How to jump so words will catch you

How to jump so words will catch you

Es Devlin doesn’t have clients. She only has collaborators. In fact, she banned the word from the room.

If you saw Abstract on Netflix, she’s episode #3. And if you haven’t, you’ve at least heard of or seen her work. She stages sets for U2, Adele, Beyonce and operas I will not pretend I know the names of (I have my Maria Callas on repeat moments as my neighbours will testify, but let’s not fake it here). She even did one for Miley Cyrus and set the art world into an eye-rolling contest.

Yes, I met her in London. Yes, it was the same Frieze Academy creative direction flavoured brain spa I wrote about here. And yes, I was having a blast. I even asked a question. Stay tuned till the end for my could-have-been moment of glory. It’s rich.

To take Es literally, when staging a show, “deliver on the anticipation and do not get in the way.” So let me not creatively dillute this, as she very specifically instructed not to.

She’s not for the “client” word, by the way, because it comes from the Latin for “to cling.” And who’s into clingy anyway? Not Es.

Here’s what she is into: analog. Very analog solutions. She’ll take a cube, fill it with actors and props and spin it on stage to see what happens. (A lot). She’ll take a huge cone and present it as THE set, have an opera singer deliver a whole aria in there, ear plugs on or else he’ll go deaf, sitting in a puddle of coke as cone is slippery and one must be protective of said singer. But the effect: pure joy. Worth the fights with the talent and the theatre management.

She’s not the first to say keep it simple, but she’s certainly produced the evidence: napkin sort of sketches for Adele’s show, and Miley’s, for that matter (a huge roll of tongue lined by clumsy strings of teeth). It’s train of thought for a story arc, looks crazy easy except it’s not. It’s all easy if you have the idea, and that, whoever’s done this will know, never is. (I am yet to meet a creator who doesn’t agonize over being dumped by whatever spirit whispers into their ear.)

What do you do to make it look so simple, though? For starters,

  • develop ideas, come up with iterations in sequence, and when you think you’re there, have four more options. (Get dirty with collagey photoshops, you’ll get lucky.)
  • have a bank of ideas, lying around in your lab, ready at a moment’s notice.
  • learn from one medium and then jump with the loot into another.

And rely on words, on their etymology. Words, said Es quoting a poet friend I wish I knew the name of (Es, if you read this, would you drop a line, pretty please?) have a reliable muscularity. We lean on words and trust they will take our weight.

A nugget of wisdom for teams: stay true to oneself and to the collaboration. Ever noticed how everyone does the best job they can and it just chips away off your initial plan? Hold on tight to that consistency of idea.

When Es says it’s all immersion and story as we peek at her drawings for Beyonce, scattered lyrics on the page, it seems so obvious.

Execution is a whole different matter, I mumble to myself, thinking of my imaginary guittar solos with Whitesnake’s Sailing Ships on repeat, as I work some idea threads into taglines.

I gather my strength and ask about how we keep that instrument that does it all sharp, clean and in tune. (Because it is an instrument. To play the piano, the recipe says you need a piano, music sheets and a player. To come up with concepts, headlines, etc. what do you need? We’ll just leave it unnamed for now, the IT.)

What does Es Devlin do to stay sharp? I was so articulate in my head. I was Mulan leading troops into battle. Out loud I sounded like the village coward. Nevermind, after 15 seconds of deathly adrenaline, I sat down. Back into my comfortable anonymity, on my mind sofa, I casually nodded in agreement to Es’s generous reply: puke and do it anyway. Listen. Do not stop people from their ideas, if only not to bore yourself out of your mind.

That evening I went into a pub and had a beer on my own (personal record!) as I waited for my friend. Nobody came to talk to me, I must have looked intimidating. I guess when I shut up, Mulan takes over. It’s when I talk it gets problematic. Luckily, other than Es Devlin, very few people know it.

The About page and other animals

The About page and other animals

They started calling me Foxy in high school. All of the sudden I was supposed to be not just ginger, but also sly, a vixen and the assorted cliches. Which I am not, by the way. I wasn’t even going to mention it, but I had to take it out of the way, just in case you were thinking about it. (I love my red hair, it’s my connection to my great grandmother.)

And anyway, animals have personalities way beyond their species. Not all foxes or dogs are alike, for that matter, and I should know, at least as of late. In fact, here’s some wisdom I got from animals in the last 12 months alone.

In January I signed up as a puppy raiser with Light Into Europe. A complete newbie to it, I let myself educated into the nuts and bolts of taking care of Casper, a Labrador who will grow to assist a blind person. We tested the waters for a weekend.

In the world of men, Casper is the big pile of mush who never crosses you at home, but makes a fool of you in public. He also woke me up early, but the mornings out for a walk gave me better looking skin. Also, I had to cut the daydreaming and get the job done faster, before his needs got in the way. Just like that, Casper coached me into better time management.

We tried but did not really warm up to each other (I saw him go gaga over a friend, I know exactly what he wasn’t giving me). I still go duckfaced when I remember. I’m sorry I quit. I just hope somebody loves him.

I applied then for the dog sitter position with my cousin. His Basset hound looked like the smart complement to my ginger locks, plus he occasionally showed me his belly, which I took for a good sign. Again, I went for the 2-day bootcamp. At first we fought for pillow real estate but I learned to set boundaries.

Here’s what’s on Barty’s priority list: food, sleep and smells. And he does it like it’s the only thing that matters. Ever. I love that about him, it makes me love my world more. He also broke my Paul & Joe Sister (really cool, but a bit old) glasses, and my heart. I decided to snap out of it because really-cute-and-disarming-mug. And so Barty taught me how to not end relationships after a fight.

Had he broken the Chanels, I would have probably not had the chance to learn that, but let’s not get into it. Speaking of Chanel, did I mention Ted the mousicorn? He can’t hold his wits about the brand and spends the piggy bank on every other gloss or lipstick. I painted him during an art workshop with the talented Otilia Cadar and learned that art is hard labour and worth every penny.

Ted guards my office and my spirits with Harry the bat, a token of love from one my first grade aikido students. Every student showed me their bats on Halloween, but my knight in shining armour actually gifted it to me. As he gifted me his math notes and a precious purple plastic pencil cap. He quit after two semesters and I was left teary eyed in the school lobby. Harry taught me flings don’t last. But they’re a scream.

Did you crack a smile as you found out I teach children, support worthy causes and have good taste + a heart? (If you didn’t, what’s wrong with you? Or you’re a cat person.) Your About page works pretty much on the same principles. It’s a way to tell your clients what they need to understand they’re in good hands. It sets the stage for the story about you and them.

Barty’s coming over for the weekend. I just thought you should know. And no, I don’t have a fox tattooed on my arm. That’s not me.

I’m not here to make you look nice

I’m not here to make you look nice

She had said it with such simplicity it was refreshing. Actually, her words were “This is not about making it nice. We clarify and elevate content.”

She is Veronica Ditting, owner of quirky studio with same name and creative director to The Gentlewoman, self described as “a fabulous magazine for modern women of style and purpose.” Which it is, by the way, if books that weigh north of 5 kilos don’t discourage you to peruse. (If they do, just go digital.)

And I was glued to her crispness. In a world of bells and whistles, she was going for essence, always my drug of choice. The place was Basement, in London, and the occasion was Frieze Academy‘s The Art of Creative Direction, a whole day of talks from creatives. It felt like a ticket to a Michelin star idea kitchen, where you’re allowed to witness some of the carrot slicing and sautéing. It was, again, a perfect gift from one of my dearest friends.

“You open up their world,” she continued. “They’re not used to the creative universe.” And this rang so true. It occurred to me that what she does with visuals, I do with words, which I confided in her towards the end of the day. She nodded in agreement. Always work with what’s in front of you and look for the most appropriate form of content. Then apply your process. In my line of business, this translates into “what is this thought leader up to? How do I make that message travel across? Does he or she need a talk? A book? Is this a blog post or ten?” It is, as Veronica said, “the arrangement of life.” (I think Vermeer would have agreed, by the way.) She arranges shapes. With copy, it’s about arranging words. As long as the mind is clear first.

Ever thought about the ideas swarming in your head? They are alive, by the way (says Elizabeth Gilbert; and entrepreneur Suzy Batiz, the latest guest to Marie Forleo‘s solid string of interviews). Your idea of a new business, e-course or book is alive. And is looking for the right mould or container to lay itself into.

Muffins go to the muffins tins. Quiches go to quiche pans. Ideas go to the lab first, where they’re kneaded until we figure out if they’re muffins of quiches. Then they get poured into their respective trays and shovelled into the oven.

That’s how you get clear, crisp and punchy headlines that make clients say yes and encore. Or buttery-with-a-touch-of-tangy blog posts that make them know, like and trust you. Or airy-chocolaty-with-a-pinch-of-salt work-with-me pages that give you 3-month waiting lists.

The Gentlewoman does not sell fashion as a fantasy. I do not sell strategy and copy that explode your business overnight. I have had my own learning curve online and will not contribute to that collective work of make-believe. But I will get to the bone of who you are and what you do or what your new idea is, will grill it with questions to test its substance and give it the shape it needs to live.

I asked Veronica for a pic and she was so graceful about it. (She’s the one with understated elegance and charm. I’m the one with the really cute top, nerdy glasses and I-just-ate-a-frog face. She wanted to know where I was from. I said Eastern Europe. She implied I looked the part. As I should. It’s where I come from.)

On the way home, I stepped into Selfridges’ and got a really nice copy of Alice in Wonderland. The air felt crisp and I let myself tempted into a sunset pic.