Brief encounter

Commercial posters risk stating the obvious, so writers’ association 26 turned this rationale on its head, charging teams to tell local tales in the shortest of slogans. It was a rare challenge, says Jim Davies – although Quentin Newark finds the results

By Jim Davies
When Shakespeare’s Polonius remarked that brevity was the soul of wit, poster copy was certainly far from his thoughts. But, as it happens, that’s the very nub of it. Verbosity means passing motorists missing the punchline, and antsy pedestrians moving on to the next distraction before digesting the sponsor’s vital message.

So when writers’ association 26 set a brief for a forthcoming London Design Festival posters project, conciseness was at its very heart. Duos of writers and designers had just six paltry words to tell a story. And not just any old story, but one that somehow reflected or commented on the location of the site they’d been allocated. Thanks to a partnership with outdoor advertising giant JC Decaux, 26 prime sites were reserved not only across London, but also in Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.

There was no commercial imperative, so the posters suddenly take on a very different role from usual. Their only purpose is to hold the attention, to amuse, provoke, enlighten, or plant the germ of a thought in the minds of the passing public. ‘No two ideas were remotely alike,’ says Margaret Oscar, director of 26, who oversaw the project, and created a poster with designer Michael Wolff. ‘JC Decaux wanted to highlight the diversity and creativity that’s possible with the poster medium – and we’ve definitely achieved this.’

She’s right. Posters touched on everything from the unlikely beauty of Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction, to the idiosyncrasies of London’s various neighbourhoods – such as random occurrences on a particular spot in Soho, Shoreditch’s multi-ethnicity and homelessness in Waterloo.

Taken out of context, many of the posters appear esoteric, but that’s because they are so rooted in their particular environment – without context, they lose much of their depth and meaning. ‘It’s lovely behind this poster site’, by Sarah McCartney and Judy Lui, is a case in point. It quite simply alludes to the fact that there’s a beautiful garden right behind their poster on London’s Harrow Road.

‘We liked the idea of telling a story that only locals would have a chance of understanding,’ explains writer Nick Asbury, who with designer Sue Rogers came up with ‘What if Robins had been bobbins?’ for the Busby Way outside Old Trafford football ground in Manchester. ‘With its use of local legend and local vernacular, it ought to make sense to nobody apart from committed Manchester United fans, which we rather like.’ (For the record, it refers to a vital goal by Mark Robins in 1990 which kept the team in the FA Cup and saved Sir Alex Ferguson’s job.)

I teamed up with designer Jonathan Barnbrook on a site slap-bang opposite St Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham. It was fixed to an unprepossessing 1970s red brick structure called the Kennedy Tower which, when we took a look at it, featured a poster for Carling C2 lager with a profligate 13 words on it.

The trick, it became apparent, was being a ruthless editor, honest enough with yourself and your partner to decide what was working and what wasn’t.

After researching the local history and current situation of the area, I crafted 30 possible stories, which were quickly whittled down to three after the first audition, before we settled on what was probably the most direct (‘This smoking gun. Made in Birmingham’), prompted by our site’s location in the Gun Quarter of the city. Similarly, Barnbrook produced a dozen potential visual routes based on the line, which we discussed and discarded until there was only one left.

Uncompromising editing was also required to arrive at the six chosen words, distilling what you need to say to its very essence. You have to rely on suggestion, posing questions, and the juxtaposition of words and image does the rest.

For commercial writers used to the more generous word count of annual reports, websites and marketing collateral, the 26 posters project proved both a testing brief and a valuable lesson in the art of less is more.

By Quentin Newark
It is very hard to write just six words that amount to something.

The origin of this brief lies in an apocryphal story about the great American novelist Ernest Hemingway. A group of fellow writers were discussing how long a story or a novel had to be. Hemingway, was becoming notorious for his brevity, using only short, Anglo-Saxon words to describe characters and events in the briefest way. His great literary rival, F Scott Fitzgerald, challenged him to write a story in only six words. Hemingway came up with something quite brilliant: ‘For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.’

You and I can understand that – for the sake of argument, let us call it a story – across the intervening decades and across the ocean. We can begin to imagine the people behind the story, a woman and a man, hope and pain. Thwarted lives. Poverty. All these big ideas, these real-seeming lives from just six words.

The Hemingway challenge has been trotted out repeatedly as an exercise for writers, recently in two American magazines and The Guardian. The best of these live up to their model. Staying close to Hemingway’s theme of waste and sadness, Robert Olen Butler wrote: ‘Saigon hotel. Decades later. He weeps.’ Norman Mailer went from a very specific story to something all-encompassing: ‘Satan-Jehovah – fifteen rounds. A draw.’ David Lodge, writer of all those ‹ novels about pathetic professors having affairs on university campuses, offered up: ‘I saw. I conquered. Couldn’t come.’ Richard Ford, writer of gritty novels about frustration and loss, gives us the blackest humour: ‘Juicy offer. Must decline. Still paralysed.’

It is worth showing you what can be done within such tight restrictions. Each of these ‘stories’ above can be clearly understood. When you read each one, it balloons out and becomes larger, comes alive in some way. Most stories recall one person’s experience, but they use references that speak of bigger things. That one word ‘Saigon’ in Olen Butler’s story brings so much with it. Mailer’s example is epic in scope and takes some thinking about, but then you realise he has packed in several big ideas. Does the draw mean the battle is over now? Or goes on past 15 rounds: eternally? They’re short, but complex.

Now we come to the efforts of 26. There are two aspects that make this project somewhat different to the usual Hemingway challenge. The writers were paired with a graphic designer, making extraordinary visuals possible, and they were encouraged to take a site as their starting point.

Most of the posters are utterly incomprehensible to anyone who does not live under the actual poster site itself. Even then they have been so deeply researched that they are bewildering to locals. I asked a Mancunian whether he understood ‘What if Robins had been bobbins?’ (supposedly a reference to a single goal in 1990). He assumed a reference to comedian Frank Sidebottom’s song, ‘The Robins are Bobbins’. Bobbins is Manchester slang for rubbish, a term born in the 19th century when the textile mills threw away thousands of them. Being a Manchester City fan, he had no idea that it was also an allusion to Mark Robins’s goal. So the poster does not just require a local audience, but someone who follows a particular football team.

Jim Davies and Jonathan Barnbrook pick up on Birmingham’s gun-making history. Birmingham made the guns and bullets and shells that helped defeat Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler. They were all appalling tyrants, but this poster confronts us with an idea that is definitely bad. ‘This smoking gun. Made in Birmingham.’ it says. Very gnomic. The phrase ‘smoking gun’ means a fact or object that provides conclusive evidence of who has committed a crime. That is why the poster is black-and-white; true detective style. But what crime? Is every bullet a crime, even if it kills a Nazi? Are we meant to think of Iraq? The only bullets made in Birmingham since World War II have been for sports guns, and Webley air pistols that fire little pellets. Perhaps the poster is trying to say that Birmingham is bad for having helped defeat Hitler? Perhaps someone christened in St Chad’s Cathedral can tell us.

Once these pieces are separated from their true context, we the viewers are lost. Rather than the efforts of the mostly American writers mentioned above – who tried to create stories comprehensible to everyone – the posters narrow down their focus until only a few people in the vicinity can understand (if they support the right team).

There are some that work with slight knowledge of the place. Like Lorelei Mathias and David Stockfis’s piece for the continuous mall that is Tottenham Court Road: ‘Look at me, everything just changed’. Or Victor Brierley and David Freer’s one that might work anywhere: ‘Trust me. I am an advert’. These are ironic, playful, understandable, if slight. Where are the moving stories of lost babies or battles between good and evil? I don’t think Hemingway need worry. l

Posters will appear in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow during September. The project is part of London Design Festival, running from 15-25 September

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