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Processes in the brain (and smiles in the mind)

I’ve written an article for Creative Review this month. It’s called ‘How to write an award-winning annual report’, but it’s not really about writing or about annual reports – it’s my attempt to share a technique for having ideas. I use the example of a routine annual report brief and suggest how you can use a methodical process to generate ideas for it.

It’s the methodical part that interests me – the extent to which you can systematise the process of creative thinking, or break down what’s happening in the brain as you’re thinking of ideas.

I think most designers and writers will recognise this feeling. On the one hand, when you’re thinking ‘creatively’, you’re thinking in a freeform, ‘blue-sky’ way and every brief is different. But you also get the sense that your brain is running a familiar program that can be described and broken down. For example, you may feel your brain is shuffling through two sets of cards, looking for a match. Or it’s doing what I describe in the article, which is listing expectations and exploring the opposite.

As I say in the article, you can only get so far with any methodical approach. Even if it leads to a good idea, most of it comes down to how you follow up the idea – and that involves all sorts of aesthetic/strategic/tonal micro-decisions, which aren’t as easy to break down in a mechanical way.


The last section of A Smile in the Mind involves a series of contributors tackling exactly this question – how to have ideas. For me, the best part of updating the book was the chance to talk to people about that subject. 

Dean Poole talks about exploring a series of different rooms. Jim Sutherland (also in Creative Review this month) talks about externalising the process – putting stuff on walls and looking for connections. Michael Johnson talks about the writing and strategy that precedes the visual part. Noma Bar talks about ideas as ‘already existing, waiting to be found’. Sarah Illenberger talks about the ‘physical torment’ of ‘squeezing your brain’. Christoph Niemann talks about the myth of the ‘eureka’ moment and describes a ‘difficult and unglamorous’ process of stripping away (something he captured in the pencil shavings sketch above). 

There’s an exhibition of the book starting at Foyles in London on 16 September and running for six weeks – more details here.

The Creative Review article is in the September print edition and online here.

Verbal. Visual. Visceral.

Design company Johnson Banks is in the process of rebranding Mozilla and – in the spirit of openness that defines Mozilla – the whole process is being documented here:

I’ve been working with Johnson Banks on some of the verbal territories – not outward-facing copy, but strategic narratives that offer different takes on why Mozilla exists. It’s fascinating being involved at this stage – it feels like plugging into the motherboard of a brand and tinkering with it. A small insight could have a big outcome further down the line.

It’s also interesting to share this stuff openly – it counters the idea that branding is all about knocking out a few logos. Before you get to thinking visually, there’s the whole process of working out what you want to communicate. Johnson Banks pay especially close attention to this verbal stage, and you can see the results in the seven narratives (now narrowed to five).

Rather than me writing about it in detail, I’d suggest (if you’re interested) reading these posts in order:

Designing in the open 

Seven narratives 

Going deeper into the identity problem 

And then there were five

First design routes

But I’ll make one extra observation – I’m glad I’m a writer. Looking at the feedback, it’s clear that working in a world of words is a safer place than working with colours and shapes.

When the first-stage narratives were shared on the Mozilla blog, the response was thoughtful, positive and manageably small-scale. When the second stage came out, there was little response at all (although to be fair, this was more about refinement and people had already responded in stage one).

But the moment something visual appears (first design explorations), everyone has an opinion, and usually a strong one. Thanks to the way the process has been managed and communicated, there’s a higher ratio of constructive and thoughtful responses than you would normally get when a new logo launches. But the emotion level is also much higher – lots of withering put-downs and harsh critique.

I know people can respond viscerally to verbal stuff when it’s something short like a slogan or brand name. But with design, there’s no way round this onslaught on every project – people have a gut response, sometimes struggle to articulate it (because it can be hard to apply language to something purely visual), and the conversation spirals out of control.

In this case, the process is being managed by a smart client working with a smart design company, so it should stay on track. But whatever the eventual visual identity, I hope the project will make the larger point that branding a large organisation (when it’s done properly) is a process that involves lots of thinking, feedback, rejected work, refinement, and continual criticism – all the stuff that never gets written about when the press see the finished logo and dust off the usual ‘a consultancy got paid how much for this?’ article.

As well as that (and maybe counterintuitively), I hope it also highlights how you can’t entirely reduce branding to a process. For all the rigorous work, there is also that magic spark that can happen any time and from any direction – after which things fall into place instantly or incrementally.  

It’s worth following it all at – and let me know if you think of a good slogan that I can claim credit for.