A note on notebooks

“On August 12, 1982, I took a 10 x 7 1/8 inch National Blank Book Company composition book from the supply closet of my then employer, Vignelli Associates. From that moment, I have never been without one.”

Ten years ago, Michael Bierut wrote a column for Design Observer about his notebooks. Over 26 years, he had filled 85 hand-numbered, uniformly-sized, marble-covered books with sketches and lists and ideas. Together, they formed a history of his working life. This piece (or rather the photo that accompanies it, every book stacked high on a chair like some kind of Pentagram monolith) often comes to mind when I'm looking through my own notebooks.

Whereas Bierut's have a sense of elegant consistency and rational process to them, mine are a bit more erratic. Mostly half-full (because starting a new notebook is way more satisfying than filling an old one), they flit from one overpriced faddish brand to another, sizes and shapes all over the place, all frayed bookmark ribbons and twangy elastic straps. They make for a most precarious tower.

Every now and then I'll dig through them, an archeological expedition through my own history for gems of ideas that may be worth revisiting. Surely there must be something worth salvaging from all these years of scribbling?

It would help if I could actually understand any of it. At some point in my twenties, my brain gave up on sensible handwriting and instead switched to a kind of scattered shorthand that only makes sense to my own eyes in the moment. It appears to be mostly uppercase, occasionally straying back into lowercase halfway through a sentence or word. Sentences be damned. It looks like the work of a maniac who's been learning how to forge Cy Twombly's shopping lists.

Viewed collectively, patterns appear. There are lists and calculations and epiphanies and doodles, doodles, doodles. Some pages are crammed with dozens of little rectangles, hastily-sketched thumbnails of book cover ideas. Others have nothing but a single word on them, screaming at me to complete an important task – MAILER or VAT or TUNNOCKS. Every now and then different colours are used, presumably serving some kind of logic or code, or perhaps merely celebrating the fact I'd bought a new BIC 4C.

The mental spillage isn't confined to books, despite my considerable investment in them. I have things scrawled onto stray bits of paper, index cards, Post-Its, bookmarks and envelopes (not to mention the wealth on nonsense saved as drafts in pretty much any app that I can type into). None of it is numbered or dated or in any sensible order.

My teetering tower of notes may hold some meaning, a souvenir of the messy workings behind years of professional output, but it's mostly inconsequential or incomprehensible now. Whatever wonderful ideas I once had, the meaning has been lost somewhere between brain and hand and page and time and can only be inferred from the occasional recognisable phrase that stands out from the rest of the gibberish (basically my notebooks are the written equivalent of Rowley Birkin QC, Paul Whitehouse’s very, very drunk anecdotalist from The Fast Show). All of this underlying chaos can't be good for my work or my mind.

Ten years later, and Bierut is now on book 119. It's an enviable routine, and I'm thinking it's time to rethink this part of my own process. Maybe I can get some order and clarity into my work with a fresh batch of no-nonsense, school-grade, basic exercise books. I'll make a real concerted effort to only fill them – right up to the last page – with legible human language. Notes that serve the future as well as the present, a history worth revisiting. And so the tower grows.

Written for Creative Review

Irritating gentlemen, distracted boyfriends and milkshake ducks

“The secret source of humour is not joy but sorrow; there is no humour in heaven” — Mark Twain would’ve loved Twitter. Since its inception in 2006, the platform has become home to both an endless stream of soundbitten misery and a very particular strand of comedic discourse. One-liner by one-liner, professional comedians, satirists, cartoonists and writers have found themselves up against … everyone. A logical progression of the ‘anyone can publish’ thinking that still drives the internet, editors and printing presses are no longer boundaries to getting jokes out there in front of a cackling/heckling public.

But how do jokes work on Twitter? There's endless potential for mirth within that empty text box, but a great deal of it tends to rely on variations of what linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum calls a snowclone – “a multi-use, customisable, instantly recognisable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants” (named after the well-worn journalistic cliche formulation ‘if Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have M words for Y’). And then there are the mini dialogues – short vignettes presented as scripts, with the action denoted by brackets or asterisks, often culminating in a stock punchline.

Phraseology recurs over and over: hold my beer; life comes at you fast; me in 2017, me in 2018; one does not simply walk into …; cop starts breakdancing; record scratch, freeze frame; don’t @ me; #exceedinglylonganduselesslyuniquehashtag; said no-one ever; that feeling when; is your child texting about …; you had one job; etc. This familiarity suits the rapid currents of the Twitterstream – you already recognise the structure, it's just the subject or the context that changes.

Is there a pattern to any of this? Well, they all share an unpolished immediacy, or an appearance of it at least (who knows how long these jokes linger as drafts) while making use of typographic limitations conjuring a certain naïvety in a default deadpan voice.

A relatively recent addition to all of this is ‘Milkshake Duck’, a snowclone that draws its template from a tweet by Ben Ward (@pixelatedboat) that captures the zeitgeist of relentless celebrity scandal: “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshake! 5 seconds later We regret to inform you the duck is racist”. The phrase has now found itself canonised as slang, at hand for yet another awful revelation about an adored public figure. The Australian Macquarie Dictionary even anointing ‘Milkshake Duck’ their word of the year.

Images add another layer of endless tropes to contend with, but for the sake of oversimplification, it basically comes down to this: it's all one massive caption competition. Again this largely comes down to following familiar structures; original photos that slot into an visual snowclone. For example, found text that fits exactly the rhythm of a famous lyric – apparently there's endless potential for words that match the cadence of Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’. And what Dolly Parton fan could resist a shot of four loaves of Soreen? Once you've seen it highlighted by Sean Leahy (@thepunningman), it's hard to believe that Groupon's headline “BUY NOW: Prosecco and a ‘wow’ burlesque show, plus a meal for two” was written without Oasis’ Wonderwall in mind.

With others, the image itself is the constant; stock images that crystallise a particular theme. Berthold Woltze's 1874 painting The Irritating Gentleman, with its Jim-from-The-Office glance to camera, has become a shorthand depiction of mansplanation (still the default mode of discourse for great swathes of Twitter's users). And one of the silver linings of the Trump presidency has been the appearance of the Prankster Joe meme – user-captioned photos of erstwhile Vice President Joe Biden apparently explaining his latest Trump-baiting prank to a mildly despairing Barack Obama.

These are just a few examples within examples – despite the best efforts of sites like knowyourmeme.com to classify and track them, it's impossible to ever pin down a definition of any particular trope for very long. The nature of Twitter humour is that it's a moving target. The creativity comes with endless variation and adaptation; usurping the expectations of the joke itself becomes the joke, until the original joke is no longer recognisable and the humour relies on recognising the process of mutation.

To see how far one joke can be stretched, observe the fate of a seemingly innocuous stock image by photographer Antonio Guillem. As a man gasps at a passing woman in a red dress, his partner glares at the back of his head disapprovingly. At some point somebody came up with the idea of labelling each of the characters in this seemingly universal dynamic (it’s thought that the original take on it was to illustrate, of all things, Phil Collins being wooed away from prog to pop), and over the course of 2017, a constant supply of variations on the Distracted Boyfriend image appeared, becoming ever-more bizarre and self-referential. The same models had been used for other stock images that Twitter users gleefully constructed into some kind of narrative (in summary: that guy is the worst), jokes branching off from jokes. There was now a plot. And then in January of this year, it took another leap: Tom Cruise tweeted a still from the new Mission: Impossible film that echoed the composition of Guillem's original photo. Within minutes, it had been remixed and reinterpreted and Photoshopped into surreality. On Twitter, with a captive audience able to recognise call-backs and iterations, everything becomes in-jokes about in-jokes about in-jokes.

Try raising any of the examples given here with somebody not on the network, and chances are they'll have no idea what you're talking about. What happens on Twitter stays on Twitter. These joke formats, structures and affections are often unique to Twitter's particular context of syntax and constraints – themselves subject to constant change. From the beginning, Twitter has repeatedly adapted to how it's being used. Hashtags, retweets, images, polls, emoji and GIFs have all been integrated over the years, each bringing new mechanisms for humour.

What's next for this perpetual and perplexing open-mic might? Twitter's most recent, and briefly controversial, evolutionary step was expanding the 140 character limit to 280. Combined with integrated tweet-threading, this has changed the rhythm and nature of the network, and with it the humour. While some bemoan the loss of succinctness and the creativity that stemmed from those confines; this broader canvas offers an interesting opportunity for longer jokes; storytelling can now coexist with the one-liners. Here, amongst the sorrow and the joy, is a new frontier for writers, voices, brands to forge new tropes and narrative forms. Unexpectedly, Twitter may have become the saviour of long copy.

Written for Creative Review

A Designer’s Art by Paul Rand

Poster based on Rand's cover for Direction magazine, 1939

Paul Rand is a little gap on my bookshelf. Princeton Architectural Press’ recent reprint of his 1985 monograph A Designer's Art (complete with obligatory afterword by Steven Heller) pretty much lives on my desk these days. Over 27 essays, he discusses a wide range of subjects still pertinent to design today, all accompanied by numerous examples of his work (more of which can be found at paul-rand.com). Demonstrating Rand's ability to simplify shape and colour and space into the most striking form, it's surprising how contemporary much of it seems – there are posters and covers and identities in here from seventy years ago that could've been made yesterday. One gripe: given Rand’s distinctive use of colour, it’s a shame that some of the images are black and white. Still, it's a stunning collection and offers a valuable education from one of design's greatest teachers; open it on any page and there's something that will spark inspiration. An essential read for designers, artists and everything in-between.

A Designer’s Art, 1985

Minute Man National Historic Park poster, 1974

Dada poster, 1951

The International Design Conference in Aspen poster, 1966

IBM poster, 1981

AIGA poster, 1968

Yale University School of Art poster, 1988

Leonardo da Vinci exhibition catalogue, 1970

Westinghouse Annual Report, 1974

The Pebbles on the Beach

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We’ve just returned from three glorious days of seaside frolicking at Boggle Hole in Robin Hood’s Bay. Within moments of arriving, I dawned on me that I’d made a huge mistake and neglected to buy Clarence Ellis’ rock-spotter’s guide The Pebbles on the Beach. Faber's beautiful new edition, designed by Alex Kirby and illustrated by Eleanor Crow, has a wonderful fold-out jacket for easy reference and would’ve really come in handy for imparting some geological wisdom to my boy.

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In its absence, he had to make do with my own home-brewed classifications, such as: small pebble; largish pebble; black pebble with a stripe; pebble that is probably a new potato; don’t touch that pebble, a dog made it; and fossil it’s a fossil FOSSIL no wait it’s seaweed.

Pestering artists about their pens

Jeffrey Alan Love recently tweeted a sketch, simply captioned “illustrator’s funeral”. Leaning over an open casket, a mourner asks one final question of the deceased: “What pen was that?”.

Ah yes, the question, I know it well. Artists, particularly those with distinctive styles (such as none-more-black Love), must spend an unseemly amount of time fielding this one. The thing is, it’s not so much the corpse I relate to in this situation, but the inquisitor. I don’t know why, but I simply must know what tools people use.

Years ago, I read an interview with cartoonist and illustrator Tom Gauld, in which he declared the Uniball Eye Micro his favourite pen. Jealous of his robots and monsters and jetpacks, I immediately bought one, certain that it would magically imbue me with his drawing skills and invention. And sure enough … well apparently pens don’t work like that.

Still, who am I to let the obvious realities of the universe get in my way? Years later, I still love reading about what’s in other people’s pencil cases, and picking these things up, hoping to immediately adopt some new technique or style.

And yes, dead or alive, I will pester people directly. What pen was that? Where can I get one? And what about that? What pen was that? Creatives have made themselves constantly botherable, the immediacy of social networks allowing me to tap them on the shoulder day or night with whatever inane question has popped into my head. What am I supposed to do, just leave it un-asked, let the curiosity fester in my mind? That can’t be healthy.

Yes, I’m aware that, as well as being bloody annoying, the question is also kind of incredibly insulting. The insinuation is that the credit for the work goes to the tool rather than the hand – “Wow, you’re so talented at choosing pens! They make such wonderful pictures while you hold them! Teach me where I might procure these mystical ink-wands!”

Maybe I would give it a rest if only they didn’t respond – but they always respond. Even when having their talents tacitly undermined, it turns out that people who love pens love talking about pens.

So now I have a big pot full of the accumulated preferences of strangers. Copic markers, Japanese brush pens, graphite sticks and obscure imported mechanical pencils of very particular pedigrees and girths. I’ve even developed a thing for expensive professional pencil sharpeners, as if they will somehow improve anything. And now I’ve started sketching on my iPad, I have a whole new line of enquiry. Yes, that’ll be me at the funeral, politely harassing the deceased’s family about Procreate brush settings.

And yet, as much as I leech other’s inventories, this obsession over the tools of others isn’t actually reflected in my own work. The more coveted and hard-to-get a pen is, the more likely it will stay in my pot, untouched and precious. Sure, the Gauld-approved Uniball still gets a lot of use – but mostly for writing shopping lists.

I suspect my own response to “what pen was that?” would be rather uninspiring. I invariably end up with whatever is in reach: one of the numerous almost-dry felt-tips scattered about the house; a shattered and blotchy kitchen-drawer Bic; that antique Argos pen that hibernates in the lining of my coat.

And of course – of course! – it doesn’t matter one jot. A pen, all you need is a pen. Find your own line. Whatever it takes to get the drawing from in here to out there, to make some marks and get ideas down onto … onto … um … What paper is that?

Written for Creative Review

Personal project: Madame Bovary

Way over here on the furthest back of back-burners, I am very gradually working my way through David Bowie's list of 100 favourite books, redesigning the cover for each title. Here’s the latest, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The picture is Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s 1870 painting A Woman Reading. I’ve posted/deleted this four times now. The problem with personal projects is that there’s no client to take it off my hands, so I end up tweaking and tweaking and tweaking and …