Content Playfulness and the Book of Kells

I was asked a little while ago what was the why of me? (for those of you who know the work of Simon Sinek – what was at the heart of my ‘golden circle’?). However disparate our careers, if we’re lucky there’s a common thread – an essential purpose or meaning to the work that we do.

What’s the why of me?

So what’s the why of me? After a while of reviewing my career, identifying that common thread, what I’m both good at and enjoy, I realised that this is the why of me: I’m passionate about improving the communication of valuable ideas.

When I’m not at work, busy improving the communication of valuable ideas I’m either writing, reading, painting, drawing or taking photos. Basically I love stories – telling stories in images and in words: the communication of ideas.

A visit to the Book of Kells

I’ve been asked to speak at LavaCon content strategy conference next week. For the first time it’s being held in Europe, at Trinity College Dublin. Something I’ve always wanted to do is see the Book of Kells, and whilst I’m at Trinity I’m determined to take a couple of hours out and visit the library there to take a look.

The Book of Kells was written 1200 years ago, it’s now thought a collective effort (early globalisation?) of monks in Scotland, Ireland and the North of England. With such an ancient and fragile object few people get to turn the pages and enjoy the full 340 folios. Fortunately the book is available to view in its entirety online in Trinity College’s digital archive.

Content playfulness at work

The Book of Kells includes an unprecedented number of illustrations: stories, words, pictures. Fantastical beasts and cheeky human-like figures pop up unexpectedly, winding themselves around the latin text.

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As I meandered through the book I could imagine those monks enlivening the dull hours conjuring these mischievous and mythical creatures.

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There’s a content playfulness at work here. The monks used celtic symbols and patterns exotic colours and decoration to augment the text and literally illuminate the main messages.

In writing out the gospels, in turning the word of God into a tangible and beautiful object those monks were improving the communication of valuable ideas – what in the medieval Christian world was the ultimate valuable idea – God’s love and eternal salvation. What was the why, the purpose of the Book of Kells? To create a tribute to God’s glory.

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But also content inefficiency

But of course it was a hugely inefficient process, medieval illuminated manuscripts took years and years of back breaking labour. Occasionally bored comments and complaints found their way into the margins of medieval texts!


Not only is the Book of Kells available to view online, it is also of course on public display. Thousands of physical visitors and who knows how many thousands more digital visitors. Which is ironic, because the book originally had a sacramental rather than an educational purpose. It wasn’t designed to be read and certainly not by more than a select group of priests. There was no audience for this work.

Meanings and connections

It struck me, whilst I’ve been researching the history of the Book of Kells, that there’s a lot of parallels between that ancient text and my work at CIPD.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

EM Forster, Howard’s End

For me, work has to have meaning, and it certainly helps if the organisation I’m working for has a positive impact on society. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has this incredible purpose: to Champion Better Work and Working Lives. So like the Book of Kells there’s a valuable message and ideas worth communicating. But – and perhaps not quite as extreme as those monks in Ireland 1200 years ago – CIPD also suffers from a hugely inefficient content production process and it’s message doesn’t really have much of an audience.

Since I started at CIPD back in summer 2013 I’ve been working to improve the communication of our valuable ideas, primarily through improving content efficiency and more recently (and additionally) through the introduction of a content playfulness: finding 21st century techniques to illuminate our message and spread the good word (rather than the Good Word!)

Over the next few blog posts I’ll be exploring just how we’ve done that and reflecting on the successes, outcomes and observations from that work.


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