Free Coordinates

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  • Published: Dec 23rd, 2014
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In praise of pad and pen…

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As a lifelong fan of writing things down with pad and pen*, I was heartened to read that this age-old method has the edge over simply tipping and tapping away at a keyboard when it comes to actually thinking about things.

“It turns out that writing involves a completely different process to typing,” says Charles Wallace in the FT. He quotes Daniel J Levitin, a professor of psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill University in Canada: “Writing things down requires more concentration and deeper processing than typing… Deeper processing means you are more likely to remember and encode the information… Deeper encoding allows for the linking of the concept to other concepts that you have deep in memory.”  

So if it’s not too late, ask Santa to pop a pad and pen into your stocking this festive season.

*My trusty Pilot V5 Hi-Tecpoint extra fines.

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  • Published: Dec 5th, 2014
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An aromatic and delicious spirit…

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Just as being clear doesn’t necessarily mean being concise, so being compressed doesn’t mean being characterless. On the contrary, in communication as in cognac, distilling down to the essence creates something more intense and memorable.

Carmen Herrera admires Ben Nicholson’s ability to “reduce pictorial forms and ideas to their very essence…He was never austere, dry, or rigid. A true distiller always leaves an aromatic and delicious spirit.”

Many moons ago I had the pleasure of learning a little bit about the art of making cognac while working on a project for Martell. The key is double-distillation and it’s no bad thing for writers everywhere to take inspiration from this process: edit, and edit again. Till your writing has the pure impact of this painting by Mr Nicholson:

June 1937 (painting) 1937 by Ben Nicholson OM 1894-1982



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  • Published: Nov 11th, 2014
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Can a crocodile play cricket?…

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“Computers can do some of the toughest tasks in the world but they cannot perform some of those that seem most simple to us mere humans,” writes Walter Isaacson in an article sparked by the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game. “Ask Google a hard question such as, “What is the depth of the Red Sea?” and it will instantly respond, “7,254ft”, something even your smartest friends don’t know. Ask it an easy one such as, “Can a crocodile play cricket?” and it will have no clue, even though a toddler could tell you, after a bit of giggling.”

I’m not so sure the toddler’s answer is the end of it. Indeed the answer is not a simple binary yes/no, it is a potentially multi-taled unending yesnomaybe. The difference here is that, unlike computers now or any time soon, we can make sense of simple and complex questions alike through stories – our wonderfully human form of communication. For example, through the story of how the crocodile could indeed play cricket by using its tail as a bat, before promptly bringing the game to an end by eating all its team mates.

There are inevitably attempts to create robot storytellers – Scheherazade, Whim and the like. But as Nicholas Lezard puts it, “Even if one day a computer will pass muster at the level of a sentence, there is no foreseeable way as yet that it will be able to construct a narrative that is both plausible and gripping.”

So despite the inexorable rise in digital firepower, storytellers everywhere can continue to sleep and dream and write soundly. Computers are a long, long way off from crafting tales of crocodiles and cricket.

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  • Published: Oct 22nd, 2014
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Sketch trees in winter…

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“In handbooks on Chinese traditional painting, an advice commonly given to the artist who wishes to learn to paint trees is to sketch them in winter, for then, without the seductive yet confused and blurry effect of their leafy masses, through their stark nudity they can best reveal their inner structure and specific character.” 

So says Simon Leys in his Chinese Shadows. A fair few decades on, Apple teaches the same principle to its design pupils, pointing them in the direction of Picasso’s progressively stripped back sketches of a bull.

To divine, distil. It’s a sure route to get to the heart of a character. And once you’re there at the essence you can add and amplify, as Chineasy does to great effect in making it easier to understand and remember Chinese language characters.

My own personal favourite is this eternally optimistic take on tomorrow:

 Bright day - tomorrow











Tomorrow is going to be a bright day. Amen to that. 


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  • Published: Oct 8th, 2014
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The power of stories…

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Back in 2007 Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates was only able to sell his pottery bowls for $25 a piece, despite a great deal of time, effort and money going into making them.

“I decided that the reasons were: I’m a nobody, so the bowl is a nothing,” says Theaster. “The bowl looks like lots of other bowls that are mass produced you can buy for even cheaper than $25; the bowl has no magical context that would help get it valued in other ways. If I could be a somebody; if I could elevate [the bowl] beyond the everyday context, would people value it more?”

So Theaster set about creating that all-important magical context in the form of an imaginary mentor with an intriguing and appealing story to match. Meet Yamaguchi, a gifted Japanese potter who fled Hiroshima for Mississippi, where he married a black woman and created a unique ceramic style blending Asian and African-American techniques.

This carefully crafted fiction paid dividends. Theaster/Yamaguchi’s bowls began selling for far more than $25, for people weren’t buying the pottery so much as the character and story surrounding it. They were buying into the magical context – the brand in other words. For all great brands are essentially great stories. Therein lies their power.



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  • Published: Oct 7th, 2014
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…again, oh…

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 The last in a trio of comments upon the comma…

Characterful comma










 As the comma carefully placed by my daughter between “again” and “oh” in her literacy homework demonstrates, punctuation is as much about character as it is about correctness. This is a delicate mark, for the Lady is veiled in gossamer sorrow. No heavy-handed dash here, just the light touch of a gentle comma.

My daughter’s deft touch with her comma put me in mind of another brilliant example of how using that mark in the right way can work wonders with the meaning and feel of what you are writing: Orange Pear Apple Bear. With just those four words, well-placed punctuation and simple illustration, Emily Gravett conjures a book of pure enchantment.

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  • Published: Sep 16th, 2014
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Confusing marks…

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I prefer not to join the noisy critiquing of the misuse of English in and around business (amply covered by the likes of the FT’s Lucy Kellaway among others). I also have an enduring affection for HP, one of my earliest clients who, I fear, has somewhat lost its Way in the past few years. But given that I had so recently sung the praises of the humble comma, I felt compelled to comment on the company’s strange use of the mark in its current run of UK print ad headlines:

Flex, when in flux. (Flex when in flux would do much better.)

Move, able. (Clever clever nonsense.)

Dream big, data. (I guess HP is talking to companies about big data rather than to data about dreaming big, but that’s not what that comma says.)

These from a campaign which also uses the admirably distinctive and eye-catching words Thwart, Foil, Stymie and Crimp as headlines in other ads.

So come on HP, less of the confusing marks and more of the lovable language.

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  • Published: Sep 5th, 2014
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Quietly powerful comma…

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Pawn of the punctuation game, workhorse of sentences everywhere – it’s easy to take the humble common-or-garden comma for granted.

Its everyday uses are amply explored in Strunk and White’s timeless The Elements of Style. But there’s magic in this humble mark, too. I came across two examples of its quietly powerful ability to steer our thoughts and feelings in Albert Camus’ short and sweet as a fig The Sea Close By (currently on sale for a mere 199 of your pennies):

“But above all,* there is the silence of summer evenings. Those brief moments when day topples into night must be peopled with secret signs and summonses… I imagine its twilights as promises of happiness. On the hills above the city there are paths among the mastics and olive-trees. And towards them my heart turns at such moments. I see flights of black birds rise against the green horizon. In the sky suddenly divested of its sun something relaxes…”

*This comma tugs you back gently before toppling you into the brilliantly vivid depiction of Algiers in evening.

“Almost immediately afterwards appears the first star that had been taking shape and consistency in the depth of the sky. And then suddenly, all consuming,* night.”

*This comma wraps you up in the experience, rather than the description, of night.

So praise is due the comma, the unsung hero of communication.

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  • Published: Sep 3rd, 2014
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The whew in blue…

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Far and away my favourite read of the summer was On Being Blue. In a little under a hundred pages, William H Glass explores no end of essential thoughts and feelings – from the importance of loving the language you use to the definition of genius: the ability to see a long way, swiftly.

Here he is on the character evoked simply by the sound of blue and other colours: “The word itself has another color. It’s not a word with any resonance, although the e was once pronounced. There is only the bump now between b and l, the relief at the end, the whew. It hasn’t the sly turn which crimson takes halfway through, yellow’s deceptive jelly, or the rolled-down sound in brown. It hasn’t violet’s rapid sexual shudder, or like a rough road the irregularity of ultramarine, the low puddle in mauve like a pancake covered with cream, the disapproving purse to pink, the assertive brevity of red, the whine of green…”

Rich, eloquent, precise. Brilliant and beautiful. A mini masterpiece on life, language, and all things blue.

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  • Published: Aug 3rd, 2014
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Business adventures…

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A thumbs up from Bill Gates has apparently sent John Brooks’ previously out-of-print Business Adventures into the bestseller lists. “Unlike a lot of today’s business writers, Brooks didn’t boil his work down into pat how-to lessons or simplistic explanations for success,” says Gates. “You won’t find any listicles in his work. Brooks wrote long articles that frame an issue, explore it in depth, introduce a few compelling characters and show how things went for them.”

Business Adventures was first published in 1969. News of its comeback, prompted me to lean across and pick up once more another business classic from the same era: Clarence B Randall’s The Folklore of Management, first published in 1961.

Through the course of his book, Randall explores 16 myths of the world of business. It is full of good insights that stand the test of time, such as this from The Myth of Communications: “The determining factor in effective communication is conviction. The authoritative voice that carries its message straight into the heart of every listener is that of the man who knows exactly what he believes. His utterance simply will not be denied, because it pours straight out from his spirit… No new marvel of technology will ever be able to bestow that quality synthetically upon a banal message from a man who has nothing to say because he believes in nothing.”

Strong stuff; still true.


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