26 Fruits

Only connect

When Lynda asked me to come along tonight to talk to you, of course I said Yes. Yes because I’ve known Lynda a long time and because it seems to me she has a unique talent – demonstrated by this room full of people. It’s a talent to bring people together to make interesting things happen.

So when we were talking about a theme for tonight the obvious one for me was simply that of connections. It’s what Lynda does brilliantly. And it’s what creative people need to do all the time – make connections between things that might not necessarily seem to fit together.

So I will reveal – it’s no great secret – what my favourite quotation is. It’s this – Only connect – By E M Forster from his novel Howards End. It’s so simple, and it seems to me simply beautiful.

It’s become something of a mantra for life. It says so much in just two words

  • about the way we all need to relate to each other, it’s what makes us human
  • about the need for communication, it’s the way we function
  • about the possibilities of bringing two minds together, different ways of seeing becoming one

And much more.

Way back, 25 years ago now, I was at Newell and Sorrell, the words man in a visually creative company. One of the things I learned from experience is the best designers are really good with words. Many of them might be dyslexic but I’m not talking about spelling or grammar. I’m talking about that ability to respond creatively to the stimulus of words. Michael Wolff, for example – such a good writer, and he taught me a lot about words.

Anyway, back to 25 years ago. I’d just won this dream job – in my eyes – for Newell and Sorrell. To work on the identity of this rising bookshop chain called Waterstone’s – and to do their promotional material. The first thing we had to do was design carrier bags and the idea seemed obvious to me. To use quotations to grab attention, make people smile and make a point about the way that books open up the world.

So, for me, the first quotation was easy to choose.

Only connect.

But the idea needed to be pushed just a bit further. To ask that vital question Why? So each quotation was then rounded off with a phrase linked to the quotation:

Books to make connections at Waterstone’s

And these – and many more…

Books make connections – and books are very important to me. It’s why I’ve read so many – and why I’ve written so many. Writing for me had always been the way I think. I never know what I think until I write. So I wrote these books to find out what I really thought.

This might all sound very random, but two of the vital aspects of writing are theme and structure. Lynda sounded a little taken aback when I asked her what she had told you about my theme. ‘Theme?’ My theme turned out to be ‘connections’. But any writing needs a structure – it’s the creative framework that shapes your thinking. And, hopefully, makes everything look and sound right – made with a purpose.

Theme & Structure

I looked at those words. I looked at the ampersand. I’ve always loved ampersands. I love the way different typefaces have ampersands that suit the character of the type.

I thought what I wanted to say and how a pair of words might be connected by an ampersand. Then I came up with this list:

Design & Business

Words & Images

Work & Interest

Creativity & Constraints

Fiction & Truth

That’s my structure. I’m going to use it to talk briefly about each – conscious that I don’t want to keep us too long from eating our food. So perhaps just an example or two for each…

Design & Business

I joined Newell and Sorrell when the Design Council had just launched a scheme called Design for Profit. It was about making connections – bringing businesses (particularly those that had little experience of design) together with designers. And using a little bit of money to make the relationship easier. I give the example to illustrate that there was a time when the two were barely connected. We take a lot of progress for granted.

One of these Design Council projects was with a manufacturing company in Chesterfield called Robinson – they made healthcare products. Their old identity used the crooked spire of Chesterfield and it had been almost roneo’d out of legibility.

Thinking of the new identity, I was working with a young designer called Harry Pearce. He was new to Newell and Sorrell then – a partner in Pentagram now. I was talking aloud, rambling really, about how there was something in the name and look of Robinson that reminded me of the name Richard. Like King Richard I. Isn’t that numbering system for kings and queens interesting, I said – or something inane. How about, said Harry, we replace the ‘i’ with ‘1’? But we need to give it a reason. Harry came up with the phrase ‘Care comes first’.

Only connect.

Words & Images

A career in design – working as a writer with designers – taught me the power of words and the power of images. And taught me that you multiply that power when you get them to work together.

I once did a lot of work with Guinness – someone had to – and wrote the stories of people who had created the Guinness brand.

My guess is that an advert like this is recognised by most people here.

Illustrated by Gilroy, who created campaigns from 1927 to 1935. Think how long ago that is. Before any of us in this room were born. Yet the slogan ‘Guinness is good for you’ is probably still in all our minds, and the thought of the Guinness toucan. We have the memory of something before we were able to form memories. Words and images. Only connect.

Work & Interest

How do you do good work? It’s what we all want to do. It’s a large part of the motivation of being in the creative industries. You’re driven on to try to make the next job the best one you’ve ever done.

What drives you to do that? Work and Money might be a more natural combination – people work for money. Don’t they? Yes, we all need to earn money. But what really gives us satisfaction is the interest we find in doing the job.

And it’s my contention that we work best when we’ve found a point of connection that stimulates our interest in this particular project, or company, or brand.

But we should never expect that interest to be given to us on a plate. You have to seek it and find it. And often you find it in the most unlikely situations.

This is a company that was one of the most interesting – but unlikely of my career. Air Products is an industrial gases company. They make their money out of air – separating out oxygen, nitrogen and other gases for industrial use. I started talking to them, curious, forcing myself to be curious. Tell me more, I said.

In the end, after an enormous research programme around the world, we said the obvious – you’re not about gases, you’re about the relationships you make with customers. You solve their problems by asking them questions. Only connect.

The strapline we gave them – still on their tankers 20 years later – was ‘Tell me more’.

Fiction & Truth

My Guinness client had said to me ‘Brands are stories’. And it’s true. We’ve become very accustomed to the use of the words ‘story’ and ‘storytelling’ in branding – often just as a PowerPoint slide goes up, headed ‘our brand story’ and showing a convoluted graphic filled with turgid words.

I became more interested in exploring the techniques of real storytelling, and seeing if these could be employed in the world of business. Some people have obscured the simple truth of this by pseudo-scientific models.

For me, having always loved fiction, I wanted to bring fictional techniques into business writing. I wrote this book Dark Angels which had two fictional inspirations – John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost about the conflict between good and evil, God and Satan – and Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. My thesis – very briefly – was that human beings are dark angels, touched by the possibilities above and below but located here in the world, needing to make the most of what really makes us human – our creativity.

I wrote the book and we set up courses named after it. Taking people away to beautiful remote places to do writing exercises. Finding people inspired and sometimes transformed by the experience. Using fiction to make connections with writing for work – making writing at work more creative by being more human. And it works. It works because there is a truth in fiction – a truth in the authenticity of imagination – that is deeper than the truth that comes from what we call facts.

Here is a group of such writers gathered in Andalucia in Spain. Through these spreading connections I’ll be running my first American Dark Angels course next month with Richard Pelletier in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the town associated with Herman Melville of Moby-Dick fame.

Creativity & Constraints

It’s become an increasing realisation for me that the best way to release creativity is through constraints. It sounds as if it should not be so. Constraints must restrict you. But for me they liberate – because the mind and the imagination struggle against such restrictions and they find ways to burst free. And in doing so they come up with something new and individual that would not otherwise have existed.

One example – working with the writers’ organisation 26 I co-founded – the number of letters in the alphabet. There’s an example of a structure and a constraint – the alphabet. We did a project with the Letter Exchange – randomly paired a writer from 26 with a typographer/calligrapher from the Letter Exchange. Each randomly assigned – by sticking a knife in the OED and coming up with a word for each letter – a letter of the alphabet, and they produced a work together, using words and imagery. That handy combination producing 26 different works for exhibition.

Then there was a 27th. I worked with Freda Sack, a wonderful typographer, to produce a work that incorporated all 26 of these randomly chosen words. I assembled them into a poem and miraculously the poem made some kind of sense. I called the poem ‘Everything is connected’. It begins –

Everything is connected

The battement of the present beats on,

undulates into the future, with a

dismissive wave towards the past.


Finally I wanted to say something about the writing that has occupied most of my time in recent years. This is my second novel called Spanish Crossings. The novel came out three months ago and has been well reviewed by the too few people who have yet read it. But you can do something about that.

It’s a novel with the Spanish Civil War as a background. This came from a family story explained in this film https://vimeo.com/208817743

Well, that’s it. And the novel’s available on Amazon and in many bookshops who will order it for you.

Final point. I’ve been lucky. Everyone in this room has been lucky. We do work that challenges us, often excites us. The more we seek that challenge the more we’ll find the excitement.

Only connect.


One Response

  1. Johnny Lyons says:

    What a great talk on one of your favourite themes, a theme or sensibility that you personify in so many ways. I wish I had been among the lucky audience to see you deliver it in person. Nice one John!

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