Meeting Cartier-Bresson.

Flower Cargo 01

Working with legends is a beautiful thing, but it can also screw with your head.

What can we learn from stepping in alongside the giants? So much gorgeous wisdom — work ethic, courage, stamina,  perseverance, how to have and hold an opinion, tricks of the trade, identity and empathy … shall I go on?

To work alongside a true legend and—joy of joys—discover mutual empathy will provide massive affirmation: “Ah, I’m not mad to be feeling this after all!”

BUT, it can also massively backfoot you. Damn it.

Recently I found myself in London and back down Old Street again, a number of years since working at Magnum Photos. Far, far (yet only one hundred yards) from that world of stubborn, iron-minded war photgraphers and photography heroes, this was an altogether different kind of shoot. It was a really odd moment, sitting on the steps of the tube station watching my fellow ‘photo-walk’ friends—fun, fashion conscious women—enjoying the clash of funky clothes against bright yellow walls. Happiness in the surface colour of things, new friends chasing common, simple perspectives to unite around. Why was it so hard to relax and just go with this? Issueless – what would those gnarly war-bound photographers make of it all?

My time at Magnum was an incredible couple of years. Many stories I could share, but meeting Henri Cartier-Bresson is what really threw me – I simply had nothing to say while gauping into those watery blue eyes, making contact with the legendary gaze which has discerned some of the most influential images of our time.

That gaze felt like a gun to my fragile opinions, a barrel pointed at my newly awakening sense of social justice. It was also—in the true spirit of Magnum—a cork popping loud on the helpless desire to make thoroughly beautiful images and record life as it explodes.

Cartier-Bresson’s view on, and expression of, the world is utterly compelling and irresistibly persuasive. How do you hold—or even discover—your own in the face of that?

Thankfully people like Bruce Davidson came to the rescue with long, lovely chat, swapping notes about what it feels like to do our work. (Such a sweet, crazy, and exceptionally clever man.) Here’s what it boiled down to:

Stop stalling against the opinion of other people, and just flow. No one sees through your eyes, with your heart and mind behind them. The spark exists. Just shoot.

And this is true whether your tool is a camera or pen, your voice or mind, an axe or a needle or a lathe. How do you find—and hold—your own?

“Go forth on your path, for it exists only through your walking.”

– St. Augustine

My friends, there are brilliant things up ahead. Let the legends challenge and inspire, but we have our own work to do now too.

I paused in Shoreditch that day, thinking about all this, watching those lovely women making friends over photography, opening up, shining little beams of light on each other, and wondering what sort of photograph is valid, has meaning, is true of life. And you know what? Man, woman, war, peace or disruption, I think we just have to get on with it.

Joy so simple.

Flower Cargo 02

 

Life, Abundantly.

Hydrangea

We all know that the path of life is not a straight one. Learning how to walk it with grace, peace and style may well be the ultimate art.

Recently, I found myself sitting around tables and campfires out in the wildest of West Wales at Fforest, drinking and chatting long into the nights with some seriously impressive and beautifully real women. All (mostly) making a living through our creative work, there we were throwing logs onto the flames, sharing happiness, hopes, fears, frustrations.

The thing that has brought most of us together is—I suspect—a commitment to that wild journeying, not only of creative living, but the desire to live wholeheartedly through all of life’s twists and turns and find kindred spirits along the way.

We want to make all our opportunities count, capture the day and search for the light, beauty, joy within all the heartache and mess that life inevitably has to be. Express it, soothe it, counsel it, celebrate it.

Breathe something into nothing – give birth and nurture. And most of all, chase that insatiable urge to make gorgeous stuff!

This is Sisterhood.

Today, July 8th, is my Ma’s birthday. She was the most lively, lovely, irresistibly creative and spontaneous soul I ever knew. But she wasn’t encouraged to be that because, well as I’m sure you may have heard, creative explosions can be so inconvenient, darling, and just not the done thing. Poor love. She died when I was twelve, setting us off alone like little boats sailing over a big sea, with my hugely practical Pa skippering us through rough waters. At times like that it is very helpful to have an engineer dad who keeps the machine running smoothly. Lovely old Pa.

The three decades since then have been an almost unbelievable voyage of discovering all and more of what she gave me, that she couldn’t help me find in person. Yet because she’s here in so much spirit it was just inevitable that some of the most insanely great encounters would fill these soft sails.

All that creative adventuring, and now it seems there are safe ports to rest in, at last. Enjoy safe harbour, find fires, seek out the sparks, and allow big lights to come on for the ‘thing back then’ and how it fits with the ‘happening over here now’, not to mention graciously acknowledging the ‘bizarre detour halfway along’.  Just sitting, watching and listening, accepting, like a dawning…

Life-giving. That’s what Sisterhood has been.

So this morning, 30-odd years later, I arrive at our studio here at The Forge for a day’s work and gorgeous Silkie catches me, a little tearful and wielding a top-heavy hydrangea stem – Ma’s birthday present. It’s a celebration of her and all the creative loving she’s passed on, a ‘thank you’, and a continuing promise to keep pursuing life, practising that ‘grace and peace’ walk, and cherish each wide open moment that shouts ‘YES!’ for our million and one ideas and inspirations.

Life—all it is and all it could be—is what this flower means today.

 

{Today’s Soundtrack: Luke Howard – Portrait Gallery}

A New Home

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How do you find ideas? How do ideas come to you?

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your precious ideas is to set up home somewhere beautiful and put a few great things and people in place there, so as to coax those thoughts out into the safe shelter they need to grow. We all have different versions of this – what are your favourite things to have around you while you work, and is there a place where you find it just magically happens?

In one of my very first posts on this blog, I wrote about the wallpaper around us, the importance of noticing what you’re surrounded by and how this can affect your take on things whether you realise it or not. I think this is vital – in our world of coming up with good, fresh ideas, it’s essential to be conscious of the visual signals posted around you and the influence these will have on your quality of thought, and ultimately, expression of that thought too. Don’t be blind to these things – they affect you more than you know!

With that in mind, this post is a little tribute really. I am so excited and thankful to have a new creative home at The Forge. What a gorgeous place to call my home now, with other accomplished designers and illustrators. Being in a place like this helps me have better ideas just by walking in the building. I knew the first time I visited that my horizons were already bigger, my breath was deeper, my vision clearer. What sort of magic is this?! What makes this happen? The old bricks, the clean, white surfaces, the sun coming in, care taken over the few favourite and well-worn focal points that already exist, and enough room to add one or two of my own.

This space is a very special thing in the name of ideas. This table top pictured, I suspect, will be the base station for some really life-bringing chats and problem-solving. I think all of us here want that, and are keen to make it happen.

Thinking about what helps the best ideas out, as I land, here are some of the practical things I appreciate about my new space. It’s not really complicated, but good to consider:

A clean, clear table top with a view. Spacious. Room to spread out.

Tools that are sharp, full of ink, ready for action. Analogue. Never neglect your tools. Don’t be afraid of them leaking on your fingers either – proves you’re still flesh and blood. 

Smooth, clean paper. Moleskine and Artefact cards? Come on, you know this drill!

Big windows. Fresh air. 

Good tunes – when you need them, not all the time. Sometimes it’s important be quiet because ideas, like animals, can be shy. 

A carefully assembled palette of colours and textures around you – a theme of serenity for me, with the occasional slice of colour. Probably inspired by nature, yet also some cool, clean lines. (My RPS photographer grandmother loved these things too, I discovered recently.)

Plants. They breathe, like us, and need care and love, like us. A good visual prompt to take care of yourself too.

Books. Don’t have shelves of books you never read. Just pick out the ones that you know work for you – the ones that simply looking at the spine remind you of something valuable. 

And pictures. I try to avoid sticking any old thing up on the wall for the sake of it. Imagine this, that the wall in front of you echoes the state of your mind. Or the other way up, that same wall says everything opposite to what’s really going on in your mind. You have the power to control that! I find that my head normally has so much pinging around inside it, I really need calm on the outside in order to beckon everything out safely. Like I said, ideas are like animals.

Obviously having good kit and internet connection is massively helpful too – streamline smart thinking with Wunderlist, Evernote, calendar, but how nice when this just works …

One final thing. I make the decision not to be isolated. As an independent, I won’t suffer on my own in silence, and there’s something about moving to this new space that’s signposting a world of inspired, creative connection I’ve been craving. Listen to those hunches, even if it’s bloody frightening to act on them first of all. 

Wherever you are, happy days my friends, and I hope your spaces are blessed with much wonderful inspiration and your ideas feel more excited than ever to come out of hiding.

 

{Today’s Soundtrack: Natalie Merchant – San Andreas Fault}

Spaces in Springtime

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There’s a hum in the air. It’s quite hard to sit still. Anyone know what I’m talking about?

Now Winter is wimpering, Spring sings its songs. They sound soft, gentle, a throat still warming up not yet ready for its full vocal throes until the chilly days have fully lost their final breath. After a winter of respecting frozen ground with nothing going in and nothing coming out, when Spring happens it’s not just seeds in the ground that start this wake-up hum. It’s us too, I think. It’s making regular things almost impossible, for me at least, and I hope you recognise the feeling.

The thing is, convenient as it would be to want no more than to sit patiently at a desk going through everything on that list, life has other ideas. Life does not revolve around a table top, however beautiful a space it is. However perfectly a space is arranged, neatly organised and elegantly coordinated, paperweight and pot plant perfectly positioned, this is only a glimmer of the real picture. However brilliant the playlist, good the coffee, ergonomic the chair…

Life—and what I can bring to that desk—is about all the things that happen when we respond to the wake-up hum and get out and behave in our creaturely ways, running about in big open spaces, facing each other, braving true conversations, putting our hands and feet to the work of walking it all together.

This Easter weekend I took M off to an old favourite place – St. Dogmaels in Cardigan, where I used to spend summers with one of my oldest friends and her family. No telly, crap phone signal, a wood burner and some booze. Gigantic skies and massive reflections in tide-soaked sands, and as I was losing count of the rainbows we clung to each other so as not to be blown away off tiny and wild little Mwnt, and talked about the things that both bring us here and beckon us on. It was a step aside and away and the view back on home life became clearer, more hopeful. We probably managed to chat in a way we don’t very often.

Sometimes sitting inside at our desks diligently, to patiently work through lists and ideas, is the most important thing and what amazing tools we have to help us do this.

But sometimes, when the sun comes after winter, maybe the only ‘right’ is to be outside, photosynthesising, facing the rays and warming up—come on freckles you remember what to do here!—and listen out for that soft hum of things waking up, and ever so gently, strike up with your own note and join in. Tune in to your songs again, find out where your harmony fits. Practice that, and then take it back inside again a better singer.

If you don’t feel much like sitting at your desk today, I reckon that’s okay.

 

{Today’s Soundtrack: PJ Harvey – We Float}

It’s a Conversation, Not a Monologue

Know anyone who’s a bit fond of the sound of their own voice? It’s still amazing to me how often I come across people with a one way transmission, and we design people can be the worst culprits.

Sorry about that.

The other day out at an event with Mick, a bloke approached us and asked questions. As we tried answering, he cut us off with his answer to his questions. Honestly. It makes my eyes want to pop out of my bored skull.

Sadly, Monologue Man and Woman hit so often, these days it just makes me shut down. I hate being monologued by people. I truly hate it. Don’t you?

Reflecting on all this, I always try to remember that any chats we have about design are always better for being a conversation. I have come to know how valuable it is to be quiet and listen. It’s not rocket science is it, but like all the best wisdom, it bears repeating.

I get this with Sharon and Sonja at Valuable Content a lot. We often sit around the table and explore perspectives around a problem. We’ve both helped each other see things we didn’t really get before, and what we have after a few years of working together is a truly mutual way of working. We also have a wealth of gorgeous, emotive and genuinely useful resources, not just for them but for the people they want to help in the world.

And it’s not just a backstage chat about design, but the whole approach to sharing your messages with the world. Clearly a lot of online space is heavily weighted to ‘transmit’, but it’s always more fun if it other people join in too.

The richness of other people’s experience, insight and expertise is always great to soak in and it goes both ways.

We design people would love to be part of the conversation. Sorry for all the times we’ve shouted you down without listening, but maybe that comes from being dumbed down as “glorified artworkers”. (Yes, I have been called this recently. We don’t work together now.)

With patience and commitment, our shared insights often make for good ideas bubbling up over time, and I think my most rewarding projects are ones that emerge from true two-way conversations.

Whichever side you’re on, design conversations are exactly that — CONVERSATIONS.

Let’s come to the table with open minds, patience and genuine curiosity, full of respect for the expertise each other brings. The best ideas ever have a hope of being born this way.

The Agony of Brand Identity

I’ve become quite uncomfortable about lots of the words we use to describe our working life. They are all so loaded, and I don’t think they’re always that helpful, or even reflect what we’re actually doing. BRAND IDENTITY is definitely one of those terms.

Do you really need a ‘brand’ identity?

No, you don’t. Well, actually yes, but I don’t think it’s really about ‘brand’ now. Here’s why:

There was a doc about Joy Division on BBC4 recently. Bernard Sumner was reflecting back on the band’s successes before Ian Curtis’ heartbreaking death, and was asked about their sense of image, design, their look. He got annoyed. Really annoyed. All that mattered to them was making and being immersed in the purity of their music, but the music industry always wants image, to create personal brands that look great on posters, and this, he said, steals from our raw, real-human-being truth. His was a righteous anger about branding at large, which he says is manipulative and dishonest, ultimately a mask to hide behind. It’s a false front, deceiving people by creating an illusion of perfection and desire.

Fierce words. It’s nothing we don’t know, though, so where does it leave us?

It helps to think about context.

In the 1980s, late 70s, Sumner’s words will have been so, so true. The Bakelite sheen over life was superseded by big hair and shoulder pads, almost designed to keep reality at bay. Ads of the time make us smirk with their falseness, and the Mad Men marketing campaigns make us squirm under the sleeze. Today, offensively huge, janglingly rich empires exist for the 1% because the 99% have bought into the myth.

Sick of a hollow happiness promise from the world’s gigantic brands, more of us just want to break free and find independent solutions to our problems that involve real people being honest, making and sharing stuff from the very heart of that beautifully messy confusion that real life actually is.

Grow your own, close to source, fairly, ethically and lovingly crafted. For those of us who choose different paths in our work, to do something that matters, how can we approach the matter of brand identity and marketing with some sense of integrity?

While I agree with Mr. Sumner to a point, I think what we mean by ‘brand’ is so much more nuanced than it was at the angry birth of punk. It’s because we have tried that other way for generations, and watched it go wrong, lots of us are now trying something new, in numbers, and with massive encouragement to each other to do the same. Our future on this planet depends on it! Because we now live and communicate the way we do, we are finding better ways to represent ourselves and our expertise truthfully, but still with some style, grace, elegance, wit, character…

My lovely punk, lost in Paris

My lovely punk, lost in Paris

We need to think about how we come across, but not hide behind a false image that tricks the world into thinking we’ve got something we haven’t. We’ll get so found out. Maybe we could replace the words ‘brand identity’ with ‘visual identity’, and see how they fit as we explore a new way now.

No one has the same face as you, or fingerprint, or voice, so let your Visual Identity be as honest and unique and full of character and stamina and life and breath and changing seasons as you are. Let the design of your visual identity evolve naturally, powerfully, with real sincerity, to reflect that purity of your best work. Thinking of it like that, nothing’s being stolen from anyone.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Why and how to build a visual kit box

I’m feeling a bit sad now that summer dwindles off over the hill, and all camp action is (probably) done for this year. Too soon!

Here at my desk I’m dreaming back on those easy days of barefoot slobbing on balmy sites in France this summer, taking a designer’s aesthetic and organisational pride in the state of our pitch in order that maximum camp satisfaction can be achieved.

Let me tell you, this wouldn’t happen without The Grey Box. The Grey Box is like our Mission Control, full of essential camping weirdness (mallet to lighters to multitools, tealights and tent pegs, etc) that keeps a trip going smoothly. By far, it takes up the most space in the boot but we’d be lost without it.

And why do you need to know about The Grey Box?

Because having a lovingly prepared kit box makes the difference between shambolic and triumphant operations.

We all need a work-related ‘Grey Box’ when it’s time to get our great messages out, I reckon. A kit of parts that has a useful tool tucked away for certain occasions – right through from a simple business card to a big, bold manifesto.

In my visual world, I want ideas to be the heroes, and I think the world needs much better words and ideas to focus on. So it figures that we need loads of different ways to make sure that happens*.

*I ran through some of these in my last post.

If being prepared can only be born of experience, making clanging errors and learning from them, then it’s alright to take time to build your kit box slowly but surely. Watching your business grow over time, you will learn what works and what doesn’t for you, for your style and what you have to say.

You may hit moments of horror or frustration, realising there’s a key piece of stuff missing from your kit yet not enough time to get that together (eg. “Agh, wouldn’t it be perfect if I’d done that little booklet and could give her this right now!”)

Nevermind, I say. You will figure it out, and here’s the best part: because your message and your ideas are growing from a truly solid foundation that’s taken a lot of tears and graft to pin down, if you just turned up in your pants alone I bet you’d still communicate the brilliant essence and quality of that idea. (BTW. Please don’t just turn up in your pants. That was not an invitation.)

My point is this. Don’t rue the lack of budget, vision, time or clarity that holds you back from developing an all-singing, all-dancing communication package up front. IT TAKES TIME. See what you need as you thrash thoughts out with others. See what your people want to engage with. Take time to test ideas and walk them through.

You’ll soon figure out what you need when you find [the thing you didn’t know was a thing] is not there in your kit box.

A bit like arriving at your campsite and realising the rubber hose connecting the gas bottle to the cooker is missing… (sorry about that M – add it to the checklist?)

So, wherever your adventures in thought and work and life take you, happy devoted kit building, people!

On the banks of Lake Taupo, NZ

Touring Lake Taupo, NZ