Branding a new wave of British politics

Whatever your political leanings, there's no escaping our tumultuous times. Still reeling from a Brexit referendum that fell on a side nobody really expected, the two big parties crumble as new political movements pop up left, far-right and centre. Meanwhile—pouncing on the brief Easter Recess Brexit news vacuum—Extinction Rebellion exploded onto the scene and deftly placed itself centre stage.

All this change has brought four new political logos to our screens, which we're likely to see a hell of a lot more of in the coming months and I’d wanted to take a quick look at here.

I’ll start with the Brexit Party, which Farage explained he had ‘come out of semi-retirement' to launch. (Never mind he is still a Member of the European Parliament and therefore in no position for his self-declared semi-retirement.)

The whole thing is more like a logo a bank might use to promote a new cheque paying-in service

The whole thing is more like a logo a bank might use to promote a new cheque paying-in service

It's by no means awful but does lack finesse, like a Fiverr commissioned logo or something knocked up of an evening on the sofa, with half your attention on the kids prancing around the living room refusing to brush their teeth and go to bed.

The arrow suggests a large mass moving boldly forward but I'm not sure why there's a chunk missing from its back. A hint to an emergency exit sign? An abstract letter 'E' and ‘X’ for the Europe we should have long since eXited (FedEx, much)? Whatever the answer, it probably places too much demand on the perceptive powers of its intended audience.

Helvetica stops the choice of typeface saying much at all, while the condensed cut suggests urgency. The heavier 'BREXIT' leaves no doubt about the party's narrow gamut of policy.

The choice of colour is curious, a tone of blue perhaps chosen simply because it's very much not the gaudy purple and yellow of UKIP, the red that Vote Leave stole from Labour, or the red white and blue Theresa's failed to deliver. Like the type, it's trying to say nothing at all really. The whole thing is more like a logo a bank might use to promote a new cheque paying-in service than the foundation of a serious political party.

Of course, if all goes as the Brexit Party hopes we'll be out of Europe and their logo will become redundant. So maybe it's supposed to be a bit throwaway.

Moving on, to the confusingly monikered Change UK The Independent Group.

How to design a visual identity before you have any idea what you stand for

How to design a visual identity before you have any idea what you stand for

Crikey. The four stripes are like a bit of cheap knock-off Adidas sportswear or a redacted section of the Mueller Report. The text doesn't even line up with itself. The way 'UK' sits out there on its own makes it read more like 'Change The Independent Group'. As a social media avatar it fails completely—the type isn't legible at icon size, and using the stripes on their own just makes it look like a hamburger menu.

It's confusing, void of emotion and lacks any kind of flair. It's the perfect example of designing a visual identity before you have any idea who you are or what you stand for. The Independent Group could have come up with something bold and daring—God knows the country is crying out for it. What a waste.

Third up, we have the official logo for the new Yes Campaign here in Scotland.

You can't help thinking about multiculturalism and people of many different persuasions coming together

You can't help thinking about multiculturalism and people of many different persuasions coming together

Launched only a few days ago and very much fuelled by the chaos of Brexit, the SNP have been careful to position Indyref 2.0 as the beginning of a movement which will only prevail by listening carefully and including everyone; where Brexit is anti-foreigner and pro British protectionism, Yes 2.0 is all about opening the country's arms to new people and new ideas.

I think the new logo suggests these things beautifully—it's bursting with life, you can't help thinking about multiculturalism and people of many different persuasions coming together. Crucially, it's sufficiently different from the old version to say this is something new, not just a rerun of the 2014 referendum.

Grassroots campaigners will grab it and quickly make it their own, so I'll be interested to see how it evolves in their hands over the coming months.

Finally, we have Extinction Rebellion.

It borrows just enough militancy from the CND logo or the anarchists' circled ‘A’

It borrows just enough militancy from the CND logo or the anarchists' circled ‘A’

I really love this. It's a brilliantly simple, bold, instantly recognisable and unique logo—a rare achievement these days. The shape is obviously an hourglass, expressing the urgency of their campaign, but also borrows just enough militancy from the CND logo or the anarchists' circled ‘A’.

One need only study the circular logo for a second to be able to reproduce it accurately by hand. It works as a 50ft tall banner or the smallest icon on a digital display screen.

The type is soft but full of energy, in a typeface every middle-aged brit recognises. It harks back to the propaganda posters of the 1940s, when loose lips sunk ships and everyone dug for Britain.


Forgive me father, for I have sinned

It's been 21 months since my last blog post (and considerably longer since I updated my website). But, afforded a moment of breathing space by the lull between CivTech 3.0 and 4.0, I am here to repent.

So what has been keeping me so busy? You can get the full bhuna over here on my New! Improved! home page, or continue to digest this low-calorie version...

The aforementioned CivTech is still the mainstay, and this year blew everything that had come before out of the water—more teams, more challenge sponsors, a bigger Demo Day venue and an opening message from the First Minister.

Derek Mackay, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work at CivTech 3.0 launch day

Derek Mackay, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work at CivTech 3.0 launch day

Alongside that, I've been working on a stream of projects with the nice folks at Cyan Forensics, as sales of their core product continue to grow and new innovations work their way down the pipeline. For me they're a perfect client, as I get to help both with strategy and making things look shiny.

Slide from a recent Cyan Forensics investor presentation

Slide from a recent Cyan Forensics investor presentation

It's been a similar picture with Sirakoss, an Aberdeen-based med-tech company bringing a new generation of synthetic bone grafting materials to market. I was first drafted in to help write and design an investor deck, then quickly moved onto a rebrand and a new website.

The new Sirakoss brand

The new Sirakoss brand

For three years at CivTech I've worked hand in hand with Maryanne Johnston, to support and coach the teams in the build up to Demo Day. But I've also been helping her out with her own materials—including the cover for her new five-part podcast (which is well worth a listen).

Voluntary work has been keeping me busy too. Off the back of its successful Creative Scotland RFO bid, Creative Edinburgh is going from strength to strength and I continue to sit on the board. I recently joined the Scotland CAN DO Innovation Forum and, slightly off the beaten track (literally and figuratively) was some pro bono work for the Edinburgh Shoreline project.

Now that you've made it this far, you may as well go and take a look at the rest. And if you have an interesting project I might be able to help out with, do drop me a line.

Epic Failz

This is a transcript of a talk I delivered last week at a Creative Edinburgh Talking Heads event, which saw six of us explain how failure factors in our work. I wouldn't normally write out something like this in such detail, but it was one of those insanely stressful 20x20 Pecha Kucha style talks and I wasn't leaving anything to chance. I hope you enjoy.

Hello, my name is Joe. I’m a designer who works with tech startups on their products, strategy, branding and investment material.

In the next 400 seconds I’m going to tell you my life story and everything I’ve learned so far. I’ve done a few things right but I’ve had one gigantic failure, and I hope after listening to me you’ll be ready to have one too. So, here goes... 

My life can be divided into six distinct periods:

Once I’d learned to walk and talk I spent 14 years at school wishing I wasn't there. I left at 16 and got a job as a trainee sound engineer, which was when I discovered you can work at things you really enjoy and get paid for it. Five years later I started my first company.

But before I get onto that, I want to rewind to 1982, when my older brother and I got one of these as a joint Christmas present:

It had 16k of memory, a BASIC programming cartridge and some shitty games. If I hadn’t received this gift I don’t think I’d be standing here today. You see, the Atari 400 made me realise that I enjoy using technology to make things.

Fast forward thirteen years to 1995, I was 23 years old and the Internet was about to become a thing, and I set up a creative agency called Rocket.

As the Internet pervaded society, our work quickly shifted off paper and onto the screen. We built our first website in 1996 and enjoyed many years of success. In 2004, as a distraction from this day job, I decided to set myself the challenge of taking and sharing a photo every day.

JT Talking Heads deck.005.jpeg

So I built a simple website one rainy Sunday afternoon, and I called it Blipfoto. Within a year or two I’d built a small but dedicated following and I decided to turn this idea into a product which anyone could use to create their own daily photo journal.

Almost in spite of us it grew like crazy, often knocking our clients’ websites offline under the weight of its traffic. So in 2010, we decided to spin Blipfoto out as a company in its own right, raised some investment and left our agency behind.

Things continued to grow like wildfire—our audience quadrupled in size and we closed two more rounds of investment.

JT Talking Heads deck.007.jpeg

By 2014 Blipfoto was doing a million monthly visits, we’d won a Bafta, we’d raised more than a million in investment, I’d met the queen and Steve Wozniak—the father of the personal computer— was among our users.

But while we had users across the globe, half of our traffic was still from the UK and we firmly set our sights on America.

That same year I bumped into a man called Scott Hardy while speaking at an event in LA.

Scott is the CEO of Polaroid—he was looking for a way for this iconic brand to become more relevant online and we needed a way to break America and beyond. So in January 2015 we announced a worldwide partnership.

For a couple of months things looked good. Then this happened:

As the numbers started rolling in, we realised our US launch had been a bit of a damp squib. We were desperately underfunded and didn’t have the cash to keep investing in marketing, then an investor we had lined up took his offer off the table, kicking off a sequence of events which ended in the board handing the company over to the liquidators.

It was a very strange time, and weirdly similar to what happens when a relative dies; you find yourself dealing with somber men in suits who’ve made unusual career choices, and reminding friends and family that nobody died and it was always the most likely outcome.

It was of course horrible shutting the doors but after two years of immense pressure a weight did lift from my shoulders and bring some welcome relief.

One of our most prolific high-profile users was Mike Russell, a Scottish Government minister. Remarkably, he put forward a parliamentary motion commending our vision and pressing to secure the product's future.

There’s a whole other story to tell there but almost exactly a year later Blipfoto was saved by a small group of its users and now lives on as a Community Interest Company.

For the first time in 20 years I thought I might actually have to get a job, so I sat down in front of a blank screen and tried to write a CV. It was incredibly daunting, because I didn’t really know what I was good at. I’d done lots of things, but who was I? What do I do for a living? What did I stand for?

Then it occurred to me, everything I’ve done has been about blending creative ideas with new technology and taking them to market.

I get most excited when those three things intersect and it turns out that blend of expertise is in high demand. So I’ve been holed up in Codebase for the last couple of years, helping other startups get their shit together.

I’m also Head of Product at CivTech, a new tech accelerator run by the Scottish Government which is breaking down the huge barrier that exists between small innovative companies and public sector agencies.

Big beasts like the NHS can finally tap into the kind of thinking which is in abundance in this room, and early stage companies get the credibility these customers bring.

So what did I learn from my epic fail? Well, the first thing was quite surprising:

I expected to be ostracised after Blipfoto collapsed. After all, I’d lost a lot of other people’s money and fucked something up many thought would be a massive success. But actually the opposite has been true—my failure is a huge part of why people now want me to work with them.

I’ve learned that I need three things to feel fulfilled at work: making money, a healthy work / life balance and being on a journey, heading for a goal or a prize at the end of the road. All too often I think we compromise one or more of these things in pursuit of the others, so now I always strive for a balance of all three.

For many years I was Mr. Blipfoto; the product and company had become core parts of my identity. That’s perhaps the ideal way for your customers to think of you but when it was gone I really had to do some soul searching to reframe my life. As a result I’m much more clear now about who I am as an individual and what I bring to the party.

If you’re pursuing investment it’s easy for that to become your job. With Blipfoto, I spent about 70% of my time on that side of things—pitching, managing board meetings, keeping investors updated, and so on. The product became a by-product, and the very thing which underpinned our success pre-investment lost a lot of my focus.

When you're working hard on a project, company or product your self-confidence and self-worth are naturally measured by its success, and when it fails it’s easy to feel cast adrift. You lose that barometer against which you’ve been measuring yourself. So I think it’s important to believe in yourself and keep the faith.

Finally, and above all, it’s been scientifically proven that us failures are far more likely to succeed.

Although I’m very happy with what I’m doing now, I do intend to launch a new startup in the next couple of years—I’ll really enjoy putting this one to the test.

You are now offline

I left Edinburgh with the family last Friday, on our first campervan trip of the year—something we always do over the Easter holidays.

Unusually, instead of checking my inbox two or three times a day, I decided to try and abstain completely from email. Even with so much going on work-wise, a week into the trip I'm pleasantly surprised to still be on the wagon. (Thanks in no small part to two wonderfully remote campsites void of any mobile signal).

It only struck me yesterday that this is the longest period since my daughter came into the world ten years ago that I've gone without reading—and reacting to—an email. Goodness knows how we developed such guilt for making ourselves unavailable.

So if you've sent me an email this last week I'm sorry for not being in the least bit sorry for not immediately responding. Here are a few pics of our travels around the wilds of western Scotland to tide you over.

Think now, design later

I've been slowing leafing my way through The Advertising Concept Book over the last few weeks, after spying it in Krakow's Museum of Contemporary Art.

Written by ad veteran Pete Barry, its principal audience is students studying advertising, but the way it deconstructs the process creative teams in agencies use to develop a message and get it across is worthwhile reading for anyone trying to communicate better. His "think now, design later" mantra is all about building a concept and message before you get anywhere near a design or media plan; a great idea will increase the value of both but neither will improve a poor idea.

The book itself upholds this message visually, opting for sketched roughs instead of the finished, glossy artwork of the well-known ads it pulls apart. It's a really lovely thing.

My work for this year's EIE event kicked off this week, and I'm again finding myself telling the pitching companies to think of each slide in their deck as an advertising billboard; a single, memorable message communicated in the blink of an eye. I think I may be taking that idea a little more literally this year.