Winter Jewels

winter-jewels

How are you doing through this end of a particularly strange winter? It’s felt like a long haul hasn’t it? Considering meditations and moments pressing in for warmth and rest as the new year turned these recent months, I want to pay tribute to this outgoing season for the creativity still brewing even when we didn’t realise it.

This image stayed with me all winter long, taken on a November morning at Fforest while retreating alone, coming at sunrise from another angle down in the roots one day.

Crouched and hunkered down through hibernation times, it would be natural to write these coldest and darkest weeks of the year off altogether for gaining any sense of achievement and progression.

For all its weirdness and cold though, the last little while has given us beautiful frosts, and sunrises to set the earth shimmering at dawn.

Ideas secretly growing while we stayed low and simple.

Here’s what winter can be…

…crouching so low that wet grasses tickle our noses, sun seems to stream though from another angle unexpected and turning cold earth into a tray of jewels, glinting to our eyes, easing in a smile and while that sun hits little apple cheeks, made blush and round with quiet joy, a bird might pipe up in its beak language and say something along the lines of, “Don’t worry. You’re doing better than you think you are…”

Here’s what I think. We have—unwittingly—done better than we think and almost made it to warmer days again, and when good and ready after rest, energy will flow more freely on our ideas and making and doing once more, not just preserved for staying warm now. Some brilliant, bright green shoots are on their way – just look about and see! *

Jewels have been forming all the way through winter, when I neither had energy or daylight hours to do anything with them except gaze on and be glad – to be inspired.

Thanks for your jewels, Winter. Here’s to a gleaming Spring.

 

*  This is a particularly brilliant project to be launching with the Spring – Makers4Refugees founded by Pip Wilcox. Keep an eye, there are some fabulous people making stuff in order to support refugees with your help.

 

{Today’s Soundtrack: Kaki King – Skimming the Fractured Surface to a Place of Endless Light}

10 Things I Learnt From 10 Things They Learnt. 

ny-heart

Loving my Bristol home right now! There are so many great people around and about in our design community here, and getting out amongst them is throwing up such brilliant encouragement at the moment.

Last night in an upstairs bar somewhere in Bristol, a bunch of designer-types old and new got together and under twinkly, dimmed lights with drinks in hand, we heard from 10 local design heroes, 10 things they’d each learnt along the way that had seen them through thick and thin. We were there to celebrate West of England Design Forum’s 10th Birthday – WEDF pours such a lot of good stuff out into our creative midst, so I headed out to join the party and listen to some thoughtful gems. It was just lovely.

Each person who stood up spoke wisdom, confessed to messing up quite a lot, they made us laugh, they rapped, and showed us scans of their unborn children, and amidst all this vulnerability they did what really good designers do and gave us some proper gorgeous things to focus on. Many of these ideas resonated, so in the clear air this morning I sifted out my favourites, that I can say are also true for me too. (Please forgive my lack of credits, hopefully I can add these in due course. See note at the end.)

Here goes – my top ten of the ten top tens:

  1. Keep perspective.
    ‘No one died because of bad kerning/weird typeface’ etc.

    It’s true. In my BBC years, I once had a Natural History director storm out of an edit suite because he didn’t like the shade of blue I’d chosen for arrows on a map of ocean currents, and having nearly missed my granny’s funeral to get it done in time for transmission, there wasn’t time to remake it. As he flounced out and slammed the door, I was left standing in front of the Series Producer, biting my lip very hard trying to not cry. Oh dear! Probably one of my earliest lessons in how and why not to be a massive control freak.

  2. Humility can be helpful.
    See point 1, and remember that while it’s hugely important to fight for your ideas, being able to listen and learn is just as important. I’m not sure a need to be right opens up anything new.

    Curiosity, centre stage please!

  3. Speculate; have fun making personal work.
    Just go ahead and make that piece of work, just because you love the story and believe in the cause. You’ll learn something about yourself, and you may also just make that new connection you’ve dreamed about. My film ‘Tree Wisdom’ was a (sort of) case in point. It was a commission, but a totally open brief, and it’s proved so helpful in starting up new conversations.

    Chase an idea – you never know what adventure it’ll take you on.

  4. Be devoted.
    Get really good at your thing by doing it with such love, and give all the great ideas in you their best chance of life. I love looking at, or holding in my hands, the work of brilliant craftspeople, who spend years refining their skills.

    One from the aesthetic brigade – I really do believe that if you want us to think carefully about something, then make us want to look at it. Make it exquisite.

  5. Don’t forget the importance of your back yard.
    I really liked this way of describing the thing we all know but struggle to manage. Your ‘front yard’ is the polished, online space where your best work is featured – the well-presented 10% that gives everyone a passing impression. But it’s the much bigger back yard where the real stuff happens, the many more hours of play and discovery that really shape you. Don’t underestimate this space. Enjoy it, and celebrate that too!

    I went to a talk by Lisa Congdon a while ago, and asked her about sharing work online and vulnerability – she’s so prolific, and puts so much out there direct from a sketchbook, hard to believe she leaves anything out and imagine how much courage that takes. She doesn’t put everything out there, but the point is that this particular ‘back yard’ sees so much devoted action, what comes out of it is all the more beautifully, attractively real for it.

  6. Keep skills fresh by learning on every job. 
    Challenge yourself to acquire new technical skills with each project you do. It’s to budget and deadline, so you have the (helpful) pressure of it needing to be just right! I do this on all my animation projects, and I’ll never keep up with the best of After Effects nerds, but I remember point no.4 and try my best, and feel excited by new things.

    But…

  7. Don’t worry about being crap at technical skills. 
    Even if you were ‘around at the birth of Illustrator’ (or even—ahem—Pagemaker, on one of these anyone? Please say yes…) technical skills aren’t the be-all and end-all. You can learn these in time, but ideas are your true gold, and must come first.

    Good drawing skill with a pencil is the best companion you can give to your ideas, at least to begin with.

  8. Follow your gut instinct.
    It’s your business, and whatever advice you receive, you do know, deep down, what you want. Resigning from that previously-mentioned BBC job was a huge leap of instinctive faith, and few people really understood why I did it. Made no sense to anyone. But I’m still here, my smile is much bigger these days, and the quality of my work is so much better too.

    And yet…

  9. Seek counsel and advice from the older, wiser design owls.
    Those who have been there and done it have a lot of gold to share.

    Finally:

  10. If it gives you wings, even if you’re ‘an 11 year old white kid from Leicester’, it’s okay to rap like a lovely, obsessed geek. Honestly, this guy sums just about everything on this list list right up. Such a sweetie.

 

Not complicated, but real, and honest, and I’m very grateful to be amongst these lovely people trying to figure out how to keep things moving with bucketloads of style.

Big thanks to all you wonderful speakers, and hopefully WEDF will share a list of who you are again because, I’ll be honest, I’d had some wine and my brain wasn’t taking detailed notes. Here’s to the next 10 years!

 

{Today’s Soundtrack: SBTRKT – Pharaohs}

Settling Again

lizzie-table-corner

It’s been a really busy little while lately, settling back in the studio after lots of adventures and inspiration over summer. I’m sure you know what I mean!

Along with all those holidays and long, warm days, Summer’s a great time to step back and take stock, don’t you think? Although I find it does bring disruption to a more regular work flow with commissions and projects. It can be a bit of a ‘hold your nerve’ time in that respect if you run your own business.

To make ideas sing, to get into the heart of them and find their character, sometimes a change of scene is really helpful. And then sometimes, coming back to settle at your table, and pick up your tools to make them happen is the only thing to do next, even if you find it really hard to sit still! 

But I think the benefits of stepping back are always worth it. Drifting away from summer into autumn now, I have a couple of ideas to share which linger on the inspiring moments of summer a little longer, bring them inside with us, and keep the ideas and dreams flowing through a season of practical action ahead. Look out over the next couple of weeks for those which I’ll be posting about.

Meanwhile, life here in the studio is busy as ever – a heap of projects on the go, and personal work to push myself and keep learning. I’m a bit overwhelmed to tell you the truth, but trying to heed Victore’s advice that says “Ideas without action are just BS”! It helps to have a work table that feels like a treat to sit down at, and moving into The Forge earlier this year was a brilliant opportunity to switch things up and create a space that will do justice to the plans I have in my head. It’s really nice coming back to this after summer, a safe place to let things out and breathe life into them.

No more distractions. It’s time to honour the loveliness of all those ideas and get on with making them happen!

Happy settling friends, and may your work spaces be buzzing this autumn.

Finding Forward

central-park-arrow

This little brass arrow sits in the concrete somewhere in Central Park, New York.

I was taking care of my friends’ kids for a week back in July, my first trip to the city, and we were having a lot of fun deciding where to go and what to do with our times together. So much to soak in, and maybe its because it all just makes you want to look up that you get a big, gulping sense of opportunity and ‘skies-the-limit’ sort of inspiration, so we ran around and ate waffles and swam and went to the zoo and ended up in A&E and rode buses and bought sacks of M&Ms and took funny pictures…

It was great. And I saw that arrow, and somewhere in the middle of signposts pointing in fifty different directions, I clung onto this photograph of a solid, anchored thing that shone out from the floor and told me which way to look.

After travelling through summer with a sense of barefoot freedom, its time to carry some of the fresh feeling forward into a new season of projects and plans back home. Bumping into friends all over the place, I get a sense that for many of us, this summer has been a time for rethinking, gaining clarity and gathering courage to act on new ideas or even close off old ones. It’s exciting – loads going on if we can settle back in carefully and figure out how to do what next.

But wait! Please! Don’t make me sit down at a desk and pay attention, I’m thriving out here in the world’s wide open spaces, running around, having ideas, drawing nice pictures and playing petanque on the beach!  

In the business of ideas, time out is a pure gift, but we all know it only really means anything if we get down to some practical reality and planning, and doing. 

Direction, that’s what we need, out the back of free-spirited imagining.

But I do find this hard, don’t you? A transition from one season to the next; moving through a sort of liminal space after leaving one state of dreaming and before fully grasping the new state of doing.

Direction. Commit to a path, and keep moving forward.

So this week back at my desk, despite inevitable fears, I’m having a go at making it happen. I’m filtering the coffee, working through my list, braving the thought that some of this might not work, and I’m giving it a go anyway. And I know the same is true for many of us. I think it helps to keep finding time and space to be quiet, distill the options and discern next steps – like gazing up through cool trees in Central Park after scampering through grubby, hot and hectic NY streets. Taking a breather, to figure out what to choose when you’re back to it?

Seeking stillness is never an excuse for inaction, so long as it’s done with a willingness to drop the distractions and be present to the day, and what it asks for. So along with thinking about that quiet little brass arrow, these are some of the words I find helpful at the moment:

Be still; find your forward.

Here we are, back in the loop, no more freestyle for a while but plenty of plans, and all the love in the world to make them happen!

 

{Today’s Soundtrack: Bob Moses – Like It Or Not}

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, because your message and ideas grow from travelling a brave path that’s taken a lot of graft to follow, and if you just turned up in your pants alone I bet you’d still communicate the lovely essence and quality of all you hold true. (BTW. Please don’t just turn up in your pants. That was not an invitation.)

Communicating your lovely ideas is an adventure. It takes time and experience to build the kit you need. Let the path unfold, have fun exploring, see what your people engage with and set up camp there for a while. Listen, and have faith in the journey. 

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