Creative thinking

Jim Stephenson has made a little film. It’s me talking about why I think soul is important in design. Hope you like it.


This project is old. This was the first job I ever did. In July 1991, and straight out of art college, I landed myself a job as a junior designer at Saatchi & Saatchi. Right place, right time.

The design departments Creative Director had just left, everyone was moving up a notch, leaving room for a new junior at the bottom (me). At that time Saatchi & Saatchi were celebrating their 21st Anniversary (and I’d just turned 21 too). Saatchi & Saatchi never did things by halves. To celebrate we decided to design a commemorative bottle of champagne. The job of designing the label came my way. On the actual day of the anniversary everyone came in to find a bottle of champagne on their desk… everyone. At the time that was over 800 people in Charlotte St alone.

I’ve still got mine, as you can see. Maurice and Charles Saatchi were famously reclusive, especially Charles. Very few photos existed of them together, apart from this one which was actually taken at the height of their game in the 80s. I decided to do a little pop art, Andy Warhol pastiche, which was also a nod to Charles growing art collection. The illustration style I used was quite unusual 21 years ago, really getting down and dirty with bitmaps and vectors in an early version of CorelDraw. It looks beautifully dated now.

I’m certain that not many of these have lasted this long. I think most were consumed and discarded on the actual day. Mine has remained unopened for over 22 years. A little memento of my first real job, in the very unreal world of Saatchi & Saatchi. Maybe It’ll fetch a future grandchild a few quid at the 2120 Antiques Roadshow one day? Who knows?


21st anniversary champagne that was given to all employess at Saatch & Saatchi in 1991

Question: How do you engage delegates at a busy trade show to take an interest in your brand? Answer: Frame your sales tactic in a way where ‘the rules of engagement’ are already understood.

VisitBrighton asked us to “turn their stand on its head” for ConFex 2013 (a trade show for events organisers). The challenge: engaging delegates in conversation. Our solution was simple – we created the ‘Brighton Conference Supplies Store’.

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An eager trade show delegate takes a helping of free Pick ‘n’ Mix

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We illustrated a tree with the sights and sounds of Brighton hanging from the branches

We stocked the shelves with a range of humorous spoof products, designed to get conversations started. Everyone knows the rules of shopping. 1. You browse. 2. You show an interest in a product. 3. The shop assistant now has permission to talk to you. Products ‘on sale’ included Regency Regency Sauce, Chunky Keynote Chutney, Gloriously Nutty Networking Cookies, Extra Virgin Conference Oil and a whole range of fun spoof products.

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Extra Virgin Conference Oil

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Prince Regent Plonk

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Gloriously Nutty Networking Cookies

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Break-out Session Beer

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Chunky Keynote Chutney

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Sparkling Organic Sea-Cider

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Ahem, ‘Regency Regency Sauce’ (with apologies to Dragon Jones)

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A can of sea breeze, fresh from the beach

The ‘shop assistants’ were from VisitBrighton. Our solution made it easy for them to start conversations.


A warm welcome from one of the ‘shop assistants’ on the day

To create buzz, we mailed out empty Pick ‘n’ Mix bags to delegates and invited them to come and fill the bag on the stand. Judging by the speed the Pick ‘n’ Mix was disappeared, the idea was a success.

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Free Pick ‘n’ Mix!

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And here is a very nice email from the client saying how happy she is with the project…

Dear Chris, Simon and Miles

Just a quick note to thank you all for all your creativity, commitment, flexibility and artistic-ness (is that a word??) in working together to create the VisitBrighton stand at Confex – we couldn’t have worked with a more delightful team!
The stand was super-busy; the concept certainly drew a huge amount of interest, stimulating some great conversations. For once the fabric of the stand really reflected the identity of the City! Thank you so much for grasping our brief so well and really delivering a fabulous end product. Thank you again for all your help – it’s a real pleasure working with you all.


You’ve probably heard about Google’s 20% time (it almost seems like old news now). Well, my studio has its own humble version of ‘20% time’, we call it ‘A-level projects time’ Bit of a weird name, especially as none of us at Harrison & Co are 17 or sitting A-levels.

The name was inspired by the artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, who famously completed an art A-level a few years ago. This was long after they were nominated for the Turner Prize in 2003 and already very established artists in their own right. I love that kind of backwards thinking. I can’t find any links to this story on the interwebs, so you’re just going to have to trust me.

Our ‘A-level projects’ aren’t meant to be perfect, or good-looking, or trendy, or cool, or ground-breaking, or award-winning, or hipster-blog-friendly. We do them for fun. There are no rules about style, medium or what subject we choose – the only (very loose) rule is that you have at least one A-level project on the go, and if it’s a bit quiet in the studio, it’s something you can turn to for a bit of fun. A bit of no-strings-attached creativity.

Thought I’d share a few of our A-level projects that are on the boil in the studio at the moment. This first one is all about found typography, usually spotted in the street. This is the progress so far. Shaping up nicely, might use it in a project soon. Again, not meant to be stylish, hip, cool and certainly not done to impress anyone – just the pure pleasure of finding and looking.

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Letters found in the street, snapped on an iPhone and made into a bitmap

This next one is a bit weird. If you live in Brighton you’re almost certainly familiar with Iydea, the veggie cafe on Kensington Gardens. Last year I decided it was time to start getting fit and eating better. I discovered Idyea and started to go pretty much every lunchtime. Their food is amazing – wholesome and colourful. I kept looking down at the empty tray after I’d finished and would see these amazing colours and textures. Then the inevitable happened: I started to photograph them on my iPhone. I bought some coloured paper and started religiously shooting each empty tray after I’d finished. The owner of Idyea found the images I’d been making on Facebook and asked if he could frame one for the cafe.

25 empty Idyea takeaway food trays

25 empty Idyea takeaway food trays

Next is a lovely little illustration project that one of my designers, Scott, has been tinkering with: kind of illuminated letters intricately illustrated with quirky motifs. The lovely thing about this is the hidden message that lies within each piece, if you are eagle-eyed enough to spot it.

A-Z by Scott with added hidden message

A-Z by Scott with added hidden message

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Scott’s little dalliance with illuminated letters went on to become our Christmas gift to our clients in 2012. Scott illustrated a globe with the words ‘Peace on Earth’ intertwined into the image. We made a short run of 50 signed giclée prints and sent them out to our clients. The response was great, with several clients framing the prints for their homes and offices.

'Peace on Earth' our limited edition giclée print that we gave to our clients for Christmas 2012

‘Peace on Earth’ our limited edition giclée print that we gave to our clients for Christmas 2012

My next A-level project is all about gaffer tape. I love the stuff and it’s a return to something that I’ve already played with before. The possibilities are endless. For me this next piece of work will lead up to an Open House exhibition in May which is part of Brighton Festival. Pop down and say hello if you are free.

Gaffer tape, the possibilities are endless!

Gaffer tape, the possibilities are endless!

Back in December, Laura Snoad asked me to write a piece for Digital Arts magazine on ‘failure’. Here it is…


Failure. How to fail better. It’s always confused me to be honest, this statement. I’m sure Samuel Beckett meant well when he had this flash of inspiration, but I bet quite a few people (me included) have scratched their heads and thought… “eh?! why would anyone want to fail, let along ‘fail better’?” So, have I ever failed before? Yes. Have I ‘failed better’ since? Not consciously.

For me, failure is less about the end result and more about the very beginnings of a project. Sometimes, I’ll try and set myself up for failure at the start of a project. What do I mean by that? For me it means being OK with following an idea, even though I can’t really see the end result in my minds eye. Potentially an idea that might meet with failure, after days of work. When you have a paying client waiting for a result, that’s quite a hard thing to stick to. No one wants to fail on a paying job – so sometimes we ease back into the comfort of ideas that we know will work in the end – rather than indulging in ideas that might end up in the long grass.

How do I navigate away from the comfort of an idea that I know will succeed and pursue an idea that could fail? I just keep scratching. When I think about creativity I think of it as an itch that always needs a scratch. I think you have to keep moving towards the ideas that might not work, and keep scratching unlit they start to yield something interesting. So, you could also look at that another way – taking the long road. The comfort of ideas that we know will work don’t take that long to come to fruition. The other approach takes time, and that isn’t a luxury we can all enjoy.

So, to sum up – failure is about:
– setting yourself up for failure at first in order to succeed in the end
– resisting the comfort of an idea that ‘you know will work’ and getting cosy with ‘an idea that might come to naught’
– creating the time and space that it takes to ‘fail’, which means buckling in and knowing that this might be a long ride
– knowing the difference between a project that ‘deserves a bit of failure’ and one that ‘just needs to succeed’

I’ve always been very keen on photography. While I was at Art College I came very close to ditching graphic design in favour of becoming a photographer. I also left my last job in the belief that a future as a photographer was for me. As you can see, I’m not a photographer, I’m still a designer.

A few years ago my passion for photography was rekindled. I got involved with Brighton’s lively photography community. Through the Brighton Flickr group I met lots of new people and got interested in shooting more of my own stuff again. I didn’t have any real focus on what I was doing with photography, until I decided to try my hand at a 365 project (a self-portrait, every day, for a whole year).

I’d met Adam Bronkhorst at one of the Brighton Flickr meetups. His 365 project has become folklore in the Brighton photography community for its range, energy, creativity and humour. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a browse. Adam’s work inspired me to also give it a try.

A small selection of self portraits from my 365 project

I made it to 100 self-portraits during my 365. Not bad, but not the whole 365. It became an enormous chore to make a new portrait everyday. On the upside, it tested my creativity and pushed me to try new things outside of design. The part of the project I’m most happy with is a series of portraits I made using gaffer tape and empty walls. I wanted to try something graphic with the portraits, and gaffer tape allowed me to sketch and make marks, and then interact with the shapes on the wall.

A selection of the gaffer tape series of self portraits I made

Around the same time, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment [OAE] invited me to pitch for their 2010/11 season campaign. It was an unpaid pitch. Generally, I have a rule for our studio… NO FREE PITCHES. We’ve pitched for work in the past, won some, lost some. It gets to a point, that I believe every studio owner has to arrive at in their own time, when you just can’t justify the time, the drain on resources and the giving away of free ideas anymore. Eventually, you leave behind the desperation to win new clients and you adopt the moral high ground. But on this occasion, I made an exception (every rule has an exception). I’d been working with William Norris, Marketing Director at OAE, for several years. I’d also worked with him when he was a Marketing Officer at London Philharmonic Orchestra.

So, we pitched and we won the OAE season campaign. There were no late nights working up multiple creative routes to wow the client. I knew I was onto something with the gaffer tape shots and I knew I wanted to turn it into a commercial project. The OAE brief seemed like a good opportunity to take the gaffer tape idea for a spin.

On a cold January morning, I enlisted the help of my friend Kate Benjamin to model for a couple of test photos. I took these, along with my self-portraits to the pitch and showed them to Will. Luckily, Will loved the idea. It was the only only one I showed him. He got it straight away.

Kate Benjamin modelling for the test shots I presented to William Norris at the OAE pitch

A two-day shoot was planned with the brilliant arts photographer Eric Richmond. Eric and I had never worked together before, although we had come close on two occasions. Once at Saatchi & Saatchi when I rebranded Rambert Dance Company, and a second time in 2002 for an investment bank annual report.

Photographer Eric Richmond (right) and his assistant

Eric really knows his stuff. He’s been working with the OAE for years, he knows their brand well and he also knows the players. Eric and I worked together to plan the shoot. We decided to recreate the weathered turquoise wall that I’d been shooting against in Brighton for my 365 project. Eric commissioned a theatre set builder to make the wall, 15ft wide and 10ft tall. Plenty of room to shoot in front of and also meant we could fit more than two people in the frame if we needed to. The set builder also painted and artificially weathered the wall to match the one I’d been using as a backdrop in Brighton. It looked great. We did a half day test shoot to get the lighting right, trying to match an overcast daytime light as closely as we could with minimal shadows.

I art-directed the shoot with the help of my junior designer at the time, Rob Sollom. We sketched out ideas of what we could do with the players and how we could use the gaffer tape in a creative way. In some shots we decided to use the gaffer tape to emphasise the sound of an instrument. In other shots we decided to use the tape to emphasise the personality or movement of a player.

Sketched ideas that we used to plan the shoot

Rob Sollom applies gaffer tape to our artificial wall during the shoot

Eric Richmond behind the camera in his studio at the OAE shoot

The final shots exceeded all of our expectations. You know when a project has legs. The ideas seem to materialise on their own, people chip in and improve on ideas and the whole thing just builds and builds. It’s one of the most thrilling parts of being a designer. A project that unfolds into something special and allows for collaboration and a bit of serendipity. Nothing beats it. The campaign was rolled out onto season brochures, ad campaigns including tube posters and banners at London’s Southbank Centre.

The unexpected part was how the project went viral. Isn’t that the holy grail for any marketer? Viral advertising. Followers and fans sharing a brand’s message or campaign of their own free will. Oodles of free publicity. Of course, you can’t plan for an idea to go viral – it just happens. The creative has to be strong, but after that it relies, I believe, on a set of very tenuous circumstances. I’ve only ever experienced one other campaign going truly viral. It was fascinating to literally sit there and watch the clicks accumulating as the campaign was shared around the globe in real time.

In the case of the gaffer tape campaign, classical music lovers from Italy to Iowa blogged about the campaign. One of my favourite quotes was from an Opera blogger in Italy who commented, “…outsider art meets home depot”. Couldn’t have put it better myself. William Norris also goes into more detail in this video on the impact of the project and our working partnership.

A sample spread from the OAE 2010/11 season brochure

Poster displayed on the London Underground network

Since 2010, we’ve worked with the OAE on two further campaigns. The 2011/12 campaign was elegant and visually pleasing, but didn’t quite have the oomph that the gaffer tape campaign had. Our most recent work, dubbed ‘Not all audiences are the same’, for the 2012/13 season has been a big hit, resulting in tens of thousands of pounds of free advertising in the form of journalistic column inches. Myself and Eric Richmond provide a bit more insight on how the idea was born in this short video.

‘Not all audiences are the same’ image for the 2012/13 OAE season campaign

As I write, we’re about to start work on the 2013/14 season campaign. Who knows what’s next? I’ve genuinely no idea at the moment. Whatever we come up with, it’s our goal to turn heads and put bums on seats for the OAE.