De­sign Bridge’s cre­ative di­rec­tor of brand lan­guage, Holly Kielty, ex­plains how to es­cape the hell of a blank page and a blank brain

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Holly Kielty of De­sign Bridge on how to break through cre­ative block

You can find in­spi­ra­tion in any­thing”, said Paul Smith. And he’s right, of course. But how about we get spe­cific, be­cause whether you’re in a cre­ative rut, suf­fer­ing from writer’s block, or just not quite crack­ing that brief, some­times you need to take di­rect ac­tion.


OK, OK, you hate your com­mute, we all do. But try to see it in a dif­fer­ent light. Take out your head­phones, put down the Kin­dle. Lis­ten to peo­ple’s con­ver­sa­tions, their opin­ions. Think about why they’ve cho­sen the shoes they’re wear­ing, the lip­stick they’re ap­ply­ing. Take a trip to parts of town you’ve not ven­tured to and walk among the mar­kets and parks to bus stops and sta­tions you wouldn’t usu­ally wait at. You won’t get to grips with what mo­ti­vates peo­ple in the real world by sit­ting at your desk.


We’ve all got our se­cret cre­ative crushes, and I say em­brace them. If you’re a sucker for Starck, or a bas­tion of Bowie, go all out. Buy the books, lis­ten to the mu­sic, see the films, wear the fur coat. Some­times it helps to have a cre­ative mid­dle­man (or woman), be­cause then you can trace their in­spi­ra­tion ‘an­ces­try’ – see what led them in cer­tain di­rec­tions and ex­plore where they’ll take you. When­ever I’m re­ally stuck for in­spi­ra­tion, I’ll grab Diana Vree­land’s books and off I go, to the end of Pro­hi­bi­tion for Tan­queray, or the suave gen­tle­men’s clubs of Pic­cadilly for Floris. When it comes to jour­ney­ing into your imag­i­na­tion, it helps to have a travel com­pan­ion.


Book­shops are as much about im­ages as they are about words. The cover of a book is ef­fec­tively a poster, draw­ing you in with in­trigue, with beauty, with an ab­stract en­cap­su­la­tion of a nar­ra­tive. The pages in­side are rich with story, in­for­ma­tion or opin­ion. In a book­shop, you can see just what suc­ceeds and fails in de­sign – which cov­ers grab you, which ti­tles pro­voke, which il­lus­tra­tions cause your in­ner mag­pie to take flight.

When first pitch­ing to Fort­num & Ma­son, we told them that we wanted to think of their ranges as we would edi­tions of books, in­ter­twin­ing vis­ual wit and ex­pert sto­ry­telling. That thought (and a long-term love of her work) prompted our later col­lab­o­ra­tion with Co­ralie Bick­ford-Smith on Fort­num’s honey range; through her del­i­cate il­lus­tra­tions of hives, flow­ers and fo­liage, the story of each flavour is told with the same el­e­gance seen in Co­ralie’s beau­ti­ful work for Pen­guin. Favourite book haunts? Daunt Books on Maryle­bone High Street, Strand Books in New York, Richard Way in Hen­ley-on-Thames and Black­well’s in Ox­ford. I never come out empty-handed.


In our in­dus­try, the con­sumer is king – so be­have like one. Get out into the su­per­mar­kets, the depart­ment stores, the delis. Watch how peo­ple be­have in front of prod­ucts, ad­ver­tis­ing, shelf wob­blers. Let your eye be drawn to dif­fer­ent fin­ishes, pat­terns, type­faces, copy lines. Think about what they’re say­ing to you. Got a brief to re­brand an eco-friendly hand­wash com­pany? Head to a chemist and look at the shelves – is the colour green al­ways earth-friendly? Or is it more clin­i­cal than that? Try to de­code some of your own as­sump­tions and be­hav­iour. Take pho­tos, buy things, and when you get back to your desk, make mood boards that re­ally en­cap­su­late what you saw. What themes emerge? You’ll be amazed at what a su­per­mar­ket sweep can stir up, even if your brief is for some­thing you wouldn’t even buy off the shelf. Top of the shops? War­dour News, any de­cent sta­tionery shop, the whole of Whole Foods, any large Boots, John Bell & Croy­den in Wig­more Street… I could go on.


I be­gan run­ning to ben­e­fit my waist­line, but I’ve kept run­ning be­cause it’s good for my mind. I run with­out mu­sic, and I plod along with no con­cern for any im­prove­ment in speed. It’s the med­i­ta­tive process of putting one foot in front of the other that re­ally helps me over­come any cre­ative rut. On runs I’ve come up with the thrust for whole pre­sen­ta­tions, writ­ten backs of pack, come up with de­sign routes – all with­out the pres­ence of a lap­top. I’ve won awards for the things I’ve thought of mid­way through a lap of Chor­ley­wood Com­mon. Run­ning is a les­son in per­sis­tence, in self-mo­ti­va­tion and tim­ing – all vi­tal in our in­dus­try, where good ideas some­times sim­ply have to hap­pen on de­mand.


Ah, there she is – Diana Vree­land again. And she’s bang on – noth­ing beats get­ting out of your com­fort zone. Head­ing to some­where where the air smells dif­fer­ent, where the streets echo with an­other ac­cent and where even the sirens have a dif­fer­ent wail is the ul­ti­mate awak­ener for the cre­ative brain. There’s no way we could have cre­ated our Guin­ness Africa work with­out ac­tu­ally go­ing to the bars of Nige­ria.

But you don’t even nec­es­sar­ily have to go far – I defy any­one to go to Dun­geness and come away un­moved. In fact, take any brief, and most des­ti­na­tions can of­fer some sort of ex­cuse for a visit. You’ll never see colour quite like you’ll see it in Italy. Ber­lin is six cities in one, each loaded with in­cred­i­bly emo­tive sto­ries (and sig­nage). And my heart will al­ways be­long to New York, where the sub­way sys­tem alone makes you think dif­fer­ently about de­sign. Travel may not be cheap, but, as they say, it’ll al­ways make you richer.

Of course, this is by no means an ex­haus­tive list, but it might just prompt you to get you off your chair and into a more cre­ative way of think­ing. I’ve some­times even found that not think­ing about the brief for a solid hour has been the best way to re­fo­cus my mind on the task in hand. An es­teemed col­league and I once brain­stormed a list of our top ten TV de­tec­tives one night when we re­ally should have been work­ing on a pitch, but it was the light re­lief we needed to then get on with the job. The fun­da­men­tal thing is that when you’re stuck, don’t panic – take ac­tion.

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