Saturday, April 24, 2010

Empty Words

I read about the fabulous idea of Empty Miles on the PSFK website. There, is it described as:

“A site that matches a company’s trucks that are returning empty with another company’s potential cargo that can be collected and delivered along the return route."


But then I went to the Empty Miles website and read their opening line:

“Empty Miles is a powerful new online backhaul solution that enables a collaborative business process for identifying transportation efficiency opportunities between trading partners.”

Did anyone else fall asleep before they got to the end of that sentence?

Why do companies do that?

I’ve spent hours of my life rewriting copy for clients who write like they’ve swallowed a thesaurus, an engineering manual and an MBA text book, then vomited them all onto the page.

All business people should learn how to write in good, straight-forward, plain language. It’s just not that hard.

My tip to clients is usually to read your copy out loud then ask yourself, would you explain it like that to a friend in the pub? If not, then don’t write it down.

Or follow George Orwell’s 6 Rules for Good Writing, which are beautifully simple and relevant in all situations:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The future: no more bad ads.

Is it getting harder to advertise boring brands?

In Patrick Collings’ Brand Architect blog post this morning, he discusses some recent advertising ‘game changers’ including Twitter’s Sponsored Tweets and Facebook's ever-adapting ways to put adverting in the control of its consumers.

I’ve been thinking (and hoping) a lot lately about it getting increasingly hard to get away with crap advertising.

Everyone knows that the shift away from broadcast media and the innovations in the way online ads are targeted and created will make consumer censoring of ads even easier but are we really prepared for what we will have to do to deal with it? Ads will certainly need to be more creative and entertaining to get people to watch them but this alone won’t be enough.

With online formats that require interaction with ads, such as rating and recommending, it will become increasingly difficult to create effective advertising unless people love your brand enough to become advocates.

This will create a problem for a lot of brands. Particularly the sort of consumer products which traditionally spend the most on advertising. How do you get people to love your breakfast cereal so much that they feel compelled to tell people about it on their Facebook page?

This leads me on to one of my other pet topics – you can’t make good ads about boring products.

When I’m traveling for business I like to look at all the ads you see in airports for things like investment companies and consulting firms. You know the ones with a dramatic landscape picture and a copy line saying something like ‘Together we are going places.’ It’s hard to imagine who could create ads that bad and pointless until you think that perhaps these businesses just don’t have anything else to say. Perhaps their services are so indistinguishable from each other that their ads have to be too.

Seth Goddin sums all this up better than I can in his book ‘The Purple Cow’. But it comes down to making sure your product is really worth selling before you worry about how to sell it.

Maybe I’m idealistic but I see a bright future in which it will become impossible not only to make bad ads but that products which are not useful, exciting and individually distinguishable will become impossible to market and therefore cease to exist.

Bring it on.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

But is it Art?

When I received Adrian Shaughnessy's tweet ‘Can computer games be art?’ and the referenced arguments by Roger Edbert and Kellee Santiago, I happened to be also watching an episode of Top Gear (I like to multi-task) in which Clarkson and gang decide to stage an art exhibition of their own car-related artwork including a BMW on which they have hand painted the insides of the car (engine parts etc) on the outside of the car and a crash-test dummy positioned in the pose of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’.

They ask an art critic to come an evaluate the work and when he tells them it has no artistic merit whatsoever Clarkson replies ‘thank you for your opinion but I am going to choose to ignore it.’

Clarkson is right. Anything can be called art. It just depends on what your definition of art is.

Personally I found the Top Gear exhibition rather amusing and I am ambivalent about computer games but I’m also relatively unmoved by many great examples of ‘High Art’ (Monet) and reduced to tears on the spot by others (Velasquez).

There are many wonderful conversations to be had about art (and computer games, pop music, opera, poetry etc) but arguing over the definition itself is a pointless exercise and one that is only undertaken by people who have a vested interest in elitism. They are protecting their own position relative to the elite either by keeping others out or by trying to get themselves in. Either way it's a waste of time.

Santiago has some wonderful things to say about the industry she works in but she says in this speech that having video games accepted as 'Art' will help justify her existence. This, of course is nonsense. All her arguments about the merits of and problems with video games are just as interesting and relevant whether they are accepted by people like Roger Edbert or not.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


I've spent the last two nights in the Holiday Inn at JFK courtesy of British Airways and Eyjafjallajökull the Icelandic Volcano.

Truly an example of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan. All the technological advances in the world and the whole of Europe can be ground to a halt by something that's been happening since the dawn of time. These events humble us.

There has been a rather jolly atmosphere in the hotel as we gather for our nightly complimentary buffet. Probably because the strandees are mostly holidaying Brits in I-heart-NY t-shirts and the Brits, as grumpy as they usually are, really cheer up at the oportunity for 'blitz mentality'.

I was accosted in the lobby by a reporter from the New York Post who asked me how this event had impacted my life. When I told her it was just a bit inconvenient, she said she was looking for a real story, someone who's life had been 'turned upside down'. I don't think she
had much luck.

There have been many reasons to dislike BA over the past few years – high prices, bad service and strikes – but I can say that in this situation they have responded well. Each morning there is a note under the door of our hotel room letting us know that we are guests of BA for another night. They are laying on a pretty good breakfast each morning and a passable buffet dinner each night. We've seen angry Virgin Atlantic customers in the lobby furious at being told the airline was only paying for one night and one meal and now they are on their own.

True to their brand heritage British Airways have responded to this emergency with pure Britishness. That is to say 'When the chips are down, you really want to be with us.' If BA can find a way to use this kind of brand integrity across everything they do, it may just save them.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Imagine the business plan

In his keynote speech at the PSFK conference on Friday, Rob Walker, while introducing his delightful Significant Objects project, mentioned how hopeless the undertaking had seemed when he first thought of it. He then went on to discuss, with several examples, his fondness for seemingly hopeless projects that have worked out.

This reminded me of a game l like to play called ‘Imagine the Business Plan’. This involves, as the name of the game would suggest, imaging how ludicrus the pitch would have sounded at the inception of some of my favourite, brave and innovative businesses.

An example: St John restaurant in East London. Imagine the business plan –

"I’m an unknown chef who has never had a restaurant before. I’m going to buy a disused smokery near a functioning meat market in a part of town where there are no other restaurants, in fact, not really any businesses of any kind and no residential property. We’re not going to decorate it really, just clean the cement floors, paint the walls white and put some tables and chairs from an old school in there. And we're going to serve mostly offal. Yes, that’s right, venison hearts, pig spleen stuff like that. And anything else that nobody really likes to eat like duck gizzards and squirrel. Oh and it’s going to be quite expensive."

St John restaurant now has a Michelin star and has been voted one of the top 10 restaurants in the world for the past few years.

If you’ve never been there, go. If I’m in London at the time, I’ll likely be propping up the bar with a glass of champagne and a plate of bone marrow in front of me.

I might make ‘Imagine the Business Plan’ an occasional series on this blog. Please feel free to contribute suggestions.

DIY logo

A link to this article caused some very angry posts on the Art Director's Club linkedin discussion over the weekend.

The article - which 'advises' budding entrepreneurs on how to choose a logo for their business by analysing the common attributes of the Business Week Top 100 Global Brands - is far too silly to get upset about. The advice is so pedestrian that any 'entrepreneur' who knows so little about branding and business as to find any of it helpful, has a lot more to worry about than the design of their logo.

But I do think there is some validity to helping clients learn a bit more about the governing principles designers use to make decisions. When I write my long threatened book called 'How To Be A Client', it will certainly contain a chapter on some of the simple explanations this article supplies like "A logo should look just as good in 15-foot letters on top of company headquarters as it does one sixteenth of an inch tall on company stationery".

To us this is so obvious as to seem laughable but I've had to explain this kind of thing to clients in meetings many times (usually accompanied by much teeth-gnashing and eye-rolling from the designers in the room). So much of the pain in client/creative relationships is to do with clients feeling mystified by the 'black art' of design and designers' interest in preserving this mystery in a misguided belief that it will protect the value of their work.

Just because clients understand a bit more about what we do, doesn't mean they can do it themselves. This is beautifully demonstrated by the self-made logo example in the article, which is, by anyone's standards, completely shit.

I believe, in fact, clients will value designers more if we let them understand a bit more about the highly nuanced and complex process we go through to create great work.

The message: don't worry about idiots who think they can choose the colour of their own logo. These are the clients none of us want. But for the clients you do want, let them in a bit more and flatter them with the assumption that they do understand how good you are.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Someone has gone to the trouble of collating hundreds of anti-Obama designs (mostly in reference to the health reform bill) one web page.

On the surface of it, these are hilarious. And it’s kind of hard to imagine they weren’t devised with at least the tip of a tongue in the cheek. But it is scary how little the two sides of divided America understand each other and how willing both sides are to swallow scare tactics. (The anti-Palin merchandise on Café Press fairs slightly better in the humour stakes, and considering how bizarre she truly is, is slightly more accurate than the Obama-bashing but still suggests that she is taken more seriously than she deserves.)

I’m not saying the average Brit is any more politically well-informed but at least the voting public of the UK are largely aware that there is little between the major parties' policies that will have catastrophic impact on their lives. Now, being such a nation of such moderates leads to a political apathy that has many problems of its own (general election on May 6, whatever). But at least it doesn’t foster this great fear of the ‘other’ that seems to be endemic on the extreme ends of American culture.