Run Sugars

Design is a key word for me.  It is something all business owners must do.  Identify what their customers need and then find a user friendly solution that meets or exceeds that need.  You might sell something off-the-shelf but where’s the fun in that?

I wonder whether the reason I bang on about design so much is because I feel left out.  I come from a family of designers.  My father was a sheet metal worker, finding unique solutions to his customers’ needs for machine guards and ducting.  My sister’s family between them cover fashion, industrial, communication and three-dimensional design.   I’m the only one with no qualification in some aspect of design.

Sheffield has, believe it or not, an annual food festival.  Dispel those prejudices.  This is not an exhibition of faggots and ha-penny duck.  It is an opportunity for local gustatory innovators to display their wares.

A few years ago, I decided to sit in on a display of cake decorating.  For reasons that will become clear, this is not something I’d want to do myself but it was something in which my mother developed expertise.  I couldn’t believe what I saw at that display.  All the torment has been removed from cake decorating and so there’s less scope for creativity.

These days there’s something called sugar paste.  You roll it out, cut the right shape and cover your cake with it.  Simple!  Back in the late 60s, when all the trouble started, there was only royal icing.  You had to smooth it over the cake (covered in marzipan) and then keep smoothing it until it was perfect. 

My mother went to night school and learned all this.  If she ever met sugar paste, I’m sure she’d took a dim view of it.  She was a real cake decorator and gradually she recruited a crack squad of assistant cake decorators and together they worked miracles.

At weddings my mother would sit us all down and lie in wait with her piping bag!  (The infinite variety of parental ways of embarrassing their children.)  She would scan her cake for damage and then dash up and do swift repairs.  A common problem was when someone lifted the cake, they put their thumbs through the filigree icing between the side of the cake and the base.  These days we would speak of ninja cake decorating.

Royal icing was the bread and butter of cake decorating.  You can make anything with it.  Take a piece of greaseproof paper, fasten it down at each corner with royal icing.  Draw the outline in icing.  If it’s to be multi-coloured, demarcate each area of colour with icing.  Now use bags of coloured icing to colour in each area.  A palette knife moved beneath the paper causes the icing to flow and so fill in the spaces.  There’s a knack to it.

The Christening cake was the point where things got out of hand.  My father was allegedly heard to murmur “run sugars” in his sleep, so immersed had his life become in this single cake.  The idea was as centrepiece a baby (a small doll, fortunately flesh-coloured sugar paste did not exist and hopefully still doesn’t) inside a cradle.  The cradle would be made of filigree leaves, that’s leaves whose outline and veins were icing and the rest space.  Of course they all needed to be curved so that together they would form a cup to hold the doll.

The house filled with washing-up liquid bottles on their side.  Each one sported 2 or 3 squares of greaseproof paper, each one carrying a single leaf.  They needed a huge number because they broke so easily.  It took forever.  And then one day, she winched the doll into place and everyone was allowed to breathe again, albeit gently.

I’ve no idea who the baby was, they’ll be over 40 by now.  But all the above shows why design is so fascinating.  It’s not just coming up with a great idea, it’s working out how to implement it. 

In any business it’s not just what we deliver but how we set about it, both behind the scenes and before the customer.

You could think of strategy as design through time, working out the sequence of events, the decisions to be taken as something develops.  Design is the equivalent in space.  If you have something that works better, you have an edge over your competitors.  Hence, sugar paste. 

Whilst you set about a new design, you also need solitude.  You need the space to work it out.  How am I going to produce those filigree leaves?  It is about thinking through each step in detail, dreaming up new things to try, so you can find an approach that works.

Creativity is messy and glorious – it is only in the broken leaves that we find true gold.

Day 19/21 of my writing challenge. Every weekday, I publish a short piece of writing on my subject, solitude. The writings are based on a daily prompt from Megan Macedo, who leads the challenge. These are all first drafts with minimal revision. Please comment if you find these posts helpful. Previous: Good Housekeeping Next: Shared Solitude

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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