Porpoise poem


With the news that five porpoises have been sighted far up the Thames following the recent storm surge, I thought I’d welcome them with this poem that I wrote a while ago. It’s taken from a collection called Songs for Animals which we plan to produce in book form one day, but we have no idea when.


I asked a pair of porpoises
what the purpoise of a porpoise is –
and whether dolphins are like porpoises
to all intents and purpoises?

‘How dare you!’ said the porpoises,
storming off to sea.
It was strange to have cross porpoises
talking at me.

Brands and The Psychopath Test


I recently read Jon Ronson's book The Psychopath Test, in which he explores the prevalence of psychopathic tendencies among some of the most successful people in society. He writes in detail about the Hare PCL-R checklist, which lists 20 traits associated with psychopathy and has been the basis for most diagnoses over the years. While studying the list, I couldn't help wondering how most brands would score. 

I don't mean this in a glib '20 ways brands are like xxxxxx' way. I mean that brands arguably make more sense when you think of them as psychopaths and respond to them accordingly.

That's not an aspersion against anyone connected with the creation of specific brands, but a comment on the peculiar status of brands in general. Brands exist as separate legal entities from the rest of us and possess a life of their own. They could be considered a superior life form, in the sense that Coca Cola will be around long after the rest of us have gone. By their nature, brands display a lot of superficially positive human characteristics, including charm, slickness and facility with words. But they are also necessarily incapable of empathy and remorse, and especially prone to an inflated sense of self-worth.

Here's a verbatim list of the 20 psychopathic traits (underlinings are mine), with some illustrative examples. There could be countless examples for points one and two in particular. 

1. Glib and Superficial Charm
The tendency to be smooth, engaging, charming, slick, and verbally facile. Psychopathic charm is not in the least shy, self-conscious, or afraid to say anything. A psychopath never gets tongue-tied. They have freed themselves from the social conventions about taking turns in talking, for example. 


2. Grandiose Self-Worth
A grossly inflated view of one's abilities and self-worth, self-assured, opinionated, cocky, a braggart. Psychopaths are arrogant people who believe they are superior human beings. 

Starbucks13. Need for Stimulation or Proneness to Boredom           
An excessive need for novel, thrilling, and exciting stimulation; taking chances and doing things that are risky. Psychopaths often have a low self-discipline in carrying tasks through to completion because they get bored easily. They fail to work at the same job for any length of time, for example, or to finish tasks that they consider dull or routine.      


4. Pathological Lying           
Can be moderate or high; in moderate form, they will be shrewd, crafty, cunning, sly, and clever; in extreme form, they will be deceptive, deceitful, underhanded, unscrupulous, manipulative, and dishonest.  


5. Conning and Manipulativeness           
The use of deceit and deception to cheat, con, or defraud others for personal gain; distinguished from Item #4 in the degree to which exploitation and callous ruthlessness is present, as reflected in a lack of concern for the feelings and suffering of one's victims.


6. Lack of Remorse or Guilt           
A lack of feelings or concern for the losses, pain, and suffering of victims; a tendency to be unconcerned, dispassionate, coldhearted, and unempathic. This item is usually demonstrated by a disdain for one's victims.


7. Shallow Affect           
Emotional poverty or a limited range or depth of feelings; interpersonal coldness in spite of signs of open gregariousness.           


8. Callousness and Lack of Empathy     
A lack of feelings toward people in general; cold, contemptuous, inconsiderate, and tactless


9. Parasitic Lifestyle           
An intentional, manipulative, selfish, and exploitative financial dependence on others as reflected in a lack of motivation, low self-discipline, and inability to begin or complete responsibilities. 


10. Poor Behavioral Controls           
Expressions of irritability, annoyance, impatience, threats, aggression, and verbal abuse; inadequate control of anger and temper; acting hastily.           


11. Promiscuous Sexual Behavior           
A variety of brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs, and an indiscriminate selection of sexual partners; the maintenance of several relationships at the same time; a history of attempts to sexually coerce others into sexual activity or taking great pride at discussing sexual exploits or conquests.


12. Early Behavior Problems           
A variety of behaviors prior to age 13, including lying, theft, cheating, vandalism, bullying, sexual activity, fire-setting, glue-sniffing, alcohol use, and running away from home. 


13. Lack of Realistic, Long-Term Goals           
An inability or persistent failure to develop and execute long-term plans and goals; a nomadic existence, aimless, lacking direction in life


14. Impulsivity           
The occurrence of behaviors that are unpremeditated and lack reflection or planning; inability to resist temptation, frustrations, and urges; a lack of deliberation without considering the consequences; foolhardy, rash, unpredictable, erratic, and reckless.           


15. Irresponsibility           
Repeated failure to fulfill or honor obligations and commitments; such as not paying bills, defaulting on loans, performing sloppy work, being absent or late to work, failing to honor contractual agreements.


16. Failure to Accept Responsibility for Own Actions
A failure to accept responsibility for one's actions reflected in low conscientiousness, an absence of dutifulness, antagonistic manipulation, denial of responsibility, and an effort to manipulate others through this denial.


17. Many Short-Term Marital Relationships    
A lack of commitment to a long-term relationship reflected in inconsistent, undependable, and unreliable commitments in life, including marital.      


18. Juvenile Delinquency      
Behavior problems between the ages of 13-18; mostly behaviors that are crimes or clearly involve aspects of antagonism, exploitation, aggression, manipulation, or a callous, ruthless tough-mindedness.


19. Revocation of Condition Release   
A revocation of probation or other conditional release due to technical violations, such as carelessness, low deliberation, or failing to appear.     


20. Criminal Versatility           
A diversity of types of criminal offenses, regardless if the person has been arrested or convicted for them; taking great pride at getting away with crimes.Hillsborough



Broderick’s bars
Treacle Moon – via @bravenewmalden
Starbuck’s Mission Statement
Yahoo 30 logos in 30 days
Hall’s – via @adamhess1
Pinterest – via @underwoodsimon
American Apparel
Virgin Media
Passion – various Google images results
Ella’s Kitchen
BMW Mini Cooper
First Direct – via @totalcontent
Irn Bru
Gap logo withdrawn
Newsworks 'Hillsborough/hacking' campaign


Best Male Solo Marketer


I’ve written a piece for the Creative Review blog comparing Morrissey’s release of his autobiography on Penguin Classics with another leftfield pop marketing move – the release of David Bowie’s ‘Where are we now?’ earlier this year. You can read it here.

The strange story of story


This isn’t exactly a new observation, but something weird has happened to the word ‘story’ in the last few years. Watching the recent TSB: The Story ad brought it home to me.

First, some background.

I’m not sure what triggered the trend, but at some point in the last decade, storytelling was adopted by brands as a technique for connecting with people and communicating a message – understandably, because stories are one of the most ancient tools we have for transmitting values encoded in a memorable form. 

As inevitably happens, a valid insight quickly turned into a bandwagon, and the definition of ‘story’ has subsequently become so broad as to become meaningless.

Increasingly, it doesn’t matter if something is a story or not, as long as you can call it a story and signal that you’re in tune with that particular trend. Mention ‘story’ in a pitch or presentation and people will generally nod approvingly. (I’m not averse to using it myself – I can think of two projects I’ve worked on in the last four years that feature the word ‘story’ prominently, although I’d argue it’s a justified use in each case.)

TSB: The Story is the latest example. None of what follows is a criticism of the ad, which is beautifully made. It’s also well written from a commercial point of view – it tells a sanitised version of the TSB story, but that’s what you’d expect from an ad.

What I find interesting is the strange new sub-genre of ‘stories’ that this trend is creating. Here’s a transcript of the ad:

In 1810 the Reverend Henry Duncan, a man who believed deeply in the dignity of ordinary working people, wanted to do something of real and lasting value to help those struggling to overcome poverty.

And so he did something revolutionary.

He built a bank whose sole purpose was to help hard-working local people.

He believed industry could be encouraged and a sense of pride and independence fostered only when a bank served the community with the people's interests at its heart.

The groundwork had been laid for ordinary people to thrive along with their neighbours, to build communities together secure in the knowledge that their money was safe and working for the benefit of all.

 And then a storm came.

 In the turbulent times that followed, it was easy to think the ideals that Henry Duncan held so dear had been lost forever.

 But they hadn’t gone.

 They’d always been here, just waiting to be found.

Imagine presenting that story in a non-advertising context – maybe in a creative writing workshop. After an awkward silence, the response would surely be, ‘Tell me more about the storm’.

It’s not that the ad isn’t a story – it gestures toward a recognisable story-telling arc, opening with the set-up (hero establishes a bank), then the challenge (the storm), then the resolution (rediscovering hero’s values).

But look how heavily it’s weighted towards introducing the hero, before skipping through the storm to arrive at the resolution. It’s all set-up and resolution, with only the briefest moment of action in between. In any normal form of story-telling, it’s the in-between bit that matters. The storm is the story. The turbulent times are the story.

It would be interesting to apply the same approach to other narratives. Die Hard would presumably open with an hour-long backstory setting up John McClane as a nice guy, before a 30-second montage hinting at some vague trouble in a high-rise, followed by half an hour of McClane with his feet up drinking a beer. It’s story-telling hollowed out to a bizarre level.

Of course, there are good commercial reasons for the TSB approach. The ad uses the storm as a way of fast-forwarding over a century of complicated history.

Henry Duncan did indeed form the first trustee savings bank, before lots of other people did the same. Those banks gradually almagamated before floating on the Stock Exchange in 1986 (all sense of localness now notional at best). The TSB Group then merged with Lloyds in 1995, before hitting the bordering-on-criminal mess of 2008 and the subsequent government bail-out. Now it’s become a stand-alone brand after LloydsTSB was ordered by the European Commission to sell off 600 branches.

All of that would be essential information in any standard ‘story’ of TSB, but it’s compressed here into a vague storm metaphor. (And a questionable one, because storms are external events over which people have no control – the victims are by definition innocent. Many would say it’s not the most accurate comparison with LloydsTSB.)

The result makes for a good commercial but a bad story. And that seems to be the problem with so many brand stories – the commercial imperative to gloss over negatives and promote carefully defined ‘values’ inevitably trumps the narrative imperative to tell a good story. Real stories require tension, conflict and, most of all, an ending. Brand stories understandably shy away from all three, existing in a permanent state of riding heroically into the sunset.

TSB is far from the most extreme example – at least it shows some signs of being a story. Many brand stories are just a weird series of disembodied values statements, with only the dimmest sense of a beginning, middle and end – and usually characterised by a strange insistence on how ‘simple’ the whole thing is.

I’ve had some fun with this (this post had to be going somewhere), rewriting various fairy tales as ‘brand stories’. I’m not sure any of them are an improvement on the originals, but they certainly have a better chance of being signed off.

The brand story of Little Red Riding Hood

The brand story of Peter Rabbit

The brand story of the Three Little Pigs

Toy Brand Story

The brand story of Chicken Licken

Creatively reviewed


It’s a great honour to have been profiled in the September edition of Creative Review. You can read the article by Mark Sinclair on the Creative Review site (subscribers only) or order a copy of the magazine here.

I received the invitation to do it a couple of months ago, met up and talked for about three hours, but had no idea how it would turn out – a disorienting experience as I’m usually the one doing the writing. 

Fortunately, I was in the hands of a magazine I’ve admired for a long time and they’re good at making people sound good. The one bit that may be open to legal challenge is the billing at the front as ‘the design industry’s favourite writer’ – I can think of many writers and even more design companies who would dispute that.



For anyone entering the competition at the back, I wish you the best of luck from my home near Macclesfield, which is technically in the county of Cheshire although I think of it more as the edge of the Peak District, but the answer is Cheshire. (Enter here, or just buy your own damn stuff.)

In case the article has led anyone here for the first time, you can find out more about the projects featured through the links below. 

1,000-words poster (The Chase)

The World Without (SB Studio)

Paul Dalling website (Wheatcroft&Co)

Alas! Smith & Milton (book design by Grade Design)

Centre Point book (Hat-trick Design)

and personal projects:

Mr Blog

Disappointments Diary (with Hat-trick Design)


Pentone Boxset

plus #clienttweaks, the Apple long copy article and Cloudy Language.

There’s also a passing mention of Fishages, which is now reaching a critical level of brand awareness that I urgently need to work out how to monetise. 

30 tones of voice in 30 days


Yahoo! have recently been releasing a logo a day for 30 days, in the run-up to the launch of their rebrand on 5 September.

It could have been an interesting idea if it had been handled as a genuine exploration of the brand – enlightening the public about the thinking behind it and involving them in the process.

Unfortunately, it’s been executed on such a bizarrely simplistic level that it comes across as a parody, no doubt reinforcing everyone’s worst preconception about branding – namely, that it’s just a matter of superficial visual decoration, like picking out a new set of curtains. (That’s the standard analogy anyway – do people still pick out sets of curtains? I suppose they do.) 

Ben Terrett writes about it well over here (branding not curtains).

Anyway, the whole exercise was crying out for a copywriting treatment, so I had a go at writing 30 tones of voice in 30 days. It’s not entirely serious, although anyone reading from Yahoo! is welcome to use this as a starting point. I have a feeling we may see a bit of ‘Defensive’ in the next few days. 

You can read the whole thing here: checkthis.com/yahootone

UPDATE (5 Sept)

Yahoo! has now unveiled its new tone of voice. Judging by the quotes from CMO Kathy Savitt, they have gone with Surreal Defensive.

On the logo:
“You’ll notice a chisel to our logo that’s very architectural. What we’re saying is our logo is the foundation upon which our brand and products and user experience will continue to be built.”

On the animations:
“It might be an exclamation riding on a Segway, or riding on a pogo stick or swinging on a Tarzan vine.”

Show off


I recently contributed to a book called Design: Portfolio, a collection of designers’ self-promotional work edited by Craig Welsh of US design firm Go Welsh and published by Rockport.

It’s primarily a visual reference with images of over 300 self-initiated projects, but it also includes a series of five short essays around the subject. Craig has kindly allowed me to reproduce mine here.

Show off
By Nick Asbury

Woody Allen said that 90% of success is showing up. Looking at the design industry, you could say the other 10% is showing off. Self-initiated and self-promotional work has always played a big part, both for rising stars making their names and global firms keen to maintain a creative reputation.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Indeed, there’s a lot right with it. Simply moving from one client brief to another is a passive existence for any creative person. A self-initiated project is a chance to explore ideas and elements of your craft that would otherwise never see the light of day.

There’s a subtle distinction between self-promotional work and self-initiated work. The former is explicitly produced for the purpose of promoting yourself – that’s the only reason it exists. It might be a book detailing your best projects, or a mailer talking about your company approach.

Self-initiated projects are different. They’re ideas you pursue yourself, without the involvement of a client, but which have a purpose beyond self-promotion. For me, this is an interesting seam to explore. It might be a book of poetry rearranging the words on corporate websites, or inventing the language equivalent of the Pantone color-matching system. If you pursue an idea you find interesting, there’s a good chance other people will too.

Of course, self-promotion is a useful side-effect when these projects go well. But the same is true of client work. Do a great job for a client and it won’t just be good for them. Your firm’s reputation grows by association, among your peer group and other potential clients. In that sense, all work is self-promotional. You just have to make sure the world knows about it – which brings us back to showing off.

However you do it, showing off has to be done. Many of the best things that happen in any creative career come about through serendipity: striking up a friendship with a like-minded collaborator, or bumping into the right client at the right time. Showing off helps serendipity happen. The more visible you are to your peers and the world at large, the more likely it is you’ll get that magical, career-changing email out of the blue. That’s partly why I said yes to writing this article – it’s a form of showing off. And you never know who might be reading. 

The book is nicely produced, with a varied range of contributors including Hat-trick, Bruce Mau and KesselsKramer. You can order it here. Photo from Wier Stewart.

Long copy isn't back

Screen Shot 2013-07-01 at 10.29.38

I saw this tweet yesterday from DesignTaxi about Apple adopting a long-copy approach in its new ad campaign. 

I admit to feeling a sense of anticipation when I saw it. Something told me this was going to be great. For one thing, long copy is due a proper return. It has occasionally reared its head over the years, but it always felt like it would take a major brand like Apple to do something on a par with the greats of the past. Not just a retro imitation, but a proper reinvention that works on its own terms.

And there’s something especially intriguing about Apple doing it. They’re such a minimal brand – all white space and understated cool. What a change in direction it would be to see lots of words coming from them. Especially when they’ve got so much to say.

The timing is also interesting. Right now, it feels like more and more people are questioning Apple’s claim to superiority. Maybe this was Apple about to come out and tell a few home truths. Remind us exactly how great their products are and why. Make us fall in love with them again. I clicked on the link.


You can enlarge the image to see the copy, but here it is in full:

This is it. 
This is what matters. 
The experience of a product. 
How it makes someone feel. 
When you start by imagining 
What that might be like, 
You step back. 
You think. 

Who will this help? 
Will it make life better? 
Does this deserve to exist? 
If you are busy making everything, 
How can you perfect anything? 

We don't believe in coincidence. 
Or dumb luck. 
There are a thousand "no's" 
For every "yes." 
We spend a lot of time 
On a few great things. 
Until every idea we touch 
Enhances each life it touches. 

We're engineers and artists. 
Craftsmen and inventors. 
We sign our work. 
You may rarely look at it. 
But you'll always feel it. 
This is our signature. 
And it means everything. 

Designed by Apple in California

This isn’t intended to be one of those ranty blog posts (although it’s going to be anyway), but this copy is woeful. Vacuous, boring, self-regarding and counter-productive. It starts with a glimmer of promise – the point about designing things with the user in mind – but then goes precisely nowhere with it.

Arguably the worst thing is that it’s entirely free of information. The point is too obvious to need labouring, but look briefly at one of the old classics:

Put aside the clever headline, sharp tone and expertly crafted momentum that carries you to the end – and look at the actual information being conveyed. 32 miles to the gallon. Five pints of oil. No need for anti-freeze. 40,000 miles per set of tyres. Smaller parking spots. Lower insurance. Cheaper repairs. 

The same goes for one of the other old classics. 


This one has dated in terms of social attitudes, and maybe the ‘warpath’ ending is a bit formulaic. But again, look how hard the copy is working. You learn all about the details of how the shoes are made. Not just the inspiration for the design and the philosophy behind it, but the nerdy details of how the design has been subtly improved over the years. And the details are interesting. Strip away the jokes and the rhetorical tricks and the tone of voice and you’re left with a pile of solid, irreducible facts. 

With the Apple ad, you get nothing. You search in vain for a single detail or piece of evidence. Something that demonstrates how they design from the point of view of the user. Any small detail that signals artistry, craft and invention without simply proclaiming it. 

Of course, there’s one difference that Apple could use to defend itself. Unlike Think Small or Timberland, this isn’t a product ad. It’s a brand ad. It’s not about explaining the details of a particular product to you, but giving a more general sense of Apple and its values and philosophy. We’re not in the era of hard sell any more; it’s more sophisticated these days. 

It’s at this point I begin to lose the power of rational argument and feel like throwing things at hard surfaces. First of all, I can’t think of a better ‘brand ad’ for VW or Timberland than the ones above. Each of them leaves me with a pretty good impression of the brand, its philosophy and its values. Secondly, I can’t think of a worse brand ad for Apple than this one. Has no one ever told them that you don’t convince people you’re cool by going on about how cool you are? They start the ad by saying they think about everything from the user’s point of view, then spend the rest talking relentlessly about themselves. The final lines are a veritable orgasm of self-regard. You put your logo on your product? That is a massively uninteresting thing to tell me. (It might conceivably be interesting if Apple didn’t put their logo on their products, but relied on people working it out for themselves because they’re so brilliantly designed – that would at least be a story to tell in a long copy ad.)

Life is too short to analyse all the other vacuities and non-sequiturs, but it gets particularly acute in the second-to-third ‘stanzas’.

If you are busy making everything, 
How can you perfect anything? 

We don't believe in coincidence. 
Or dumb luck. 
There are a thousand "no's" 
For every "yes."  

What are you talking about? Why did you just jump from perfecting things to coincidences? What’s dumb about luck? Don't luck and serendipity play a part in the design process? I get that you’re talking about being perfectionists and thinking about things, but give me an example. Anything. This reads like a succession of those vaguely New Age quotes that people stick on Facebook with a picture of a sunset. 

Possibly the most excruciating thing about the advert is that it contains its own damning critique, right here:

Who will this help? 
Will it make life better? 
Does this deserve to exist? 

Did anyone ask the same questions about this copy or this campaign? (Campaign may be stretching it – there are four executions, each featuring a different image but exactly the same copy.)




Finally, there are the line breaks.  It’s become a worrying trend in long copy ads to lay them out like poetry. Tesco did the same thing with its recent (pre-George Osborne) apology ad:Tesco

It’s tangentially interesting that both Tesco and Apple make use of the phrase This is it in their copy. The similarity is telling – it’s one of those emphatic phrases that is pure tone and no meaning. The kind of thing you say to convince yourself something is happening when it isn’t. If you find yourself including it in a piece of copy, you know something has gone wrong.

The line break trend is annoying to anyone who likes poetry, where line breaks are intrinsic to the meaning and not just a decorative feature (at least in any half-decent poetry). But there’s something particularly annoying about it in the context of these brand ads. It’s being done for a reason – to elevate the tone and lend an air of preciousness and high-brow appeal. If it looks clean and vaguely classy, maybe it will give the copy an aura of intelligence it otherwise lacks. Maybe you won’t notice it’s saying nothing if you’re too busy admiring how it looks.

So what’s the positive alternative I'm advocating? Well, it could be one of two things. You could do a faithful return to the traditional long-copy ad – why not? If Timberland can talk at length about what makes its latest shoe so great, surely Apple has plenty to say about its latest product? I’m sure there’s mileage in writing a brilliant ad packed full of product details that demonstrate Apple’s philosophy and ‘values’. 

But equally, I don’t think you have to return slavishly to the old USP-driven model. You could write a more high-level brand ad, but one that says something. Being a brand ad doesn’t let you off the hook. You still need a message. Every word has to earn its place. And it’s not like there’s nothing to say. You’re talking about one of the most interesting and impressive companies in the world. Whatever angle you choose to take, you should have trouble fitting it into a full-page ad. This one is padding from the first line. 

I suspect there will be a few people hailing the return of long copy when they see this ad, but it’s a hollow and lifeless return. Like watching a hologram of David Ogilvy. This is long copy drained of all the things that make long copy worth doing. Static and soulless and empty. The written equivalent of a mood board. 

Long copy remains officially deceased. Long, ranty blog posts are evidently alive and well. 

DesignTaxi post here.

PS: I've only just realised they also turned this into a film, but I can’t write any more. 


Update: A slightly extended (if you can believe that) version of this post has since appeared on Creative Review.

Self-not-quite-initiated projects

As mentioned in the previous post, I recently took part in an evening of talks at the Jerwood Space in London, as part of the After Hours exhibition.

My talk was titled 'Self-not-quite-initiated projects' and you can see it here, from about 10mins 40secs onwards. The talk goes through a series of ideas and half-thoughts that I've had for future self-initiated projects. Once again, I should take this opportunity to heavily assert my copyright over all of them. 

The film also contains talks from Phil Carter, Jim Sutherland, Katie Edelsten and Annie Hazelwood, Craig Oldham, Michael Johnson and host Nick Eagleton, as well as some images of the exhibition itself if you were unable to make it along. 

After Hours: blogging and talking


A brief update to say I’ve written a long blog post for Creative Review about the After Hours exhibition at the Jerwood Space, in which I was one of the exhibitors with Pentone. You can read it here

I also took part in an evening of talks by some of the contributors last night. In the spirit of the exhibition being all about personal work and new ideas, I decided to run through a list of rough ideas and half-thoughts that I’ve had over the years, which have never quite turned into anything. It was therapeutic getting them off my chest, but also odd to be in front of a sophisticated creative audience talking through my plans for fishages and pickle-pooling.

Other speakers included Phil Carter, who was fascinating on the inspiration behind his Found Folk sculptures. Jim Sutherland talked through his Garage book which came alive when you heard the personal story behind it. Katy Edelsten and Annie Hazelwood from YCN talked through their entertaining Telegram project. Craig Oldham was typically forthright on design and self-initiation (firmly in the camp that design isn’t about self-expression). And Michael Johnson was authoritative and entertaining as ever on Arkitypo and Phonetikana. Curator Nick Eagleton hosted the evening, which also saw the launch of the book of the exhibition.

The exhibition remains open until 23 June and entry is free. Details here.

Pentone Boxset is available from asburyandasbury.tictail.com – 30 postcard-sized Pentone swatches in a hand-finished box, produced to coincide with the exhibition.

Awards ramblings 2013


The D&AD Writing for Design shortlist came out last month, with the winners announced on 12 June. Probably the most useful thing about the awards is the conversation that springs up around them every year, so this is my contribution.

On a personal note, there was some great news – a nomination for Disappointments Diary. Neville Brody picks it out as one of his favourite projects here, and it’s been shortlisted in the Design Week awards, with the winners announced on 4 June. I also had a few other projects entered into D&AD that didn’t get anywhere, so disappointments all round.



There were three nominations in D&AD Writing for Design this year. Alongside the diary, the second was GOV.UK, which won the Design Museum’s Design of the Year award and has been written about extensively elsewhere, including praise from two of the judges Mike Reed and Joe Weir. It’s notable that, while it’s been widely hailed as one of the landmark creative projects of the year, it didn’t get recognised in the digital design category or anywhere else at D&AD. It strikes me as a good justification for the existence and relevance of Writing for Design as a category that it picks up projects like this.

Games Maker


There doesn’t appear to have been much comment about this, but the third nomination in Writing for Design went to a project that amounts to two words. Here’s the entry video explaining it.

You should look at it before reading on.

What do you think?

I’ve argued in the past that a one-word entry might one day win in Writing for Design. One contender was Ma’amite. I’m not sure if that was entered – if so, it didn’t get anywhere.

The nomination reflects a subtle but significant change in the category that took place this year, which is to include an extra subcategory called Writing for Brands. The idea is to recognise writing that doesn’t have a design element (i.e. not Writing for Design), but is nevertheless great brand writing. It’s a subject that came up last year and which I wrote about here. It’s good to see the new subcategory is already bearing fruit.  

That said, the nomination will cause some raised eyebrows. The video makes a persuasive case, but it must have been a hard one to evaluate alongside the other work, which doesn’t get a chance to make a similarly emotive pitch for itself. There’s also an inevitable note of Olympic sentimentality about it, which it’s hard not to be swayed by.

On the surface, it’s a decision that I can see appealing to a lot of writers – the idea that words can be such powerful things, even just two words. But I wonder if there’s an element of wanting to believe it too much. Can we really quantify the difference the words made? Even if we can, is effectiveness the best measure? 'Games Maker' may have made it into the dictionary, but so did 'Simples'.

I think if it’s going to be a one-word winner, then the word not only has to be demonstrably responsible for the success of the idea, but also an admirable creative insight in itself. A couple of comparisons come to mind – the namers of the Everton store in the Liverpool One shopping centre, who came up with ‘Everton Two’. Or the lovely ‘Ends Fri’ ad for the last episode of Friends that I wrote about here and which got in-book a few years ago (in Press Advertising). Even in those cases, you could argue they’re just nice one-off jokes or beautiful moments of serendipity. But there’s no doubt there’s something special and memorable about them.

With ‘Games Maker’, there’s nothing inherently inspired or unexpected about the name itself. What marks it out is the strategic insight that you don’t have to go with the standard ‘volunteer’ – why not have a more motivating name? But even judged on that level, I’m not sure it’s qualitatively different from those train companies who have ‘customer hosts’ instead of ‘guards’. It’s the same principle – seeing the opportunity to avoid the generic term and inject some positivity with a new term. It’s become a widespread PR trend with job titles and usually it ends up grating with the public, as people sense the spin behind it. Had the Olympics not gone so well, would ‘Games Maker’ have seemed equally cloying to us? If we’re being really harsh, does it have a faint ring of Jubilympics about it?

I’ve hesitated to raise it on here, but I find this stuff interesting and I’m surprised it hasn’t caused more comment elsewhere. I wonder if it will lead to a spate of brand name entries in future.

Category in general


As well as the three nominations, there were six in-books this year – a reasonable haul from total entries numbering 95, which is slightly up on previous years. It’s good to see Roger Horberry’s work for RNLI in there – a nice bit of witty writing that has entered the mainstream (I saw the tea towels in John Lewis the other day). The other entries come from Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Istanbul, which shows the scope of the category these days. The IF Istanbul identity takes a bit of ‘getting’ but looks good. It’s interesting to see the Shrewsbury identity involving We All Need Words getting a nomination in branding, but nothing in writing, although I don’t know if it was entered.

GOV.UK strikes me as the main story of the year. It’s a project that could change what clients expect from writing – after years of people asking for Innocent or The Economist, I suspect GOV.UK will now be mentioned a lot. I hope it signals a move away from the obsession with tone of voice (which make up only a tiny fraction of the full GOV.UK style guide) and towards a more rounded engagement with writing in its fullest sense. At the same time, I hope there isn't a swing too far the other way towards spare, functional writing – it makes sense on a government website, but there's still room for more fun and wit elsewhere. 

NB: Disappointments Diary is available to buy from our shop if you're the kind of person who buys a diary in June, in which case you'll probably like it.

Pentone Boxset


To coincide with the opening of the After Hours exhibition (see yesterday’s post), we’ve produced a Pentone Boxset, featuring the same 30 swatches that are now on display at the Jerwood Space. The boxset is available to order from today.


The postcards are presented in a very smart (if we say so ourselves) box, handmade by a company in Manchester. It contains 30 A6 postcards, ranging from the tear-jerking Pentone Sad to the laugh-a-minute Pentone Funny, via some disturbing detours to Pentone Drunk and Pentone Horseshit.



We hope it’s not just an enjoyable read, but also a useful aid to creative thinking and writing. But you’ll be the judge of that.

The boxset is on sale in our new Tictail store. We’ve been using Tictail to sell diaries since Disappointments Diary launched last year, but we’ve now expanded it to include Pentone Boxsets, copies of Corpoetics (still flogging that one) and the few Pentone mugs we have left.

For his generous advice on the production of the boxsets, we want to thank Jack Jackson of Polite, an independent art publisher from the same hometown as us. Among many other things, Polite produces postcard sets on behalf of artists and photographers including Peter Blake, David Shrigley, Kevin Cummins, Harry Hill and Factory Records. We’ve used the same format for the Pentone Boxset, and we’re pleased with the way it’s turned out. (There’s a subtle nod of respect to Polite in the layout of the text on the boxset cover, but this is a more upfront thank-you.)

Buy the Pentone Boxset
More on After Hours
More from Polite 

After Hours at the Jerwood


Things have been busy lately in the run-up to an unusual exhibition hosted by Jerwood Visual Arts at Jerwood Space in London. After Hours is a collection of personal projects by graphic designers. It opens this week and runs from 15 May to 23 June.

The exhibition is curated by Nick Eagleton of The Partners, who has gathered together a great list of contributors, including Robert Ball, Anthony Burrill, Phil Carter, Michael Johnson, Joe Phillips, Alan Kitching, Magpie Studio, Craig Oldham, Jack Renwick, Steve Royle, Jim Sutherland, Alex Swatridge and a selection of projects from the Young Creatives Network.

My contribution is a collection of 30 framed Pentone swatches, pictured above on our kitchen floor, but hopefully on a gallery wall by now.

Pentone is a project that began in 2006 when we produced a mailer of nine swatches, each containing a sample of a written tone of voice – a verbal play on the Pantone colour-matching system. It later evolved into postcards, greetings cards and mugs. But I’ve always felt it should turn into some kind of ‘definitive’ collection at some point, and this exhibition has been the catalyst to make it happen. The 30 swatches are mainly new ones, with a handful of old ones mixed in – Pentone Boring remains as dull as ever.

To coincide with the exhibition, we've produced a Pentone Boxset including all 30 swatches, more of which to follow.

There will also be a reading table at the gallery featuring publications from the contributors, with Disappointments Diary and Corpoetics both included.

As well as contributing to the exhibition, I’ve been working with curator Nick Eagleton on the writing that goes around it. The principle has been to keep it simple – it’s more about celebrating the contents of the exhibition rather than theorising about them. To that end, the opening panel in the exhibition contains a rhyming list of the many and varied items on display, an evocative taster to set the tone. For the detailed analysis, there will be a couple of talks at the Jerwood Space over the course of the exhibition, going into the thinking behind the work and the wider questions it raises.

I’ll write more about the exhibition over the coming weeks. For now, here are a few related articles:

Design Week feature
My contribution to a related Design Week voxpop
More from johnson banks
Details and visitor information

Bank Insecurity Questions

A personal milestone this week as I've had something published by online literary journal McSweeney's – a quietly harboured ambition for some time.

It's a list of Bank Insecurity Questions and it's probably not recommended if you're feeling psychologically fragile.

Celebrating John Hanna

Cr_articleThe April edition of Creative Review carries an article I contributed on the illustrator John Hanna. Some readers may remember I posted about him in 2009, having stumbled across some copies of a magazine called Country Fair. The original post is here. The cover illustrations were all signed simply ‘Hanna’, but I was surprised to find next to nothing about him online. There was a flurry of comments that confirmed his identity as John Hanna and led to some sketchy biographical information, but then things went quiet.

Early this year, a new comment appeared on the post. It was from John Hanna’s son, Max. We exchanged emails and I ended up meeting him to find out more about his father’s life and work.

To read the full story, you’ll have to track down the Creative Review article – available to buy here or subscribe here

There are a few images that didn't make the article but are worth sharing:


poster for the British Travel Association, featured in the Graphis Annual 1955/6 and found by Sandi Vincent on Flickr. 


Also this detail from a Shell ad, from the Graphis Annual 1956/7, again rediscovered by Sandi Vincent. 


A personal piece, combining a tiger, walrus and kangaroo: the Tigerusaroo.



Two birthday cards lent to me by John's son Max.



And two more Country Fair covers, copyright the estate of Macdonald Hastings, and kindly supplied to me by Jenny Duff, who is now selling a range of John Hanna place mats (echoing a promotion that took place in the 1950s).

The Creative Review article includes an appreciation of the work by contemporary illustrator Joe McLaren, whose work you can see here.


Finally, thanks to Max Hanna for getting in touch and sharing a fascinating story.

Spam flypaper (Instagram Facebook Design Copywriting Logo)

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If you are a human being, please don't comment on this post.

Like anyone with a blog, I regularly have to delete stupid spammy comments on other posts, particularly the one I wrote about Instagram for some reason.

So I thought it would be at least mildly amusing to have one post where I don't delete the spam comments, but do point out that anyone you see below is an AUTOMATED SPAMMY IDIOT TIRESOME WASTER OF HUMAN TIME AND ENERGY. AND A TOOL.

If they're linking to a site selling trainers, please note the trainers are rubbish and this person wets themselves every night and has no friends.

I should probably mention Instagram, Facebook, design, copywriting and logo again to draw them in. It may take a while, but they will come.

Thanks for bearing with this, which is purely for my own cathartic purposes.

Mr Small Print


I sometimes miss writing Mr Blog, a character who lived a brief but intense life in late 2010, documenting all the ‘Mr’ shops on Britain’s high streets.

So it’s nice to see him immortalised in a small way in the credits of this year’s D&AD Annual, a copy of which has just arrived at my door.

Mr Blog was approached  by Venture Three to help with the writing on the rebranding of Little Chef – at the time, they didn’t know who was behind the blog and whether I did any commissioned writing. Mr Blog had to adapt his voice to fit with Little Chef’s more populist positioning, but hopefully a few traces remain.

Well done Mr Blog.*

* And well done Mr Tweets too.

Arguably Dylan or Crisp

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Walkers Crisps have reportedly relaunched their core crisp flavours with new packaging featuring noticeably wordy product descriptions. Each begins with an adverb, followed by the flavour descriptor, then s0me extra detail giving a sense of 'provenance'.

The device is no doubt intended to add a little verbal garnish, in the style of self-consciously aspirational restaurant menus. However, for me, it's immediately redolent of mid-sixties Bob Dylan song titles.

Hence, in a follow-up to our not-that-popular Dodge or Fall game, we are pleased to introduce... Arguably Dylan or Crisp.

See if you can tell the difference.

Arguably Dylan or Crisp

1. Classically Ready Salted with Salt from Cheshire
2. Distinctively Salt & Vinegar with Real British Vinegar
3. Positively 4th Street
4. Unmistakably Cheese and Onion with Cheddar from Somerset
5. Absolutely Sweet Marie
6. Simply Roast Chicken with Free Range Chicken from Devon
7. Queen Jane Approximately
8. Tantalisingly Tomato Ketchup with Vale of Evesham Tomatoes
9. Obviously Five Believers
10. Only a Prawn in Their Cocktail

To view the answers, either stand on your head or turn your screen upside-down.


Every day is like Blue Monday



Today is Blue Monday, supposedly the most depressing day of the year, but in reality a PR ruse with minimal scientific basis started by Sky Travel to flog holidays. Strangely, once you know that, it does turn it into the most depressing day of the year.

Nevertheless, it felt appropriate to post something today, as a brief nod of solidarity to all the people who have bought a Disappointments Diary and are making their way stoically through the year. Thanks to David Janes for mustering up the energy to send us the pictures above.

If you've bought a diary and would like to be added to the Twitter list of Disappointments Diarists, please let us know. No pleasantries necessary – just tweet us your Twitter name.

If you'd like to 'like' us on Facebook, you can't as we're not on Facebook.

If you haven't bought a diary, the bargain bin January fire sale is now on, so it's more in your price range now.

Finally, we're pondering what to do with the diary next year – so far all plans involve selling out in some way, or not doing anything. If you have any feedback or are currently sleeping with the global commissioning editor at Penguin, please let us know.




I worked on an enjoyable project with design company Build just before Christmas. They were commissioned by German/English magazine Form to create a poster for their ongoing series. The theme of the issue was 'Collaboration' so Build decided to get their Twitter followers involved – the call went out for people to tweet their favourite German or English word. Once 140 words had been collected, Build sent them to me to convert into a poem. A 14-line sonnet tied in with the numerical theme, so I picked out my favourite words, hunted down a few rhyming pairs and created a nonsense poem with vague glimmers of something disturbing going on underneath.

The title translates as a 'total work of art' or 'synthesis of the arts', so it felt right for this synthesis of design, writing and tweeted contributions, as well as the collaboration theme.

The result reads like this:


Bikini bingo: squeezes bosom.
Candid hardcore schlittschuhlaufen.
Super bazinga cosmic rummage.
Scuttling cretin. Prefer knowledge.
Astronaut daydream: rotund baboon.
Infinite aesthetic. Sublime spoon.
Currywurst, saucepan, rundumdum.
Butternut bungalow: dongle numb.
Love bruise. Crumbs. Catastrophe.
Invisible haberdashery.
Gesundheit! Ostrich silhouette.
Spiffing palimpsest cassette!
Coda: Muscovite (loquacious).
Bubble. Bumble. Boggled. Bodacious.

Michael C. Place at Build took the poem as the cue for the illustration and it's lovely to see the words brought to life and interpreted that way (albeit disturbing – the image is arguably even weirder than the poem). 

For images that do justice to the project, see the Build project page. Posters can be ordered online at Form.

Problem: how to win a book


A post to point you towards the Johnson Banks Review of the Year 2012, which has become something of an industry institution. I sent in some contributions that made their way into the mix and won me a copy of the new edition of Problem Solved in return. A good way to start the year.

If you haven’t already moved on from 2012 retrospectives, the full list of contributions I emailed went like this:

Best blog
Mike Dempsey’s six-part story of CDT. Lovely balance of personal and professional insight. 

Over-hyped thing you’d like to see the back of (and that Creative Review should probably stop covering)
Pantone colour of the year. A tired but frustratingly effective PR ruse.

Best ad of the year
Channel 4 ‘Meet the Superhumans’ Paralympics promo. Still electrifying to watch.

Worst ad of the year
Colgate ‘focus group’ – possibly the most excruciating thing ever committed to film.

Second worst ad of the year
Facebook is a bit like a chair, sort of, if you think about it.

Writing project of the year
Ma’amite. Single word, but pretty good.

Best creative project of year
Olympic opening ceremony, obviously.

Worst creative project of the year
Olympic closing ceremony. Conceived by "a hugely powerful establishment creative director who is not actually creative." 

Best creative of year
Danny Boyle

Design of the year
The Heatherwick cauldron is the obvious and deserving choice, but the gold postboxes were a lovely touch. 

Influential design project of the year
gov.uk by Government Digital Service. Still an epic work in progress but on course to be a major design and writing achievement.

Design story of year
The Comedy Carpet not getting in-book at D&AD. An indictment of the design judging culture that ought to be a tipping point, but probably won’t be.

Unfortunate book of the year
The Snowman’s Journey – the book of the John Lewis ad.

Brand refresh of the year
Ecce Homo restoration.

Worst brand use of Twitter
This ‘topical’ tweet from @YahooNews:
Last week a Moscow judge sentenced a band to two years in prison. What musical act would you send to lockup and why? 

Website of year

Quote of the year
“Hard work and grafting.” Mo Farah after winning second gold.

Worst brand campaign
Mini Cooper sponsoring what turned out to be a deadly weather front.

Those we have lost
The Waterstones apostrophe, which inevitably got its own Twitter account.

Much more comprehensive Johnson Banks review here.

Instagram didn’t get the tone wrong

I hesitate to raise the Instagram topic on here. The controversial terms and conditions and subsequent ‘clarification’ have already received wall-to-wall coverage elsewhere.

But there’s a writing angle to the whole thing that needs some airing. The whole story is already being co-opted as a case study in the importance of clear communication and getting the tone right. This worries me, because that’s exactly what it isn’t, at least not in the way that’s being suggested.

This was the main offending paragraph in the terms and conditions:

To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.

There is nothing wrong with the tone of this paragraph. It scores highly on clarity, using plain language, active verbs, personal pronouns (us and you) – all the things writers go on about every day.

There is a lot wrong with the content of the paragraph, at least according to thousands of Instagram users. But that’s not a language issue – it’s a policy issue. Any writers trying to use this as an example of the importance of ‘tone of voice’ are misinterpreting the problem. To an expert in tone of voice, every problem looks like a tone of voice issue.

The situation isn’t helped by Instagram’s disingenuous ‘clarification’, which tries to imply that this was all a miscommunication caused by ‘confusing’ language.

Again, this statement from Instagram has been hailed in various places as a good example of crisis communication – clear and helpful in the way the Ts and Cs weren’t.

But again, this is completely wrong. The Ts and Cs were absolutely clear, even if their content was controversial.

By contrast, the ‘clarification’ is slippery, mealy-mouthed and contradictory.

Here’s how it starts.

Thank you, and we’re listening

Yesterday we introduced a new version of our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service that will take effect in thirty days. These two documents help communicate as clearly as possible our relationship with the users of Instagram so you understand how your data will be used, and the rules that govern the thriving and active Instagram community. Since making these changes, we’ve heard loud and clear that many users are confused and upset about what the changes mean.

Note the spectacularly passive-aggressive headline. The ‘Thank you’ attempts to characterise all this as a friendly exercise in helpful feedback, rather than a furious outcry at being taken for a ride. Note also how the objectors are characterised as ‘confused and upset’, as though they are bewildered lost sheep. As far as I could see, the objectors weren’t remotely confused and, far from upset, were very angry.

It goes on:

I’m writing this today to let you know we’re listening and to commit to you that we will be doing more to answer your questions, fix any mistakes, and eliminate the confusion. As we review your feedback and stories in the press, we’re going to modify specific parts of the terms to make it more clear what will happen with your photos.

Legal documents are easy to misinterpret. So I’d like to address specific concerns we’ve heard from everyone.

This is the most disingenuous part of the whole piece. Again there’s that emphasis on ‘eliminating the confusion’, as though all this is down to the language being unclear. Then comes the massively patronising ‘Legal documents are easy to misinterpret’. The clear subtext is ‘You’re all getting het up because you don’t understand this complicated legal stuff – don’t worry, we’ll try and speak more slowly this time.’

The next paragraph relates to the main offending lines in the terms and conditions quoted above.

Advertising on Instagram

From the start, Instagram was created to become a business. Advertising is one of many ways that Instagram can become a self-sustaining business, but not the only one. Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram. Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation. This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing. To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.

This sounds pretty good at first – the blunt honesty of ‘Instagram was created to become a business’ (actually a meaningless truism) and ‘To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos.’ But there’s some really slippery stuff going on. Note how ‘it is not our intention to sell your photos’ isn’t the same as saying ‘we won’t sell your photos’. Despite the forthrightness of the tone, the message is still unclear – will you or won’t you?

Then there’s the continuing insistence that this is a problem with 'interpretation', culminating in the Orwellian ‘We are working on updated language’.

A reminder – here’s the offending paragraph:

To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.

And here’s what they’re saying now:

To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos.

The language here doesn’t need ‘updating’, it needs retracting.

I won’t go on through the rest of statement, but the whole thing reminds me of a politician talking in confident, clear-sounding language – full of ‘let’s be clear’ and ‘we're listening’ – without actually being very clear at all. It’s tonally beguiling, but fundamentally deceptive.

If anything, this whole episode is a demonstration of the slippery charms of tone of voice. The terms and conditions were an example of clear language being used to convey information as simply as possible – it just happened to be controversial information.

The ‘clarification’ is an example of tone of voice being used to obscure and mollify. Almost like a filter applied to a photo, giving it nice fuzzy edges and an air of authenticity.

Given that the clarification has been largely well received, this has become an interesting case study in the power of tone of voice – but one that should make writers, me included, feel pretty uncomfortable.

An intere ting pu lication


I’ve recently worked on an unusual project with Liverpool design company SB Studio. It’s a book about their company, or more accurately about everything except their company.

The title is The world without and the idea is to imagine a world without SB. The jobs that would never have been done, the people who would never have been employed, the office that would never have been occupied. And true to the premise, the book is written without including the letters S or B.

I was aware of a French novel called La Disparition by Georges Perec, which is written entirely without the letter ‘e’. So I thought it would be interesting to try it for SB, albeit not quite to novel length. It's a tall order, ruling out common words such as is, was, does, as, so, about, be and been, as well as most plurals. Not to mention the word design.

But the idea is that you'll flick through the whole book without realising the self-imposed limitation, until the pay-off at the end.


Each desolate and empty spread imagines the various dimensions of life that would be different without SB – “Think of the flipchart unflipped / The experience unexperienced / Each tale untold / Each endline unwritten.”

The main text links to a series of endnotes going into more depth, with Ss and Bs included. As the penultimate footnote states, “When it came to the footnotes, we let ourselves off the hook. We’re not completely crazy.”


As well as being a playful exercise, the idea is a celebration of the creative power of constraints. The trickier the brief, the more enjoyable the process of finding an answer. It’s also a surprisingly good way to focus on what you actually contribute as a company. As George Bailey finds out in It’s A Wonderful Life, imagining the world without you can be an illuminating experience.

Copies of the book (beautifully produced) are available on request from theworldwithout.co.uk

Happy Birthday Polite

Picture 4

We’re reasonably pleased to report that Disappointments Diary is being stocked at the Polite shop at the Hayward Gallery over Christmas.

It’s the only place the diary will be physically stocked, so if you’re based in London and want to try before you buy, you know where to go.

You should go anyway. Polite is a quietly brilliant company that has spent 12 years working with artists including David Shrigley, Harry Hill, Peter Blake, Magda Archer, Scott King, Factory Records, StudioThomson and plenty others. You have probably seen their greetings cards in various design shops. They also produce limited edition books and postcard sets. The aim is to make art more commercially accessible by producing affordable but desirable objects. And they are always beautifully produced.

Polite is celebrating its 12th birthday and the shop opened at midday today, 12/12/12, so they are obviously good at planning things too.

More details of the shop here and on Design Week.

The diary is still for sale online at disappointmentsdiary.com