Society of Design Conference 2015


Photo by cbower2366 on Instagram

Just back from an extended trip to Philadelphia to talk at the Society of Design conference. It took place in the Harrison Auditorium in Penn Museum and was hosted by Craig Welsh of Go Welsh.


Photo by wittynoggin on Instagram

As part of my talk, I revived the rearranging-corporate-copy idea of Corpoetics to write a poem based on Go Welsh’s profile copy.


Photo by @themodernchris on Twitter

I also took the chance to talk about a few interesting pieces of writing spotted over the last year or so.


Photo by thatgreenalien on Instagram

And it was my first opportunity to talk about a new version of this book, which will be coming out early next year.

The best part was being able to hear from six other speakers, all from different disciplines. To give an idea of the range:


John Ryan talked about his work as Director of Interaction Design at Local Projects, including this City Pulse installation at One World Trade Center. 

Oskar Zieta talked about his studio’s mind-boggling technique for inflating steel with high-pressured air to create strong but lightweight forms, for use in everything from furniture to space stations.


Spencer Charles and Kelly Thorn spoke about their beautiful work, previously for Louise Fili and now independently – I was a particular fan of this layered ampersand poster.


Alisa Wolfson gave an insight into design as part of a big ad agency – she heads the Department of Design at Leo Burnett in Chicago. Recipeace is the award-winning D&AD White Pencil project, but I also liked this single-minded branding work for McDonald’s.


Craig Dykers runs architectural firm Snøhetta, which is responsible for a wonderful array of buildings, including The Norwegian National Opera and Ballet and the 9/11 Memorial Museum Pavilion.


When Snøhetta turned its attention briefly from architecture to graphics, it immediately created one of the stand-out projects of the last decade. These Norwegian banknotes won a competition a while back and are coming into circulation next year.


Finally, Annie Atkins talked about her graphic design work for The Boxtrolls and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Not only great work, but also a fascinating story told with clarity and humour.

Thanks to Craig Welsh and everyone who provided such gracious hospitality. 

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

Diamond Bob

Picture 4
I've just had a piece of writing published on the poetry and cultural review blog Eyewear. It's called Diamond Bob and is a collision of two texts: the Barclays Strategic Report 2011 (Chief Executive's Review / Citizenship section) and the traditional protest song Diamond Joe.

You can read it on Eyewear.

Sometimes you feel an urge to write something quickly in response to news events and this kind of collage of found texts feels like a natural way to do it. Not strictly a 'found' poem as it involves some creative intervention and arranging. But not a fully authored poem either, as you're acting more as an editor than a writer.

I did something similar with Corpoetics a few years ago, which rearranged the words of corporate websites, including Barclays:


That said, the most socially useful piece of writing I've done in response to recent events was filling out my application form for a new account with the Co-operative Bank.

This isn’t just any poetry

There has reportedly been an outbreak of poetry in the usually prosaic world of corporate communications.

Marks & Spencer customer Christine Baxter (pictured) was disappointed to hear her local Grantham branch was closing and wrote to M&S to say so. She decided to write her complaint in verse, which is a great thing in itself. A lady writing a poem to Marks and Spencer in order to complain seems the perfect distillation of everything that is English.

But it gets better, because Alex Hawkins from the executive office at M&S decided to reply in kind. And this isn’t just any poetry – it’s incredibly bad poetry:


I completely understand you’re upset,
That our Grantham store will soon be for let.
This decision was not easy to make,
But it’s no mistake,
And we settle on it full of regret.

We know we’ve been with you for years,
And we’ll be leaving with eyes full of tears.
But if a store can’t make money,
There’s clearly something going funny;
This situation any business fears.

Marc wants to open more shops,
But to do this costs lots and lots.
We need the cash in our hand,
To spread the M&S brand.
Right now in Grantham we cannot.


On the plus side, the poem has generated some great PR for M&S and it’s nice that someone took the time to write it. But it would also make a fascinating starting point for a thesis on corporate language and poetry.

As modes of language go, they are at opposite ends of the scale. Corporate language necessarily treads carefully, with a tendency to evade responsibility and toe the party line. By contrast, poetry is all about ambiguity and multiplicity – the words go wherever they want. Mix the two together and interesting things can happen.

Take the opening line: “I completely understand you’re upset”. It’s a banal commonplace of corporate complaint handling, but it takes on a different air in poetry – there’s a sense of genuine melancholy (particularly when rhymed later with ‘regret’).

Then there’s the key couplet in the second stanza: “But if a store can’t make money, / There’s clearly something going funny;” The poet is making humorous use of rhyme (funny/money) to make the point seem incontrovertible. Advertisers have long understood the close link between rhyme and reason, and how people often confuse the two. If it sounds right, you tend not to question the logic behind it.

But there is a very questionable argument going on and the tension becomes clear in the third stanza, where the poet claims that “We need the cash in our hand, / To spread the M&S brand.” The simple rhyme again lends an air of common sense to the point. In reality, quite a strange argument is being made – that closing stores is logically the best way to spread the M&S brand.

This tension is betrayed in the language itself, which shifts uncomfortably from the tangible “cash in our hand” to the corporate abstraction of spreading “the M&S brand”. Does casting the argument in poetry highlight this tension or mask it? Maybe it does both.

Either way, the finality of the last line is chilling: “Right now in Grantham we cannot.”

Tonally, this could come straight from Larkin. There’s a sense of a very English politeness masking simmering tensions beneath. Don’t argue back, because we cannot and that’s all there is to it.

None of the news stories so far have included details of Christine Baxter’s original poem, but if it surfaces it should make for a good read.

Sources: Daily Mail and The Guardian

Beyond petroleum


In response to BP's continuing policy of investing in tar sands extraction (and the recent Louisiana oil spill), Greenpeace is running a competition* to redesign the BP logo – part of a trend of 'brand sabotage' that also manifested itself in the Tory election poster response.

In a similar spirit, I thought I'd revisit Corpoetics and have a go at a BP version. (For the uninitiated, Corpoetics was a series of poems rearranging the words from corporate websites.)

It's strange writing these things, because the poem seems to emerge from the original text without you completely controlling it. In this case, it all went a bit Old Testament:

Beyond petroleum

After the platforms,
the ships, the refineries,

After the solutions,
the fuel and facilities,

After the products,
the light and the heat,

After the pride
and the corporate need,

After today
and what we do now,

God and the world.
God and the world.

* The logo competition entries so far include the monstrous:


the slightly more subtle:  


and the exquisitely crafted:


Full Flickr set here.

Teatime dreams


A couple of months ago, the people at Yorkshire Tea were nice enough to send us some free gifts – probably the highlight of our year, decade and lives so far. There's no way you can return a favour like that, but the one thing I can do is write a slightly forced poem. So here's a Corpoetic based on Yorkshire Tea's homepage copy (pictured above).

As usual, the rules were that you can only use the words supplied, you don't have to use all the words and you can use individual words more than once.

Yorkshire Tea

Yorkshire Tea is a major cause
of lovely dreams – teatime dreams.

Dreams of cakes the size of Yorkshire.
Dreams of biscuits big as a planet.

Delicious dreams of cuppa on cuppa
of lovely, simple, natural tea.

To all the people of Yorkshire Tea,
who put the 'tea' in 'quality',

who grow the tea and blend the tea
and treat our teatime properly –

all our love and respectful wishes.
Yorkshire Tea is so delicious.

Corpoetics reviewed, and other things


(our collection of found corporate poetry) has recently been reviewed in Sphinx, a magazine and website for independent poetry publishers and poets, run by HappenStance Press. You can read the whole thing here.

Over the past couple of years, I've been trying to familiarise myself with the ins and outs of the UK poetry scene – the magazines, the publishers, the events, the writers to watch, the writers you should be embarrassed not to have heard of, the conflicting fashions and schools – all that kind of thing. It's a long journey that leads you up numerous cul-de-sacs. But one of the great highlights has been discovering HappenStance Press.

Like so much of the poetry scene, it's fired less by economics and more by love of the art form and sheer generosity of spirit. Helena Nelson runs the entire operation, fielding countless submissions, publishing several titles every year, maintaining a lively blog and website, and editing and producing Sphinx. In a right and proper world, these would be the people getting six-figure bonuses every year.

If you're at all interested in getting poetry published, buy this:
How (not) to get your poetry published

And if you're interested in reading it, buy this:
Unsuitable Poems

And just about anything else from the HappenStance shop.

Poetry and Music

Manchester design company Music are smart people with great work. The type who get asked to do covers for Creative Review.


They got in touch over the summer asking if I'd like to write a Corpoetics-style poem to fill a guest slot on the home page of their website.

The only text I had to work with was their client list, which at the time looked something like this:

Allermuir Furniture Manufacturers
Bolton Council Carbon Footprint
Chester Performs
Chester Summer Music Festival
Flip Flops
Flowerburger Records
Fruit Tree Books
Joly Good TV
Kevin Boniface
Matthew Beardsell Limited
MCFC Press
MCFC Stadium
Manchester Independent Economic Review
Place Space & Identity
Tamewater Developments
Where Are You? A Postman's Diary

The resulting verse isn't strictly a 'Corpoetic' as I've taken the liberty of adding some words and generally being looser with the whole thing. For some reason, I imagine it being read aloud by Ian McMillan.

15 wishes

I'd like to eat a flowerburger back to front
in a land where flip-flops leave no footprint.
I'd like to head woodward to water a fruit tree.
I'd like to review an identity
for MCFC, appear tame on TV,
and do joly well at D&AD.
I'd like to sell beards to a man named Matthew
and manage an independent economic review
of a girl called Kelly from Bolton Council.
I'd like to press for a postman's festival
to take place in Chester every summer.
I'd like to become part of the furniture
and have a front seat when Kevin performs
a stadium version of his CSR Report.
I'd like to have my own place and space,
change my name to Allermuir Boniface,
and live in Bolton – but then I'd like to shift
Bolton to nearer where Manchester is.
Given one last wish, I'd probably use it
to turn myself into a piece of Music.

Thanks to Craig and Anthony at Music for the invitation.

Copies of Corpoetics are available for £5 plus p&p, with all proceeds going to the National Literacy Trust.

You wish to submit a concern?

The day that Goldman Sachs announces a $3.19 billion profit (with $5bn set aside for bonuses this quarter) seems a good time to dust down this poem from Corpoetics.

Goldman Sachs

You wish to submit a concern?
A concern regarding the firm?
Who are you? Are you new?
You will learn who is who.
You will learn to submit to the firm.

(Poem based on this text, which used to be on the Goldman Sachs 'about us' page – since updated.)

Copies of Corpoetics are available for £5 plus p&p with all proceeds going to the National Literacy Trust.

Q&A with A&A

The Casual Optimist, aka Dan Wagstaff of Raincoast Books in Toronto, has just published a Q&A about our Corpoetics project. You can read the whole thing here and have a dig around the rest of the blog while you’re at it. It's a good mix of literary and creative musings and observations, as well as the odd interview with obscure copywriters.

Two pencils and a poem



The year appears.
Ideas take place.

Exceptional ideas
are showcased.

Exceptional ideas –
as well as yours.

All the best,
The D&AD Awards.

Corpoetics in D&AD
Order a copy
Pictures of the night


An appropriately self-satisfied poem to mark the fact that we have been nominated in this year’s D&AD for our Corpoetics project. The nomination comes in the Writing For Design category, alongside the Christopher Doyle identity guidelines. It appears to have been a good year for writing for design, with plenty of entries and in-books, including the likes of Mike Reed and The Chase.

Thanks to Jim Davies, one of the judges, for writing about the project over here (along with some interesting observations on the category as a whole).

Woolworths RIP


Today is the big closing down sale for Woolworths – a sad end for a once-great brand. I included a poem about them in Corpoetics, which now has a slightly poignant air. I always thought it should be set to music – not sure which tune though. For some reason, I’m thinking The Proclaimers. Or maybe Keane.

Woolworths plc
In towns and cities throughout the UK
a retailer offers its customers a
range of products for family and home,
and value for money (for which it is known).

Woolworths, Woolworths plc.
Built on value for money.
Woolworths, Woolworths plc.
Shop for all the family.

(Image taken from Telegraph website. It's the first ever UK Woolworths store, opened in Church Street, Liverpool in 1909.)

Found in translation

Corpoetics has been picked up on a few blogs around the world, but the one we like best is this Dutch one called Fackeldey Finds, written by Jacqueline Fackeldey. We had to run it through the Babel Fish translation tool to work out what it meant. The result forms a strange kind of poetry in its own right. Here’s the introduction to her article (with some added line breaks):

You come them everywhere against,
the splendid sentences and slogans
with which commit themselves recommend.

You a book are able write and that is also exact
what the stylist has done Nick Asbury.

There, as it happens, recently a collection
of poems of its hand with in this poems
appeared based on those sentences.

Hence that Asbury this dichtvorm
and its collection of poems
very appropriate ‘Corpoetics’ have called.

Not sure what a dichtvorm is, but let’s face it, it doesn’t sound good.

Jacqueline goes on to include a few poems of her own, which look great, although Babel Fish continues to have its weird way with them. Here’s one example:

An open door is called at us `entrance solution'.
And we clean tillen at the level of precise cleaning'
but sometimes us the doubt comes over
in the form of the grindstone for the spirit
because simplicity is' nevertheless `design your own life'?

Sounds like a Steve McClaren press conference.

Anyway, thanks very much for the post Jacqueline. And thanks to Babel Fish for clearing everything up.

Corpoetics in Creative Review


Our Corpoetics project gets some coverage in this month's Creative Review

Download a pdf (604 kb)