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 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 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. 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