In Which He Takes a Strange and Wonderful Trip

Posted 30th March 2015

Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

With a heavy heart, I’m approaching the end of my Apollo 11 project. It’s been a busy and enjoyable few months. So busy in fact, that I’ve slacked a little on these Journal posts.

Fittingly perhaps, this assignment turned out to be a strange and wonderful trip. I’ve been inspired and intrigued by the secrets and stories of the first manned moon mission.

Along the way, I’ve learned new ways to think creatively using colours and shapes. It’s helped me tie together ideas that we’ve chatted about on here before. I’ll share these insights and experiences with you over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, here’s a shot of astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon. Reflected in his gold visor you can see Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the lunar surface.

Can you imagine how much fun I had writing about their adventures?

Thanks for reading. 

If you like, I can let you know when my work goes live.

Don’t forget to check out NASA’s website too.

Johnny Cullen

In Which He Looks to the Heavens for Inspiration

Posted 29th January 2015

Saturn 5 lifts off, carrying Apollo 11 (July 16th, 1969).

Saturn 5 lifts off, carrying Apollo 11 (July 16th, 1969).

I can’t reveal much more at the moment, but I’ve just won a pitch to write about the Apollo 11 moon landing. It’s pretty much my dream gig. As you can imagine, I’m feeling suitably inspired.

On July 16th 1969, the Saturn 5 rocket launched Apollo 11 on the first manned mission to the moon. Writing for “Life” magazine, Norman Mailer watched the take-off from the Press Site over three-and-a-half miles away. Along with his fellow “grubs”, Mailer saw the rocket rise for a “full six seconds” before hearing its motors roar. . .

“Flames flew in cataract against the cusp of the flame shield, and then sluiced along the paved ground down two opposite channels in the concrete, two underground rivers of flame which poured into the air on either side a hundred feet away, then flew a hundred feet farther. Two mighty torches of flame like the wings of a yellow bird of fire flew over a field, covered a field with brilliant yellow bloomings of flame, and in the midst of it, white as a ghost, white as the white of Melville’s Moby Dick, white as the shrine of the Madonna in half the churches of the world, this slim angelic mysterious ship of stages rose without sound out of its incarnation of flame and began to ascend slowly into the sky, slow as Melville’s Leviathan might swim, slowly as we might swim upwards in a dream looking for the air. And still no sound.”

Norman Mailer, “A Fire on the Moon” (1970).

Thanks for reading.

Even if you’re only a casual space fan, I’d recommend Mailer’s book. The writing’s superb. And his thoughts on technology’s uneasy relationship with human happiness seem more relevant today than ever. Get your copy here.

You could also check out Brian Eno’s “Apollo” album. If you’re a film fan, you may recognise An Ending (Ascent) and Deep Blue Day from “28 Days Later” and “Trainspotting” (amongst others).

Finally, Mark Waites pointed me at six-hour time stretched version of Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Wonderful stuff.

(Having used Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” cards for my pitch prep, I think he’s due a plug or two.)

Categories: Creative thinking
Johnny Cullen

In Which He Tries to Walk the Line

Posted 24th January 2015

My five minute "blind" drawing challenge.

My go at the tricksy Five Minute Drawing Challenge. . .

Fancy a Five Minute Drawing Challenge™? It’s guaranteed to shake up your visual thinking. (And you know how us copywriters just love our guarantees.)

The idea’s simple. Scrunch up a ball of paper, and place it on your sketch pad.

Concentrate for a minute. Think about the shape you see.

Now pick up a pen in your non-drawing hand. Start drawing the ball, without looking at the line you’re making. Don’t take your pen off the page. Draw for five minutes. And remember, only look at the ball – never at your line.

When your time’s up, look at what you’ve drawn. What do you see? How does your line feel to you?

(You can see my attempt above.)

Thanks for reading.

And a big thanks to Mr Dean Melbourne and Miss Laura Pollard for setting me today’s challenge.

If you have any other visual experiments of your own, please get in touch.



Johnny Cullen

In Which He Reports to the Deck and Awaits Further Instructions

Posted 15th January 2015

Mr Brian Eno looking splendid in his "Roxy Music" years

Mr Brian Eno in his “Roxy Music” years

Ten days ago, I started an experiment with Mr Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” cards. I’m hoping this small box of 100 aphorisms will help me think more creatively under pressure.

Leaving aside the question of how creative it is to copy another man’s methods, here’s the way it works:

1) Every morning for 30 days you shuffle the cards and pick one at random

2) You then base your creative approach for that day on whatever the card says

3) You must trust in the card – even if the message seems irrelevant or inappropriate at first

As you can probably guess, it’s been an interesting and occasionally bewildering experience so far.

Some cards offer you immediate practical guidance. Others prove harder to crack. One I still can’t quite work out, even now. But it nudged me in the direction of a new approach to a script I’m writing.

Which, I guess, is exactly the point of using the cards.

Why I was wrong about the cards

Initially, I thought the cards were about leaving your creative work to chance. That somehow they’d save you the hard graft of coming up with genuinely fresh results. But it turns out I was wrong.

You see, they’re not like Mr Luke Reinhardt’s “Dice Man”. In this cult novel, the narrator roles a dice and decides his next action from one of six set options. (“Roll 1: cut first paragraph; Roll 2: change font; Roll 3: bludgeon client. . .”)

“Oblique Strategies” don’t provide neat solutions to your tricky creative problems. Nor should they. That’s your job, and it’s why your client or boss pays you. Instead, they suggest new ways of looking, thinking, and feeling that can help you find your own answers.

But be warned, gentle reader. This isn’t always an easy endeavour. For me, the cards keep highlighting how predictable and formulaic many of my ideas and approaches are. And that’s why I’m finding them such a valuable tool to call upon.

If in doubt, ask Mr Adie

As is the case with most things, my creative partner Mr Daniel Adie knows more about the cards than I do. He tells me that “Oblique Strategies” are similar to Tarot cards in certain ways. I can see his point. Most mornings now it feels like I’m asking for a card, rather than simply drawing one.

I’m beginning to wonder if you could use the cards in other areas of your life, away from your office or studio. But let’s finish this experiment first, before we start another one. . .

Thanks for reading.

Mr Eno’s “Discreet Music” has been getting lots of airtime in the studio this last week. Listen here.

Mr Daniel Adie is a comic book writer and Twitter Sensation™. He’s also a rival wizard of mine.

Categories: Creative thinking
Johnny Cullen

In Which He Learns To Play The Cards He’s Dealt

Posted 5th January 2015

Brian Eno, the co-author of "Oblique Strategies"

Mr Brian Eno, the co-author of the “Oblique Strategies” cards

Would you trust all your biggest creative decisions to a strange pack of cards from the 1970s?

If you answered “definitely not”, you should probably look away now. But if you answered “yes” or “maybe”, then stick around. I may have found a cure for your January back-to-work blues.

“Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas” is a set of one hundred cards. The cards are designed to help you think more creatively under pressure.

Each one contains an aphorism, that offers you an escape from your creative panic or rut. Examples range from “think like a gardener,” to “tidy up”, and “honour thy mistake as a hidden intention”.

Pick a card, any card. . . 

Messrs. Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt first published “Oblique Strategies” in 1975. As these two celebrated creatives explained:

“They can be used as a pack (a set of possibilities being continuously reviewed in the mind) or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear.”

On the advice of my creative partner Mr Daniel Adie, I’ll draw a new card every morning for the next month. What’s written on the card will guide my creative thinking and decisions for that day. I’ll report back each week on my adventures.

Play a hand yourself

You can buy the cards online if you fancy having a go yourself.  You could also try the app, but in all honesty the digital version seems to miss the point. The physical cards have a Tarot-like feel that’s a big part of their attraction. And, as my friend Dr Michael Aspinall pointed out to me, “there’s nowt random when a computer’s involved”.

Today’s card?

“Give the game away.”

Thanks for reading.

Mr Simon Armitage’s Radio 4 programme on “Oblique Strategies” is well worth a listen.

Mr Daniel Adie is a comic book writer and Twitter Sensation™. He’s also a rival wizard of mine.

Dr Michael Aspinall is an engineer, international athlete, and co-author of two cookbooks for runners.

Johnny Cullen

In Which He Ventures into the Woods Lovely Dark and Deep

Posted 24th December 2014

Prep work for a project on forests and magic

Rough Sharpie sketch of a stag

Here’s a rough sketch of a stag I did with a Sharpie yesterday. It’s prep work for a project on forests and magic I’m planning with international fine artist Mr Dean Melbourne.

We’re not sure what shape the project will take yet. So we’ve decided to follow Mr David Lynch’s advice and listen to the idea. Hopefully it will lead us to some strange and enchanting places.

I’ll keep you updated on our progress. In the meantime, have a very Merry – and magical – Christmas.

Thanks for reading.

You can discover more about Mr Dean Melbourne here. Instagram fan? Then feel free to follow him.

Johnny Cullen

Guest Post: Get Into Shape and Bring Your Colour Up (by Caitlin Watson)

Posted 16th December 2014

Can visual thinking helping you write better copy? Are colours and shapes the keys to more creative ideas? Guest poster Caitlin Watson shares her thoughts. . .

As a medical writer rather than a copywriter, I’m a bit of an interloper here, really.

I am, however, almost evangelical in my desire to get people thinking more visually.  To me, the key to an engaging story/portrayal of the facts (which, ultimately, is the aim of both professions IMO) is the marriage of words and pictures.

I love words.  It’s why I left the lab – as much as I liked planning experiments, etc., I derived much more enjoyment from finding a stimulating way to discuss the results, including graphs and pictures.  I used to leave the diagrams til last; firstly, to allow my thinking on the matter to crystalise…but also because finding a neat visual way of explaining something is a fun game.  It’s a similar satisfaction I feel when I find an every day analogy for explaining a complicated scientific concept.

The scientific part of me is most likely responsible for my levels of organisation, and some people can be a little intimidated by my colour-coded systems etc.  What they don’t realise is that these approaches are actually pre-emptive laziness (or efficiency, if you want to use kinder language).  If I work out a good way to do something once, why would I waste my time thinking of it all over again? 

It’s fine to revisit ideas with a view to improving them, but starting from scratch each time uses up time that could be spent in other directions.  A great diagram or visual concept has the same effect – you don’t need as many words, as things become self-explanatory. 

Brave and effective writing

I think we’ve all read bad copy, where you feel the person doesn’t have a clue what they’re talking about, and is just throwing lots of big words at the page in an attempt to cover it up.  Braver, more effective writing is concise and to the point, and can really be boosted by a great figure <wolf-whistle, cartoon eyes on stalks>.

Decisions I have to make most frequently, such as determining the best type of graph to show data are perhaps less likely for copywriters deal with, but there is plenty of cross-over where both could benefit from flexing different parts of the brain to think in pictures, particularly when it comes to presentations.

I did a bit of research into visual thinking a while back, and unless you’re willing to spend a lot on some books, most of the stuff on the internet tells us about not having more than 5 bullets on a slide, not to just read the slide out yaddah yaddah.  But what I’m really interested in is to dissect how one could start thinking in a more creative way.

Shape it

After sitting down and having a bit of a think whilst looking back at previous effective diagrams/presentations, here’s a few points that struck me:

1) Are you struggling to describe a concept? Is the paragraph you’ve written meandering and dissatisfying? A sure fire clue that you either need a diagram to figure out how you’re going to explain it, or that the diagram should actually go into the piece

2) Are you discussing a few different elements? How do they relate to each other? Is there a way to visually represent this?

Shaping up table3) Might seem like a bit of a shortcut, but have a look at the “smart art” options within PowerPoint – they show a few different ways of representing lists, hierarchies, flow diagrams etc. that might inspire you

4) This is definitely a cheat (within reason; plagiarism is not on, yo)– have you worked up an idea before that wasn’t used, or that worked well with another client? You could easily use this as the starting point, rather than going back to the beginning of the process.  Why go from scratch when something done previously might give you a leg up? (told you I was lazy)

5) It’s important to remember that diagrams shouldn’t be MENSA tests.  Sometimes something more abstract is called for, but if it’s too obscure, it’s going to detract from the copy.  Run them past someone, and if it requires too much explanation, you might need to think again

Experiment with colours

Finally, colours and diagrams can also make running projects easier – don’t save all the fun for your deliverables.  If there’s a project with a few looming deadlines, taking the time to create a quick table/spreadsheet by week (or day if the timescale is shorter), colour coded in a traffic-light system means you can see at a glance which bits of the project require immediate attention internally, or which bits are the client’s responsibility, rather than yours.

Shaping up excel sheetThis type of status sheet can also make client calls go more smoothly, as long as you keep it fairly simple.  Too many colours and you might feel trapped in a kaleidoscope, equally unclear as to what’s going on.

Hopefully these ideas might provide a starting place for livening up your copy – I’m always looking for new ideas and would love to hear other people’s tips for thinking pictorially.

Thanks for reading.

About Caitlin

Caitlin is a medical writer with a special interest in thinking more visually. If you’re not doing so already, you can follow her on Twitter here.

Johnny Cullen

In Which He Tries a New Set of Tools and is Inspired

Posted 12th December 2014

From "The Last Stand" by Marc Wilson.

From “The Last Stand” by Marc Wilson.

When was the last time that you did something new and exciting at work? For me, it was helping install a photography exhibition at London’s Anise Gallery earlier this week.

“The Last Stand” by Marc Wilson documents WWII defence structures across Britain and Europe. He’s collected the photographs in a book, which was launched at a private view on Tuesday 9th December.

The exhibition’s installation, launch, marketing and PR were handled by Jenny Theolin of Soapbox & Sons. Jenny and I are working together on some other projects, and she mentioned Marc’s work to me. Straight away, I volunteered to help in any way I could.

So the three of us spent a busy day playing with drills, spirit levels, and plenty of White Tack. Having never done anything like this before, it was fascinating to watch it all take shape. Jenny and Marc were true professionals. And I managed not to drop or break anything, which was a relief.

Inspiration and insight

Safe to say, I was knocked out by Marc’s pictures. As well as being a great photographer, Marc turned out to be a charming and modest guy. He listened patiently as I quizzed him on inspiration, technique, narrative, and stacks of other creative topics. Jenny too shared her insights on what makes a successful show, and how best to curate and promote one.

The exhibition is only on until tomorrow (December 13th). So if you’re anywhere near Tower Bridge check it out. Either way though, you can get your copy of “The Last Stand” book here.

Thanks for reading.

“The Last Stand” has been reviewed by (amongst others) Grafik, The Guardian, Mail Online, and

You can discover more about Marc Wilson on his website.

Jenny Theolin is an award-winning curator and creative director. She’s also the driving force behind Soapbox & Sons.

Looking for directions to the Anise Gallery? They’re here.

Johnny Cullen

In Which He Writes a Letter That Makes His Hands Shake

Posted 11th December 2014

There's no skool like the old skool. . .

There’s no skool like the old skool. . .

How some old skool print helped boost an online campaign in aid of Parkinson’s UK. 

Earlier this year, I helped promote “Bud’s Run” and “Bud’s Bash” to raise cash for Parkinson’s UK. These two athletics-themed events were held at The University of Birmingham in October. They were the idea of international running coach Bud Baldaro. Bud’s based at the University, and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2009.

I’d written the website, media releases, and social media strategy. As we got closer to the big day, all was going well. But I had a hunch that a bit of old skool DM could lift our online profile even higher.

“There’s no skool like the old skool”

So I drafted a four page hand-addressed A4 sales letter to try and drum up some more corporate sponsors. Written in Courier, it had cross-heads, quotes in italics, and a PS that repeated the call-to-action. It’s the kind of job any old skool copywriter would jump at.

Then I wrote “When was the last time you got a letter that made you hands shake?” on each envelope. I used a Sharpie held in my left-hand (I’m right handed). This gave the line a slightly sinister look, which I hoped would feel like a threat or a ransom note.

In short, I wanted to write a teaser message that would be hard to ignore.

The copy inside linked the “shaking hands” teaser to everyday life with Parkinson’s. It introduced Bud and his story. And it explained how Parkinson’s UK needs funds to find a cure for his condition. Then it sold in the benefits of attending the events to the reader.

Bud’s daughter Becky signed each letter. Becky and her brother Jamie organised both events. Their hard work and enthusiasm turned Bud’s idea into an amazing day and evening.

Reaction and results

The letter created quite a stir on social media. We had tweets, re-tweets, and positive blog mentions from all over the UK. Top creatives like Sue Keogh, Sarah Turner, and Richard Weston name-checked us. Parkinson’s UK also helped us spread the word.

The DM boosted an already successful campaign. World marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe flew in from her Monaco home to start the Run. The national and international athletics press gave us excellent write-ups. The BBC website featured our events twice, and Bud was interviewed on BBC One’s “Midlands Today”. Our Facebook page had over 1000 likes. A video of Bud we posted reached more than 11, 000 people.

Most importantly, both events sold out in advance. We beat our targets by raising nearly £25, 000. I’m now chatting with Parkinson’s UK about working together on other projects.

So the next time you’re doing an online campaign, why not try mixing in some print? You may be surprised by the results that a letter can deliver you. . .

Thanks for reading.

Sue Keogh interviewed me about the DM on her company website.

You can discover more about Parkinson’s UK on their website.

Johnny Cullen

In Which a New Way of Creative Thinking Begins to Take Shape

Posted 25th November 2014

Here’s a one minute creative task to get your brain going.

Grab a pen and paper, and in sixty seconds draw the word “year” as a shape. Mark on the months if that helps. Go!

Finished? Nice job.

Understandably, many people set this task draw one of two shapes – a straight line or a plain circle:

Two Ways to Think About a Year

Two Ways to Think About a Year

But can basic shapes like these really convey the idea of a year? Maverick 1960s ad man Howard Gossage didn’t think so. To Howard, a year was “an irregular figure closer to a triangle than anything else.*” Here’s how he drew it:

Howard Gossage's Idea of a Year

Howard Gossage’s Idea of a Year

Like lots of folks, Howard felt some months flew by more quickly than others. That’s why the shape of his year dips, flattens, and then climbs sharply from September until Christmas.

So while Howard believed that ideas have shapes, his drawing suggests they’re often more intriguing and personal than you might first think. And that by thinking about your ideas more creatively, you may be able to have more creative ideas.

Do ideas have colours too?

Howard’s wife Sally has an equally interesting take on things. Sally sees all her ideas as colours. To her, a year isn’t like a triangle at all. Instead, Howard tells us, a year resembles a:

“child’s hoop. . .with the rim divided into brightly colored segments representing months, weeks and days. Holidays have special colours: Christmas is yellow, New Year’s is brown, her mother’s birthday is orange, and Halloween is black. I should also mention that only the holiday Halloween is black, the word Halloween is green.”

According to Howard, Sally’s visual year starts on August 4th – “halfway between the Fourth of July, which is fittingly pink and orange, and my birthday, which is emerald green.”

Follow the yellow brick road. . .

I think it’s important to be super clear about what we’re talking about here. Presenting your ideas in visual form is one thing. Chances are we’ve all used charts, diagrams, and graphs at some point.

But what we’re talking about now is thinking about ideas themselves as colours and shapes. As a creative from a writing background, this is a whole new world to me. And it feels a bit like a jump from black and white to Technicolor.

If you have a brain like Howard or Sally, you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about.  But if you’re lucky enough to think in colours and shapes as well as words, what’s to stop the rest of us learning to join you?

I’ve already been chatting to Dean Melbourne, Jenny Theolin, and Cait Watson about putting this new insight to practical creative use.  As always, this talented trio have given me lots to ponder. Updates to follow soon.

In the meantime, why not try shaking up your own way of approaching ideas?

Thanks for reading.

All of Howard’s quotes come from his article “The Shape of an Idea and How to Draw One”. You can find it in “The Book of Gossage”.

To discover more about this remarkable advertising man, check out Steve Harrison’s outstanding book “Changing the World is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man”.

The technical term for thinking in colours is synesthesia.

Johnny Cullen