Writing Samples

A mix of words. Some from books, some from blogs, plus personal pieces on marketing and creativity. Plus my own illustrations.

My published work includes fiction, articles, and books on design, advertising, architecture, photography, and more. Aside from a bestseller, my proudest moment was learning that the students of an Oscar winning film school had adorned their dorms with one of my manifestos. As well as content/copywriting, I've ton a load of editing, including a couple of books.

If you'd like to read more, mail me. At which point I'll panic, then scour old USBs for semi-decent texts.

Explanation: Karel De Mulder is the founder of an ad agency in Brussels, Belgium. He's also a designer and artist, with Anthony Burrill among his collaborators. I do a lot of work with Karel; this particular piece accompanies an art project called "Tax Haven."

Advertising For People Who Don't Like Advertising.

This book is for anyone who's ever been irritated by an ad break or frustrated by a web banner. In other words, most people.

We understand how you feel. We really do.

However, it’s only fair to inform you: we make ads.

Lots of them.

Amongst many, many other projects, we’ve worked with global brands to make fashion collections, turned dogshit into mini billboards and promoted a Dutch province by staging a mass wedding. 

KesselsKramer (KK) began in 1996, born from a dislike of adverts in general, as well as the industry conventions that produced them.

One of those conventions was the use of the word “advertising” itself. KK felt that “advertising” stood for a narrow mindset: the assembly-line production of formulaic billboards, TV ads and radio spots.

Instead, KesselsKramer became preoccupied with making communications. For KK “communications” stood for truthful, human messages that told a brand’s story in any and all available media.

Though now common, this approach was then novel: using music videos, books, exhibitions and stunts to support a product was rare.

This love of diversity also underscored a restlessness that extended beyond advertising. Outside commercial briefs, KesselsKramer spent (and spends) its time expressing creative ideas wherever the possibility arises. After all, an idea is still an idea, whether it comes attached to a marketing message or not.

Over time, this version of communications came to encompass the publication of books on photography (through KK’s in-house publisher) and an own brand, “do,” whose many products aim to make consumerism less passive.

In part, this book is an invitation to all those who would mess with creativity and commerce.

It’s also motivated by a wish to look outward, to make contact with those we admire, those who question our industry. We wanted to discuss what insights they’ve gained over the last decade or so, a period in which the business was redefined, and re-redefined, and re-re-redefined.

Above all, it’s about using frustration as fuel to make things better.

Explanation: This sample is from the introduction to “Advertising For People Who Don’t Like Advertising,” a business book I wrote. The book explored how various advertising icons found ways to practice their craft with integrity. It was published by Laurence King in London, made available everywhere from NYC to Singapore, and sold out in hardback.

Tax Haven.

Nazis. Wall Street. Dentists. Your favourite tech company with the fruit-centric logo.

Nobody likes taxes. 

Some go to fiendish lengths to avoid contributing to the collective good. They know of sunny places where shady lawyers can stash your cash. They know how to hide companies inside other companies. In short, they can preserve their ill-gotten gains.  

Karel De Mulder is neither a Nazi nor a dentist. 

He’s a Belgian creative. 

Nevertheless, he too likes the idea of saving taxes. Sadly, Karel’s Rolodex contains no lawyers in sunny places.

So Karel’s only recourse is to make art. Because Karel’s art counts as work. And work means tax deductions for the self-employed.

For instance, Karel’s girlfriend would very much enjoy a pair of designer shoes. Karel’s plan is to buy her said shoes, photograph them, and place the resulting photograph in a frame alongside the receipt. Et voila: tax deductible art.

Buy why stop there? After all, Big Banks and Big Tech are interested in dodging rather more than pennies on pumps.

Inspired by their example, Karel plans to rent a sports car, visit Japan, and (for no particular reason) buy an LED dog collar.

Photographs of the above will join Karel’s girlfriend’s shoes in an exhibition. Who knows? Maybe someone will buy the photos; which means Karel can seek tax deductions on his images of tax deductions. 

Either way, taxes will be dodged. And that, as we’ve established, is what everyone wants.  

Untitled Photo Book.

A punk fairytale set in nineties New York.  

Summer. Girl meets boy. Love and booze and heartbreak ensue. Motorcycles, guitars and weird Turkish adverts are involved.

Decades pass.

Girl meets boy. Again.

This times, they make a book together. This book.

It chronicles their relationship with the help of a secret stash of photos. And cameo appearances by Nina Hagen, Kate Moss, Allen Ginsberg, and Santa Claus.

It's a book about sex, grime and glamor. It's about how we possess each other as though there can never be another.

Until, suddenly: there's another.  

It's about the stuff that hurts -- even half a life later.

It's a little brutal and a little beautiful. Like all fairytales.  

Explanation: A short intro to a photo book by Danish director Ada Bilgaard Soby. Thanks to her friend, actor Norman Reedus, Ada was able to get this work in front of publishers in London and NYC. She just needed a little help explaining it.

Art Fundamentals On A Budget.

First off, why should you learn art fundamentals? 

I ask because plenty of people don’t see the need. I spent years at creative agencies where the preference was for simple, graphic illustration. More complex styles were dismissed as “boring.”      

 And platforms like Dribbble are full of excellent non-traditional work.

In other words, maybe you shouldn’t learn art fundamentals. That’s okay: I won’t call the Art Police.

Here’s why I wanted to learn them.  

Partly because I got tired of claiming that sausage fingers were a “stylistic choice.”

Partly because the art I loved displayed a mastery of the basics. 

I wanted to be Kim Jung Gi, Moebius and Mignola. 

So after many years of making images, I studied image-making. 

The rest of this post is about how to learn those basics thoroughly and (sort of) cheaply. It’s also about the unexpected benefits of art fundamentals, even if realist inflected work doesn’t interest you.  

Years later, and I’m not even close to Kim Jung Gi. Never will be. 

But maybe my experiences can help clarify your own thinking.   

How To Learn Art While Making Avocado Sandwiches.

Some obstacles to my goal: 

--Limited money. I’d just quit my job to go independent.

--Limited time. My four year old son required eight million avocado sandwiches per day. 

Both these points meant a three year degree at a brick and mortar school wasn’t feasible. 

I Love You, YouTube, But You Aren’t Enough.

I’d spent years assembling a DIY art education.

Large parts of my childhood were spent copying Judge Dredd comics. At advertising college we drew all day. Ditto my first job as an ad creative: my desk overflowed with ex-trees and N50 markers.

While none of this was optimal, I did have some muscle memory built up.

Later, I curated an art exhibition for illustrators from all over the world, and commissioned a contribution from myself (which seems like the ultimate act of nepotism). For this, I bought a bunch of random pens and brushes and turned to YouTube.

I can’t remember what I watched exactly (this is ten years ago), but here’s who I’d recommend today. 

Note: mostly, these channels focus on concept art. However, the advice is universal, whether you’re drawing a barbarian on a dragon, or a hipster on Zoom.  

 --Ethan Becker. Ethan works in animation, which means he has to draw quickly. His tips are therefore simple and practical. He also waves knives around and threatens people, which is a lot funnier than it sounds. 

--Marco Bucci. Marco is one of my teachers; his YouTube channel is an excellent place to get started with more complex art theories. Like the man himself, Marco’s videos are friendly and in-depth. 

--Proko. Stan Prokopenko teaches anatomy. If you hear “brachialis” and imagine an obscure dinosaur, this is the place to enlighten yourself.   

The University of YouTube got me through the exhibition, plus other personal projects: a blog of “shitty cartoons every Friday,” and a comic called “The Ink Abyss” (which coincidentally featured a barbarian, but no dragons.) 

But there came a point when I wanted more. A merciless white bearded master to bury me alive and demand I escape using the power of Kung Fu. 

But then with art, not Kung Fu. And also: no getting buried alive.    

Wax On, Wax Off.

There are lots of impressive online art schools. Learn Squared, Schoolism, CG Spectrum. 

Lots. 

At the time, my preference was for the most structured environment: live classes, deadlines, personal feedback, and a semester based system. The distributed version of a real-world school. 

I also wanted a practical form of art education. No fluff. Just a toolbox with which to approach the problem of transferring my brain to paper (or screen).

I picked concept art because it’s as efficient as art gets: the mills of Hollywood demand a streamlined workflow.  

And concept art fundamentals are art fundamentals. Despite its emphasis on technology, concept art traces its lineage way back. Rodin, Rembrandt, the Golden Age of Illustration, Disney’s Nine Old Men, and--most often--John Singer Sargent. Who’d have thought an Edwardian painter would have such an effect on the designers of space ninjas?  

I spent a year and a quarter at CGMA, which stands for Computer Graphics Master Academy. A thumb-bruising two courses per semester.

CGMA was wonderful. It was also one of the tougher learning environments I’ve experienced, perhaps the toughest. As hard as advertising college, and certainly harder than university.   
It took a week to get over my initial prejudice: online schools aren’t an inferior form of education. It’s true that you don’t get the same networking opportunities, but rigor and personal attention are provided at a fraction of the usual cost. 

Brief examples of stuff we learned:

--Perspective. Yes, like High School: one point, two point. But also: how do you set up a curvilinear grid in order to create a vertical pan like at the start of Akira? 

--Painting is not drawing. Is that obvious? It wasn’t to me: I figured paintings were drawings with colors filled in. The essential difference is that drawing means thinking in lines (a whole subject unto itself), and painting requires thinking in shapes.    

  --Ellipses. And boxes. And cones. And circles. And more ellipses. I have a meter high stack of paper next to my desk, mostly covered with third grade geometry. Primitives are the fundamental art fundamental, the foundation on which all else is built.  

Unexpected Benefits.

Studying concept art hasn’t made me a concept artist. Yet. 
But it brought other benefits. 

--I’m a better creative. Concept art developed my design abilities as much as my year of Graphic Design training. That’s because concept art is less abstract: you're designing things that don’t exist, but look like they might. Once you’ve planned and rendered a character in 3D, layouts become less daunting. 

--I’m a better writer. Words and design are inseparable. The more you know about visual communication, the more you understand words are simply one way of talking. In most situations (like my work in marketing), your words are simply part of the overall message. Which allows your writing to relax and let other elements take the weight.

--Communication. I’m able to offer more constructive feedback. For instance, I can analyze a shot and explain why it works, or not, beyond “Yeah, great,” or “It just doesn’t feel right.”  

I've noticed other, less practical improvements.  

--Concept art is a way of studying everything. Architecture, fashion, zoological anatomy, engineering, cinematography. How a gun works. How a mammoth worked. Every project depends on reference and research (written as well as visual).   

--Seeing. You acquire X-Ray vision. Or, at least, Super Detailed Vision. Some shadows really do contain purple, just as my teachers claimed. A tree trunk’s texture is clearest in the half-tones. Bony landmarks define how clothes rest on the body. It was all true; I just had to learn to see.  

Does that sound trippy? Or New Age? Probably. But it happens to everyone willing to put in the hours.   

Mentorships.

I’m all in on art education. 

However. 

While online art schools are comparatively cheap, they’re still expensive. Each CGMA course cost an average of 699 dollars. That’s nothing compared to hundreds of thousands spent at an American art school, but… yeah. Expensive.    

Which meant I had to start acting like a grown up again. At the same time, I wanted to keep studying. 

My solution was to seek mentors who offered open ended critiques. 

Currently, this means harassing the very talented Marco Bucci (see above). For a couple of hundred dollars, Marco offers hours of paintovers and personalized advice. It’s my ultimate luxury: Avatar-length videos about how to make my art suck less.   

Once you’ve gained a familiarity with the basics, a mentor is the way to go. 

So. 

Why should you learn art fundamentals? 

Because: all of the above.

And also: really hard things are often the most rewarding.   

Stepping beyond that cliche: studying art fundamentals had the oddest effect (on me, anyway). 

They led to an increased capacity for intrinsic motivation. After coming to terms with the fact that there will always be a near infinite number of artists better than you, the desire for status and praise fades.

The work itself becomes enough. 

One dragon-riding barbarian at a time. 

Explanation: This is a blog post for design platform Dribbble called "Art Fundamentals On A Budget."

When Do You Say “No”? 

An agency asked me to help rebrand a company implicated in, well, everything. Dousing millions of poor people with acid rain, crude oil production, deforesting the Amazon, child slavery, massacres. And more. Much more.

Some of these whoopsies were in the past, when the company was part of an even larger company (Fortune 500, no less). And some: last Tuesday. 

I met a group of nice people. The nice people explained that there had been a misunderstanding: actually, the company cared deeply about humanity. From now on, the company would do better. 

How it would do better was not explained.  

Anyway, the nice people wanted me to provide rousing scripts and web copy in which the company’s all-consuming love for humanity was expressed. We retired to offices that had once belonged to a fashion icon (you’d recognize the name) and discussed a complex PowerPoint featuring photos of grateful farmers, epic landscapes, sunsets.  

I asked awkward questions. One guy got annoyed. Everyone else said they understood my dilemma. In their view, though, this project was more of a grey area. 

After all, if they could make the company just a little better, wasn’t that a job well done? 

Then I went home, felt sad about the ton of money I’d be losing, and turned them down.

They understood. Of course they did.

They were nice. 

So when do you say “no”? 

Not just to one rotten company represented by nice people? 

When do you say “no” to all the nice people and all the dodgy companies? To all the grey areas?

Even if it means you'll be judged smug and self-righteous. A goddamn snowflake.

When do you pack up your skills, and go looking for the other kind of nice people: those whose thing is your thing? 

Something you can get behind. 

Something you can believe in. 

Something that actually deserves your time and attention.  

When do you say “yes”?

Explanation: Here's my attempt to write about morality in marketing. And, honestly, my stab at doing a Seth Godin.

Dribbble: Get Better & Get Hired.

According to a recent unscientific survey, there are seven hundred and eighty-seven gazillion design platforms. And that’s not including Instagram, Pinterest, and whatever social channel happens to be the digital dish of the day.  

So why Dribbble? 

Good question, padawan. 

Well, we’ve been doing this a long time. Since 2009, in fact. 

But age means little unless you learn along the way. 

With that in mind, here’s how we’ve learned to help designers create and sell the finest creative since civilization began.

One: You Need A Door Policy. 

Elitism sucks. Designers especially dislike hierarchy. 

But we’ve found that an invite policy helps strengthen our community and our offering. If clients know that Dribbble showcases high-quality work, they’re more likely to swing by. Say a tech client needs a designer: a little quality control gives them confidence that Dribbble is the best place to start looking. 

And that means you don’t have to make posting stuff a full-time job. At Dribbble, we ensure that the right eyes see your work. 

One quick caveat: our invite policy underpins Dribbble’s high quality, but we also offer a paid Pro version, with all the benefits of an invitation. In other words, the best of both worlds; both elite and egalitarian.      

Two: You’re Only As Good As Your Clients.   

As the previous section not-so-humbly implies, some very big fish swim in the Dribbble pool.

Facebook. Airbnb. Google. 

Not enough name-dropping? 

Okay: Ideo, Slack, Shopify, Lyft. 

Not just big fish, but fish with a well-developed appreciation for design (to stretch the fish cliche to breaking point). Paraphrasing our partners at StickerMule, Dribbble is where you hire creatives who can kick your branding up a notch.

We don’t just work with a handful of shiny-shiny icons. Over the years, Dribbble has helped designers connect with 40,000 companies. That’s a population of prospects the size of Culver City.  

Three: You’re Only As Good As Your Community. 

As every Internet guru will tell you, learning is a lifelong practice.

Okay, sure. 

However, online learning takes many forms, and they’re not all equal. For instance, how much can you really learn from a YouTube tutorial, if there isn’t a human being to check your work? 

Because our community brims with verified talent, we can hook you up with feedback that actually helps. More than heart emojis and random likes: actual tips for getting better from designers with a proven track record. 

Plus, support from those who do what you do. People whose challenges are your challenges too. 

You Want In?

If you found any of that convincing, we’ve got an offer.  

We’re giving five new designers the chance to get an invite to Dribbble: send your portfolio link to bigshots@dribbble.com. We’ll ask top designers selected from our community to review your submission and (with a little luck and a lot of talent) you’ll get selected. 

And if that’s not enough: the very best project will be recommended to Facebook.

When we say we’ll help get you hired, we mean it. 

So tell us: what are you working on? 

(N.B. “What are you working on?” is the Dribbble tagline).

Explanation: A second Dribbble post. Included because it sells harder than some of the other samples.