Ten tips to make your text look better

Ten tips to make your text look better

Sending out a newsletter? Doing a poster? Formatting a thesis? Producing a leaflet? Thirty years ago, you would have been in a tiny minority, working with Letraset and/or a typewriter, with a ruler, T-square, Rotring pen and a cup of instant coffee (unless you were European). Today, everyone with a computer has at least experimented with the idea of doing one of these. Instead of Letraset, you have thirty fonts that came pre-installed, and thousands of others a Google away. Gone are the Rotring and ruler. If you’re drinking coffee, it may even be cappuccino.

And yet, somehow, most of the newsletters, posters, leaflets and theses produced today look inexpressibly ‘not right’. Compare them with a commercially produced magazine, advert or flyer, and there is something which is…

These ten tips will show you how to achieve the missing polish. Whether what you have to say is worth saying is an entirely different matter…

#1 Turn kerning on

The most basic reason why a page of text printed from Word looks less good than the same page printed by a designer from (say) QuarkXpress or InDesign, is because Word turns the kerning off by default.

Kerning? You say. What is kerning?

Kerning example shows the LY gap

In the unkerned letters (top), the gap between L and Y is too great

Typographic fonts (as opposed to typewriter fonts) have proportional letters, which means that the w and m are wider than i and l. Each letter is given the correct width and space around it in the font’s definition (i.e., the font file). By contrast, typewriter letters, which are monospaced, assign the same width to every letter, because that was, mechanically, how typewriters worked. You can use this to your advantage if you like: picking a monospaced font, such as Courier, gives a strong typewritten feel.

However, the standard spacing for the letters does not work for particular pairs of letters, such as L and Y (see illustration). A gap opens up which makes the text jolt as you read it, and gives a more amateurish impression. The kerning tables are built into the font files as well. However, in the early days of personal computers, many printers either could not print properly kerned fonts, or took much longer to do so. For this reason, kerning was not a feature of early word processors. For some inexplicable reason, Microsoft has chosen to keep kerning turned off by default in Word, even though every modern printer can print kerned text without problems, and every modern font comes with the correct kerning tables built in.


Dialogue in Word showing kerning

The Advanced font dialogue — turn kerning on for all text sizes


Here’s how to fix it:

In Format/Fonts (or whatever your version of Word does for this) go to Advanced and turn it on.

Ideally you should do this in your Normal template. Kerning should be on for all fonts, all of the time, for every size, so set a small size such as 6 for ‘Points and above’.

For some fonts, this won’t make much difference. For others, such as Calibri which Microsoft tries to make the default headings font on my version of Word, it will make a substantial difference, when looked at large. It’s not the substantial difference that makes the difference, though—rather, it’s the smoother, more regular, less gappy text which is consistent on every page.

There is no downside whatsoever to having kerning turned on: it isn’t a ‘type trick’, but something which is part of the font, ignored by Word for legacy reasons.



#2 Don’t pick the wrong font

Getting the fonts right is not so much a question of picking the right font, as not picking the wrong one. Essentially, any font which draws attention to itself is the wrong font for text, and is probably the wrong font for titles.

Again, Microsoft doesn’t really help here, because the standard font for Word always used to be Times Roman, which is silly for sending someone a letter (it was the newspaper font created for the Times to be legible at small sizes when printed on newsprint). These days, Microsoft seems to want to offer Arial 12 point, though that may be the result of something that happened to my Normal template years ago.

Arial is not necessarily a terrible choice, and even Times Roman will not let you down. Where things start to go horribly wrong is when you click the font menu, and you are offered a staggering choice of every font on your system. How many do you have? A hundred? Two hundred? My system has 6,000 fonts on it, though I use a font manager to ensure that only a few of them are installed at any one time. Most of these fonts appear to look very much like each other. You’ve got Helvetica, Arial, Franklin Gothic, Gill Sans, Univers, Myriad and Lucida Sans that all look like they went to school together, and you’ve got Palatino, Times, Garamond, Baskerville, New Century Schoolbook and Bookman that look like they all buy their clothes at the same department store. Actually, none of these fonts, used consistently, are bad choices. But those aren’t the fonts that look really interesting.

You probably already know that Comic Sans is a bad choice, and you may have heard that Helvetica is the ‘right’ choice, whatever the situation. So far so good. But what about all these nice curly, fat, extended, artistic, handwriting and other fonts. Surely they have some place on your page?

In the words penned by Meat Loaf, Stop Right There.

If you are a designer, designing a page from the bottom up with a very clear vision in mind, and you are choosing a font that matches that, then, go right ahead, choose that font. Except, if you’re a designer, you’re probably using TypeKit and maybe Linotype’s library to choose absolutely the best font, even if it costs £250 (which is what fonts cost when you buy them). If you’re setting text to be read as text, than pretty much any font which says ‘look at me’ is wrong. This goes for Avant Garde Gothic, Avenir, Ad Pro, and thousands of others all the way to Zapfino and Zapf Chancery.

Stick with the basics, and it will be fine. Wander from the path (in the words of Gandalf) and you are lost.

By the way, if you are part of an organisation, there is probably an official corporate font. Use that, and never use anything else.

#3 Don’t pick many fonts

If the text itself should be in one plain, basic font, doesn’t that give us free rein to set the titles in something nice?

The old rule is: no more than four fonts on a page.

However, this rule is misleading, because ‘font’ referred originally to one weight at one size. What people call fonts these days are actually typefaces.


Lead letters at the Plantin Museum, Antwerp

Let me quickly explain. Between Caxton and the creation of typesetting machines, letters were made in lead at a type foundry, and racked onto the press with a collection of tools, before being locked into place. A typeface would be a family of different sizes and weights (literally, weights) of letters. A font or fount would be where all of the sorts of a particular size, weight and style were kept together. Provided no one had put them back in the wrong place, a printer could lift them out by feel and set them into the press.

The four font rule essentially allows you Regular and Bold of your body text size, a larger heading, and a title heading, or a larger heading and a footnote size.

The most common problem with home-made print is that the result contains many changes of size, bold, italics, headlines in different sizes and different fonts. Stick to the four per page rule. Also, if you are going to have the headers in a different font from the body text — for example, Palatino text and Helvetica Bold headers — make sure that they offer a significant contrast, and make sure that the styles go together. You don’t have to think too long about this: if they don’t ‘obviously’ go together, then they don’t go together.

#4 Use tracking (no, not that kind of tracking)

If you can only have four fonts to a page, and you now know that this doesn’t mean ‘four typefaces’, how do you make the titles really stand out? One of the most common reasons why people jump for fancy fonts for titles is because the titles somehow don’t stand out enough. The typeface Impact is a popular one to make things stand out. After all, it does create an impact. However, it also looks like you’re shouting, even when not in capital letters.

When tracking or letter spacing is reduced, the font appears bolder

Top: Impact
Middle: Helvetica Bold
Bottom: Helvetica Bold with reduced tracking

The answer is tracking. By this we don’t mean the tedious underlines and redlines of ‘turn document tracking on’.

Tracking is the space between the letters. In computer typefaces, the space is automatically set to the most pleasing, and this is defined in the font file. You don’t have to do anything about it, as long as you have kerning turned on. In lead type, spaces had to be inserted between each letter. These were very narrow, and putting none in created text which was hard to read at any length, but made a huge impression in titles.

In the example, you can see the impact that Impact makes. Underneath it is Helvetica Bold, which generally just doesn’t look bold enough for titles. Below that is Helvetica Bold with the letter spacing, aka tracking, reduced. You do this in the same dialogue as the kerning (above) if using Microsoft Word. It’s best to define this as a style, because you want all your titles to look the same. You have to experiment a bit on this, because Word asks you to enter it in ‘Points’, which means the correct amount will change depending on the point size in your text. If you were using QuarkXpress, you could enter it in 1/20 Ems, which would then change proportionately with the size of the font. To get it right, reduce the spacing to something that looks really good, and then halve what you’ve done: it’s easy to overdo things. When you check the page, if it looks wrong, go back and halve it again.

#5 Learn the space rule

Even if this has never bothered you, you are probably aware of the never-ending controversy between the ‘one space after a full stop’ people and the ‘two space after a full stop’ people. This is like the Android versus iPhone and Mac versus PC war, except everyone can play, even if they aren’t sure whether their device is an Android or an Etch-a-sketch.

For a little context, when I learned to type, which was from a proper typing course before the invention of the Personal Computer (I was nine), the rule was: two spaces after a full stop. However, if you look at any book on your shelves, you will see that there is one space after a full stop.

Which is correct?

Proportional fonts such as Times Roman take one space. Mono fonts take two spaces.

Proportional fonts such as Times Roman take one space. Mono fonts take two spaces.

Both, as it happens. Typewriters use mono-spaced fonts, as noted under ‘kerning’ above. Starting in the 1890s, typewriters revolutionised offices, replacing the hundreds of clerks whose job it was to hand-copy (in copperplate handwriting) all records and correspondence with a few, highly skilled, typists who could rattle away all day at forty-five words per minute on a manual typewriter. A mechanical typewriter shifts the carriage along by exactly one space per letter, so every letter must occupy the same amount of space. This is why wide letters, such as M and W, look compressed on typewriter fonts, and narrow letters, such as i and l have heavy ‘slab’ serifs to broaden them. Typewriter

However, a full stop cannot be made broader (if it is, it becomes a dash). What’s more, the full stop has to be in the centre of the typewriter’s hammer, because otherwise it will skew the lever over time. The levers are very narrow on a traditional typewriter, and they take a considerable pounding, so, mechanically, it is essential that they balance correctly. Over many years, particular letters would wear on most typewriters, which is why true typewriter emulation fonts, often scanned from typescripts, generally have variation in the letter position or weight.

Returning to the full stop, the proportions do not look correct when a mono-spaced full stop is followed by a single space, because of where the dot is positioned, so the typist rule, taught in every secretarial college and typist course since the 1920s, is two spaces after a full stop.

Printers have numerous types of spaces.

Printers have numerous types of spaces.

Notwithstanding this, the typographer’s rule, taught to every apprentice since the 1440s, is one space after a full stop.

Okay, this is a slight oversimplification. Printers have a number of different kinds of spaces: en spaces, the width of a letter n, em spaces, the width of a letter m, thin spaces, hair spaces, figure spaces, and several others. QuarkXpress (dialogue pictured left) has twelve kinds of spaces, most derived from old-fashioned typesetting. The printer would insert just one space, equivalent to the punctuation space, after each full stop.

Electronic typefaces are designed so that the width of the ordinary space provides the correct spacing when one space is used after a full stop.

So, when using a proportional font, set with one space, not two.

This leaves the question: which fonts are proportional? The answer is, all of them, except ones deliberately designed to look like typewriter fonts, such as Courier. Even American Typewriter, despite the name, is a proportional font.

#6 Dispense with underline

Using underline? Just stop. Underline is another hangover from typewriter days. A mechanical typewriter can only have one style of type per letter, and even the capital letters are created by pressing down the SHIFT key, which, on a mechanical typewriter, actually shifts the keys physically downwards, so that the Capital hits the ribbon rather than the minuscule. I’m sure that someone, somewhere built at least one prototype typewriter that allowed you to second-shift for italic, but that wasn’t how ordinary typewriters were built. However, italics have been in use by printers for hundreds of years. Therefore, as a convention for informing the printer that something had to be in italics, the typist would back-space and go under the letters again with the underscore character, _. Some machines had a red and black selectable ribbon, and this was sometimes used instead of the more time consuming underline.

Underline should not appear on ‘printed’ documents. When it does, it looks scrappy. This is partly because our eyes are accustomed to seeing italics rather than underline in professional documents, and partly because underline interferes with the letter shapes p, q, y, g and j, making the words less legible and also creating visual awkwardness. When designers use underline as part of a design, they break the underlines so that they don’t conflict with the bottoms of the letters. For general typesetting, just don’t use them. Use italics instead, or, better, consider: is it really necessary to add extra emphasis here? Bold or bold with tracking may be better.

#7 Understand leading

Leading tight, 20%, 50% and 100% extra

Leading tight, 20%, 50% and 100% extra

The space between the lines is called leading. That’s ‘leading’ as in ‘ledding’, not as in ‘leeding’. It comes from the metal lead, from which printer’s letters were made, not from the present participle of the verb ‘to lead’. Technically speaking, the leading is the space from baseline to baseline, though the lead which was actually inserted was between the top of the letter blocks and the bottom of the next letter block. In Word and other consumer software, this is often described as ‘inter-line space’ or ‘ line spacing’.

On a typewriter, you could use single line spacing, double line spacing, and, on some machines one and a half line spacing. As with all things, a printer had more options.

Your word processor most likely defaults to a leading of 120% of the type size. The type size itself, given in ‘points’, is not ‘how big the font is’, but the distance from the baseline to the next baseline, taking into account the maximum height of the ascenders (l, L, etc) and maximum depth of the descenders (p, q, etc). This is why the size in points is not a good guide to legibility. Helvetica reads fine at 10 point, Zapfino is still almost illegible at 18 point: fonts with a high x-height (height of the letter x) compared to the t-height (height of the t) are generally more legible than fonts with a small x-height, such as Bodoni. This even varies within fonts that have the same name. ITC Garamond has a higher x-height than other Garamonds, making it more legible at the same point size.

If you want to increase legibility, you can increase the leading. Normally 12 point text will have a leading of 14 or 15 points (+20% on the base-line height), but if you give it 18 points (+50%), it will be much easier to read, though, of course, it takes up more space. Setting it ‘tight’, where the leading is the same as the font size, will make extended reading more difficult. However, like reducing the tracking (see above), it can make two line titles really jump out.

Once again, you can use the Advanced dialogue in Word’s Font function to make these changes.

Something that’s also worth thinking about is that you don’t need a full new line between each paragraph. In the Paragraph dialogue in Word, you can set the inter-paragraph spacing to be, say, two-thirds of the point size. This makes new paragraphs less abrupt, and also wins you back some space, which you can then use for increasing the leading and thereby improving the legibility (but don’t change the leading from page to page, or, if you do, not by anything noticeable).

#8 Respect the typographer’s art

Every font on your computer (apart from the free ones you downloaded from that site) is the fruit of thousands of hours of a designer’s experience and hundreds spent just on that one font. Creating a font can take as much as three years, and often the exact spacing of the letters will then be sent out to an external agency. In ‘book’ fonts — those such as Palatino and Garamond designed to be used in ordinary body text — every curve of every letter has been balanced with the negative space to create the optimum combination of legibility with personality.

And then someone uses WordArt to skew, bend, twist or reshape this work of art to make something more eye-catching.

The result is always awful.

Most fonts used in logos have been subtly reshaped to match exactly the needs of that logo word. However, this is done with as much care as the original designer took over the font itself. People go for years without noticing that Gillette has the dot over the i revised to create a razor (and the e reshaped as well). However, this subtle reshaping is not done by applying a ‘Create Logo’ function to a font.

The only effect that should ever be applied to a font is dropped shadow, and even that should be used judiciously, and never in body text. If you have the time and expertise to carefully reshape the letters to meet an exact design vision, then by all means go ahead (but, in that case, why do you need to read this article?). If you’re just looking for a way of freshening up an otherwise dull page, then consider rewriting the headlines, improving the layout (generally by including more white-space), copy-editing the text by deleting verbiage, or re-shooting the photographs. Putting an effect, especially a WordArt effect, just makes it look sloppy.

#9 Stick to one colour for text

Got a colour printer? Why not put the text in different colours? Well, simply, because it looks confusing. The most legible colour combination is black text on a yellow background. Actually, that is over-legible, and should only be used for warning signs on dangerous equipment. For most applications, black on white is best. Black on red is the least legible, though any colour combination that reduces contrast creates a problem. Some visual impairments make it easier to read white on black. For most readers, black on white is easier (and for some visual impairments, white on black is illegible). If you absolutely have to set text in any other colour than black, then check two things: first, is there enough contrast for this to be genuinely legible when you print it out (what’s on your screen is an entirely different thing) and, is it still legible when it’s been reproduced on CMYK print (from a commercial printer), Flexo (a packaging printer), Risograph (a political printer), black and white photocopying (someone’s idea of saving money) or whatever means you are actually going to use. Particular colours separate badly, giving text that looks out of focus when printed on particular processes. Whatever you might have gained by setting it in Plum, has now been lost by the fact that it looks like you got it printed in the 1930s.

Stick to one colour for headings, one colour for text, and leave it at that.

#10 Check it by eye

By far the best advice I can give anyone is the advice that was given to me in 1988: check everything by eye. What is on your computer screen is not necessarily what comes out of your printer, and absolutely not necessarily what your eventual readers will get. Screen technology, by definition, is different from print technology. Light is coming through the screen, whereas it only reflects from the paper.

When you actually have something in your hand, and start putting it near other things, the fancy ideas you thought would spruce it up often start to look humdrum. What’s more, many faults will begin to emerge: a line of text with lots of capitals in it will look too close to the line above it. The same goes for numbers. Hyphenation which looked fine on screen may suddenly be disturbing. Things look like they aren’t quite in the right place.

All this is normal: the computer sets things according to the instructions that the software gave it, based on whatever styles and fonts you’ve chosen. None of these things actually understand the way that the letters, words, lines and shapes fit together on your page.

Again, in the advanced dialogue in Word, you can move lines fractionally up or down which look like they are in the wrong place. You can extend or contract spacing, modify where a letter starts, and do many other things. You shouldn’t play with these if you don’t have to, but, if it looks wrong when you print it out, it will look wrong to everyone who picks it up.

Is education failing (or are we just easily shocked by bad statistics?)

Is education failing (or are we just easily shocked by bad statistics?)

Today, being the first day of the final 2015 Ashes tour, the day that GCSE results come out, and the day that the CIPD has claimed that the majority of UK graduates end up in non-graduate jobs, we are faced with the inevitable annual questions of: are exams getting easier, are degrees a waste of time, and would Geoff Boycott’s mother really have hit sixes with a stick of rhubarb? No, I mean it: these really are all the same question.

By the way, congratulations to everyone who is getting results today, even, and perhaps especially to those who did not get what they wanted: it is better to have fought and lost than not have fought at all.

Every year, we are told that something has happened to GCSE and A-level results. Passes have gone up this year and top grades are down. Sometimes top grades are up. Pundits immediately jump to what they do punditry.

By the way, this is an article about how we perceive statistics. I do not intend to offer, except by way of relaying someone else’s conclusions, a panacea for education: after all, just like Nicky Morgan and Michael Gove before her, I am neither a teacher nor a student.

It is a truth almost universally unacknowledged that statistics inevitably go up or down if the sample is large enough. With small samples, they can stay the same for a bit, and then dramatically swing up or down before reverting to what they were before. A very large sample is a bit like the sea: the waves are always going up or down, but, compared to the volume of the sea, they don’t go up or down very much (small comfort if you are in a small boat. A small sample is a bit like a sink full of water. It may remain very still, but the impact of a single event, such as a bar of soap falling into it, will produce dramatic changes.

We should absolutely not be surprised when exam results improve one year. Nor should we be surprised by year on year improvement, or by year on year decline. None of these things actually tell us anything useful about education.

As is well known, GCSE and A-level exams are designed to remain more or less equivalent. Approximately the same proportion of those taking the exams should be getting the top grades, and the exams should be more or less as difficult. These two things are hard to square with each other, hence the gradual rise in results since 1988. This is by sharp contrast with, say, an entrance examination where only an exact number of candidates can succeed irrespective of how many make the attempt, or a professional qualification where a certain level of ability must be shown, else the profession becomes devalued.

All of these are quite different from what appears (at least from comments on news articles, and the articles themselves) to be the popular perception, that exams should be exactly ‘as hard’ from year to year, in some way that is the equivalent of everyone being asked exactly the same questions.

This graph shows the gradual rise in A*-C, equivalent to passes in the old O-levels:


GCSE A*-C 1988-2014, showing a gradual rise

GCSE A*-C 1988-2014

I have seen it argued that GCSE papers are now much easier than they were twenty years ago, and I’ve also seen it argued that they are much harder. 1.

People who argue that they are easier insist that the graph proves they are easier, because the results are improving. People who argue that they are harder do so often on the basis of famously difficult questions, such as the the sweets question this year. I have to say, looking at the sweets question, I don’t recall there being anything remotely as difficult when I took O-level, but that’s hardly evidence.

On the simple reading, we could argue that the exams must be getting easier, because A*-C has gone from below half to above two thirds of candidates, while the total number of candidates is about the same (in other words, it isn’t that students are being put off).

However, that assumes that teachers are not teaching better. I don’t wish to face a rush of teachers from the 1980s with pitch-forks baying for my blood. Nonetheless, in every other walk of life, we expect year on year improvement in a profession. The students may be more or less equivalent from year to year (that’s an assumption we’ll come back to), but teachers are surely pooling their knowledge, looking at examples of best practice, sharpening their understanding of how to teach to a particular syllabus, and so on. Teachers in the UK are graduates (and we’ll come back to that as well), and you would expect them, over time, to work out how the system works, and make the most of it.

The assumption that students are more or less the same is also one we should challenge. Many parents aspire to bring up their children with more opportunities and advantages than they had. Why should anyone be surprised when an entire culture dedicated to this task produces students more able to pass exams? There was a time when verbal reasoning tests were considered a good, fair estimate of a child’s aptitude. Then parents started to do practice papers with their children. Then some parents started to coach their children. Then some parents actually paid for special tuition for their children. This produces the much maligned ‘Glass Floor‘, where middle-class parents do their best to make sure their children are not left behind. I have to say, I was slightly astonished to hear complaints about the Glass Floor, given that this is more or less our society’s definition of ‘good parenting’. However, as a non-parent, I should perhaps forebear to comment.

No person of my generation wants to admit, even in private, that ‘the kids are cleverer now than we were’. We have been brought up with the notion that ‘cleverness’ is a fixed commodity.

This, itself, is an artefact of the way IQ is calculated. Our Intelligence Quotient is not a measure of our intelligence, or even a measure of our ability to do well on verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests, but a statistical measure of how far we deviate from the mean. The mean IQ is defined as 100. There are not enough people on Earth for anyone to have an IQ of 200 (notwithstanding the test that was going round Facebook earlier in the year). This isn’t because the very cleverest person isn’t clever enough, but because there are insufficient people for the IQ metric to produce that result. As the population of the planet grows, the possible outliers get further apart.

People have sometimes told me, in shocked terms, that half the population has an IQ of below 100. By definition, this has to be the case, and it always will be. IQ is not a measure of intelligence, but of population statistics: however clever people get, 100 will always be the average IQ.

Are the kids getting cleverer?

This is the time to talk about the Ashes, and Geoff Boycott’s bat. Anyone who listens to Test Match Special will be used to the marvellously chuntering Geoff Boycott, going on about how much harder it was to bat on uncovered pitches, how much easier it is to stroke the ball to the boundary, and how his mother could have hit particular bowlers, using a stick of rhubarb instead of a bat. Boycott just gets better and better, and is mercilessly teased by his fellow commentators.

Nonetheless, all the things he says are true (apart from the bit about the rhubarb). Bats are better, pitches more consistent, and the level of training and coach provided to top players is beyond anything that could have been imagined when I went to see Boycott playing at Edgbaston in the 1970s.

However, bowlers are also getting better: Shane Warne shocked the cricketing world with his ‘ball of the century‘ to dismiss Gatting in the 1993 Ashes. It was not the first time that a new kind of spin proved destructive, but Warne did not prove to be a one-trick pony, and continued a devastating career long after. After him we had the Doosra. In the mean time, the evolution of reverse-swing and swing bowling in general has made England hard to face on its home territory.

The bowling is getting better, the batsmen have their own advantages. However, there has also been a change in attitude. In the old days, a side scoring 350 on the opening day would not lose. These days, they might well do. Destructive passages of play, inspired by one day internationals and T20, see in-form batsmen knocking up enormous scores in a single session. Equally, a destructive bowler like Broad at Trent Bridge can reduce a side to matchwood.

The human element means that it is still possible to argue that today’s cricketers are not ‘better’ than those of yore. Cricket is a traditional game that revels in its legends, and it always will be.

However, if we look at Formula 1, we can see a steady evolution as cars have changed, unequivocally, beyond all recognition. Indeed, they literally do not look like the cars of the early Grands Prix. Every year the rules are changed, sometimes taking away advantages in engineering that have made the sport too tame. Every year the manufacturers toil to produce better tyres, better engines, more responsive suspension, more reliable gears, and so on.

Formula 1 is actually a fairly good comparison with GCSE. The examiners (equivalent to F1’s organisers) create a course which is to challenge students on their aptitude of students, knowing that their pit crew (teachers, crib notes, parents, etc) are striving to give the students the advantage.

So, if you’ve quickly skimmed this far and want to know ‘does he think the exams are easier or doesn’t he?’, the answer is: it isn’t that simple. To my mind, education is improving—not because of constant government meddling, the inspection regime and the huge amounts of admin that teachers now have to do. Teaching is a profession, and, like all professionals, teachers improve their art collectively. We would be shocked if medical science had not advanced since the 1970s, and yet, somehow, any improvement in grades is attributed to ‘easier exams’. I don’t think that’s the case.

I would also argue that students are benefiting from the rise of the internet. I can now find things on Wikipedia, and check their sources, and come to my own conclusions, that would have taken me four hours in the library 25 years ago. I certainly wouldn’t want to take Wikipedia at face value, but, from my interactions with young authors on Figment.com, I don’t think young people do either. In fact, we have a generation much more likely to question everything.

When I was at school, I genuinely believed what was in the textbooks. It wasn’t until our biology teacher (Mr Rigby, I think, a great man, though if it was Mr Lampard, I beg his forgiveness: he was also an excellent teacher) pointed out that one of the experiments described in the text book did not actually work 2. Our teacher, a real scientist, had not taken it on trust, and had done the experiment himself. I learned more about science from that one occasion than I did from the rest of the course.

Today, young people are told even by games manufacturers to ‘challenge everything’. This was beginning even in the 1980s, and many older people simply put this down to disrespectful youth.

Students still believe some remarkably silly things, are uninformed about some things which are quite basic, and obstinately cling to some things debunked years ago. So, in other words, they are exactly like the rest of us. Because we also inhabit a world where access to information is easier than ever before.

Let’s take a look at the claim that most graduates end up in non-graduate jobs. Actually, the statistics for this were being challenged first thing this morning on the Today Programme. Depending on how you calculate, and what you believe, and where you got your stats from, it can be as low as one-third, or as high as two-thirds. This has prompted the usual ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, ‘the government is lying to us’ and ‘you can’t believe anything’ comments.

I wish people wouldn’t say things like that. Statistics do not lie. They are, however, easy to dramatise, and just as easy to misinterpret even when the person citing them is not trying to dramatise them.

Let us, for the sake of argument, accept the low figure of one-third. This doesn’t sound as severe as two-thirds of graduates being in non-graduate jobs, but it’s still a significant figure. If we were told that one-third of operations ended in tragedy, we would be outraged; we would have a similar (though less extreme) response to hearing that one-third of government expenditure was waste. Neither of these are true, by the way, before someone goes and makes a meme of them and sends it round Facebook.

The real issue is not in the quality of the statistics, but in exactly what we mean by ‘non-graduate jobs’, and why it should bother us.

The report was published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Their exact text is:

Our new research reveals that increasing numbers of graduates have outstripped the creation of more high-skilled jobs, and as a result, the UK has too many over-qualified graduates entering non-graduate jobs. This trend has particularly affected occupations where apprenticeships have been important such as construction and manufacturing. The report suggests that graduate over-qualification is a particular problem for the UK, which has 58.8% of graduates in non-graduate jobs, a percentage exceeded only by Greece and Estonia.

This, in itself, perhaps over-simplifies their position. Within the text of the report itself, we read:

As the UK HE sector expanded, more graduates have found themselves working in jobs that in previous generations would have been filled by non-graduates.

They go on to say:

However, as we will argue, this development is not necessarily a problem.

The CIPD points out that management is increasingly a graduate profession, whereas at the start of the 1990s, just one in six were from graduate backgrounds. Indeed, the old jokes about ‘the managers’, when made by technical staff of the Dilbert variety, presupposed that managers were people who were good at management-speak and other workplace-acquired skills, but not especially bright.

Let us leave the CIPD for a moment: the report, which is well worth reading, does not make the kind of shock claims that are being discussed in the media: the CIPD’s own conclusion is that this should neither shock, nor bother us.

The shock and bother, though, is palpable elsewhere. With spiralling tuition fees and the prospect of a much worse loan repayment scheme, the question is being asked, why invest in higher education at all?

Actually, although the route by which people have reached it is perhaps not the best, this is really the core of the question: why education at all?

People in centre politics such as myself have a reverence for education which makes the question near blasphemous. To question the value of education is to abandon everything that England (and later Britain) has stood for since Alfred’s famous letter to Waferth (or Wulfsige, same text). If we allow education to be questioned, we are staring into the abyss of a new dark age.

Ken Robinson, though, takes the bull firmly by the horns (or, perhaps, the book by the covers) in Out of Our Minds. He argues that, traditionally, education existed for its economic benefits. A literate workforce was better than an illiterate one. The things which we taught, tested and measured were the things that would pay their way later in life. Government-funded free education, therefore, must pay dividends to government.

I’ve never been in what the CIPD refers to as a traditional graduate job. First I was a typist (not a graduate job), then I was, for nearly ten years, a full-time charity volunteer (no qualifications required). I then went to do PR for an arts board (not a traditional graduate job), PR and management for a manufacturer (also not), general Communications for the NHS (degree preferred, but not in CIPD terms a traditional management job), and finally run my own business (no qualifications required). Some, particularly commentators on news websites, would argue that this is because I did a ‘general’ degree (English). If only I had chosen a more vocational degree (they say), I would have found work.

This rather misses the CIPD’s point. Vocational degrees, apart from law, medicine and engineering, are the degrees which directly take their graduates into what are traditionally not graduate jobs. What’s more, the more vocational, the less likelihood that you will end up doing what you are studying. I’ve wept for the armies of graphic design graduates that I haven’t been able to employ. From an employer’s perspective, having 98 designers (this actually happened) apply for an officer level job gives you a thrilling field from which to recruit. From the graduate’s perspective, it’s a nightmare.

To return to Robinson for a moment, his argument is that our biggest asset is creativity, and that if we make this the focus of our educational system, society will reap benefits that go far beyond the economic. I tend to agree with him, though I don’t see anyone with a governmental programme to achieve this.

What I do know, though, is that a degree is one of the best steps young people can take toward creativity. Three years with others, exploring new learning, discussing it, playing ideas against each other, sometimes having flaming rows with the physicists about not everything being a branch of physics, broadens the mind in a way which mere investment in the subject itself does not.

If our university system creates plumbers who write novels, managers who create art photography in their spare time, pizza deliverers who drum at festival fringes, taxi drivers who design jewellery and crane-operators who translate obscure French poets, then society has not lost its investment in their education, but gained by it.

The flip-side of graduates doing (traditionally) non-graduate jobs is that more and more jobs are requiring a degree than ever before. This, to me, is the worrying side of the new research. If university entrance becomes like the new 11-plus, sorting people into future ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, then we genuinely are headed in a dangerous direction.

For everyone who has had the privilege of a university education, or will have, I believe it is our duty to share what we have received, and include those who—for whatever reason—did not have the same privilege. The rising tide of exam results and the steadily rising affluence of our society over the last fifty years testifies that society has not lost the investment it put into university education. For all those who have benefited, we must remember that what we have freely received must be freely given back.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. I’ve also seen people who claim to have got an A at A-level maths (I only got a B) back in the 70s insist that the BODMAS order of operations was not taught at that time, but that’s a post for another time
  2. It was the one where oxygen produced by a water plant in an inverted test tube is able to relight a glowing splint—it isn’t

Which came first, the premise or the plot?

One of the great benefits of recycle-TV (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Virgin’s on demand, dozens of others) is that you can watch TV shows that never made is past the first series. Series like ‘The Class’, ‘Joey’, ‘Revolution’, ‘Space above and Beyond’, and, of course, the great, lamented ‘Firefly’.

Some shows — like Firefly — were cancelled for no reason that any reasonable person can fathom. Others, like ‘The Class’ and ‘Joey’, carried the seeds of their own destruction from the very first episode. Even shows like ‘The 100’ and ‘Defiance’ can leave you wondering “why did they ever think this could be spun out into a whole series?”

I’ve commented before on the importance of premise to the top ten best selling novels ever (though, interestingly, Wikipedia has decided to disallow Great Expectations as the world’s best-selling novel, a result of an edit-war on the Talk pages). There are all kinds of confounding factors when it comes to why novels became big sellers. TV shows, though, are almost like a control group.

American shows (for it is they that are so oddly available on recycle-TV), tend to have the following in common:

  • Teams of talented writers — it isn’t down to one experimentalist who gets it wrong as often as right
  • Substantial start-up budgets — even small budget shows these days often have investments that would dwarf BBC budgets from the golden age (i.e., the 1970s).
  • Editorial scrutiny — there are a lot of people assuring that the quality is consistent
  • Market testing — there’s usually a pilot which gets fairly thoroughly examined to see if viewers like it

With all the people working hard to make sure everything is good, it’s perhaps surprising that anything ever fails. Or perhaps not: a well-oiled machine is perhaps not the key to creating television people love.

But what are the factors which cause things to succeed or fail?

There are some things which get talked about often enough when TV shows are criticised. For example:

  • Poor characterisation
  • Wooden acting
  • Slow plotting
  • Bad continuity
  • Unconvincing visuals

Most of the shows which never make it to the second series are guilty of the first four of these in some respect, and all five if they are science-fiction. However, lots of shows that did make it to the second series and beyond were guilty of them in the first series. Babylon 5 would be a case in point, as would, for those with longer memories, Blakes 7 and Space 1999 (is there something about SF shows with numbers?) The first series of Friends took a while to find its feet: rewatch the early scenes with Ross, and you may well wonder how it managed to survive at all. The character of Joey was barely a character at all, and yet Friends survived, whereas Joey, the series, didn’t, despite the fact that Matt LeBlanc had developed as an actor beyond all recognition.

Heroes and Lost went through several series, while Firefly was cancelled after the first. Firefly was superior to either of the other two in all five aspects — unsurprising since Joss Whedon had previously honed his skills on Buffy, Angel and others. Dark Skies had more going for it than the X-Files in some ways, but Dark Skies died a quick death, and the X-Files carried on until it really couldn’t be sustained any further. 24 went through many series, even though it wasn’t entirely clear why, in plot and character terms, those additional series were needed, or (even) different enough from the first series.

On a story-arc basis, Friends doesn’t actually have much of a plot. In the first episode of the first series, we discover that Ross would really like to get together with Rachel. In the final episode of the final series, it looks like he actually might end up with her. Everything in between — in purely Aristotelian terms — is essentially filling.

The easiest answer — to borrow a little from William Goldman — is to say that no-one in American TV has a clue what they are doing, and series get cancelled or survive for no worthwhile reason. Goldman’s point was about Hollywood, and it’s a fair one. However, with TV, US networks cancel shows because the ratings aren’t good. They are essentially crowdsourcing the evaluation.

So, why Buffy but not Firefly, Friends but not Joey, How I Met Your Mother but not The Class, Lost but not Revolution, the X-Files but not Dark Skies, and Babylon 5 but not Space Above and Beyond?

Let me suggest that the answer, in each pairing, is premise, not any of the five characteristics identified earlier.

The premise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is exposited at the start of every episode for the whole of the first series, just in case we might have missed it. Firefly has the same. However, the ‘one girl in all the world’ premise is (or was then) new and radical, whereas Firefly’s premise (much as I loved Firefly) is the aftermath of the American Civil War, but in space.

The premise of Friends is that six mismatched young people only have their friendship to sustain them through the vicissitudes of life. Again, the premise is explained at the start of every episode, through the theme song. The premise of Joey is… well, actually, what is the premise of Joey? More or less, the unsuccessful and impoverished actor with virtually no self-knowledge that we loved in Friends is now successful, wealthy, and appears to have taken a level in Know Thyself.

The premise of How I Met Your Mother is a romance told in reminiscence. In this case, the premise actually is the title. The premise of The Class is that a couple of decades on the lives of an infant’s school class are threaded back to each other.

The premise of Lost is that an unlikely group of people are marooned on a mysterious island. The premise of Revolution is that civilisation has collapsed for a mysterious reason.

The premise of the X-Files is that every conspiracy theory you ever heard of has some truth in it. The premise of Dark Skies is that the Aliens/Area 51 conspiracy is true.

The premise of Babylon 5 is that many races had to stop bickering when war came upon them all. The premise of Space Above and Beyond is essentially Top Gun as a TV series, set in space.


Naturally, the presence of a charismatic actor or pairing can help things survive. Ten Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter was doing well until Dad died on set, and even bringing in James Garner as Grandpa didn’t keep it going after that. Body of Proof would probably not have survived without Jeri Ryan, and the desperate hope that somewhere there would be a Star Trek Voyager reference coming up, a bit like the Man from UNCLE reference in NCIS.

It’s also true that some things lend themselves better to a one-off than to a series, and vice versa. The Walking Dead is better than all the zombie films you’ve ever seen (no, I mean it) because it goes on, and on, and on. A dystopian apocalypse simply cannot be solved in 180 minutes, but many of the challenges to be faced are day-to-day survival, not ‘press the button that saves the world’.


Here’s another one. Why did Doctor Who survive for decades, and then survive revival, which is even more fraught with danger, when Blakes 7 was killed in its tracks at the end of series 4, and has resisted all attempted application of the defibrillator? I loved Blakes 7, and, now we can get past the 1970s-80s sets and effects, the plots and acting stand up much better than the Doctor Whos of the same era. I rewatched Carnival of Monsters last weekend. My wife, who never saw the terrifying original, could not stop laughing. Even I had to admit that the monsters which gave my sister nightmares looked like something from In the Night Garden or possibly Bagpuss, and the plot was so flimsy as to be hardly there.

Blakes 7 is basically a very, very simple premise, and it’s not very far from Firefly’s. It begins as 1984 in the far-future, before becoming Robin Hood in space. That was probably enough more than Firefly, which is The Outlaw Josie Wales in space, to give it those four series. Doctor Who, though, has three absolutely unique elements, all the sons of necessity, which give it a premise like no other.

They are:

  • Did I say it goes through time as well?
  • It’s bigger on the inside
  • Time Lords regenerate

To some extent, these are unique because Doctor Who got there first and occupied the territory. Time travel had been a staple of science fiction since before the Golden Age (and there are some very interesting stories in Asimov’s collection, titled ‘Before the Golden Age’, as well, of course, as HG Wells’s The Time Machine). However, it had never been done on TV. For some reason, at the time of Doctor Who’s creation, TV special effects were better than film special effects, perhaps because of the dramatically lower resolution which covered a multitude of errors. In this, the rather intellectual mission of the BBC, to inform, educate and entertain, helped: viewers were happy to be told things, or see them discussed on screen, in a way which Hollywood seldom allows. It may be ‘telling, not showing’, but it gets over the profound slowness of film SF before Star Wars (remember how long it takes Quatermass to ever figure out what’s going on, and how dull it is when he does?) The 4×25 minute format of Doctor Who also sat well with the sequences of short stories which were then the staple of written SF.

Nonetheless, each one of these premises is quite remarkable. By contrast with HG Wells and the occasional Star Trek episode, Doctor Who is not the story of one heroic foray into another time, it is the story of someone whose element is time travel. There is a genuine leap of the imagination here, beyond ‘what would it be like to travel in time’ to ‘what would it be like to be someone for whom time travel was as commonplace as nipping down to the shops?’

Likewise, the fundamental difficulty of nipping round the universe in something big enough to allow for long journeys, but small enough to be inconspicuous, is solved in the most direct but paradoxical fashion possible. In contrast to our irritation when the scriptwriters work in the phrases “Doctor who?” and “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow”, we, the viewers, have an endless delight in seeing people’s first reaction to the TARDIS, made even better by the casual flipping where Clara, waking inside the TARDIS, says “it’s smaller on the outside”.

The longevity of any show depends on the longevity of its lead character. Surviving beyond death is a fundamental fascination not merely of science fiction, but of humans in general. It is the principal theme of our oldest epic, that of Gilgamesh, and of our newest, the Harry Potter series. Audiences had already learned to groan when an actor was replaced by a similar actor playing the same character, and, since then, we have learned to identify when a particular type of character is killed off in one episode, only for their function to be replaced in the next by a very similar looking actor which only trivial differences in personality and behaviour. Wrapping this up into a positive virtue is one of the most remarkable things about Doctor Who, especially since it was not part of the show’s original conception.

This is not an article about how brilliant Doctor Who is. Rather, it is an illustration of how powerful premise can override almost everything else. Early episodes of Doctor Who often had terrible plots, ludicrous acting, unconvincing monsters and all-too-quickly dated special effects. It was savaged by BBC editorial decisions, marred by strikes, and buried for years on UK Gold. Nonetheless, when you look at the franchise now, it’s hard to see why anyone ever thought it could fail.

TV and film have come full circle. The original Flash Gordon matinee serial looked ridiculous even when it first appeared (I am told by people who watched it then). Anything involving the sea on BBC was all too obviously shot in a sink. Today, the special effects go beyond anything which can possibly happen in real life. Explosions are bigger, fires spread quicker, buildings collapse like matchwood. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the power of the premise is still the determining factor, not only in watchability, but in rewatchability.

As it is in books, so is it also on screen.

Ten ways small companies can show confidence

Small and Medium Enterprises make up 99.3% of all businesses in the UK, employ 15.2 million people, which is almost half of all private sector employment, and turned of £1.6 trillion [Figures: Federation of Small Businesses]. Almost 2/3 of all businesses are sole proprietorships. The nation as a whole can be enormously proud and confident of its small business sector, but the one thing which troubles small businesses more than anything—at least in my experience—is confidence.

Do not confuse confidence with brashness or bravura. Most would-be clients see through this quickly.

To a certain extent, a lack of confidence is essential to success as a start-up. If you just imagine that the clients will come and find you, then chances are the business will be short lived. At the same time, too much nervousness puts off the big customers, and these are often the people a new firm needs to win in order to survive.

Sometimes big potential clients have structured their business in such a way that you can’t break in, no matter how confident you are. Elaborate tendering procedures, ‘due diligence’ involving looking at your last three years of accounts (so, not for the start-up), or, worse, a process which is merely rubber stamping a deal already done over dinner or golf. These kind of experiences are confidence-sapping in themselves—it’s better just to recognise that there was never potential business there, and move on.

In most cases, though, a potential customer will size you up swiftly, and your confidence will play a key role in determining whether they want to go ahead.

Here are ten ways your business can exude confidence in what it does.

1 Only do what you do

Simple enough, but businesses with an ever-extending list of services give the impression that they are not really sure what they do. Often this list is a result of lack of confidence (and therefore reveals it), and a desire to cast a wider net. If a big company or high-ticket customer is eyeing you up, it is because they believe that you do one thing well that they need, not seventeen things badly.

Of course you are passionate about what you do, and can break it down into a dozen sub-components. You are much better off finding the one word that sums it all up, and saying ‘We only do…’ If there isn’t one single specific way to sum it up, consider whether you should simply not talk about the thing which doesn’t fit.

Have the confidence to do one thing well, not ten things badly.

2 Value your first customers

If you are a start-up, your first customers are not like your later customers. They are doing much more than simply paying you money to do what you do: they are taking a risk on you, becoming your ambassadors and advocates, your reference points and advisors. No amount of attending networking meetings or Chamber of Commerce events can unlock the real business networks in the way that word-of-mouth by your first clients does.

By this I do not mean that you should do lots of early jobs for free to get known. Customers are people who pay money for your work. Trying to refer a prospective customer to a ‘free’ client for a reference is like asking someone you’ve never worked for to give you a job reference: they may like you a lot, but a prospective employer will discard it.

What you do need to do is ensure that your early customers are satisfied, clear on what job you did for them, and happy to be referred to. It’s crucial you clear this up: will they be happy to be occasionally contacted by a potential client? Most will, but check. Are they happy to be listed on your website as a customer? That’s quite another thing. Website listings don’t do a great deal for credibility, but a client who wasn’t expecting to be listed and has a good reason not to be will not be happy.

Have a group of early clients you can confidently refer future customers to.

3 Have a one sentence explanation

Have you been to networking events where everyone gets a minute to explain what they do? I’ve not seen much high-value business change hands at those events, but the process of watching people do it is fascinating, and being forced to do it yourself is a valuable experience.

Some businesses can say exactly what they do in a single sentence. They could actually sit down after that, and would have achieved more than many others which spend the entire minute talking round the point. “We are _____, and we provide automotive components for the aftermarket”, “We are ______, and we fund the arts sector in this region”, “We are ______, and we provide universal healthcare from the cradle to the grave, free at the point of delivery.” These were all established organisations that I’ve worked for in the past. Two of them no longer have the brand name they had when I worked for them, and one of them has been substantially reorganised. Nonetheless, their simple one-line explanations have survived the brand changes and reorganisations. They are still very obviously doing the same thing.

How many sentences does it take to explain exactly what you do? If you usually begin with ‘it’s a bit complicated’, or ‘it’s actually quite hard to explain’, then you’ve already lost before you started. As a small business, there are absolutely intricacies which would take more than a sentence, or a minute, or an hour to explain. But is your business really more complicated than a multi-billion dollar provider of brakes, hoses, lighting, lamps, starter-motors, air-conditioning and suspension? Are you really harder to explain than an organisation which funds everything from pottery to theatre and film to poetry?

Back when I worked for a 45 person organisation, it was tempting to list out all of the functions so as not to miss anything out. Readers, listeners and (especially) journalists used to get bored after the third item. When I moved to work for the largest organisation in the western world, it became simply impossible to list everything. Fortunately, they already had their explanation of what they did: universal healthcare from the cradle to the grave, free at the point of delivery.

A confident and clear one-liner will do more to establish your business to the hearer than anything else.

4 A simple logo

Your logo is not your brand. However, your logo tells prospective customers a great deal about your brand. Go and look at the world’s top 100 brands (just Google it—there are several different lists, and it doesn’t really matter which you take). With a couple of exceptions which exist for historical reasons, the logos of the top 100 brands are extremely simple.

Someone once told me that, as a small business, they couldn’t afford to have the confident, simple-type logo that a big business has, because their logo had to work harder. Not long afterwards, they changed their name and logo. I’ve just googled them, and I guess (I hope) that they’ve changed their name again: of the revised name and logo, there is no trace.

The same rules of simplicity that apply to big companies apply to small companies. The loop of short term memory is 2-3 seconds. If your logo takes longer than that to go into someone’s mind, then it doesn’t go in at all. Distinctive name? Your logo needs to be no more than the word itself, like SONY. Ordinary name? A very simple, distinctive symbol can help. Like Apple.

People sometimes ask me if I can ‘do them’ a logo which will make people buy their products. I can’t (and, in any case, I’m a brand consultant, not a logo designer). No logo can do that. What a logo can do, though, is put people off buying your products. The typical person sees 3,000 or more logos a day. We know without having to be aware of it what a ‘solid’ or ‘professional’ or ‘established’ logo looks like. Better a dull logo that looks the part than a fussy logo.

A logo is merely a visual representation of your promise of experience—keep it clear, simple, and undemanding.

5 A plain business card

When I worked for the second-largest automotive aftermarket company in the world, I had a simple business card with just two colours and black. When I worked for the seventh largest organisation of any kind in the world, I had a business card with just one colour and black. There was a lot of debate about whether we should have cards at all. In both cases they were on thinnish, 250gsm card, plain, without illustrations.

Like most people, I have a collection of business card holders which contain, I suppose, about 300 cards. It’s instructive to look at them. The more confident the business, the simpler the card. Gold type embossed on ultra-heavy card, printed on both sides with a photo or illustration is a sure sign that the business owner is trying too hard to be noticed.

Printers do not help in this. They are always happy to talk the customer up to a heavier grade of paper, more colours, more design, perhaps an unusual cutout or a double card.

A simple card, with your logo very small in the minimum number of colours (which should be one—otherwise your logo is too fussy: see previous point), your name, contact details, and whatever other details are legally required, is enough. Any more than enough is too much, and marks you out as a lightweight. If they need to know more about your company, they can look at your website.

A plain business card shows you are ready to do business. Anything more suggests that you are desperate.

6 An informative website

Web-designers scorn what they refer to as ‘brochure-ware’—websites which are no more than an electronic representation of your company brochure. However, for the vast majority of businesses, the website should be the online brochure and nothing else.

90% of people visiting websites are doing so for contact information. They want to talk to you or email you. Clearly you can’t occupy 90% of the space with this information. Nonetheless, if they get what they want on the first page, it is much better that they ring or email you, thereby initiating a business contact, than that they get drawn into your pages of exciting content.

What should a website contain? More importantly, what should it achieve?

If I am considering buying from your company, I need to know three things. First, do you provide the services I require? Second, do you look like the sort of company I can rely on? Third, how do I contact you?

It must be obvious from the site what you do. Your one liner which explains your company should be on there prominently. Any other text, which perhaps supports your credentials, goes into further detail, or whatever is needed, should clearly flow from that one promise. If the thoughts do not smoothly flow from one to the other, delete whatever jars.

The style of your website will give the viewer the information they want about whether you can be relied on. Does it contain out-of-date information, or dated information which has not been updated for some time (or, worst, which was frequently updated and then no longer is)?  They will immediately wonder if your company is still trading, or if it is any more than an occasional hobby. Does it contain spelling mistakes or poorly thought-out text? Most people are happy to overlook spelling mistakes in long form articles like this one, but if there are mistakes on your front page, in titles, menus, or other parts of the site that should be structural, then they will assume that this is an overall reflection of the quality you provide. Are there dead links, badly rendered graphics, squeezed logos, illegible fonts or error messages? These are immediately off-putting.

I was looking at a web-designer’s own page for a client the other day. It was almost entirely blank, with just a single box in the centre stating that he was a web-designer, his contact details, and a link to a satisfied customer’s website. Without anything else to distract me, I emailed him, and an hour later we were putting together the project.

Most businesses lack the confidence to do anything that simple, but, like everything, simplicity states confidence, and fuss reveals nervousness.

The one area your website can stand out is in the photography. My simple rule is: never use stock photography. Not only do you run the risk of a client recognising the image from somewhere else, but stock photography just looks fake. Most of it comes from the USA, where everyone has perfect teeth and non-European dress sense, as well as implausible tans. More to the point, stock photography will never represent the business you actually do.

How do you shoot your own images? Well, if at all possible hire a photographer. If you can’t afford that (perhaps economise on those business cards?) then get a photography student who needs something for their portfolio. Hire models. Get it set up properly with lights and a location background. If that’s out of the question, then spend a day taking pictures of what you do on an iPhone. Even iPhone pictures (don’t use the flash) which are of your business will be better than stock pictures which are not of it. Intention in pictures is everything. Figure out what you want each one of them to communicate, and shoot one picture per idea. Then use only the best three.

A simple website which communicates what you do, why you can be trusted, and how to contact you is a powerful statement of a business that can be relied upon.


A URL is a Universal Resource Locater. It’s your web address and the domain for your email address. At about £5 a year, you absolutely cannot afford to be without one.

Essentially, if I get a business email from a gmail address, then I know I’m dealing with a one-person show. What’s more, it’s a one-person show that is not yet sufficiently established to have its own website and email server. If I get a business email from a hotmail address, then I assume I’m actually corresponding with a teenager. If the email is from a .aol, virgin.com, or other internet provider address, then I assume it’s from someone moonlighting from their regular business. This doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t work with them. There are some very talented teenagers, and there are moonlighters who will take on a project they find interesting at a price far below the worth of the work they are going to do.

That’s the rub, though: hotmail, gmail and provider email addresses suggest a hobbyist. I doubt they’ll have insurance, since a typical £500 a year sole-trader business insurance is 100x the cost of a URL. I doubt they’ll actually be making backups, as the cost of a backup system is 50x a URL. It probably isn’t their full-time job (though a local garage, for example, might still be using a provider URL), so I might suddenly hear that they can’t do what they promised for Wednesday, but might be able to fit it in by October.

All this will be factored into the price I am willing to pay, as well as into the amount of hand-holding I think I’ll need to do to get the job done right. If I have exacting requirements, I’ll go somewhere else: I’ve been burned too often by people who say they can do a website, but entirely ignore the brand specification. What they meant was, they can do a website, as long as it looks like all the other websites they’ve done before.

Getting your own URL and having your emails come from [email protected] demonstrates to most customers that you are a ‘proper’ business 

8 Good paperwork

Do you have templates for your estimates, quotes and invoices? These don’t need to be physical—actually, that would be quite unusual these days. They do need to be consistent, look the part, and, above all, satisfy the bookkeepers. If dealing with a large organisation, expect them to want to know all kinds of details before they pay your invoices. If they don’t get them, quite possibly the finance director will call whoever booked you into their office and give them a telling-off. I’ve been in that position as a result of the payments office querying the invoice. It’s not a nice place to be, and I never ordered from that company again.

There are some rules for your paperwork if you are a limited company. If you are VAT registered (and many potential buyers will judge you on whether you are or not) then you must satisfy all the VAT requirements on your invoice, including sequentially numbered, dated invoices showing your VAT number and the VAT breakdown.

The NHS does a very good template of what it requires from an invoice. As Britain’s largest organisation, chances are you’ll do some work for the NHS at some point. What’s more interesting, though, is that the NHS has among the most stringent requirements for information disclosure on the invoice. In other words, if you work from their template, everyone else will be satisfied.

Good paperwork helps you keep your business records and it helps your customers keep their’s. It shows you mean business.

9 Something physical

Customers like something they can touch, and having something can give you a lot of confidence in talking about your business. This doesn’t have to be something you give away. In fact, anonymous promotional items of the pen, squeeze ball or mug variety are liable to do more harm than good. Pens stop working after a while, but remain on people’s desks, constantly associating your business with bad pens. Squeeze balls are things people squeeze when they are cross. Many (though not all) promotional mugs are printed with a low-quality dye-sublimation process, and the print fades and wears off as they are washed. If you’re going to do a mug, do a really good one: I have one from the competitor of a company I rebranded which is just gorgeous. However, if you can’t afford to give away something really good, don’t give away anything at all.

People are much more interested in handling your stock in trade than they are in getting a free pen. Work in braking? Take a brake pad with you, or, better, a full caliper assembly. Work in photography? You could take along a camera, but what about taking along a compass, and explaining the importance of getting the shadows right? At some fundamental level, the notion that ‘a bad workman blames his tools’ is embedded into our psyches. The flip-side, that a good workman is known by his good tools, is just as powerful.

One of my first clients, a stationery company, has had paperclips made in the shape and colour of their logo. If you are going to give something away, giving something away which is physically reminiscent of your brand, is useful, unique, and fits with what you actually sell is infinitely preferable to something from a promotional catalogue.

What if the thing you sell is entirely virtual? I sometimes take along an example of a previous client’s work. Very occasionally I’m actually able to point to a previous client’s work already in their office (I love those moments). Sometimes that isn’t appropriate. My UK award-winning stationery rebrand does not have much relevance if I’m pitching to run a health campaign.

However, you can physically visualise your ideas. For one pitch, I took along printed-card 3d models of the shapes I was using in my PowerPoint presentation. They got passed around the table for a long time. Logically, my strategy models are no more likely to be useful and effective when presented in 3D 200gsm card than on a projector screen. Nonetheless, their credibility is much higher.

I once took along a strategy model of a tetrahedron which I had made from plastic pipes (B&Q) and elastic (wife’s sewing box), sprayed blue (car paint), to a make-or-break meeting during my first six months with a new organisation. After I left that organisation, ten years later, one of the directors told me that she still remembered it, and did I still have it, because she would like it in her office if I no longer wanted it.

Physical evidence of any kind gives the customer more confidence, and it gives you more confidence in presenting it.

10 A trademark

Is your brand name a trademark? If it isn’t, there’s a real chance that someone will come along and claim you are poaching on their territory, or, worse, will create an eerily similar brand name and steal half your market. You think this is rare? It’s much more common that you’d imagine.

A UK trademark costs £200, if you use the Intellectual Property Office’s full service, where they advise you on whether it is trademarkable or not before proceeding. If you want to take a risk (I wouldn’t) you can do it for a bit less.

Clearly, owning a trademark give you a little bit more confidence. It also allows you to get URL squatters off the domain name that you want if they don’t own a trademark that would give them an equal stake in it.

However, what is more important in terms of confidence is the process that takes you there. Is your name and logo, or just your name, worth £200? If it isn’t, what hope do you have of ever presenting your business confidently?

In preparing for a trademark, you are forced to look at it again. Was it something your graphic-design-school cousin did for you? It may be a lovely piece of design, and yet not be appropriate to your business. Was it a name you came up with in order to be like some other company in your sector? If so, it may be too close for you to be allowed to trademark it. Better to find out now than be forced to rebrand when your business really takes off. Is it, actually, something you’ve always been meaning to change, but never got round to? Knowing that your business identity isn’t quite good enough saps your confidence every time you talk about what you do.

Most businesses could do with considering a rebrand after the third year, or after they’ve turned over about a quarter of a million in total. This doesn’t mean that they should rebrand. What it does mean is that they have now done enough business to know what their customers are like, what is unique about their approach rather than purely incidental, what works and what doesn’t. For some, that will mean a tweak, for others brand re-engineering. For yet others, starting again from scratch.

If you’re in this position, then do the ‘should have called it…’ test. If people even occasionally say ‘you should have called it {name}’, once they know what you do, or you are left saying to yourself ‘I should have called it…’, then it’s almost certainly time to rebrand. You don’t want to be too clever about this: if there’s a genuine ‘should have called it’ candidate name, and that name isn’t already trademarked by someone else, then that’s the name you want. Your company logo will be determined more by the name than by anything else: find the simplest design which represents that name with just one unique visual element, unless the name itself is already unique.

If there isn’t an obvious ‘should have called it’ name, but you have a sense that something is wrong, then it’s time to get some more in depth advice from an expert. As with most forms of expertise, the costs of doing so are vastly less in the long run than DIY, or than persisting with a brand in which you don’t have confidence.

Contact [email protected] for advice on SME, public sector and major enterprise branding.

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