Note-taking, creativity and 80s action movies

I have a fondness for mid-late 1980s action movies.

Nothing particularly unusual there for a person of my vintage, except I seem to have a strange ability to recall relatively trivial and obscure details.

The character names of the first 3 marines who get killed in Aliens; the career path of the actor who plays crazy computer hacker Theo in the first Die Hard; the location of the parking lot where Doc and Marty test the DeLorean in Back to the Future…and much, much more.

Yep, I’m the life and soul of the party.

One of my favourite characters from the period features in the (rightfully) much-maligned Crocodile Dundee 2.

He is, of course, Leroy Brown.

Leroy Brown and Mick Dundee.

Leroy is trying to live up to his name of being a bad guy on the streets of late 1980s New York, despite being a humble stationery salesman who happens to have a better than average Rolodex.

He’s Mick Dundee’s connector, facilitator and enabler — hooking him up with the right gang leaders to know, creating distractions to get him out of sticky situations and generally being a man about town, all whilst rocking a leather flat cap, wraparound sunglasses and a purchase order for office supplies.

Leroy is the kind of guy I want to be around; not just for his fashion sense and links into questionable groups of NYC punks, but for his passion for stationery.

Stationery is one of the best paths to improved memory and creativity. Here’s why.


The joy of stationery

Technology now enables us to compile and sort ideas and information on the fly in all sorts of ways (Evernote, Apple Notes, Instagram, Trello are just four — there are literally hundreds of applications out there to help with this).

I use a bunch of software apps to help make lists and scribble down thoughts, but recently I’ve been returning to pen and paper.

My handwriting is still terrible, but going back to basics has helped improve my creativity, memory and ability to connect ideas and concepts.

It also prevents tapping away on a phone or laptop during a meeting, which most people find rude, even if you are taking notes about what’s being discussed.

My method is to take notes on paper, then either write them up into Apple Notes, before re-distributing them where they may be best utilised (a to-do list, new client database, a subject to research via a web browser, etc.), or put them up on the wall.

This may seem like duplicating work but my memory for the notes I make has improved significantly and links between things seem to appear more easily and in new ways.

I try to re-read my notes as much as I can, dipping back into notes from 3, 6, 12, even 24 months previously to see in which directions new associations, thoughts and implications may take me.

Two of my recent and exciting projects have stemmed from a couple of scratchy notes and drawings I made over a year ago, that only now have I been able to turn into fully formed ideas.


Note-taking for idea discovery

Steven Johnson’s book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ is a great read for understanding patterns of innovation and the ways in which we can develop better ideas and creativity.

In the chapter ‘The Slow Hunch’, Johnson explores the stories behind some of Charles Darwin’s greatest discoveries, and the benefits of note-taking to help with the process.

None of Darwin’s major discoveries came about as sudden epiphanies or breakthroughs. They were nearly all a number of smaller hunches that collided, conjoined, crept up in stealth mode, or faded into view slowly.

To keep these slow hunches alive, Darwin regularly re-read and referred back to his many pages of notes and drawings over long periods of time. This process saw new ideas and implications emerge, with Darwin’s famous finches only becoming a fully realised concept nearly 2 years after the pieces of the puzzle started to come together in his notes from the Galapagos.

Without making notes, re-reading them and making associations between seemingly disparate concepts and ideas, Darwin’s discovery of one of natural science’s most important concepts may have never come to be.

Darwin’s finches or Galapagos finches. Darwin, 1845.

Stationery Selection

Ideas, concepts and hunches take many forms. It helps to have a mix of tools to write them down and develop them in different ways.

I recommend having 3 different sizes of notebook and a few different colours and types of pen.

If you want to take this a step further, you want to go down the route of legendary adman Paul Arden. A couple of his techniques include using watercolours or very soft pencils on occasions when the creativity process is more difficult than usual. That way you can’t focus on details, only on broad strokes and sketches.

Here’s my current stationery setup:

  • A4 lined ring binder style, with a few colours of Sharpie. This is for sitting in the park, hotel lobby or a coffee shop and I’m thinking about bigger ideas, letting the mind wander, or planning out longer periods of time.
  • A5 lined, with a biro and a fine line. Most business meetings where I may take 5–10 lines of notes that can be quickly written up and actioned
  • A6 graph paper, with a biro and a pencil. Great for sketching, diagrams, charts, and quick notes when on the move. Graph paper is especially useful when, like me, you can’t get close to drawing straight lines.

My current stationery selection (yes, I lifted a pencil from Ikea)

It’s also worth investing in a decent range of stationery if you’re involved in any kind of project or product development.

Masking tape, various colours of sticky notes, index cards and some colourful fine-liner pens will stand you in good stead to set up a really tactile and memorable agile board.

And for wireframes and even functioning product prototypes you can transform your sketches to digital using tools like the Prototyping on Paper app, before creating something more refined.

Technology continues to amaze me on a daily basis and has made so many tasks better, easier or simply redundant, but I recommend everyone gets themselves a nice line of stationery and take more notes.

It’ll also give you more clarity, help improve your memory, and maybe pull together some of those slow hunches that give the breakthrough you’ve been looking for.


Want more? A collection of productivity tools and resources can be found at my latest side project, Operator’s Handbook.

10 years later: mind the gaps in the live music sector

This summer marks my 10th anniversary living in London. A lot’s happened in the past decade, but it’s not hard for me to remember some of the highlights of my first year in the big city.

I was living in South London, and whilst I worked in Soho I found myself gravitating to East London and the Shoreditch district in particular.

One of the best spots was Hearn Street arches and the adjacent car park, where the likes of mulletover would put on some of the best European deep house and techno around.

Hearn Street car park

The building next door to these part-time party venues would later be home to my first startup’s first office. In that scrappy-looking block were old-school Cockney furriers (led by a chap we knew only as John The Mink), a dance school, designers and a whole bunch of other eclectic and unlikely tenants.

Incidentally, less than 5 years after we moved out, the entire block has been flattened to make way for 40+ storeys of chrome and glass, presumably for the City to creep further into the Shoreditch district. John The Mink is nowhere to be seen.


The place I remember most fondly from that first summer was in the Tea Building on the corner of Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road. Back then there was no Boxpark, no overground train station, and definitely no Pret. Sitting within the Tea Building was the simply named T Bar.

Time for Tea

It had a simple concept; plenty of space, minimal lighting and decor, a well-stocked bar, Funktion One soundsystem, and some of the world’s best house, techno and disco DJs, 3 or 4 evenings a week from 7pm. For free.

Sure, it had its downsides; drinks were on the pricey side (although the fact it got slated for £5 for wine and £8 for cocktails shows how expensive London has become); there were a fair few of the less endearing Shoreditch stereotypes in there when bigger names were booked to play; and the place got pretty hot when it was full.

But when you’re getting to hear the likes of Michael Mayer, Audion, Loco Dice and James Jones play on a great soundsystem with no door charge, no advance tickets, just after work on a Thursday (or even Monday) evening…

T Bar also put a bunch of relatively unknown but excellent DJs in the driving seat for the full Friday and Saturday nights; Boris Horel & Greg Sonata’s Foreign Muck party was one of my favourites.

Unfortunately, it was all over in 2008, and despite a short-lived return to a venue nearby, T Bar is now something of the past. The venue is now a pizza restaurant.


10 Years Later…

Remembering my experiences around East London during this period, and at T Bar in particular, really brings home the current situation in the city with the lack of suitable space and the possible opportunities to reach new, underserved and broader audiences.

Space & Opportunity

Like many inner city areas and scenes, things are cyclical in their nature and places comes and go, but Shoreditch had many more music venues when I was first exploring the area than are operating there now. The physical spaces available for music & broader culture feel like they’re being hoovered up by other sectors more quickly than ever.

Alan Miller, the chairman of the Nighttime Industries Association, posted this piece on The Guardian earlier this week.

According to Miller, the number of nightclubs in the UK has plummeted from 3,144 to 1,733 in the last decade. The article and the comments that follow it both point to the stark differences in culture and approach in European cities like Amsterdam and Berlin vs London.

It’s concerning that cultural venues are being pushed out of areas like Shoreditch, and actually out of wider boroughs as well (well-respected Dalston venue Dance Tunnel is closing in August due to licensing regulations)

Dance Tunnel, situated underneath Voodoo Ray’s pizza shop

As a step to help prevent more of these closures, the Night Time Industries Association are currently running a year-long campaign called Night Life Matters, more info here.


A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across a document released by the Mayor of London’s office, entitled ‘London’s Grassroots Music Venues Rescue Plan

The document has been around for 6 months as far as I can see, and no one I’ve spoken with has heard of it before.

It feels like a good step for the Mayor’s office to be taking, but the level of wider public awareness and distribution around this and what it stands for seem to be sorely lacking.

Music venues and particularly nightclubs often get unfairly siloed as havens of crime and something almost unsightly in a 21st century city landscape.

With music becoming part of a wider bundle of content that makes up consumers’ wider leisure and entertainment activities, it feels like it’s well overdue to lose some of that stigma.

London could do this by learning from Amsterdam and Berlin’s approaches (the idea of a night mayor would be a good start), consider innovating on the conventional models, and embrace night life as both a key component and driver of how people choose to spend their valuable leisure time.

A space such as Amsterdam’s De School (from the creators of the legendary Trouw club) feels like a great blueprint for what the next generation of multi-use music, arts and work spaces will look like.


Money on the Table

Relating to the challenges that night time venues are facing, I’ve been thinking about the amount of money being left on the table by the music industry and also how better serving other markets and audiences may help solve some of stigma challenges I mention.

We all know music consumption and revenue streams have shifted immensely in the last few years, and I won’t dwell on the reasons for that, it’s been done to death. The only thing I’ll say on it is that the industry needs to shift its focus from complaining about Spotify…

Despite all these changes, there seems to be a lack of innovation and change in the live sector as to how events can be delivered.

Such are the effects of time, I am no longer 22 years old as I was in 2006. I’ve grown up (for better and for worse), and I prefer channelling my leisure time into early mornings, breakfasts with friends, reading…and watching an entire season of The Walking Dead in one sitting.


Going out to catch electronic artists play shows at 4am doesn’t really fit my lifestyle any more. To be honest, it never really did…hence my love for T Bar.

So why is the convention to put on shows (electronic music in particular) on at times when you surely can’t reach the optimal number of fans?

The concept that most attendees want to drink and do drugs (and thus more likely to want to go out all night?) holds weight to an extent, but I don’t think it’s a solid enough argument, particularly with the ongoing blurring of the lines between different genres.

Simply, within significant portions of the live music sector there is an excess demand that is underserved.

In addition to VR experiences (the subject of a future article), this could be addressed in a couple of ways;

  1. Change/extend/duplicate performance times
  2. Better serve demand through improved / more tailored experiences


3 simple examples come to mind that I’ve experienced recently.

  1. Filling time-based demand

An electronic artist played a London show on a cold winter Saturday night, stage time around 3am.

I had plans for Sunday morning and didn’t want to get home at 6/7am, so I didn’t buy a ticket and thus didn’t go. I don’t see how anyone wins in this situation.

The artist could have played either an unannounced or very tightly segmented show earlier in the night.

Or to help mend the stigma I mention above (and broaden revenue streams), why not package food and drink together more closely?

Brilliant Corners is a great little venue in Dalston where you can eat some great food, have a few drinks, and hear underrated gems of DJs like Jonny Rock (who incidentally also played at T Bar a lot) play records on a superb sound system. Yeah it’s not Fabric, but the model is sound.

https://soundcloud.com/jonnyrock/its-just-brilliant-brilliant-corners-part-2-on-15-april-2016

For further reading on this subject, Cortney Harding explores related matters here, and this recent Guardian article explores a seemingly growing trend around young people shunning the traditional clubbing experience in favour of other activities.


2. Service level and transparency

A disabled friend had tickets to a show at a large London venue last week; when checking ticket collection options and the stage time of the headliner (my friend’s disability means she can’t stand or sit in one place for more than an hour or so, and didn’t want to miss the main event), the venue didn’t answer their phone, and it took 20 minutes of searching for me to find out who the promoter was.

Upon calling them, no one in their office knew if they were even promoting the gig, and there was no information on the artist’s website other than the venue name and opening time.

I can’t see why the service here is so opaque — this one fan loved the superb artist she got to see but the rest of the experience left a lot to be desired.

Will she go back? I’m not sure.

A couple of ways of improving this area include new ways of dealing with customer service (chat-bots for simple enquiries?), and more visibility of who is promoting shows and what they stand for; promoters can also be excellent curators after all.


3. Baby boomers

Despite marketers focusing intensely on Generation Z & Millennials (don’t get me started on this…), I feel lines are being blurred between demographics and their behaviours, and herein lies opportunity.

An example of this opportunity is Field Day’s extension to 2 days. Through smart programming they now attract a broader range of customers without diluting their core values.

Parquet Courts — playing this year’s Field Day festival in London. Dad and I will be in attendance.

A case in point is that my parents will be going to the festival with my brother and I on the Sunday.

This group (in my parents’ case aged 63 and 62, living an hour or so from a major city) hold around 70% of the population’s disposable income, are becoming more adventurous in the experiences they want to have, and are willing to pay for quality. Coachella’s new event Desert Trip is a signifier of this.

For a number of practical reasons my Dad is very unlikely to see bands on a midweek evening in London, but he will happily pay for a quality festival experience with a range of both new, established and heritage artists. He’s become a fan of several artists from last year’s event and has spent money on their music since.

The balance in appealing to a range of markets like this is not easy (and certainly not suitable not for all promoters and events — not everyone wants to hang out with their parents of course), but in any case there are underserved audiences that the music industry could surely do better to serve.

The baby boomers with 25–35 year old children is an interesting segment to explore here.



I love London and part of what makes it so special is its diverse range of culture and creativity.

Music should be a key part of that.

I just hope that the spaces and places sustain, and that the industry does a better job of serving its audiences and communicating its value so an even broader range of people can enjoy great live music experiences.

None of this is easy and the answers are not simple, but just because the live sector is one of the industry’s strongest areas it doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for doing things better.