Scents and sense ability

From across the bookshop, I’m being given a quizzical look. Actually, it’s more nuanced than that; I’d say it was a mix of quizzical blended with shades of withering and subtle top notes of you do know you’re doing that in public, right?

And if I’m not mistaken, there’s also a pinch or two of so apparently this is what I’ve married in there too.

Fine, okay. This silent signal tells me that perhaps I’ve been sniffing these endpapers for a bit too long. I gently lower the book from my face, down to regular human reading distance, and pretend to be engrossed in the words or pictures or whatever this thing contains. Something about boats by the look of it. Just be normal.

I can’t help it. Books smell lovely. I’m sure there are all sorts of chemical, biological, and deep-rooted psychological reasons for this, but that’s all beyond me – I’m happy to blithely assume that it all adds up to an indisputable scientific fact. All I know is that when you meet a new book (and after you’ve given the cover a professional/envious glance), it’s only polite to stick your nose in its gutter and enjoy the wonderful stench of ink and print and glue and miscellaneous finishings.

I’ve come to appreciate the importance of smell. Following a head injury a few years ago, my lovely wife (that’s her over there, pretending she doesn’t know me) became anosmic – she completely lost her sense of smell.

The impact of this is less obvious than if you were to lose your hearing or vision, but it has a profound effect on your emotional response to the world around you. Even the most mundane of objects will have something intangible and vital missing, like it’s not entirely that thing anymore.

Thanks to a combination of medication, a regime of retraining the nose/brain with pungent oils, and good old fashioned natural nerve cell recovery, her sense of smell is slowly returning. As she describes it, it’s like everything is coming back into focus. (It’s absurd how limited our vocabulary for this particular sense is; we have to rely on language borrowed from other senses or simply give up and not bother at all – see the abstract stylings of the fragrance industry for more information.)

Going through all of this with her, it’s made me realise quite how much design is becoming geared to one sense only, to the detriment of others. If the 21st-century gets its way, all books will be written on screen, designed on screen, sold on screen. Our wonderful array of senses will be considered an unnecessary barrier to content delivery. It looks like shiny, it feels like shiny, that’s your lot.

Not in the bookshop though. Here, books are immersed in smells and noises and everything else you don’t get online; more than just text delivery receptacles, they’re part of a more complex ecosystem of sensory experience. I particularly enjoy the cookery book section: cunningly located next to the café, browsing is accompanied by the sounds of clinking crockery and the aroma of toasted teacakes. I’m less enamoured with the comics section, plonked next to the customer loo.

A book is more than just what it looks like. So here I am, in their natural habitat, trying to re-educate myself. It’s about the distinctive sound of different paper stocks as the pages turn; it’s about the satisfyingly ragged touch of a deckle edge; it’s about the smelly smell of the endpapers; it’s about the … hang on, I’m getting a glower …

Do not lick that book.

On designing spines

So I’ve decided to start today by tutting at the cereal boxes.

Look at them there, all lined up and colourful. There’s something about the sides of these boxes that is so utterly infuriating. All of that minuscule type and gleeful clutter. Who could possibly need this much immediate information about riboflavin?

Okay, so maybe I’m channeling some unrelated design frustration here. Last night I was struggling with a book design, and these cereals were the first book-shaped, designed-by-somebody objects that caught my eye this morning, so … well they had it coming. Idiot boxes.

Tutting done, I’d better get back to work and get that cover finished. Actually, it wasn’t the cover that stumped me last night, it was the spine. It just wasn’t coming together quite how I wanted it to … and I think I actually managed to injure myself whilst working on it. Trying to typeset a few words at a right angle to the rest of the universe, I had my head tilted awkwardly to one side for far too long and now … is designer’s crick a thing? I definitely have designer’s crick.

I always find this bit to be a peculiar challenge, mentally as well as physically. It tends to be tackled late in the process, the rest of the cover designed, debated and signed off before the publisher has figured out the precise girth of the book. When the magic measurement does arrive (invariably in headache-inducing fractional inches), it’s incredibly satisfying. The existence of a spine promises a physical manifestation for something that has so far only existed on screen. It is the reward of a third dimension.

But doing that dimension justice is fiddly. The spine is the simplest distillation of the text: all you have is the title, maybe the author and publisher. It reduces the book to an entry in a great sideways list that spans the shelves of libraries and homes and bookshops. The spine must be functional yet distinctive; it demands a certain typographic purity that can easily end up looking generic.

Despite all the attention lavished on the cover, it’s the spine that will be on display for the bulk of the book’s life (unless it lives in Amazon Books, the burgeoning real-world version of the online retailer, which retains the face-out, cover-is-everything approach). But you don’t see them being celebrated or revered in the same way as covers. Visual discourse is increasingly biased towards squarish rectangles, dictated by the dimensions of all of our screens and screens and screens. Tall and skinny, spines are an awkward shape: they don’t lend themselves to being shared or discussed or loved, unless they’re part of something bigger. One of a series perhaps, or as a repeated element in a regimented imprint. Or a shelfie. Spines just go about their business, unburdened by glory.

Before I get back to work, it occurs to me that there is one particularly glorious example of design that goes against all of this. In 1999, Dave Eggers managed to get an entire David Foster Wallace short story onto the spine of the third issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Just getting the title on there – Another Example of the Porousness of Various Borders (VI): Projected But Not Improbable Transcript of Author’s Parents’ Marriage’s End, 1971 – is quite a feat in itself. It’s so utterly wonderful, all of that minuscule type and gleeful clutter. I only have half as many words as that to contend with and …

Okay, so maybe I need to apologise to the cereal boxes.

Written for Creative Review

Accidental Carson


There are very few aesthetics that can be unintentionally yet accurately replicated, but there’s a house for sale near us that has – presumably in a bold effort to avoid dealing with estate agents – completely nailed the early nineties David Carson look. This could easily be a spread from Ray Gun or Blah Blah Blah. Just imagine what the paperwork for this sale will look like! Presumably this guerilla approach to the property market will see … ahem … the end of fine print?

280 degrees of design

I didn’t study design at university – it was film and theatre for me – so I’ve always been curious about what I missed. Yesterday I tweeted a request for design graduates to summarise in 280 characters or fewer what they had learnt from their degree … and was rather taken aback by the volume of responses. Some highlights:

I learned an awful lot about the history of art and design, even more about the construction of books and how things can be produced in multiples, the value of a single line, and absolutely zilch about business. I would not change a single thing.
Anna Dorfman

The relationship, value, and exploitation of the intersection between thinking and making.
Mitch Goldstein

That there is a hidden arrow in the FedEx logo … that's all I truly remember, which is awful. However, I think that in terms of design it just gave me the space to explore my creativity alongside fellow creatives which is priceless.
Lex Lofthouse

Design can’t be ‘completed’ in three years at Uni. We experimented, learnt from people willing to share. Failed, failed again & this will keep happening. Your idea is not original, it is what you do with it that brings it to life. The mac was a tool. Explore!
Owen Turner

I learnt that becoming an illustrator requires far too much effort … and that before you're allowed to start any project you need to fill eight sketchbooks with research.
Steven Marsden

Critical thinking, how to critique your own work, understanding and implementing feedback from peers and tutors, semiotics, and always use a spraybooth if you are using SprayMount.
Matt Needle

The importance of ideas. The role of a designer in culture / society. The ethical significance and power of design for good/ill. The techniques and tricks to grab attention, to confuse, to communicate etc. The importance of group crits and sharing. Also, Foosball.
Luke Tonge

University lacked knowledge, real life experiences and learning about potential business problems. How to go around winning new business, invoice, chasing clients, brand promotion have been things I've learnt the hard way since graduating. Seemed too relaxed.
Aaron Miller

DO NOT paint your face with cadmium red oil paint.
Brian LaRossa

They taught me to learn and keep learning. To study current and past design solutions and techniques. Study the masters and what made them tick. To observe current trends. My teachers weren't extraordinary designers or business managers, but I value what they gave me in four years.
Derek Gabryszak

That in countries where secondary education is very STEM focussed (looking at you, Deutschland), having the time to slow-poke your way into creative thought structure at a Dutch design academy can be invaluable for the rest of your life in design and beyond. Art school basically taught me this.
Julia Errens

How to learn. And that a career in design is about constant learning (and unlearning).
Ben Brears

It seems to be an equal balance of lessons in the philosophical, practical, social and redundant. Pretty much in line with my own experience, just a few subjects over. Anyway, thank you to everyone who responded! The thread is still open if you want to add your own experience. Hopefully it will all be of some use to educators and prospective students wondering what they’re letting themselves in for.

Small joys

Thanks to Marie Kondo, there’s a whole lot of talk about “sparking joy” at the moment, mostly in the context of auditing/justifying your clutter. It seems a shame to only acknowledge tiny moments of pure happiness when you’re contemplating whether or not to incinerate an old sweater, so last year I stole an idea from chuckle maven Moose Allain and started cataloguing my own small joys on twitter. There’s no real purpose to it, just a thread of tiny sparks worth acknowledging. Perhaps getting them down in words somehow makes them more real, more cherished? Anyway, here’s a few: 

  • Looking up at the sound of a jet, only to see a tiny bird flying past.

  • The sound of a tent zip.

  • Picking exactly the right size screwdriver first time.

  • Draping your arm across your head like some kind of limb hat.

  • Reading Polly Vernon’s Grazia column on the loo.

  • Realising that The Crown will eventually have to do an It’s A Royal Knockout episode.

  • The beeping of the till at WHSmith in Victoria Station that sounds exactly like the intro to Take On Me.

  • Smacking a Tunnock’s Teacake on your head with just the right force to break the shell into even shards that can then be picked off savoured.

  • Going round the house and opening all the blinds in the morning. The small joy of pretending to have the awesome power of making the sun rise.

  • Hot air balloons. Flying in, hearing, spotting, everything.

  • Giving a lost tourist directions.

  • That brief moment of nirvana between trailers and film, when the screen is black and silent and you’ve momentarily forgotten what you’ve come to see.

  • The boy immediately falling asleep at the end of a bedtime story.*

  • Michael Hutchence introducing the sax solo in New Sensation by shouting “trumpet!”

  • Catching something, anything (rare).

  • “Washed and ready to eat.”

  • Peeking behind a book jacket to find another bit of bonus bronze design.

  • Sending and receiving postcards. Really must do this more.

  • New book smell.

  • Old book smell.

  • Building a dam, changing the course of a stream, even just a little bit.

  • Desire paths.

  • Finding your receipt in a book you bought decades ago.

  • Finding someone else’s annotations in a second-hand book. 

  • The recorded announcement on the Leeds-York train that for some reason sounds like “We will shortly be arriving at … Björk”.

  • The way the tittle and umlaut line up just so in Björk.

  • Sitting at the front of the top of the bus. Yes, even when you’re forty.

  • … even better than this, sitting at the front of the Docklands Light Railway and pretending to be the driver.

  • Cello.

  • Getting the family parking spot closest to the door at Tesco, aka the best damn space in the whole damn car park.

  • Spotting the ISS.

  • The fortnightly evening clink of everyone’s recycling bins leaving home.

  • Observing correct Kit Kat protocol – from the fridge; thumbnail foil-score; snapping off a digit; snapping digit in two; cold milk chaser.

  • Discovering an accidental waferless all-chocolate finger of Kit Kat. Not sure if this still happens, but I like to think there’s still some out there, somewhere.

  • Kit Kats in general. I should probably make a separate list of Kit Kat-related joy.

* There are of course innumerable boy-related small joys, most of which are unique and fleeting. Just this morning he accused me of being a bad lawyer. I have no idea why.