Norway is no longer the Ron Weasley of Scandinavia.

I always thought of Norway as the Ron Weasley of Scandinavia.

Denmark would be Harry, all spectacles, angst and raging inner-turmoil, appropriate for the birthplace of Søren Kierkegaard and Lars Von Trier. Sweden would be Hermione and her subdued, self-confident, contained-cool, befitting the home of Saab, Bjorn Borg and Absolut.

Johan Vaaler - Norwegian, and the inventor of the inferior paperclip
Johan Vaaler – Norwegian, and the inventor of the inferior paper clip

But Ron, like Norway, felt like a bit of a hanger-on, a bit dispensable. Ron was probably very pleasant company and doubtless a reliable friend, but he just seemed to be trying hard and not quite succeeding, rather like Norway, who gave us Morten Harket and Johan Vaaler (the inventor of the significantly less-effective paper clip).

But then I saw these two design projects, not just out of Norway but for Norway, that featured in almost Best of Graphic Design list from last year.

The first is the new Norwegian Passport, developed by Neue. Being released in 2016, it’s proof that ‘official document’ need not mean ‘uglier than Wayne Rooney driving a PT Cruiser’.

The covers of the new Norwegian Passport

The covers have that inexplicable beauty that comes from the simplicity of three perfectly chosen elements. The spreads feature a stylised image of the fjords, and, in a lovely touch, transform when viewed under blacklight.


Norwegianpassport_spread_UV_lightThen there’s the new Norwegian currency. It looks like no other country’s. It deftly dodges the political challenges of whose face to feature or which landmarks to showcase, instead choosing on one side a pixellated image inspired by ocean winds (developed by Snohetta) and on the other more traditional seafaring images (developed by Metric).

100500 100r500r

From what I’ve read there are two particularly interesting elements of the project – the very specific nature of the brief, and the depth this informed in the final response.

The brief specified that ‘the sea’ would be the key theme and the each denomination would highlight a specific part of Norway’s relationship with the sea (a source of food, for example). This sounds prescriptive, but in this case was clearly no bad thing.

The depth of the response perhaps reflects that. There are a couple of lovely decisions (though admittedly slightly geeky) that inform the final designs. The rising scale of the note denominations has been aligned to the Beaufort Wind Scale, so the higher the value of the note the greater the level of wind depicted in the image. And the pixellated images each connect, bleeding into each other to create one long image, reflective of Norway’s coastline (one of the longest in the world).

It’s this depth that’s so satisfying. The reasons behind the key elements take it from being just something that looks nice, to something that’s relevant. Sure the work is beautiful. But it’s beautiful for a reason and there’s a reason behind its beauty.

Norway is no longer the Ron Weasley of Scandinavia.

Oooh, look over there. It’s a cliché.

look-over-there-driving-the-saab-its-a-bally-cliche--abb6cI’m painfully aware that I’m something of a cliché. I’m such a cliché that I work in advertising/design and insist, against all common sense and financial prudence, on driving a Saab. I’m such a cliché that I want rather desperately to believe that my ear can identify the differences between The National’s Fake Empire in 128kbps or 320kbps MP3 format. I’m such a cliché that I recently explained to someone, in an appropriately condescending way, that the word ‘cliché’ has its origins in typesetting, describing a commonly-used phrase that was kept in a ready-made block to be used repeatedly. That’s meta-cliché.

And for my latest act of cliché I’m reviving my blog on New Year’s Day.

My blog has lain fallow for coming on three years. It was never a deliberate decision to stop, just a pause that became an interlude that became a break that became a hiatus that became ‘I used to have a blog’.

The reason for this was something I wrote about when I summarised some lessons from my first year’s blogging (to be found here, in the Best Of section, should you be so inclined).

When I started, I thought blogging was a choice of priority – that I could prioritise blogging or I could prioritise doing other things.  And while that’s obviously true, over time I started to realise that that wasn’t the real choice I was making. It was really a choice of conviction. Did I have enough conviction in what I was writing that I believed it justified someone’s time and effort in reading it? That conviction would come and go. And then it went.

I’m not entirely confident it’s back. But there’s only one way to find out.

Happy New Year everyone. May 2015 be nothing but agreeable.

Oooh, look over there. It’s a cliché.

Focus groups. Your Neighbour’s opinion. And witches. (Re-post)

I was sent this article from Advertising Age the other day. It revisits an issue everyone in our industry is painfully aware of – the puzzling tendency of clients to rely on focus groups to inform marketing decisions.

I sent the article to a friend (a senior marketer) to see what she thought.   Her response was interesting.

I asked her whether it might be a little artificial to ask people to explain the rational motivation for a purchase decisions when those decisions are made without any great rational thought. She said that I was trying to make the process more complicated than it actually is and that most people are quite good at explaining why they make decisions.

I questioned her as to whether asking people with no experience whatsoever in design or communication to comment intelligently on important issues of design or communication might not be a bit optimistic.  She countered that ‘agency people’ only want to design stuff that other ‘agency people’ like and that talking to real people is a necessary reality check.

But the final comment she made was the most interesting.

She said ‘Marketers don’t buy shampoo.  My neighbour does.  So I thinks it’s useful to get my neighbour’s opinion’.

Which on the surface seems like a reasonable view to take. It’s ‘ordinary’ people who buy stuff, so the view of ‘ordinary’ people should be relevant.

But the argument falls over for a few reasons (the first two alluded to above).

Firstly, most purchase decisions are emotional. Research seeks to explain them rationally.  Hasn’t neurological science established that the two processes are entirely different?

Secondly, people who buy soap aren’t qualified to design packaging or advertising for soap, in the same way that people who attend rugby matches aren’t qualified to coach players or design stadia.

But I think there’s a bigger issue that I’ve always struggled to articulate.  I can’t understand why we put people we know nothing about in a room and unquestioningly give credence to their views on a very important subject (to us at least).  These are often people who, if we met them outside the confines of a meeting room, we would possibly think were less than, shall we say, credible.  The fact is we know nothing about their view of the world, but we put them in a research group and assume the capacity for sagacity.

Then I read this at the weekend.  It’s a summary of what, according to recent research, Australians believe in.

Amongst other things, 51% of Australians believe in angels – winged messengers of God sent to earth to perform specific tasks at His behest.  It also seems that 41% of Australians believe in astrology, maintaining that the position of various celestial bodies has a direct impact on your personality, the likely course of your life and, if you get right down to it, the entire future of humanity and our planet.  But my personal favourite is that 22% if Australians believe in witches, shadowy figures using sorcery and magic to demonise the unsuspecting.

So next time you use a focus group to provide an informed and rational ‘voice of the consumer’ on a significant marketing issue, bear in mind that of the six people in the room, three very likely believe that angels walk among us, at least two are concerned with the detrimental impact of Saturn journeying through their sign (but comforted by the Sun’s imminent presence in their compassion zone) and one person believes that a shadowy figure in an unfortunate hat is galvanising dark forces to challenge the natural order through the casting of spells and placing of curses.

But don’t let that impact your view of their credibility.  I’m sure their views on your advertising are completely logical and rational. They are, after all, your neighbours.

Focus groups. Your Neighbour’s opinion. And witches. (Re-post)


I was wondering the other morning whatever happened to #followfriday. Turns out it just became a bit old hat and quietly petered out. Then Vaughn suggested, half-joking, that it had been replaced by #hatefultuesday. Twitter being what it is (or at least occasionally becomes), it seemed pretty plausible that something generous and positive might be replaced by something bitter and angry.

So, while accepting the risk that I will come across as throat-punchingly new-age, I think we should try for a new hashtag.

Let’s introduce #thankfulthursday.

The clue’s in the hashtag. Please either share something that you’re thankful for or recommend people you have reason to thank. Thank a a mechanic who stayed late, a bartender who double-poured or a brother who didn’t tell Dad. Thank a teacher who listened, a bus driver who waited or a colleague who let you have the last biscuit on the plate. Thank Sam for hippos, Matt for consistently unexpected (and brilliant) links and Angela for a great blog.

It’s Thursday. Thank away.

[Updated] So, proving once and for all that you should always check at least three times before suggesting anything, it turns out #thankfulthursday is already a thing. A very good thing. And whoever started it, I thank you.


Some things simply must be blogged

Some days the universe gives generously. After an extended period of non-blogging, today I have been hit by a torrent of things that simply must be blogged.

First up we have an unfortunate piece of art direction. Or a brilliantly subversive piece of advertising sabotage by an ideologically-opposed designer. (via Copyranter)

Then we have Hipster Hitler. I hate the phrase ‘wrong on so many levels’. I hate it almost as much as I hate the word ‘special‘. But it does seem apt when describing a comic strip that re-imagines Hitler as a slightly wet Hipster. (via StopPress)

Lastly, we have what I believe I may state without fear of contradiction is the greatest achievement in the history of the internet. I give you, Otters who look like Benedict Cumberbatch. (via Sell, Sell, Sell)

Some things simply must be blogged

I’ve always loved pool tables

When I was growing up a couple of the really cool kids at school had pool tables.  One properly cool kid, Alistair, had a pool table…in his games room!

When you’re 13 years old a games room is the most magical place in the world. Monday was the best day to go there because if there’d been rugby or cricket on TV on Sunday then there would still be cigarettes in the ashtrays and a decent whiff of beer about the place. We would then lounge around practicing our swearing.

There was one Monday when we found a can of beer lodged in one of the pockets of the pool table. Four boys stood and stared at that can for about 15 minutes. To everyone’s relief Mark pointed out that we couldn’t open it because it wasn’t cold and that you could only drink cold beer because drinking warm beer would be a bit poofy.

That was almost as good as the time we found some ‘dad literature’ under the couch in the games room. Four boys stood and stared at that for quite a bit longer than fifteen minutes.

Anyway, I swore that when I was grown up and had some money and could spend it on anything I wanted I would have a pool table.

Then when I got my first job, at Ogilvy & Mather Wellington, there was a pool table in the middle of the office…..that you could play whenever you wanted! That was the most advertising thing I’d ever seen. It was the perfect Friday night prop.  Clients loved it and would ask for meetings to be at our office so that they could stay on for a few frames.  (Obviously they just referred to it as a ‘game’. I called it ‘a few frames’ because I was a dick.)

I spent a lot of time at that table. To no one’s surprise I had my own pool cue and committed a solid two months to learning how to play a Masse shot (because I was a dick).

Again I swore that if I ever had my own agency, or could make decisions about spending other people’s money on stuff to put in an agency, I would have a pool table.

Which gives me the sense that my entire life has just been building to this point. This is a pool table designed by James Perse.   It’s magnificent.  It’s exactly what my 13 year-old self would buy and what every self-respecting agency needs.

I’ve always loved pool tables

Doing what you’re good at

I’ve resigned from my job. This is an act that can best be described as reckless. The simple explanation is that enjoyment comes from doing something that you’re good at, and while the job I was doing was perfectly pleasant in many ways, I spent very little time doing the things I’m good at. Which meant I didn’t enjoy it very much.

Now you may be able to help.  Because apparently the key when you’re looking for a change is to spend as much time as possible doing the things you’re good at. There’s some theory of inter-connectedness that has it that by focussing on doing specific things you create the opportunity to do more of those things (which I know sounds uncomfortably like a theory Deepak Chopra might espouse, but then someone I follow did retweet something of his the other day and that new-age stuff is virulent).

I find this all rather difficult, because to do lots of what you’re good at, you have to be comfortable claiming to be good at something. And I’m very uncomfortable claiming to be good at anything. Not just mildly uncomfortable, either. I find it properly, kidney-punchingly, uncomfortable, like the time I bumped into my client as he exited the ‘adult’ section of the video store. (True story. Hi, Hugh.)

So with a deep breath and an apology for being so hideously conceited, I am good at a couple of things and I’m hoping you might be able to help me do more of them.

I’m good at public speaking.  Apparently being called on to speak in public is most people’s greatest fear.  They fear it more than spiders, more than flying, more than heights. More than dying, even. But not me. I love public speaking. In fact I’m never happier than when speaking to a group of people, ideally in a very high place on the subject of spiders. Because I know no fear.

(That’s not true. I fear the Lace Monitor lizard, pictured below.  I once encountered one when running in Noosa National Park. I rounded a corner and it was standing in the middle of the track, languidly masticating.  Locals tried to tell me that Monitor Lizards are vegetarian.  Bollocks they are. They look vegetarian like Demi Moore looks 48.)

So, if you find yourself in need of someone to speak publicly, I’m your guy. I can talk about pretty much anything.  Marketing and advertising stuff, obviously, and spiders. But I’ll give any subject a go. (As evidence, I once gave a speech on what Carlos Spencer can teach us about effective corporate culture.)

I’m also good at writing. That said, I only have one way of writing. I always sound like me – a middle-class, slightly-pretentious, faux-intellectual, anglophile with a fondness for parentheses. That generally doesn’t work too badly for advertising and marketing stuff because, let’s be honest, a decent chunk of that audience is middle-class, slightly-pretentious, faux-intellectual anglophiles. So if you want something written in that voice, I’m your man.

On that subject, I have massive admiration for people who can write in different voices. I have a friend who used to write the letters that American Express sent to its high value customers as well as the replies to the little girls who wrote to tell Barbie that they hated their brothers and wanted to swap them for puppies. (True story. Hi, Andy.)

So there you have it. If you need something written, or you need something spoken, I’m your guy.  Just let me know.

Doing what you’re good at