Serendipity and the Value of Research

Conceptual thinking is at the cornerstone of my design practice and it can be a long and arduous process sometimes. But, I suppose, it’s the hard work and toil that make it so satisfying when you come up with a clever idea. It’s a way of problem-solving in an abstract way, a process that leads to new ideas and solutions that go beyond conventional thinking. It’s a way of working that works for me and it’s rooted, first of all in ideation and then in research.

Research is crucial in defining problems and finding solutions in graphic design. As designers, we need to be fully informed about the field we are working in and unless you have Christopher Hitchens-like omniscience (oh how I wish!) the only way to do that is through research. Today, it’s never been easier to research with access to the world wide web. But I still like to go to the local library for a nose around. For me, there’s still a thrill in seeing shelves of books and wondering what I’ll find there.

Research should be methodical, there should be a plan, a focus on a particular subject, event or person. But we should also be open to a kind of ‘freestyling’ method of research. If you find something of interest that may not seem relevant, but might have a tenuous link, then go with it, dig deeper. More often than not it will lead nowhere, but maybe, on occasion, you uncover a nugget of wisdom that leads you down a glorious path never expected.

In his wonderful book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’, Steven Johnson describes this accidental connection as “Serendipity.” The word is derived from a Persian fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip”. The eponymous heroes were “always making discoveries, by accident or sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”. As Johnson describes ” Serendipity is built out of happy accidents to be sure, but what makes them happy is the fact that the discovery you’ve made is meaningful to you”.

I had my very own serendipitous experience recently, researching for a new visual identity. The project was a difficult one; to design an identity for a business and technology park that is yet to be built! There are no buildings on the site, no infrastructure, in fact, it’s just a field. The client, however, needed an identity to showcase the park as an exciting location to set up business. The brief stated that the park should be promoted as a hub of scientific, technological and business related innovation. No easy feat when identifying a field!

So I began by researching the location of the park; Enniscorthy, it’s history and it’s people. I learned that Andrew Jameson son of John Jameson, the founder of whiskey distillers, Jameson & Sons, once lived there. He set up home and a distillery at Daphne Castle, Fairfield in the early 19th century. The castle no longer exists but the area is still known locally as ‘The Still’. It was here that his daughter, Annie Jameson was born and spent her formative years. Later in life, she married an Italian Count and had two sons. One of her sons was none other than Guglielmo Marconi! I couldn’t believe my luck.

Marconi was an Italian inventor, electrical engineer and entrepreneur, known for his pioneering work on long-distance radio transmission, his development of Marconi’s law and a radio telegraph system. In 1901 he sent the first radio signal across the Atlantic from Cornwall in England via Clifden Co. Galway to St. Johns, Newfoundland. In 1909 he shared the Nobel Prize for Physics.

With this piece of serendipitous information, I developed a simple concept based on how a radio signal travels through the air; in a wave. I presented this idea to the client as an ode to Marconi’s Enniscorthy heritage and his scientific and entrepreneurial spirit! The client is still deliberating.

The moral of the story is have a plan when you initially start to research, focus on the topic in question. But then don’t be afraid to travel down paths that seem irrelevant or fanciful. Follow that an implausible link, make an obscure connection, be open to the idea of serendipity. Embrace happy accidents and you never know, you might find your own Marconi Wave.

The Ogilvy Sign

I first heard this story when I read Frank Chimero’s brilliant little book ‘The Shape of Design’. It’s now one of my favourites and I’ve told it to friends, family and a client or two. It’s a simple tale; a man helps another man through the beauty of words and an understanding of the human spirit.

The story is about a man called David Ogilvy. He was an advertising executive who was known as the father of modern advertising. In 1962, Time magazine described him as ‘the most sought after wizard in advertising today’. He’s rumoured to be the inspiration for Don Draper, the inscrutable anti-hero, in the popular TV series Mad Men.

One morning Ogilvy was walking to work in New York city. He was in tremendous spirits, the sun was shining, summer had nearly arrived and work was going fantastically well. He was on top of his game, the best ad man in America. As he was walking toward Madison Avenue, where he worked, he noticed a beggar slouched on the street. He was holding a paper cup with a few coins in it and he had a sign around his neck. The sign read…

I am blind

As he was in good spirits he decided he would help the man. He approached him, dropped a couple of coins in his cup, told him what he did for a living and asked the man if he could write a few words on his sign. The man agreed and Ogilvy went on his way.

Later that day as Ogilvy walked home the same way he noticed the man again. He approached him once more and asked how his day had gone. The man was smiling from ear to ear and his cup was overflowing with coins. He told him it wasn’t the first time his cup had been filled that day, thanked him profusely and asked him what he had written on the sign. He had written…

It is Spring and I am blind

I love that story for a few reasons:

1. On a human level, it shows just how kind we can be to each when we have the inclination.
2. It showed Ogilvy’s genius in manipulating the mass market.
3. It shows the power of adding meaning and context to a message. By adding a story to the simple message the man had written, Ogilvy was able to induce empathy from the passers-by, who otherwise would’ve ignored the man.

And in essence Graphic Design can do the same thing. Graphic design can add meaning and context to your message and to your brand. And like that too, it can induce a feeling; happiness, sadness, revulsion. Or empathy just like Ogilvy’s sign. Whatever the feeling an impression has been made. When you feel you remember and when you remember you can take action and that’s the ultimate goal of any message.


You can download Frank Chimero’s book ‘The Shape of Design’ here for free:

Wexford Literary Festival: A New Visual Identity – Part 2

As we discussed in part one the illustration below was constructed through a series of playful stages with no set goal in mind. The process was, however, guided and underpinned by the concept ‘a coming together of like-minded people and ideas.’ Letterforms were ‘brought together’ to form a visually appealing composition. Colour, opacity, scale, texture and pattern were played with to create new and interesting shapes that would become the background illustration for the new identity.


If we zoom into a section of the illustration we start to see the potential it has. This can be used as the backdrop for the new identity, creating new colours and generating creative assets for print and digital applications.

Applying Typography

I chose the typeface Futura to create the illustration because of its geometric letterforms and simplified structure. The overlapping straight lines and circular forms created news forms and colour within the composition. As an extension of this, I decided to use Futura as the primary typeface for the identity including the logotype.

A stacked typographic layout for the logotype was chosen purely for pragmatic reasons – ‘Wexford Literary Festival 2017’ is a long, string of characters and I felt a stacked layout would sit better on a page layout. I added the location and festival date with dividing horizontal rules to create a self-containing block.

At this point, I was happy with the overall structure and layout of the typography but less so with the harsh angles and sharp corners of the letterforms. It seemed too clinical for a celebratory identity and needed to be softened a little.

Manipulating the Typography: Tutorial

The layout was created in Illustrator, so firstly I converted the text to outline before exporting to Photoshop. There, I applied a Gaussian Blur of 1—2 pixels to it.
I flattened the image, went to Adjustments and bumped up the contrast, making sure that the ‘Use Legacy’ box was checked, until the image sharpened again.

The adjusted type was then selected using the Marquee tool and pasted back into Illustrator. Once selected I clicked on ‘Image Trace’, opened the Image Trace Panel and checked the ‘Ignore White’ box. I then clicked the ‘Expand’ button. Then went to Object – Path – Clean Up and checked all three boxes; Stray Points, Unpainted Objects and Empty Text Paths. The result is a vector version of the block of text which has softer feel more appropriate to the tone of the identity. This can now be edited and placed on the illustrated backdrop.


The logotype and backdrop can now be applied to printed and digital assets. The posters below use the backdrop in different ways; filling the entire background and using the backdrop to generate a border. The colour applied to the logotype and text is also taken from the illustration.


In the brochure and programme below the illustration is used to generate a footer, horizontal rules and the colours applied to text and icons.

Below the identity is shown applied to social media platforms; Facebook and Twitter. The profile picture for each one was created by taking the ‘W’ from the logotype and placing it on a square of colour taken from the illustration.

The advantage of this identity is that it is fluid and can evolve over time. Only one part of the illustration has been focused on for this year’s festival. We can concentrate on another section for next years and another for the following year. So it’s slightly different each year but in reality, it’s the same identity. This is great in terms of brand recognition but also reflects the fresh new content the festival has each year.

Part one of the blog can be found here:

Wexford Literary Festival: A New Visual Identity – Part 1

Wexford Literary Festival is an annual event which takes place in Enniscorthy, Co.Wexford and this year celebrate’s its fourth year. Over three days there’s a packed programme of workshops, talks, special guests and literary prizes; including the prestigious Colm Toibin International Short Story award. The festival is fast becoming one of the highlights of the literary year in Ireland.

Bestselling author and festival chair, Carmel Harrington, contacted me, on behalf of the organising committee, with a view to designing a new visual identity. The first identity had served them well for the first three years but the committee had voted on a name change – to drop the word ‘Focal’ from the title – and a new design was needed to reflect that change.

As a designer, meeting the client’s needs is paramount. And this can only be done through a process of learning and familiarising yourself with the client. So when Carmel approached me to design the new identity we spoke extensively about:
– the goals the committee would like to achieve for the festival,
– how they see it developing over the next 5 years and
– how it’s already perceived by the people who have attended in previous years.

This last point was probably the most informative because she told me this…

This struck a chord with me and an idea started to form in my mind. The festival’s mission statement further fuelled the idea. ‘To create an annual festival that connects, inspires and informs writers and readers’. Which is a really beautiful sentiment.

So the concept of the identity was born…

Now how to express that visually…

Creative intuition kicked in at this point and I knew that the festival didn’t really need a symbol or icon as a logo. Maybe a wordmark of sorts and accompanying colour palette. But nothing was certain at this point. During the research phase, I ask the client to identify keywords that represent the festival. And the committee submitted these words.

Professional – Friendly – Welcoming – Warm – Inspiring – Informative – Inclusive – Accessible– Contemporary – Celebration

I designed a colour palette that relates to those words; a contemporary, warm, welcoming, celebratory range of colours. This was used as a guide to inform design decisions and was applied as I went through the design process.

With any design project, I start the process with sketching using a pen and paper. On a project like this, the number of sketches can run into the hundreds. But I’m just going to show a few to illustrate the process and thinking.

The first sketches are quite rudimentary and they’re really just warm up sketches to get into the flow. Getting the hand to move freely and to roughly express the idea of ‘coming together’ using basic lines and shapes.

A more developed sketch here using overlapping lines to create shapes with shading and texture.

Instead of using lines and shapes I started to use letterforms. Letters are the building blocks of our language and I thought this a more appropriate direction for a Literary Festival.

From here I move from paper to the computer and start to use typefaces to create the illustration. At this stage, it’s a process of playing with form, structure, colour, composition and transparency. The overlapping letterforms create new, interesting shapes and colours adding more visual interest to the experiment.

This is developed further by adding and subtracting letterforms, still playing with composition.

The process continues until I get to something like the illustration below, where I’m happy with the composition, it’s well balanced and visually interesting. At this point, I’m not looking at this as a logo. I see it as a means of creating possibilities. It could generate a new colour scheme or provide a background illustration

This is further developed by adding some depth with pattern and texture. And now this is something I feel I can work with.

Part 2 of the process to follow including; choosing a typeface, a quick tutorial on manipulating type and the application of the identity to print and digital media.

A Visual Conveyance

Graphic design, in essence, is a means to visually share or communicate an idea, beautifully. An aesthetic movement of information – a visual conveyance. It should have real purpose, a function, and that should never be lost in the aesthetic. Paul Rand, who created iconic logos like IBM, ABC, UPS and Next, described it as ‘the beautiful and useful’. Together with beauty and utility, design should be relevant. If it has no relevance it ceases to be effective.

Utility + Beauty + Relevance = Effective Design

Logos by Paul Rand

Design is a combination of concept, form and content. ‘Concept’ refers to the idea that underpins the design. Think of it as the foundation of the piece, just like that of a house. It’s the starting point, it provides a solid platform to build upon. Without it, the structure is compromised and something weak and ineffectual is created. The concept provides the relevance, style and tone of the piece. ‘Form’ refers to the visual appearance or shape the piece will take and is derived from the concept. The ‘content’ refers to the building blocks of the design; the copy, typography and imagery to be included. Without content how can you create form? Without content, there is nothing. Content is key.

When all three work in harmony, whether on paper or screen, something beautiful is created and the message is conveyed in a memorable way. It’s sparked interest, sown the seed of familiarity in the mind of the viewer, and a feeling is kindled; happiness, sadness, empathy, revulsion. Whatever the feeling, it’s made an impression. Remember, for instance, the first time you met your future spouse or partner. Perhaps you don’t recall the very minutiae of the conversation, the exact words or phrases he or she used but you do remember how they made you feel. And that’s the attraction, why you want to see them again and again. When you feel, you remember and if you can remember, then you can take action and that’s the ultimate goal of any message.

Poster for Cherish the Children – Brian Byrne