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

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

Type safari

If you have a bit of time on your hands (or indeed if you don’t, but are procrastinatively inclined), may I recommend a stroll down the infinite scroll of typesetting.co. It’s an archive of type found on the streets of Leeds – all the painted, stencilled, chiselled, carved, forged, tiled, scrawled, unique, peculiar characters that populate the city. A welcome change from the sterile perfection that your computer beams into your eyes all day long.

Inspired by this, I’ve taken it upon myself to explore the veritable type safari on my own doorstep, to photograph the wild words of York. It’s a very different city to Leeds, significantly more compact and touristic, less susceptible than its industrial neighbour to the effects of commercial regeneration and Greggsification. But there’s still a lot to unearth here. It was built by Vikings, Romans, printers, chocolatiers, philanthropists, tourists; a jumble of history crammed together in a maze of streets and Snickelways and Shambles, all of it peppered with type. Some of it is obsolete, some of it is still functional, all of it is interesting. And I want to capture it all.

So now, any time I’m out and about – when I’m meant to be errand-doing or child-fetching or pub-frequenting – I’ll have my phone unholstered, ready to shoot any fragments of typographic history that cross my path.

On streets constantly a-heave with tourists, this can be a particularly entertaining pastime. With a muttered “ooh that’s nice”, I’ll stop and point my camera at an awkwardly-located bit of type clinging to the side of a building. Immediately, the effects of crowd psychology will kick in around me. Looking up at something invariably makes others else look up, in case they’re missing something worth looking up at. This contagious gaze is only exacerbated by me point-and-clicking whatever it is up there. What has he found? It must be wonderful! Maybe a medieval thingamajig, or one of those Elizabethan somethingorothers!

But no, it’s just a funny-looking comma. Or an infuriatingly upside-down H. Or something large and unpronounceable branded onto the side of a trendily repurposed shipping container. Or a meticulously hand-painted and uncanny approximation of something that may have once been Futura. Or BANK hewn proudly into the brickwork above the door of a coffee shop. Or one of a thousand wonky house-numbers. So many words and numbers taken for granted by residents and visitors alike.

(Not all of it is ignored. York’s most famous, and questionably repainted, ghost-sign even has its own merchandise. Nightly Bile Beans Keep You Healthy Bright-Eyed & Slim … on a t-shirt. Everything here is ripe for tourism.)

It’s the really old, unloved finds – those pieces of type that have somehow survived years of urban rearrangement and renewal – that are the most interesting. And it’s not their age as such, rather the effect time has had upon them. Faded lettering emphasised by an outline of rust; edges and angles deformed by a century of repainting; characters eroded by the miniature desire paths of fingers traced over them again and again; logos colliding in the sedimentary layers of wheat-pasted gig posters. This is more like geology than typography.

It’s a constantly surprising pastime. I’ve always been conscious of the type out there, but only in passing moments, observations here and there. There’s a difference between noticing something and actively looking for it.

I was expecting to take a few snaps of some nice old letters, but it’s become more than that. The concerted effort of hunting has opened my eyes to appreciate how all of these stray moments of type co-exist, function and contribute to the vernacular identity of the city. The photographs I bring home are souvenirs of a renewed fascination with history, with the city, with design.

Written for Creative Review

Art gallery

Staving off freelancer hermitism, I’ve decided to get myself out of the house, find other places to work every once in a while. So today I’m at York Art Gallery. It’s a great spot – there are comfy seats, a respectable wifi signal and a serenity rarely found at home.

Just the gentle background hum of polite coughs and slow footsteps, interrupted by the occasional flat automated voice of the lift, filling the silence with a notification of her movements. It’s all nice, the perfect environment for getting my head down and some work done. Except no. Within minutes, it becomes apparent that this was all a terrible, stupid idea. I forgot about one little thing. This place is full of art. Bloody art.

How am I supposed to get anything done when there’s all this art staring at me, demanding attention and appreciation? And it’s not just any art. Right now (and until April 15), York Art Gallery is hosting Paul Nash and the Uncanny Landscape: An Exhibition Curated by John Stezaker.

The interwar paintings of Nash and his contemporaries don’t interest me so much, but the Stezaker half of the show is particularly diverting. Deadlines be buggered, I make a beeline to the room housing dozens of his distinctive pieces.

Full disclosure – pretty much every time I enter an art gallery I succumb to a few shameful moments of knee-jerk “Well I could’ve done that” response (joining other heretical art gallery thoughts jostling in my head, such as “Can I just go to the shop and buy some postcards now?” and “This place would be great for Laser Quest” and “I NEED TO TOUCH EVERYTHING”) and this time is no different.

I mean, look at it – collage is easy! It’s one of the basic skills you need as a parent. Just cut some pictures out of Grazia and liberally apply Pritt Stick … maybe some pasta shapes, crepe paper, rainbow stickers, glitter, hair … right?

Such philistinism soon passes though. I’ve been getting into collage a lot recently (thanks in part to a wonderful Mark Lazenby illustration for this very column, in part to picking up an old copy of Terry Gilliam’s Animations of Mortality). Spending time up close with Stezaker’s work, I appreciate the craft of it even more.

Most of his pieces feature only a couple of images. It’s not so much about the physical act of chopping and sticking pictures (although that is awfully satisfying); it’s about the selection, the editing, the cropping. He takes two points of the universe and reconfigures them just so. I’d love to see his studio, the piles and piles of books and magazines and postcards rejected in favour of these finished pairings.

Glamorous portraits of Hollywood starlets are interrupted by trees and caverns and cliffs. Landscapes contort into new dimensions with a simple diagonal intersection slicing across the image. Land and sky become one disorientating Möbius horizon. He digests a century of photography and finds uneasy connections between glamour and horror. It’s all quite beautiful, absurd and unsettling.

Collage is about finding new meaning in existing images; a direct line between idea and composition. Perhaps that’s why I like it – I identify with it as a pure form of design more than as art. Most of Stezaker’s pieces are a text box away from being fantastic book covers. Which reminds me … I’m supposed to be doing some of that myself. Time to abandon this accursed temple of wonderful distraction and find somewhere I can concentrate without being surrounded by hundreds of lovely things that demand to be appreciated. The library maybe. But first, some postcards.


Written for Creative Review

An A-Z new year checklist

Happy new year! The cheeseboard is bare, the Baileys has run dry, and auld acquaintance be forgot – time to get back to work. Time to pause and reflect on how and where and why you do what you do. Behold, an A to Z checklist of all the things you need to get the year off to a good start.

Archive — Put last year away, it’s cluttering up the place. Make some space for new adventures.

Books — Ignore that weird creaking sound the floorboards are making under tsundoku stack #4 – you need more books and you need to read them. Penguin’s magazine-as-book-group, The Happy Reader, is a good way to throw yourself into some forgotten classics (the current issue is centred around Yevgeny Zamyatin’s sci-fi oddity, We). And remember that big building in town with all the books that you can take home for free? It misses you ever so much.

Caffeine — How will you brew your cuppa in 2018? Stove-top? Filter? Press? Pump? Bean-to-cup? Pod? Capsule? Pour-over? Hit the sales and try out a new method from the baffling array of grown-up chemistry sets available.

Decaffeine — Or, you know, maybe just give in to option paralysis and start the year by giving coffee a break for a while. See if you can function without a constant flow of addictive psychoactive laxatives in your system.

Exhibitions — Take some time to scour the websites of every museum and gallery you can think of, and fill your diary with anything that might be of interest. Never again find out about your dream show a week after it closes.

Fonts — Go on, treat yourself. You’ve been relying on that same tired selection for far too long. Dip into Paul McNeil’s wonderful The Visual History of Typeand pick out some new/old favourites to play with.

Getaway — Just because you’ve only just got back to your desk doesn’t mean it’s too soon to plan your next escape from it. The occasional weekend in a peaceful seaside village with crap internet will do you the world of good. Book it now.

Humans — You know those lovely people you exchange puns with on the internet? The ones you’ve known for several years? How about actually meeting them at some point? A long lunch with some of your favourite tweeters is probably a lot more productive and fun than that hideously expensive conference you were thinking of attending.

iMac Pro — You’re a professional, right? Well then, obviously you need one of these! And no scrimping on the spec like a big impostering amateur – decked out with all of the trimmings, it’ll only cost you a smidge over £13k. Remember, you’re investing in you.

Journal — Find a space to gather and develop your thoughts, either on paper or online, away from the incessant demands of social media. Artist/writer Austin Kleon recently returned to the now rather quaint habit of daily blogging, and rediscovered the benefits: “Blogging is a mode of thinking … about discovering what I have to say; tweeting is more about having a thought, then saying it right away.” It’s about finding your voice rather than making a noise.

K — Your printer has run out of black ink. Again. Now would be a good time to top it up. Again. Maybe consider doing more work in 100% Magenta this year.

Letraset — Thanks to Unit Editions’ new book, Letraset: The DIY Typography Revolution, rubdown lettering will be making a delightful, nostalgic mess everywhere this year. Dedicate a sizeable chunk of January to obsessively checking eBay for old sheets of obscure typefaces, patterns and Paddington Action Transfers.

Meditation — The new year is probably going to be a horrible pile of deadlines and invoice-chasing and drizzle, so when it’s all getting a bit much, calm your mind with a guided meditation app such as Calm or Headspace. (Alternatively, closing your eyes and listening to Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel on loop for an hour also does the trick.)

Nature — Get a plant. Give it a name. Be nice to it.

Optimism — Political schadenfreude has become the lazy, easy option. Stop it. By all means continue to be distraught by the horrors of certain world leaders and national identity crises, but find some balance – dedicate more energy to seeking out and celebrating the people who make the world a better place. Find small wonders and amplify them.

Password — We now live in the distant future of 2018, a bewildering, science-fictional place full of robots and clones and pizza delivery drones. And yet for some reason, passwords still exist. Try to get on top of your archaic mess of letters and numbers and other characters by bundling them up with a password manager. Life is too short to have to remember more than one thing.

Quiet — Not every sense needs to be pushed to the limit every second of the day – sometimes it’s okay to put your headphones on and listen to absolutely nothing. See what you can create without the constant background hum of people and music and traffic and the universe.

Routine — It’s tempting to launch yourself into the new year all flailing and pumped. Take time to get yourself back into a calm and sensible routine; pace yourself and get some pattern and order to things. Structure your days and weeks and months. Make lists. Make way too many lists. Arbitrarily alphabetise some of them.

Stationery — Got all the pens you need? Are your pencils pointy-pointy? Is your stapler fully loaded? How are you for bulldog clips? Have you cleaned that gluey gunk off of your best scissors? Look after your stationery and your stationery will look after you.

Three hundred and sixty five … something — Now would be the time to start that daily project thing you spent all of last year contemplating. A daily doodle, photograph, robot, haiku, tattoo, noise, whatever.

Unsubscriptions — You spent 2017 signing up for way too many marketing emails. And you don’t actually read most of those newsletters that plink into your inbox, do you? Make an effort to scroll to the bottom and do some judicious unsubscribing. Unroll.me is rather handy for this.

Vinyl — Give all of your records a good clean. Maybe treat yourself to a new stylus. You don’t want to start the year with excessive crackle, no matter how warm you think it sounds.

Wardrobe — Do try to make an effort this year. Yes, you, the work-from-home freelancer in the Lebowski cosplay. Just because your bed-to-fridge-to-desk commute doesn’t require you to cross paths with any other humans, GET DRESSED. Nobody ever designed anything of any worth in their pyjamas.

X-Acto — Get yourself some proper tools. Learn how to cut and copy and paste in the real world. Make a mess. And maybe get some plasters in as well.

Youthquake — It’s still not clear what OED’s word of the year actually means, but it sounds like it might be a nutritious cereal bar of some kind. See if you can order a batch in for mid-morning snacks.

Zero — Respond to those last few emails still lingering from last year and empty that inbox. And while you’re at it, zero your favourites. And likes. And bookmarks. And pins. Zero everything. Everything. Start it all anew.

Written for Creative Review

Flâneur

I’m in that London you hear so much about (you know, the one off the telly) and I’ve got time to kill before I have to return to York. I think I might get lost. I came down to catch up with a client. The meeting went better than expected – there were sandwiches and I didn’t break anything. Most of my interactions with clients and suppliers and suchlike are conducted via email (and increasingly via abrupt quick-fire exchanges on Twitter DMs), so being a proper human in a room with other proper humans made a nice change.

Of course, unfamiliar with how human interaction normally works out here in the wild, I completely misjudged how long the meeting would take. My train isn’t due for another six hours. Plenty of time for a good wander. I kind of know where I am and I kind of know where I need to be, so I point myself in the general direction of King’s Cross and let my feet take me where they want to go.

I’m soon reminded that most of my usual haunts on the internet are merely simulacra of this wonderful city. There’s that gallery I’ve seen pictures of! There’s that agency! And that one! That shop is an actual place! It’s all real!

When chance and thirst dictate, I stop for a sit and a coffee; a chance to doodle and catch up with whatever urgencies have appeared on my phone. It’s good to work and think somewhere else for the day, if only to be joggled out of all those little familiar routines and ruts.

I’ve come to realise that being partially-lost in London is one of my favourite pastimes. I am no longer a designer, I am a flâneur – “a man who saunters around observing society”. The trick is inefficiency. You must ignore the pace of the harried, drudgerised locals. They have places to be, things to tut at. The more your journey slows you down, the better. The tube is to be avoided at all costs. You’ll see nothing that way, just people wanting to be somewhere else. 

If you absolutely must use public transport, try to get upstairs on a bus – that way you at least get the benefit of being able to peer into people’s windows (remember: it’s not voyeurism, it’s sociology) – but ideally, you want to stay on foot. Once you’ve figured out the general direction you want to be sauntering in, zigzag. Go down as many side-streets as possible. Each is a microcosm, full of characters and history and really quite peculiar smells.

Compared to the compact historical theme park that is York, London is vast and fast and more than a little science fictional (plus there’s a disconcerting absence of Vikings). I’ve known this place my whole life, but it never gets old. Fresh nooks and crannies are everywhere; the ever-changing snaggle-tooth skyline constantly unrecognisable.

It reminds me of Alex Proyas’ 1998 sci-fi thriller Dark City, in which the city shifts and churns into new forms each night. All the protagonist can do is explore the city anew, struggling to make sense of the impermanence of his habitat. Of course, the city is only behaving in such a way because it is trying to make sense of him. He is merely a rat in a maze, an unwitting flâneur rodentia.

Eventually my feet find their destination, and my saunter concludes with the traditional “ooh doesn’t King’s Cross look lovely these days” proclamation to nobody in particular. And then it’s back to York, back to my little desk, back to the little city that lives in my computer.


Written for Creative Review

LP

There’s a theory that recorded voices can be drawn from tiny irregularities in the surface of ancient ceramic vases, having picked up vibrations while their clay was still fresh; like grooves laid in vinyl.

It’s probably a load of baloney, but it’s a nice idea. Along those lines, I’d like to think that each of my projects has a bit of music in it; the rhythms of the grid subconsciously translated from whatever I was listening to when I worked on it. 

On a big diagram of creative pursuits that has yet to be drawn, design and music are clearly seen to be opposite poles, complementary forms. Distinct enough to avoid one pastiching or disturbing the other, but similar enough to inspire and influence. They may work on different senses, but they share an underlying language of repetition and rhythm, colour and shape.

This is especially true when it comes to LPs, a tidy containedness that neatly reflects the defined boundaries of a design. I grew up with C30, C60, C90, so I’m hard-wired to appreciate music in neatly defined albumular shapes, pre-sequenced packages, structures within structures. The freeform shuffle of iTunes and Spotify has its place, but I’m not going to get any work done tossing coins into an infinite jukebox. I love daily morning ritual of flicking through my collection, from Ant Music to Zooropa, to select the day's soundtrack. Once that's done, no more distracting decisions to be made.

LPs have beginnings and ends, but most importantly, they have middles. Middles that demand attention. The necessity to get up and walk across the room to flip the disc offers a welcome break from the staring and clicking repetition. That brilliant idea isn’t going to magically appear on the desk you’ve been hunched over for five hours. Observe the silence of the album, start again, reset your brain, get out of a thinking-rut. Stretch your legs, pore over some liner notes and stroke that sleeve art. But most of all, play the music.

Fast and slow, quiet and loud, every good record holds valuable lessons that can be applied abstractly to whatever you’re working on. A conversation between black circle and white rectangle. When you’re elbow-deep in grids and guidelines, a mire of technical considerations and constraints, music reminds you that design should be alive and vibrating. Warren Zevon’s hairy-handed gent who ran amok in Kent; Michael Hutchence shouting “trumpet!” to introduce a saxophone solo; Eddie Vedder making glorious Eddie Vedder noises. A single nugget of pure silliness or joy or truth nestled in the middle of a song can breathe life back into whatever you’re working on.

When it happens, when it kicks in, my computer ceases to be a tool, it becomes percussion. Drumming with fingers, peddling with feet, lots of finger-clicking and … hey, ho, let's go!


Written for Creative Review

Nothing

I have nothing on my mind. Not nothing-nothing, you understand, but nothing. This was the subject of a book I worked on recently: the concept of nothing, the value of nothing, the significance and interpretation of an absence of … thing. Weird and fascinating texts written by intimidatingly clever people cross my desk all the time, but this one was a bit special. I’ll let you in on a little publishing industry secret: most books are, by and large, about something. Something is the designer’s friend. You know where you are with something. Nothing, now that’s a rare visitor. What does it want? Where do you put it? What does it look like?

There is, of course, one very obvious answer. Not that it was obviously obvious to me at the time. After an awful lot of staring at a blank page, I got there eventually: nothing looks like nothing. This was the beginning of a half-formed, sort-of idea. And then I came across Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read blog, documenting in generous detail the creative process behind his work on Italo Calvino’s backlist. Apparently he’s had nothing on his mind too, highlighting this pertinent quote from Calvino’s The Arrow in the Mind:

“Is the blank also a colour? The blank is the colour of the mind. The mind has a colour that we never see because some other colour always passes through our minds and superimposes itself on our gaze.”

The colour of the mind. Who could resist having a stab at that? Subscribing to the Adamantian philosophy that under no circumstances should you fear ridicule, one of the cover concepts that I pitched to my client was blank. No title, no author, no fake stickers. Simply nothing (see above).

It was swiftly, politely, justifiably rejected. This wasn’t a massive surprise – it was always going to be a bit of a long shot. Somewhere between apt and unmarketable, it was one of those ideas that would either hit the brief squarely on the head or hit a wall. To the wall it went. But it’s still on my mind, and now I’m questioning all of my assumptions about nothingness in book design and what a cover should or shouldn’t be. As with any physical format awkwardly adjusting to the digital world, it’s impossible to pin down quite how books are supposed to behave from one day to the next – into this void of uncertainty, devilish advocacy spills from my mind …

Such as:

Why not nothing? Does a book’s cover really need to have anything on it? Displayed for sale online, all of the pertinent details are typically displayed next to it. It’s nice to have the title and author and all that word-jazz on there, but it’s no longer essential. The cover can be relieved of its duties, free to become a blank canvas for a more expressionist interpretation of the text.

And:

Here in the real world, on the shelf of a library or shop, isn’t the spine more important than the cover anyway? Why do we never talk about spines? Do spines not deserve our love?

Also:

Designers are breaking and remaking the visual language of books all the time. Text is removed, reshaped, redacted. At what point does the unconventional become the conventional? (After a lot of confusion, apparently. There are reports of readers who scratched away the overprinted blackness of David Pearson’s fantastic Nineteen Eighty-Four cover to get to the title, the deliberate obfuscation interpreted as a challenge to emancipate the norm. Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity! had the opposite problem: too much text. The story starts right there on the front and continues on the endpaper, denying the reader that usual initial breathing space. Whole shipments were returned as faulty.)

Of course, the music industry answered all of these questions long ago, going through its own revolution of design abstraction. Record sleeves constantly disrupt conventions and expectations. One example springs to mind, a sleeve that shares very subtle design nuances with my own book cover: The Beatles’ White Album. Nothing but a square of nothing. It is the apotheosis of blankness …

Except that it isn’t blank any more. Artist Rutherford Chang recently collected hundreds of copies for his We Buy White Albums project, and not a single one is immaculate. Each is marked with unique discolourations, stains, rips, stickers and vandalisms. Seen together, they display the incredible diversity that identical nothings can attain over five decades. Time reveals the colour of the mind. Nothing is merely a vacuum, to eventually be occupied by a million somethings.


Written for Creative Review

On designing with colour

The other day, listening to a recent episode of North v South, Jonathan Elliman and Rob Turpin’s banterful design podcast, I found myself fervently nodding along to a particular subject of conversation. Turpin made an admission that sounded all too familiar:

“I don’t understand why people seem to see so much more colour than me. To me, the grass is green. Maybe two or three shades of green. But some people innately have this ability to see another spectrum of colour – they’ll paint a self-portrait and it’ll be purples and greens and deep ochres. I’ll paint a self portrait and it’ll be … pink. Can they see more colour than me? Is there something psychological that prevents me from recognising or expressing those colours?”

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Working from home

“… and it wasn’t a factory, it was a prison! So they kicked everyone and turned into helicopters! And they flew off like THWOPPA THWOPPA THWOPPA!” — the boy is updating me on the latest escapades of his Transformers. I think. To be honest, I’m giving him completely divided attention. My brain is still upstairs on my desk, dealing with a flurry of demands that keep plinking into my inbox. It’s one of those weeks where all of the deadlines happen at once. Printers and art directors and marketers – everyone needs everything right now.

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Decluttering

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
—William Morris

“What’s all this crap on my desk? Bloody hell.”
—Daniel Benneworth-Gray

It’s a new year, and my work is down there somewhere, beneath sedimentary layers of paper and crockery and present-wrapping detritus and lord knows what; physical clutter that mirrors the mess of half-formed ideas, anxieties and distractions still lingering from 2016. It’s hard to get motivated. Time to tidy, to simplify, to start the year afresh.

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Full Table

I’m sorry. By the end of this post, I will have completely eradicated all productivity from the rest of your day, simply by mentioning fulltable.com. Don’t worry, this isn’t the first of a ‘hey check out this URL, it’s like totes inspirational’ series (if I was going to do that, every month would simply be a link to that site where a life-size blue whale swims through your browser window), but this site, The Visual Telling of Stories, is rather special. I simply had to share it … and not just because I thought there was a small chance that it was maybe cursed.

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For almost a year now, I've owned a sealed copy of David Bowie’s final album, ★. And I haven't listened to it, not once. Somewhere between ordering it and receiving it, the unthinkable happened and the context of David Bowie's final album changed in an instant. Bowie clearly knew what was coming – he has always known what is coming – and apparently it's right there in the lyrics, the videos, the design of the album. This isn't merely a collection of new songs, it was an end, a farewell, a sealed envelope on the pillow of a hospital bed. 

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Designing for architects

One of the great things about being a designer – particularly a book designer – is that you’re constantly exposed to a diverse array of industries and subjects. Every job opens up windows to peculiar corners of the universe and little educations in big subjects. For example, on my desktop syllabus right now I have titles on history, film, economics, psychology, art and architecture.

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The end matters – thoughts on index design

It’s offensive o’clock in the morning, I’m sweatily clamped into my headphones, my desk a Spirograph of fresh coffee rings. I’ve been here for hours. And right now I’m very aware that I’m not doing two of my favourite things: creating and blinking. I’ve been designing a big book for the last few weeks; the sort of big book that has lots of big chapters and big pictures and big contributors with big words. After lots of to-ing and fro-ing with editors and proofreaders and publishers, we’re at that very special final stage: the index.

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Holiday

This is incredible. Myself and the wife and the boy have managed to juggle schedules in such a way that we now have a week off. I'm not entirely sure how we did this. Sorcery may have been involved, souls bartered, something dark and unnatural that will one day tear us asunder. But hey, a week off is a week off. And it's not just a regular week off, watching Columbo and painting our toenails – we're going on holiday. I've heard whispers from other freelancers that such a thing is possible, but always assumed it was an urban legend or perhaps a meme I didn't understand. Yet here I am with my lovely family, on a train bound for Keswick and peaceful lakeside frolics. Not travelling with us today: the computer, the inbox, the admin, the reading, the writing, the tweets, the pins, the job. For the next seven days, I am not a designer. 

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My box of bricks: why play is good for design

If I'm being perfectly honest with you, this really doesn't feel like work. I'm in my studio and the problem-solving/creative-genius node in my brain is throbbing away nicely. I'm definitely designing, there's no doubt about that. It's just, well … part of me is very aware that I'm on the floor playing with LEGO.

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