Tumblr of Words

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We’ve added a group Tumblr. It’s over there to the right or you can go to departmentofwords.tumblr.com.

It’s going to feature a steady trickle of copy, good and bad, that manages to gets our attention.

Some images will be adverts. But we’ll also post other bits of copywriting that we see ‘in the wild’ and that are less likely to win awards or be shared on other blogs. Maybe a well-turned chunk of body copy, a juicy description from a menu, or a passive-aggressive letter from the council.

The bad stuff is for amusement only. The good stuff will serve as a reminder of what it takes for writing to get noticed and not just disappear into the fog of the 1.2 zillion marketing messages we all ignore every day.

Click the images to look closer. And if you see some copy that penetrates the fortress of your brain for any reason at all, please take a photo and upload it at our Tumblr submissions page.

It’s food and drink

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I doubt many epiphanies have been had in Woolwich Crown Court, an unlovely building in south-east London that’s ominously located next to HM Prison Belmarsh. Apart from, “Oh bugger, I’m not going to get away with this one”, epiphanies are unlikely in such drab and severe surroundings. But there was at least one. I know because I experienced it.

Every day of my jury service I winced as I walked past the posters and POS paraphernalia for the resident catering company. That strapline. Every time I saw it, I marvelled at it for different reasons. Who asked for it? Who wrote it? How long did they take doing it? What the hell were they thinking? Were they pleased with it?

And why did they even think they even needed one? After all, there was nothing else for miles around except a Tesco and a McDonald’s, and they were both on the other side of airport-style security hassle you’d expect in a court that does a lot of terrorism trials. We jurors were the second most captive audience in the area.

But try somebody did. And plaster it on absolutely everything somebody else did. And that was the mystery I pondered each time I walked past, or sat slack-jawed in the dining area.

Then after a few weeks of the trial, I came to a realisation. As stinky-awful as the line surely is, it had made me think more about the nature of straplines than any of the good or even brilliant ones I’ve admired as a copywriter.

I started to see it in a different light. Although it was unmistakably bad, it wasn’t all bad. It actually has many of the features of a very good strapline. It’s short and to the point. It uses everyday language. It’s clearly related to the core offering. And yes, it pretty much covers every aspect of that offering. The food division and the drink division were both going to be happy with it.

But what about all the things that are missing? The things that make a strapline a ‘Naughty but nice’, a ‘Vorsrprung durch Technik’ or a ‘Because you’re worth it’. An idea, an angle, some charm. A flash of inspired thinking that makes you smile and helps the brand connect to people’s lives. It’s rare that you see a line with so little of it. But you do see it more clearly when it’s not there at all.

And then on the way home that day, I realised the same was true more generally. There’s often only so much you can learn from truly great ads. Any lessons tend to be fairly oblique because great ideas are by their nature one-offs. But bad ads? They really are the gifts that keep giving. I saw this on the train platform:

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Which I suspect tells you more about good layout and telling a compelling story than any book of design best practice.

And I saw this:

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Which tells you plenty about how an idea can look good on paper, but end up being confusing in execution. Even with a unicorn.

It all reminded me of a lesson at school. An English teacher had the pleasure of introducing Poetry to the class. We had studied poetry before, but never Poetry. Suddenly a form which had been treated as little more than limericks was being held up as worthy of long and frankly baffling study.

I can imagine the sea of faces the teacher must have seen. Squinting, frowning faces, cocked at quizzical angles. All slowly drooping as the lesson progressed.

The more indifferent the reception, the more insistent the teacher was that we admire the skill and art involved. He might as well have been teaching us didgeridoo appreciation. Maybe after many hours of exposure to the art of didgeridoo, I might be able to spot a master at work. But straight away? No, I think not.

So I made a suggestion. Why not show us some bad poetry first? Then we’d know the difference when he showed us the good stuff. You can’t argue with the logic. It didn’t occur to me at the time that the teacher probably didn’t have a handy book of bad poetry to teach from.

However, we do all have the advertising equivalent. In fact, we’re surrounded by it. We’ve all heard the statistic about being subjected to several thousand marketing messages per day. At least several thousand of them will be pretty terrible.

But I’d argue that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Or rather, that a bad thing can be a good thing.

Beyond the brief

Some creative briefs can be uninspiring. Not just dull, but limiting and restrictive. Some years back, one such brief landed on the desk of a young French product designer named Philippe Starck. It was from his client the kitchenware company Alessi and the request was for the design of a tray. One of those flat things with rounded edges for transporting teacups and suchlike.

The brief was full and the specific request was for a stainless-steel design (trays play a star role in the Alessi catalogue) that was simple to manufacture, not too expensive to make and very attractive.

Now, as any product designer will tell you, there is little fame and glory to be had from a tray design and Philippe Starck knew this right from the off. Like any ambitious designer, he wanted to impress his client. But he wasn’t sure a tray design was going to do it. So he ummed and ahhed. He stared blankly out of the window. And months passed without word from the Frenchman. Finally an envelope arrived at the Alessi offices from the Italian island of Capraia. Tucked inside the envelope – a folded paper napkin, daubed in ketchup, smeared with grease and accompanied by some pencil sketches of weird squid like objects that Starck later confirmed was the design of citrus squeezer. Just click on the pic below to see Starck’s doodles in all their glory.
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The inspiration for the Juicy Salif lemon squeezer happened while on holiday with his family. Starck was about to tuck into a plate of squid and, glancing down at his plate, noticed the slice of lemon was missing. The designer was seized by the shape of the mollusc and the action of squeezing a lemon. This ignited an idea and he grabbed a pencil and started drawing squid-like objects on his paper napkin. Once lunch was over and a siesta had been taken, Starck mailed the napkin to Mr Alessi and called his office a few days later to explain what it all meant.

First produced in 1990, the squeezer is as controversial as many of Starck’s designs. Some say it doesn’t work very well, even Starck has said: “It’s not meant to squeeze lemons, it is meant to start conversations.”

Salif stands 29 centimetres high, is made from cast and polished aluminium and is still available for £43 for Alessi.com It ranks among the greats of modern design and has a place in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

It didn’t meet the brief, it went beyond it.

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This is a sign

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Whether it’s down the Uxbridge road or an unfamiliar street abroad, I’m always looking for unusual signage. A misspelled street sign, an idiotic shop name or a well-scribed pub chalkboard – if it’s particularly stupid or beautiful, I’ll mentally bank it.

I plan to make this into a blog someday, but until then, here’s a small selection of the signs I’ve loved.

Every morning on my way to work, I see a sign that reads: ‘This Is A Sign’.

It’s placed outside a signmaker’s shop, and as an advert for their services it’s too small, and unobtrusive. I’d like to see it being used in a larger, more surreal manner, posted on giant billboards about the countryside, briefly visible from the motorway as you flash past in your car. ‘Oh my God’, you’d think, ‘that was a sign…’

I saw something like this in France some years ago. Billboards that loomed over hedges, saying ‘BUT…’

‘But… what?’ I wondered. But… this is all a mirage? But… the state is watching me and knows that I’m carrying illegal salami?

It was an advert of course, for a French beverage, ‘but’ meaning ‘goal’. I knew that really, BUT…

I’ve seen many great signs in the States:

‘Antiques ‘n’ Stuff’

‘Chicken Steaks – Over Three Dozen Sold!’

I think I might’ve seen a sign outside a funeral parlour that read ‘Stiffs ‘n’ Stuff’, but by that time I may have been hallucinating from lack of vegetables. Or too much gin.

I’ve also always felt that ‘Floors-2-Go’ (next to the equally dimwitted ‘Door World’ as you approach the Hammersmith flyover) is probably the most redundant shop name ever.

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‘Good morning, Sir. Can I help?’

‘Yes. I’d like forty square metres of parquet flooring, please. The distressed oak.’

‘Certainly, Sir! And would that be to go?’

‘Um… tell you what – no. Let’s just lay it right here, shall we?’ Feckwits.

In the same vein, I used to work in a town that had a slightly run-down looking hairdressers called ‘Scissor Sisters’ and their slogan was ‘We’re just cutting it’ – ‘just’ written in italics. I doubt they meant to imply that they’re just about scraping by in the current economic climate.

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My uncle says that he remembers there being a metal sign close to where he lived as a boy. It said ‘Do Not Throw Stones At This Sign.’ I mean, what you gonna do? This may have been the brainchild of a local council with an unusually strong grasp of psychology. There’s an argument for erecting such signs in every street in the country. A stone being thrown at a metal sign is a stone not being thrown an old lady’s head, I guess.