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April 2011

I’m blind. Please leave my sign alone.


There’s an old story, usually attributed to David Ogilvy, about a copywriter whose daily walk to work takes him past a blind beggar on a street corner. His sign reads, “I’M BLIND. PLEASE HELP.” Every day, the beggar is largely ignored by the passers-by. One sunny morning, the copywriter stops, takes out a marker pen and scribbles three words on the sign, then moves on. From that day, the blind man’s cup is stuffed with notes and overflowing with change. The copywriter has adapted the sign to read: “IT’S SPRING AND I’M BLIND. PLEASE HELP.”

It’s a lovely story, which has been making copywriters feel good about themselves ever since (and possibly making blind people feel somewhat patronised). It’s usually quoted in the context of how important the ‘emotive sell’ is when pushing the latest commercial message into the minds of unwitting consumers, which is what copywriters generally do when they’re not being selfless superheroes.

Anyway, I mention this because a video version of the story has recently gone viral, attracting 6 million hits on YouTube. It’s a promotional video for online agency Purplefeather, titled ‘The Power of Words’. But, regrettably, the story isn’t quite the same. It’s been what you might charitably call ‘adapted’, or less charitably call ‘unforgivably mutilated’.

You can watch the video yourself if you want to add to the viewing figures, but suffice to say the key moment comes at the end, when the copywriter (a woman this time) takes to the sign with a marker pen. This time though, instead of elegantly adapting the existing text, she turns the sign over and writes: “IT'S A BEAUTIFUL DAY AND I CAN'T SEE IT.”

This is seriously what she writes.

The copywriter ignores the existing text written by the hapless blind man, and writes her own line on the reverse, thereby removing any of the wit and charm of the original story.

But she goes further by spelling out what was implicit in the original line. “IT'S SPRING AND I'M BLIND’ is a spare statement of fact that leaves the reader to fill in the emotional gap. This is where it gets its power. “IT'S A BEAUTIFUL DAY AND I CAN'T SEE IT” is the same line rewritten by the Ronseal copywriting team. In fact, it doesn’t even have that level of disarming directness, because the writer has forgotten to include the call to action. Without the ‘Please help’, it’s all a bit pointless.

And there’s another problem. What if it isn’t a beautiful day? What if it’s raining tomorrow, or in a couple of hours? Ogilvy thought of this – ‘spring’ is nicely open-ended (although you have to hope he adapted the sign come summer). Does this new copywriter have a stack of signs covering various weather conditions? “IT'S DRIZZLING SLIGHTLY AND I CAN'T SEE IT.” “IT WAS NICE A MINUTE AGO BUT HAS SINCE CLOUDED OVER A BIT AND I CAN'T SEE IT." (If you watch the video, you can see it appears to be a grey and damp day, even though the woman copywriter is bizarrely wearing sunglasses. Almost makes you wonder which of them is blind.)

It’s testament to the power of the original story that this bastardised version nevertheless retains enough impact to garner 6 million hits. But it’s also disheartening. We copywriters only have a limited supply of industry folklore to keep us going. If you’re going to use this story to make your agency promo, at least get the line right. Redrafting David Ogilvy isn’t something to undertake lightly, especially when your video is all about the power of words.

Anyway, if I ever fall on hard times, I’ve already planned my sign, which, if nothing else, should raise a smile from the odd passing copywriter – “IT’S SPRING AND I’M BLIND DRUNK. PLEASE HELP.”

I just hope that woman doesn’t come along and change it.

And the nominations are...

This year’s D&AD nominations and in-books are out (the pencils aren't announced until the ceremony in June).

I was pleased to get a nomination in Writing for Design for the 1,000-word poster I wrote (designed by The Chase – pictured above), while the complete set of four made it in-book in Graphic Design.


The proofreading site I wrote with Wheatcroft & Co also made it in-book in Writing for Design.

And two projects with Hat-trick Design are also in-book:


Victoria hoardings for Land Securities (in Typography as well as Graphic Design);


and Mapping London office graphics for Land Securities (mainly a design project, to which I contributed some words) – in the Branding category.

Incidentally, the Graphic Design jury continued the noble tradition of almost comical stinginess, with a total of 6 nominations, including just 3 from the UK. To put that in perspective, the Design Council's latest research suggests there are 232,000 practising designers in the UK. Sometimes makes me glad I'm a writer.


There are two other Writing for Design nominations. One is by Christopher Doyle, whose Identity Guidelines featured in 2009. His latest piece is a collaboration with Elliot Scott, titled This year I will try not to. It's an expertly and entertainingly observed roll call of design clichés (like the one pictured above) and a rallying cry to do better in future.


The other nomination is Hoxton Street Monster Supplies – an inspired UK extension of the 826 National project in the US.

The story of the US project is worth hearing in full, but essentially involved setting up a network of learning and literacy centres in major cities, starting with 826 Valencia in San Francisco. Planning regulations meant the premises they wanted had to be used for retail or catering purposes, so the organisers (led by Dave Eggers) found a cunning way round it: set up a fictional store to act as a front for the learning centre inside – one that embodies the values of story-telling and imagination that the project itself promotes. So the Pirate Supply Store was born. Extensions in other cities include the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, the Museum of Unnatural History in Washington, and the Robot Supply & Repair store in Michigan.

Hoxton Street Monster Supplies is the UK version of the same project, led by Nick Hornby among others. The monster theme is brilliantly chosen and the products and packaging are carried out with real style by We Made This. (It would be easy to go over the top or get the tone slightly wrong, but it feels exactly right.)

It's great to see it getting recognition in D&AD and, for me, it's the stand-out writing project this year. That said, I can’t help thinking that, if the original 826 National project had been entered in its entirety when it first launched, it would have been the first Black Pencil winner in Writing for Design (the highest accolade at D&AD and only given out rarely). It has everything – an important social purpose, a genuinely original idea that cleverly transformed a problem into an opportunity, and brilliant graphics and writing that have been central to the project's success. It would have walked it.

But then, maybe some people have better things to do than entering D&AD. Like running life-changing literacy programmes.

(By the way, the projects mentioned at the start of the post are me working in my freelance capacity. Asbury & Asbury didn't enter anything this year, although we enjoyed doing this poster for the World Cup, and working with Mr Blog on the finest blog post witnessed in generations.)



Just been interviewed by the good people at the Raw Type blog. You can read the whole thing here.

As well as a mention for Corpoetics, Pentone and Mr Blog, the interview features a subtle plug for fishages, a new food concept that Asbury & Asbury hopes to pioneer in the near future.