviours and its visual and verbal expression. The specific communication needs/briefs are still there but we often work on those as part of a bigger project involving the brand. The constant over my 13 years here has been the focus on ensuring that the work is always based in good thinking and ideas.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you like to have been?

I’d either be a sportsman of some kind, probably a footballer… a portraitist, or a writer. However, if there was a job that involved doing a bit of everything and getting paid for it, then I’d probably be that.

What do you enjoy about working with words?

Words are very important to the way I approach design, either to organise thinking or to capture an idea or the source of an idea. Though semantics are always a challenge, words hopefully allow you to be more precise and certain in what you are communicating – both in discussion around the work but also in defining the core thinking on which things are built.

Where writers are concerned it’s great when they can take the seed of an idea and build it into something far bigger or just bring to life the idea that’s been in your head. I always enjoy it most when someone you’re working with buys into the idea and you feel that it’s not just a job for them – that the result really matters to them too.

Mike's currently reading The Craftsman by Richard Sennett

Mike’s currently reading The Craftsman by Richard Sennett

What do people get wrong about you?

I can appear quite serious, and a bit meticulous or considered/logical in the way I approach things. But I also like playful ideas and being silly. I like playfulness generally. That’s part of the pleasure of life, being silly, running with a silly idea and using humour to get through things in that typically British way. I think it can also be a mechanism to free up the mind a little…

I saw a documentary recently called The King of Nerac, exploring the artist David Breuer-Weil, his personality, background and his work. I particularly liked how he described this imaginary kingdom (Nerac) where all of his ideas or streams of thought are worked out through ‘Nerakian’ artists. Of course they were all him, but these personas took pressure off the ideas and allowed him to explore without fear of too much judgement. Some of these artists stayed with him for just a day, others for a year or more. He does a little Nerakian (one could say silly) dance at one point, then stops, looks at the sky and describes what he can see. It’s much like a child might describe their imaginary game-world. That little dance opens a door to a part of his brain unshackled by the controlling instincts of the adult mind. I think in some design/designers you do find that powerful juxtaposition of childlike playfulness and the rational problem solver.

People also think I’m not lazy, but I am. The reason is that if I do something I tend to want to do it well, so my laziness is born of an unwillingness to commit to doing a job properly. Often I might not bother to start something because if I get started, it’s going to be involved and I don’t think I have the time. So I often umm and ahh over what is the best thing to procrastinate myself into.

What’s your favourite gadget?

I do like gadgets but I live vicariously through my brother’s gadgets and inventions. He is forever making things and usually his gadgets are items re-purposed to fulfil a new function.

His Hamleys is Maplin and his box of toys when we were growing up was a cardboard box with wires and plugs in it. One gadget from our childhood that sticks in my mind was an under-doormat, pressure-sensitive burglar alarm, fashioned from tinfoil, amongst other things. It worked surprisingly well.

Mike loves gadgets

Mike loves a gadget. Current favourite: the minirig rechargeable speaker.

More recently he’s enjoyed telling me the temperature of all manner of household items and surfaces with his infrared digital thermometer, which is of course shaped like a gun. And also demonstrating how he has power over most of the lights in his house through remote-controlled light switches. He’s also working on some kind of RFID-based system so that he can open the garage door without getting out of the car or leaving the house. I love the way he approaches things and I’d love to work with him on a project one day.

My favourite gadget is a little rechargeable speaker, called a minirig. Its size belies its sound quality (and its volume). It lasts about 50 hours on a charge and it follows me around the flat/garden as I work on things.

What’s your favourite place for creative inspiration?

I like the combination of space and sunlight (though not so bright that it makes white paper too bright to look at), so sitting in a park on a bench with an expanse of sky around me would be good. But as I can’t think without writing or drawing, I’d need a big table too. And so maybe some animal-shaped paperweights… perhaps a squirrel and a hedgehog.

Who’s your design hero/heroine?

I’m most drawn to design that makes a difference and solves a problem, not design for design’s sake (or perhaps designer’s sake). The things that you use every day that make your life simpler.


Detail of Max Gill’s Wonderground map

Harry Beck’s tube map, predictably, is a great example. It serves its purpose beautifully, and I really like how its influence has been introduced on bus routes. The principles it introduced and the observation that geographic accuracy was actually a hindrance have been hugely useful in design of this kind, something I’ve appreciated many times when I’m trying to find my way around London on the buses or night-buses.

On the flipside of this though, I also really like the work of MacDonald ‘Max’ Gill (Eric’s brother). He created the Wonderground map. If Beck’s map solved a usability problem, then the Wonderground map is almost the polar opposite. It’s richly illustrative and choc-full of amusing hints about the people and stories behind the places. It captures the reason why you might want to go to these places and was designed to keep people amused while they waited for their trains, a very different purpose. I like that the design problem can be wildly different and require very different answers.

What are you doing now?

Mike's latest design: a garden geodesic dome

A garden geodesic dome: one of the projects Mike’s working on

Around two years ago I started working four days a week to create the time and energy to work on other projects. Right now I’m working on a number, one of which is making geodesic domes. It began with a friend’s observation that most fruit cages are weak and ugly. He’s always loved geodesic domes and lots of construction mechanisms exist but they are typically a little Heath-Robinson or highly engineered and hugely expensive. He had some old chestnut fence-posts on his allotment, so we set about making a dome and trying to resolve an affordable system that makes them relatively simple and enjoyable to construct. It’s been a fascinating process so far. Our intention is that they could be used for all kinds of purposes – a fruit cage, arbor, chicken run, aviary, butterfly sanctuary or, my favourite, as a children’s den. I’d have loved one as a child (maybe even now), probably with an old parachute draped over the top…

What’s next for you?

Going to four days is an opportunity to figure that out. Ideas are wonderful things, but a brilliant idea that goes nowhere or simply stops a little beyond the endorphin hit it gives you, is less valuable. The hard bit is making something actually happen and all that entails. So right now, I’m enjoying making things, allowing myself to fail, and seeing if a few ideas can make it beyond the page into some sort of reality.

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.

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.

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.

Once upon a time there were 62 words

We weren’t quite sure what would happen when we unleashed the power of children’s imaginations on the 21st century objects in the Modern British Childhood exhibition. But we were amazed at the results.

A ten year old girl gives the MMR vaccine a voice – “When I was born, everybody feared me”, a Lily Allen dress insists it’s “no gangsta” and a nine year old boy imagines his trainers squabbling in a cupboard, each pair fighting to be chosen first.


A 10 year old girl from Hackney writes about the MMR vaccine

While adult writers from 26 responded to 20th century objects in the exhibition at the Museum of Childhood, children from Rushmore Primary School in Hackney wrote about the 21st century objects on display.

Like the adults, the young writers had to respond in just 62 words – a sestude. The children wrote their sestudes during a series of workshops run by The Ministry of Stories, the creative writing and mentoring centre in East London.

Here, we ask the people involved what happened behind the scenes.

Getting to know the objects

Helen Roberts, Creative Learning Workshop Leader at the Ministry of Stories, is an Education Practitioner who specialises in community, museum and gallery projects. She devised and led four workshops for the children which took place over four weeks during the spring in 2012.

“Experiencing the Museum of Childhood’s collection first-hand was a huge inspiration for this project,” says Helen. “The children were clearly excited to have been invited to contribute to the Modern British Childhood exhibition, and took great pride in their writing. They questioned and critiqued the objects according to their own experiences, whilst responding to and reinventing them in imaginative and unexpected ways.”

Exploring poetry, rhythm and six word stories

Sarah Farley, a member of 26 who volunteers with the Ministry of Stories, describes the different stages of the workshops, where she acted as a writing mentor.

“During the first workshop at the museum we worked on describing objects in different ways, including writing about how a particular object made them feel. Rhian Harris, the director of the museum and curator of the exhibition, then introduced the actual objects and asked the kids if they’d like to write about them for the exhibition. The answer was a resounding Yes!”

The second and third workshops took place at the children’s school, and investigated different writing styles. “We used limericks to show poetry and rhythm,” says Sarah, “we used dialogue to start a conversation between the kids and their objects, we explored writing about time – last year, last month, etc – and we even used six-word stories to give them practice at writing to an exact number of words.”

The final workshop was dedicated to writing the children’s final pieces. “We told them they were completely free to write whatever they wanted about their object and in whatever style they liked,” Sarah explains. “One boy chose to write his piece about West Ham as a news article.”

An 11 year old boy was inspired by a West Ham shirt

Teletubby horror and Lily Allen bling

Children’s reactions to the museum objects were not always predictable. “There were a lot of laughs about the nappy, a lot of ‘bling’ references to the headphones and Lily Allen dress, and some of the girls were put off by the bra,” says Sarah. “But there were some darker elements too: many of them thought the Teletubbies were disturbing and they used them as the basis for horror stories. It’s interesting that the children saw them in that way, and goes to show that as adults we quickly lose touch with what really appeals to you as a child.”

“As kids, we’re driven more by our imaginations than by logic. But as we get older, we start to box ourselves in and give ourselves over to the logical part of our brains and become afraid of letting our minds run wild in all directions. Working with kids reminds me of the great fun you can have if you simply let go of the fear and give in to your imagination.”

“It kept on going nonsense!”

It wasn’t always easy for the children to get their ideas down on paper. One child said that the hardest part was writing the poem. “It kept on going nonsense!” For another, “The six word story was difficult because you couldn’t put descriptive words into it.”

But the overwhelming feedback was that this was a really enjoyable project. Asked what they liked best, the young writers said:

  • “Going to the museum because it was so fun going round and looking at all the exhibitions. It was a different style of writing and exploring.”
  • “Writing the 62 words because it’s tricky and gets you more interested… it’s more complex.”
  • “I enjoyed the chance to come up with my own ideas.”
  • “It has really kept my imagination going. It’s made me realise that there’s lots of different ways to write about feelings. It’s interesting how much power objects can give to your writing.”
  • “I have always loved writing and I love writing stories. This has really inspired me.”

The kids got pretty good reviews themselves. “I love the pieces that our young writers have produced. They’re fresh, personal, fantastic,” says Lucy Macnab, Co-Director of the Ministry.  Rhian Harris, the Museum’s Director and curator of the exhibition, is equally enthusiastic: “I think the children’s pieces are wonderful, really strong, inspiring stuff. They are going to provide a really important element to the exhibition – the child’s own response.”

Primary school, professional standards

Sarah was impressed by the way the children rose to the challenge of writing to a deadline and meeting the very precise word count – 62 words, no more, no less.

“The children tackled every exercise we gave them with enthusiasm and a lot of humour,” she says. “They had less than two hours to write, edit and deliver the final pieces. They all had clear ideas of what they wanted to say and were meticulous in getting the right number of words. In the end they met the deadline and hit a perfect word count. I reckon a lot of professional writers would have been stretched by that task.”

See the children’s writing at the Modern British Childhood exhibition at the Museum of Childhood until 14 April 2013.

This post originally appeared on the 26 Treasures of Childhood blog.

French grapefruit and stripy deckchairs

Thanks to 26, the writers’ collective, for putting the spotlight on me in their latest newsletter.

Read the article to:

  • Find out about the latest 26 Treasures exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green.
  • Read my advice on tweeting.
  • See why you should read ‘Bird by Bird’ by Anne Lamott.

It will also explain why the title of this post refers to French grapefruit and stripy deckchairs.