“A is for Ox”

The wolf looks sideways… and uses logic to vandalise an invaluable reference book.

Anyone who has worked in design or advertising in the early noughties will recognise this gem. It’s Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways, first published in 2001.



One of the wolf’s many weaknesses is a tendency to exaggerate and embellish facts, but this is the bare, bold truth: The Art of Looking Sideways is over 1000 pages long. It is massively thick and heavy – and indispensable. Know a graphic designer? Next time you visit their studio, have a look around. There’s a good chance “The Alan Fletcher” is there somewhere.

It may not be on the bookshelf. Try looking a little sideways yourself and you may see it:

  • – propping up a drawing board
  • – weighing down a wad of wrinkled paper
  • – beneath a fan or possibly an anglepoise lamp
  • – serving as an impromptu book-end
  • – underneath a computer monitor (it’s hard to get a monitor at the right level)

The thing is, once the internet came in, most designers started using reference books a lot less. This hit me recently when I was working on a corporate (non-children’s book) job. I had to illustrate a storyboard on creative thinking, and here was the line that was causing me problems:

“Creative thinking simply means looking at a problem or situation from a fresh perspective.”

Bleedin’ heck. I just couldn’t get my mind to work. “How do you illustrate THAT?” I muttered to myself as I raised my drawing board a bit higher on the big wodge of reference book lying behind it.

“Fresh perspective what?” I groaned as I placed a new cup of Earl Grey upon The Art of Looking Sideways.


Finally, I realised what I was supporting my drawing board (and mug). And opened up my “Alan Fletcher” for the first time in… at least 8 years…

And I remembered what leafing through this book does to my brain:

It’s like when you’re looking at a series of pillars, and the space in between them suddenly moves forward and forms its own temple of shadow, reflection and sky; it’s like thinking about the smell of blue and the colour of coffee and realising the answer to your question is “Jamaica Ginger Cake”; this book makes that tiny, dusty paperclip on your desk look, for a tantalising second, like the key to the universe. The Art of Looking Sideways is instant mindfulness. It kick-starts your brain back into “creative mode”. It’s “Art Direction 101”. It is (from the cover blurb) “a spectacular treatise on visual thinking, one that illustrates the designer’s sense of play and his broad frame of reference.”

It’s also bloody heavy (4-5kg at a guess), so remember to engage your core prior to lifting. Look inside:












Here’s some of the blurb from the book:

“Describing himself as a ‘visual jackdaw’, master designer Alan Fletcher has distilled a lifetime of experience and reflection into a brilliantly witty and inimitable exploration of such subjects as perception, colour, pattern, proportion, paradox, illusion, language, alphabets, words, letters, ideas, creativity, culture, style, aesthetics and value.”

The Art of Looking Sideways (TAoLS) is designed to be opened at random. Designers and creatives (and that includes writers) can trawl its pages for ideas, or just enjoy the mind-teasers. Each spread could seed a dozen creative projects. I also reckon the pages can be torn out and stuck on the wall too. Why not! There are over a thousand and, if they’re in a book, you can only see two at any one time. Here’s what’s up in the wolf’s lair:

On the left: "In New York you never get to see the skies" – art director Tony Palladino took photographs of New York skies at dusk and turned them upside down to make technicolour castles. On the right: "A is for Ox"

On the left: “In New York you never get to see the skies” – art director Tony Palladino took photographs of New York skies at dusk and turned them upside down to make technicolour castles. On the right: “A is for Ox”

I did come up with an illustration for my “Creative thinking” board, though I’m not sure TAoLS helped directly. It’s reassuring though, to remember I can open it up at any time – an instant cure for creative block.

There also a lighter (2.3kg) book available: Beware Wet Paint, on the work of Alan Fletcher. This may be half the weight of “the Art of Looking Sideways” but it’s only a 20th as good.

Here’s a biography of the late, great Alan Fletcher (1931 – 2006).

And two enlightening articles on Fletcher’s sketchbooks, and on The Art of Looking Sideways itself.


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