1. Tools

Dame Muriel Spark, to say she was a little obsessive about stationary is rather an understatement. Image courtesy of Literary Hub.

For the first of the series of posts about how I approach brand strategy and the business of being a planner I thought I’d write a little about the tools of my trade. My point is not to start an expensive stationary habit but to encourage you to figure out, or indeed simply recognise, what rituals, comforts and equipment kick your brain into thinking mode.

The Scottish novelist Dame Muriel Spark was a rather particular about a lot of things. One of my favourite phrases is that of having strong opinions lightly held. Spark was more of a strong opinions strongly held kind of person and this strength of opinion applied as much to writing tools as it did to her perspectives on virtually everything and everyone. Indeed, she famously said of birth control pioneer Marie Stopes “I used to think that it was a pity that her mother rather than she had not thought of birth control”.

Most famous as the author of ‘The prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, Spark wrote every novel on in ruled spring spine exercise books, each 72 pages long and with seven of them on average making a novel. She was so devoted to these exercise books that in 1990 Spark declared that she would only write three more novels in her life as the Edinburgh stationer that sold them had gone out of business and there were only 20 exercise books left in existence.

And she was just as particular about the pen she used. Only one type of black ballpoint pen would do, ordered from Harrods and treated as sacred objects. She said off them “Nobody else is allowed to touch one. If any one just picks up one to write a number, I throw it away in case it affects my writing”.

Perhaps Muriel Spark was a little extreme when it comes to stationary, but every writer, every creator, every craftsperson has creative habits that help them get their mind in the place they want it to be. And a set of tools are always a really important part of that habit. Tools specifically designed, or at least specifically chosen for the job at hand and tools that they can depend upon.

For a brand strategist there is only really two tools that matter in my book, a pen and a book.

At the heart of my thinking is an eternally present black notebook into which goes absolutely everything that ever crosses my mind. This is important, that your notebook is not just for to do lists or notes taken in meetings. You notebook is a practice space, like a training ground or a dance studio. It’s a place for your mind to play and for the ideas that you need to author to gestate and germinate. For writing, drawing, building narratives, trying out different types of diagram to explain a point, doodling, dreaming, improvising, playing, indeed anything that can legitiamately be done on a piece of paper.

For years I used little Moleskine notebooks religiously. In part they were battle armour for planners in advertising, a mark of one’s identity as a strategist. I had tens and tens of full Moleskines them lined up in rows, rarely consulted but present nonetheless.

More recently, I have switched to B5 Stalogy notebooks. They have gorgeously thin bible paper that takes the ink from a fountain pen brilliantly. Unlike the dear Moleskine, these are hardly ubiquitous and I break out into a slight sweat as I near the end of one, incase the next isn’t readily to hand.

I choose to use an ever present Mont Blanc with black ink that makes the most wonderful marks on the clean crisp paper as if it can’t wait to deliver the mess in my head onto a page so it can be worked on and worked over. In never write in my notebook except with that pen and I never use that pen on any other medium. There is something about fountain pens that can’t be beaten, the flow of the things, the density of the ink, the eagerness to please.

I never change notebooks or pen. I find the certainty and constancy of the same paper greeting the same pen with the same ink reassuring. Like a creative ritual this combination gets my mind into gear, ready to create. It’s like a Pavlovian response in that I have trained myself to associate the black notebook and the black fountain pen with thinking, hopefully good thinking.

You may find something else works far better for you, other tools that are important to you and get you in the right frame of mind. I am simply sharing what has worked for me over the past 20 years.

Of course in that time there have been significant technological advances that perhaps should have made notebooks and pens rather obsolete. And there are now amazing software tools that are powerful friends in finalising and delivering thinking whether prose or presentation. In drafting this post I used a brilliant bit of software called Scrivener, like many of my generation I am a powerpoint obsessive (for more on this read Russell Davies’ brilliant Everything I know about life I learned from powerpoint) and increasingly I really value the collaborative nature of Google docs, slides and the like.

But they are not there for thinking your thinking. In starting the journey I always begin with a fresh blank page, my pen and whatever is in my head.

There is something potent about the fluidity of recording your thinking manually, each word, each diagram, each doodle committed by hand. For one thing because you know that what you are doing will never been seen so what it looks like doesn’t matter. You spend no time thinking about formatting, about the point size of the type or whether the boxes you have drawn on a Google deck all line up. All of your time and bandwidth is committed to the choreography between mind, hand and eye as you try to capture and frame what’s in your head. There is a joy in the complete lack of interface between your brain and the marks that you make, nothing in the way, nothing slowing it down.

This is one of the reasons that I hate having people present me their thinking as a deck. Planners are always doing this and even worse, sending it to me to read in advance. I want to see and hear people’s raw thinking as it first emerges and while it is still warm from the oven, not after it has been corralled into something that looks like the finished product because it has images and gifs and carefully chosen typefaces, when it is not yet anything of the sort.

I realise that all this makes me seem like a stationary fetishist and maybe there is a bit of that. It certainly makes me sound old fashioned, like the Muriel Spark of strategy.

And of course I recognise that just because I have a fancy notebook and pen it doesn’t make my thinking any better than it would be with a scrap of A4 and a biro. But that’s not the point, if my mind believes that this is the way it can express itself, the way that it is supposed to express itself then the ritual of turning the page and starting kicks the thing into gear. It’s a ritual not a religion.

Perhaps it is also about showing that thinking a bit of respect. Let’s face it, the thinking that we do as brand strategist, that starts as half thoughts and scribbles in a black notebook will ultimately create enormous value for the organisations that we work with. It should do, that is after all what we are being paid for.

So maybe its worth treating those ideas with a bit or respect especially if the act of bringing pen to paper gets the mind into gear and capable of thinking that is of consequence.

So go get your notebook and pen.

Or if you have a different approach, please share your favourite tools of the trade.

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5 Replies to “1. Tools”

  1. I really love the idea of a specific notebook and pen (and have lots) but when ideas occur to me and I want to write I just use the Samsung Notes app on my phone. It’s always with me and it’s where I do the shopping list, messages and notes because it’s just more convenient to fit around my life. But I do have a Leuchtturm dot grid notebook that I keep for journalling and planning. I used to love a fountain pen but made such a mess, I’m now a big fan of the simple 4 colour Bic retractable pens.

  2. A3 blank bleedproof pad, and sharpies. And/or my whiteboard.

    Both have the same effect – to enourage unbound, free thinking. Then, as you say above, commit it to powerpoint or similar.

  3. Thanks for sharing your process Richard. You’re a voracious reader – what’s your approach to collecting your citations and quotes? Do you capture them in these notebooks like a commonplace book?

    BTW, the Adliterate site is very friendly for helping find posts by interest area. What platform is it?

    1. Thanks Andy, Perhpas a voracious reader but certinaly a voracious forgetter. And I have no great way off collecting quotes I’m afraid. The downside of my approach is that its all chronological and so hard to access what has been written in the past.
      Adliterate is on WordPress.

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