AGDA: Creating the A-Z

It was with great pleasure that we recently announced our partnership with AGDA, the Australian Graphic Design Association. In June, we ran our A-Z basics workshop for over 20 AGDA members. In August, we'll run the advanced workshop. As part of our relationship, we're also writing a series of articles on brand language. Here's our first, published by AGDA in April, revealing what our founder Rob learned from writing the A-Z of better brand language.

So that’s three books and counting. Two travel memoirs and an A-Z guide. Like after a heavy night celebrating the success of a client launch, then waking with a thumping head and bleary eyes, never again – until the next time.

If you've written and produced a book, you might understand why I say that. You see turning an idea into a published piece of work is a wonderfully fun and exciting and rewarding and fulfilling exercise. The process, from the idea arriving on the doorstep of your mind to the release date, teaches you a little bit of everything about how creativity works. The highs are so high and so numerous. Yet writing and producing a book is also likely to be one of the most challenging things you will ever do in your creative life.

The further in you get, the better you understand the clichés. Blank page moments are both exhilarating and terrifying. Deadlines dance around like a kite in the breeze, never quite in reach. As the print date looms, evenings and weekends cease to exist. You’ll find no typos in the final proof, but one or more when you’re holding the final product. Although the joy outweighs the pain perhaps ten to one, writing a book can be agonising. 

Yet, once a couple of weeks pass after publication, I’d do it all again. In fact twice I have done it all again. And with ideas already knocking for a fourth and fifth book (one travel, one brand), I will do it all again. Again. But why?

A dear friend and brilliant designer and strategist, Daniel Oparison, was the first person to encourage me to run workshops. “You’ll learn as much or more about your passion for writing from teaching than you will studying,” he said. And he was right. And it’s a truth I’d apply to writing a book too, especially an A-Z guide. At every step of the creative process, which I’ve done my best to take you through below, writing a book teaches you something. 

At every step of the creative process, writing a book teaches you something.

Not just the little things, like how to format pages. And not just writerly things, like story arcs and narrative flows. From the first moment, the process is guide and sage, seer and oracle. Keep with it, through the joy and pain, and writing your book will – I guarantee – influence the way you see the world, interact, how you think, organise your thoughts, and express yourself.

So where does the process start? And how does the learning manifest? I’m sure it’s different for everyone. But, looking back at my journey with the A-Z of better brand language, this is what happened for me. 

The idea
Encouraging your instinct

Ideas are a blessing. Great ideas are a blessing and a rarity. Hal Riney, the advertising legend, once said, “The frightening and most difficult thing about being what somebody calls a creative person is that you have absolutely no idea where any of your thoughts come from really. And, especially, you don't have any idea about where they're going to come from tomorrow.” It’s why I write all my thoughts down. Even the messy and muddled ones. 

The idea for the A-Z of better brand language came from a project my studio did for Gumtree. Tasked with improving the company’s meetings as part of a culture programme, we pitched the A-Z format. It worked brilliantly for bringing together and communicating theory, tips and techniques.

A need to promote my rebranded studio combined with this good memory led to a thought: What if I collected my 13 years of brand language experience plus my studio’s passion in a short, simple, rich and varied A-Z…? I went with it.

The research
Immersing in your subject

I go on about writing for your reader. In fact, the subject makes up the first letter of the A-Z in ‘A is for Audience’. So it was clear that to write a book that would benefit people in brand, I’d need to speak and listen to a lot of people who work in brand. That included people I’d taught, people I’d written for, and people who had trained and mentored me.

Immersion makes up a big part of ‘K is for Knowledge’. It’s a writer’s way of saying throw yourself into your subject as you research – almost entirely. I write, “You should be so close you can smell the skin, but detached enough to be able to describe it in powerful and original language.”  

It’s how I researched to write the A-Z, as well as my travel books. I read about subjects, visited experts, lived what I could, then wrote in a way I thought would engage my reader. Always asking: “Why should they care?”

The writing
Feeling your way through

Three in and I’ve developed a way to write a book. It’s not the way, but it works for me. I like to start in a new notepad, with the fountain pen I bought on a business trip to Geneva many years ago. I scribble and jot, draw arrows and strike through. The notepad ends up being half prose, half play – you’d find a lot of automatic writing guff if you flicked through it.

To me, writing is play. I’m totally of Paula Scher’s view that “if you’re not in a state of play, you can’t create anything”. Writing a book has to be playful or the prospect of writing so many pages – 66 for the A-Z; 192 for Moonwalking; 348 for Twinned with – would dry out your ink pot. In the A-Z, ‘P is for Play’. I encourage my reader to play among rhythm and rhyme, pace and structure. I say that playing with language teaches you what works and what doesn’t.

I also talk about playing to disrupt the Inner Critic, a dastardly character who wants to stop you writing. I’ve met the Inner Critic many times in my career, and I’ve found ways to silence it. This is all about feeling your way.  

The production 
Dreaming up possibilities (together)

I once had an agent. She was great, she tried hard to sell my ideas to publishers – but the mainstream publishing process was too disheartening. Or perhaps I should say self-publishing was too full of possibilities.

Karina Stolf is The Brand Language Studio’s remarkable designer; she created both my studio’s brand, and the illustration style and design of the A-Z of better brand language. Together, Karina and I – with help from publishing consultant Becca Souster – decided on a size, length and layout for the A-Z, before Karina illustrated our letter ‘mascots’. With creative director Sam Gray alongside, the same dream team helped transform my travel memoir manuscripts into beautiful, tactile pieces of print.

Collaboration is everything.

Collaboration is everything. Oh the joy of those sparks that fizz and fly when creative people come together and combine behind an idea. In the A-Z of better brand language, ‘U is for Unity’. And collaboration is forever encouraged.

The spin-offs
Enjoying wherever it takes you

This year, the A-Z of better brand language became a series of workshops in London. That was never my intention. It’s just one of those exciting side shoots that emerge from a nurtured and well-watered idea.

Promoting the workshops, I say that someone will learn trade secrets and shatter common myths, master fresh writing approaches and techniques, and develop craft through varied language exercises. That someone could be you, as I’m delighted to announce that I’ve created three special workshops for AGDA, taking place from next month. Another exciting spin-off thanks to an inquisitive email from Lindsay Tucker, AGDA President.

Writing a book, like all the most enjoyable creative projects, does that: it connects you to people and experiences in ways you never imagined. My first book Twinned with had me interviewed by the BBC, write feature articles for national newspapers, give talks in churches and conference halls, and be invited to towns around Europe to share my passion. 

And perhaps those are the two greatest joys that come from writing books – finding new ways to make connections and to share your passion.

A huge thank-you to our friends at AGDA for allowing us to reproduce the article. If you're reading this from Australia, sign up to AGDA today and join the next A-Z workshop on 25 August. Based elsewhere in the world? No problem - that's why we created this