Much of the summer of 2013 was spent working on the prospectus for Haileybury (or more properly Haileybury Imperial and Service College), a leading co-ed private school in Hertfordshire. Its alumni include former Prime Minister Clement Atlee, author Rudyard Kipling, and more recently, Batman film director Christopher Nolan.

We were drafted in by design company hat-trick to provide words around the theme of a 'day in the life' of the college, quite a radical approach for an institution of this kind. In reality, the times of the day became pegs on which to hang different aspects of the school, from its emphasis on 'co-curricular' activities, to the benefits of boarding, to its impressive facilities. Underlying all this was the idea of promoting a broad, joined-up education, which offered more than just academic excellence.

To the letter... publicity poster for the fictitious 'Dig It Festival', calligraphy by Ann Bowen
It’s been a while since I took part in a collaborative project with 26, the writer’s group I co-founded with seven others ten years ago. ‘26 Words’, was a kind of reprise of ‘26 Posters’, one of our very first efforts, which randomly paired writers with designers, gave them a letter of the alphabet and asked them to go off and produce a poster together. Back then I got editorial design legend Derek Birdsall and the letter I. Both wonderful.

This time round 26 writers were paired with 26 lettering artists from the crafts-based lettering association Letter Exchange. I was teamed with the hugely talented calligrapher Ann Bowen and given the letter D, but there was also a twist this time. In a slightly shamanistic ceremony held in the basement of the Betsy Trotwood pub in Clerkenwell, we were asked to stick a knife into a dictionary to pick out a word starting with our given letter. In our case, the tip of knife pointed to ‘dig’.

Christmas seems to have come early at totalcontent. Last week we brought you Royal Mail's Madonna and Child stamp presentation pack. This week, we unwrap the children's Christmas stamp competition pack, charmingly designed by our good friends at NB Studio.

Here, we were asked to tell the story of the nationwide hunt for designs striking enough to grace first- and second-class during the 2013 festive period. The challenge was open to children in the UK aged 4–11, and there were prizes of £100, £500 and £1000 to be won. This is only the third time Royal Mail have staged a kids' stamp competition, and the response was overwhelming, with over 240,000 entries covering all kinds of Yuletide subject matter in every conceivable style.

I’m really pleased to have contributed to this rather classy pack showcasing this year’s Madonna and Child Christmas stamps. The set of five (plus two extended large-letter stamps) feature depictions of the Virgin Mary and Jesus through the ages, as well as a specially commissioned (and strikingly beautiful) new painting by neo-Coptic artist Fadi Mikhail, which sits on the £1.88 stamp. I helped Royal Mail tell Fadi’s story, including his tutelage under neo-Coptic master Isaac Fanous; his process and thinking; and the heavy symbolism of this very prescribed genre of painting. On the reverse side of the sheet, there’s a potted history of Madonna and Child paintings by art historian Rowena Loverance. You can get hold of a special Christmas presentation pack, designed by Robert Maud and Sarah Davies here. Or of course, pick up Christmas stamps for all your cards from your local Post Office.

What a 17-year-old book on the language of technology means today.

On Saturday mornings, I’ll often be found in Leamington’s Oxfam Books and Music on Regent Street. It’s a great place to pick up second-hand vinyl and old Penguin paperbacks, and you never quite know what you’re going to find.

The other day I snaffled ‘Wired Style — Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age’ for a couple of quid, which got me thinking not only how rapidly English is evolving now, but how technology is constantly changing the way we write and speak. It was ever thus, I suppose, but these days it’s happening at warp speed. Doing what I do, I’m a bit of a sucker for style guides, and own everything from the Economist and the Guardian, to Oxford and Fowler’s. But ‘Wired Style’ has a different agenda, proclaiming itself a celebration of writing that “jacks us into the soul of a new society”.

Supple and demand... Jamie Ellul’s clean, copy-focused website
A small-but-satisfying job for the newly formed Supple Studio. This is the latest incarnation of the hugely talented and affable Jamie Ellul, latterly of Magpie. Branching out on his own and making the move to Bath from London, naturally enough, he needed a website to set up stall and tout his wares.

Jamie already had a pretty clear idea of what he wanted to say, but brought us in to refine, edit and add our own thoughts to his rough draft. We tried to keep the overall tone friendly-yet-professional, confident without being arrogant.

We particularly like the simplicity of the Supple website, and how the bold words take centre stage. The Supple logo, based on a section sign glyph in the typeface Bella, is pretty smart too.

Often, writing for designers can be tortuous. I remember a certain ‘About Us’ paragraph taking six months to get approval as it did the rounds of everybody at the agency. Fortunately, this project went beautifully smoothly. We hope Jamie’s exciting new venture does the same.

Bucket... just add content
On Wednesday, the totalcontent Twitter account had a new follower called Content Unlimited. And on the very same day, I was contacted by a Chinese domain registration service enquiring whether I claimed the rights to the name ‘totalcontent’ as an international brand, or the domain names for China, India, Hong Kong and Japan.

Suddenly, it seems, our 12-year-old company name has (global) currency.

As it happens, I’m a bit conflicted about totalcontent these days. Because, as with so many words (or conjunctions of words), its context and meaning has changed. As someone who spends a good deal of time naming things for clients — we’ve come up with everything from shirts to colleges to mobile phones and a cheese — it’s perhaps something I should be more wary of… but on the other hand, there’s not a jot you can do about it.

‘Content’ has an entirely different connotation than it did a dozen years ago. I originally homed in on it because of the slight play on ‘content’ = ‘what is contained’, and ‘content = ‘peaceful happiness’. But today it tends to just mean stuff, filler, goop… if a website is a bucket, then content is the stuff you fill it with — generic pictures, words, headlines, links etc. It’s become a tag with no romance or resonance — you buy content by the yard, it fills the space, no more no less.

But clearly, this doesn’t put too many people off. Content services have come to contaminate the Internet, selling words as a commodity — off-the-shelf articles ‘optimised for SEO’, or new material ‘competitively priced’ by length or quality level. A quick Google search unearths Content Now, Star Content, Constant Content, Pure Content, Snappy Content Writing (could be snappier), Content Equals Money, Content Proz, and many, many more. Occasionally I get emails from similarly named companies offering to help out with my content. Thanks for that.

I’m not going to throw stones in the dark. For all I know, Content Equals Money may have the verbal virtuosity of Jane Austen. I’ll just observe that there’s a difference between buying a suit from Burton or Savile Row. Ours tend to fit a lot better and don’t fall apart at the seams so readily.

The word ‘copy’ is one step up from ‘content’ — functional and commercial, but at least honed and targeted. And ‘writing’, of course, implies real craft and dexterity, the ability to create light and shade, achieve emotional nuance, make people chuckle or empathise.

So all in all, the service we offer couldn’t be further removed from providing ‘content’. You’d hope that people think of our name as a kind of knowing, post-modern joke, a clever anti-name that flies in the face of the word’s current meaning. Like Andy Warhol’s Factory or Factory Records, hotbeds of creativity and originality with a wink in their nomenclature.

Next week, maybe we’ll move on to the ‘total’ bit.

Just a quick nudge to let you know that the new Repeat Repeat website has gone live. Our friends Mark Faulkner and Gill Naylor have run this wonderful design and ceramics company since they left college back in the 1980s, producing fine bone china mugs and crockery with a quirky contemporary twist. It’s all beautifully hand made in Staffordshire, the heart of the Potteries.

totalcontent were delighted to help out with words for the website, and especially taken with the new Alphabet range, which we’re sure will go down a storm with letter-crazy graphic designers. In case you’re wondering, the typeface is Orator (all lower case apart from the L, which looked decidedly odd). And you can order a gross of them for your studio here.

I held off from listening to the new David Bowie single for as long as I could. I wanted the media noise to die down and to make up my own mind. But I was also worried about being disappointed. Like the retired boxer’s ill-judged comeback, or the faded matinee idol who can’t resist another movie, there was a distinct possibility that Bowie had lost it, or was finally a man out of time. The longer I kept away from ‘Where Are We Now?’, the longer Bowie’s spell would remain intact.

Digitised... Bowie and friend reminisce about the old Berlin days.
But when I finally took the plunge, I was relieved. The song itself had a haunting, elegiac quality, an evocation of lost love and lost times. Where once Bowie cut up random phrases to create an overblown world of sci-fi fantasy and psychodrama, here we had low-key fragments of memory — faraway places and faraway people, faded and muffled. The man’s many masks had been removed at last… he was seemingly speaking from the heart rather than through some artfully constructed character. All rather beautiful and touching.

That’s my Coy... the face that launched a thousand ads
On Wednesday afternoon, I skipped along to IPC’s offices just behind Tate Modern, to hear a talk by my old mate, the commercials director Mark Denton. As you may or may not know, Mark is one of Adland’s brightest and most enduring talents, or as he puts it, “just about getting the hang of this advertising lark after 30 years playing around at it”. 

Although Mark has been perfecting his highly entertaining spiel at various ad agencies in London and New York over the past months, this was the first time he’s been let loose on a non-advertising audience, and he was moderately nervous at the prospect.

Never knowingly understated, Mark cut his typical dash in a tailored navy suit, fairground bling rings, and finely tweaked moustache. Following a loose structure, he spoke without notes for 90 minutes, charming, amusing and (yes) inspiring a packed auditorium with his anecdotes and observations.

I was already very familiar with Mark’s bulging portfolio, so I won’t list his greatest hits here, but rather recall six pearls of wisdom he served up. Bear in mind that these are just the pointers that I came away with, and they were by no means delivered in such regimented style.

1 Advertise yourself. Though steeped in advertising, many creative teams are surprisingly lax about getting themselves noticed. Mark has developed a series of ploys and strategems to help him stand apart… if he’s visiting a client he often wears a bespoke track suit with  ‘Denton’ in fairground type emblazoned across the back, so everyone knows who he is. When his commercials company Coy has news, he sends out a bill poster, tied to a rubber brick with a ribbon. 

2 Do your own thing. Mark can’t resist a personal project. He’s brought out a range of tweed jeans, two magazines, several exhibitions, and a book on Mexican wrestling. Though he never skimps, generally he hasn’t lost money… they’ve either been picked up, fed into paid work, or developed an unexpected life of their own. Like the portraits of ‘Edwardian footballer’ Nobby Bottomshuffle (Mark dressed up), which ended up in the National Football Museum in Preston.

3 Let your love shine through. As a child, Mark was obsessed with telly adverts, comics, and his John Bull printing set, and these have continued to inform and inspire his work. His style often has a kitschy, overblown quality to it — always combined with a knowing wink. He describes his natural aesthetic as “schoolboy jokes with a high-end finish”. Actually, this look is very prevalent at the moment, but Mark’s almost painful attention to detail sets his work apart.

4 Don’t be afraid to ask. Mark rather disingenuously claimed that he had no particular talent, but knows a lot of people he can rope in as necessary. Creative people will jump at the chance to be creative — ask them to contribute to an exciting project (even for free), and the chances are they’ll say yes. When he was putting together a magazine, Mark not only sold all the ad space, but persuaded some of London’s top teams to create one-off ads.

5 Always return a favour. In the creative community, you need the breaks to make your mark, whether that’s a recommendation, or a job, or an introduction. Mark’s talk was full of people popping up when you least expected them… like the recently graduated photographer Mark commissioned, who many years later asked him to become a partner in his commercials company.

6 One thing leads to another. Mark’s career has been full of wonderful happenstance, curious connections and seeming to be at the right place at the right time. It’s like a spider’s web of opportunity, magically spinning out from the centre. But there’s a reason for this… Mark doesn’t just talk about doing things, he actually does them. Once they are out there, they take on a life of their own, propelled by the force of his personality.

As announced at the talk, I'll be writing a book on Mark's work later this year. He said so, which means it's definitely going to happen. Can’t wait. 

Mark Denton is a founder and director at Coy Communications.