The Ministry of Stories is no ordinary client. For one thing they are the brains behind the Hoxton Street Monster Supplies store – the only known purveyor of goods still catering to the broader monster market anywhere in the world.
When not stroking invisible cats or advising on dragon food, the Ministry devotes itself to inspiring eight to 18-year olds through the power of storytelling. In workshops covering every written format from newspapers and soap operas to poetry and housekeeping guides, the Ministry’s 500 plus volunteer mentors encourage the young attendees to find their voice, building their confidence and ability to communicate their own ideas.
The Ministry and the shop were inspired by 826 Valencia, co-founded by Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari in San Francisco in 2002. Named after the location they had secured for their planned literacy workshops, the idea for a pirate-themed shop front came about simply because the building was zoned for retail and therefore obliged to sell something. With its stripped back fittings, someone suggested that the space evoked a ship’s deck and the theme went from there.
By 2008 the project had grown to become 826 National and by the end of 2010, there were eight chapters across the United States, each one fronted with a different store – robots in Michigan,superheroes in New York City, time travel in LA, secret agents in Chicago, outer space in Seattle, unnatural history in Washington DC and Bigfoot in Boston. By 2011, the eight chapters offered inspirational reading and writing tutorage to over 29,000 students.
Eggers had hit on something that inspired and influenced people around the world. In cities everywhere, groups of people started talking about starting similar programmes of literacy education. Winning the TED Prize in 2008, he went on to establish Once Upon a School and embarked on a series of talks in different countries, further encouraging other writers, educators and creatives to get involved in local education. 826 National now runs a 101 Seminar where you can learn how to set up your own non-profit organisation. After attending such a seminar, the Ministry of Stories began in the UK, motivated by the idea of 826 Valencia and the belief that something comparable could work in London.
“I felt very inspired by the commitment to the fiction of the American stores, and this idea that there was a place where adults would be behaving like pirates existed and taking it so far and so seriously and creating a space where children would come in and think, well they’re taking their imagination that seriously, why can’t I? And the quality of design is a really important part of creating that fiction.”Lucy McNab
Like D&AD, the Ministry of Stories is a charity devoted to championing creativity. No ordinary client indeed. So it follows that this case study is also a little out of the ordinary because, apart from the two co-directors, everyone involved in working at or for the Ministry and Hoxton Street Monster Supplies does so for free.
Working without payment happens in every field and it can be contentious. In the design industry the focus of concern has long been the practice of free pitching but placements or internships, which normally pay a small stipend to cover costs, and pro bono work for charities otherwise unable or unlikely to pay the going rate are generally supported. Both are symbiotic relationships in which the person or group providing a service gain something of value in return. For the intern, it’s professional experience but what of the already experienced designer dedicating a portion of his working life, not for a short period but for more than a year? That’s the level of contribution Alistair Hall put into the Ministry of Stories and Hoxton Street Monster Supplies in seeing them to launch stage and through their first triumphant year.
“Alistair has really been in it from the very beginning and I suppose that’s a slightly unconventional client/designer relationship in that it really feels like we've worked together on this.”Lucy MacNab
Lucy Macnab, who was already working in arts education at the Southbank Centre and Ben Payne, a writer, director and dramaturge, were introduced by a mutual friend to Alistair Hall who had blogged about his interest in starting something in London. Together they began talking about it in earnest in 2009. Alistair was clear on where his talents lay and didn’t want to get too involved in the running and management of what was still just an idea at that stage, and so their roles began to take shape. Lucy and Ben would be co-directors and run the project and he would be creative director and design the project.
According to Lucy, “initially we were looking to just try something out, find an empty shop and do a pilot.” They raised enough money to run for six months and around the same time they met author Nick Hornby, a friend of Eggers, who also wanted to get involved. And then, just like in the stories, something happened.
“Dave Eggers came to town and did a book reading and he said, ‘right who wants to help make this happen?’ And suddenly we had our first 50 volunteers."Lucy McNab
With those first volunteers on board the project started to snowball and suddenly it became apparent that it could outlast the pop-up stage and become a permanent fixture on Hoxton Street.
In many ways, like the pop-up phenomenon of recent years, they benefitted from the social and financial climate. At the time they were looking for premises, 1 in 10 of London’s shops were sitting empty, graduates and school-leavers were finding it hard to get work and a lot of people, from across the sectors, had been made redundant. The conditions were ripe for innovation and Lucy and Ben were soon joined by a swell of talented people helping them to do all sorts of things from building websites to advising on financial matters. They even had a volunteer lawyer who was the first to point out that they should operate as a registered charity.
Six extra writers were pulled in to help on suitable products for monsters. Approaching the task straight-faced and taking it very seriously they ran workshops with local children to generate ideas for things that might be sold in the shop. The writers then went away and bounced ideas around, coming up with such monster essentials as Fang Floss and an entire range of Tinned Fear.
Having fun while taking your imagination seriously is the key. A big part of the work that they do with children and young people in encouraging their writing and creativity is about producing it to a very high standard, hence a newspaper and books. They all look very professional, which is precisely how they treat young writers. They go through the editing process and understand what it takes to see an idea through from creative spark to finished product. It’s hard work but the payoff is something beautiful and their name in print.
A love of beautiful print and high standards of design are qualities that the Ministry shares with Alistair and it’s his creative direction that provides the steer for how the shop and the workspace look as well as everything that’s sold. They’ve been fortunate in that 826 provides a great example, but what’s made the Ministry of Stories and Hoxton Street Monster Supplies work together so well is that there’s just one person making most of the design decisions.
“One of our key design rules is that nothing we sell should be landfill. If it’s a comedy item then it has to have a proper functional purpose beyond that. So everything works or you can eat it.”Alistair Hall
It’s hard to believe how established the shop and the workshops have come to be in just one year. Monster supplies can now be bought online as well as in Selfridges and Time Out listed them as 34 out of 100 in their roundup of the best shops in London. It came as a surprise to Lucy how quickly they achieved a high profile, and there’s an incredible amount of goodwill from parents, schools, corporate companies and government, all wanting them to succeed.
While the shop pays for itself, fundraising is still vital to make sure that they can carry on. As ever, they’ve approached this with a huge dollop of fun, creating their own cash for honours system in which you too can buy your own ministerial position. Ministers so far include Colin Firth as the Minister for Fluency and Emma Thompson as the Minister for Imaginative Naughtiness.
“We believe that writing has tremendous power and to be able to express yourself and write your ideas down has great benefits for young people. As well as their literacy, it affects their self-confidence, their self-esteem, their ability to take on the world. And that’s why we do it. Right now we’re committed to putting down roots here but eventually we’d like to see ministries and shops around the UK.”Lucy MacNab
Stocking one shop with new items is enough to keep Alistair busy, but there are signs that he’s starting to step back from some of the more hands-on elements and he’s keen to outsource products and adapt them where possible. Production numbers are low, a run might be 50 or 100 of each item, so it’s vital that every product idea is researched thoroughly to find the most cost effective way of getting it on the shelves. So, creative director or not, Alistair has often found himself sticking labels onto jars by hand and has already lost one inkjet printer thanks to the rigours of producing packaging in-house.
It’s also meant that lots of great ideas, some of them coming from the children, haven’t made it. A few have found new life in the Cabinet of Curiosities, an interactive display of things that have been left in the shop or ordered and never picked up such as a set of glasses for a Cyclops and replacement fangs for vampires.
“When you buy one of their tins of fear, or jars of brain jam, you don’t just get a great stocking filler or something to liven up your breakfast table, you know that you’re helping to support the business of the imagination with the next generation.”Colin Firth
Minister for Fluency
Another recent addition (launching around their first anniversary) is a compilation, The Awfully Bad Guide to Monster Housekeeping, a series of four books written by children in workshops working with poets and illustrators. Ed Cornish, a recent graduate of Central St Martins designed the books, with Alistair providing art direction. So, after more than a year as creative director, sole designer, head of R&D and chief of the production line, Alistair has begun to hand over individual projects to other designers leaving him to concentrate more on being creative director in the more traditional sense, overseeing the whole, and of course working on jobs for his other clients
He could not have imagined, when he wrote that 2008 blog entry, that he’d end up being creative director of a monster shop. Of the in-kind support given in their first year, design was the largest area of worth – did he know it would take such a monster commitment? As he remembers, “When we first sat down and talked about it, they said, ‘well how long do you think it will take?’ And I said, ‘oh there’s a few weeks work here, doing this and this’ and it definitely snowballed but it was always my decision to do it and to decide how much time I was happy giving. It’s a gift of a project really. I’m working with incredible people and I’m getting to do something I really love.”
“The Ministry of Stories gave me the courage to write and read more. When I held the book in my hand it made me feel independent and older. I created the name of the monster so I am very proud.”Michelle
As well as developing innovative ways to continue fund-raising for this incredible project, the Ministry of Stories team aim to inspire and empower yet greater numbers going forwards through the power of the written word. In its first year, 2,700 children and young people attended story-writing workshops each one finding the secret door in the monster shop that takes them through to the Ministry of Stories.
They also achieved £22,000 turnover in sales and established retail partnerships with Selfridges London and Firebox. In 2012, they hope to build on this success with plans for five big projects – The Hoxton Street Soap Opera, The Hoxton Adventure Tourist Agency, The Letter Writing Project, 100% Hackney and Performance Writing which will target children of 14+ with learning, communication or behavioural problems, a group that responded particularly well in workshops within the first year.
The co-directors have focused their energies on getting a remarkable project off the ground. 826 have had eight years to capture results and demonstrate success, quoting that over 90% of students have improved reading and writing skills, and achieve better grades at school after receiving tutoring through their programme. Their focus is on delivering writing programmes to young people from under-privileged backgrounds, at a time when funding and focus for arts education in public schools is low. The Ministry of Stories aim is to support and supplement state education in one of London’s most diverse and financially challenged boroughs, to enthuse and encourage young people, giving them the self-belief to express themselves going forward in life.
“Children who were very unmotivated by writing now choose to write independently. Working with the Ministry seems to have unlocked creativity that sometimes the children didn't know they had.”Kathleen O’Connor
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