The Copy Book


Earlier this year, D&AD and Taschen published a new version of The Copy Book and I’m honoured to be in it. 

The original version came out in 1995 and became something of a rarity, with copies exchanging hands for crazy money on eBay. It included 32 advertising copywriters, each of whom contributed an essay talking about their approach to copywriting, followed by a few spreads of their most famous work. An updated version came out in 2011, with an additional 16 writers included. This version adds another five and comes in a compact and more affordable format.

It’s still a great and relevant read. Whether it’s designers, poets, songwriters or copywriters, I like it when people talk about the actual craft of what they do, rather than trying to give inspirational life advice etc – always seems more interesting to me.

On the downside, the original line-up of 32 writers included (I think) only one woman – and that imbalance remains pretty noticeable, even though the updates have been more equitable.

The majority of the work is also pretty old now, but that’s not a downside. It’s impossible to read the writings of David Abbott and others, and not come away with a sense of extremely relevant wisdom being shared. Whatever else has changed, writing is still writing, ideas are still ideas, and persuasion is still persuasion. 

When it came to contributing my piece, I felt like I couldn’t launch straight into talking about my approach to writing, in the way most of the other writers do. With the original cast of ad agency writers, there’s a shared understanding of what the job actually is, so you can go straight into talking about technique and craft. 

In my case, I feel like I’m wandering into an advertising book as a flag-holder for all the brand/design writers out there, so I needed to write something that would give some context to what I do and talk about how writing has evolved (in good and bad ways) since the time of the original book.  

My piece has just been re-published on Creative Review (paywall). And the book is available from here and the usual places.

Processes in the brain (and smiles in the mind)

I’ve written an article for Creative Review this month. It’s called ‘How to write an award-winning annual report’, but it’s not really about writing or about annual reports – it’s my attempt to share a technique for having ideas. I use the example of a routine annual report brief and suggest how you can use a methodical process to generate ideas for it.

It’s the methodical part that interests me – the extent to which you can systematise the process of creative thinking, or break down what’s happening in the brain as you’re thinking of ideas.

I think most designers and writers will recognise this feeling. On the one hand, when you’re thinking ‘creatively’, you’re thinking in a freeform, ‘blue-sky’ way and every brief is different. But you also get the sense that your brain is running a familiar program that can be described and broken down. For example, you may feel your brain is shuffling through two sets of cards, looking for a match. Or it’s doing what I describe in the article, which is listing expectations and exploring the opposite.

As I say in the article, you can only get so far with any methodical approach. Even if it leads to a good idea, most of it comes down to how you follow up the idea – and that involves all sorts of aesthetic/strategic/tonal micro-decisions, which aren’t as easy to break down in a mechanical way.

The last section of A Smile in the Mind involves a series of contributors tackling exactly this question – how to have ideas. For me, the best part of updating the book was the chance to talk to people about that subject. 

Dean Poole talks about exploring a series of different rooms. Jim Sutherland (also in Creative Review this month) talks about externalising the process – putting stuff on walls and looking for connections. Michael Johnson talks about the writing and strategy that precedes the visual part. Noma Bar talks about ideas as ‘already existing, waiting to be found’. Sarah Illenberger talks about the ‘physical torment’ of ‘squeezing your brain’. Christoph Niemann talks about the myth of the ‘eureka’ moment and describes a ‘difficult and unglamorous’ process of stripping away (something he captured in the pencil shavings sketch above). 

There’s an exhibition of the book starting at Foyles in London on 16 September and running for six weeks – more details here.

The Creative Review article is in the September print edition and online here.