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Johanna Basford: Secret Garden

Work / Opinion

Pentagram’s Angus Hyland: adult colouring is a “gateway drug”

Pentagram partner and creative director of Laurence King publishers Angus Hyland looks at why colouring books for grown-ups are more than a meditation aid.

Success is always divisive. When Johanna Basford’s adult colouring books, Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest took the first and second position on the US Amazon charts in April,) the reactions ranged from editorials lauding it as a new type of meditation) to Russell Brand marking it as the start of the apocalypse.)

Secret Garden was published by Laurence King in 2013, and was not explicitly aimed at the adult market. We intended it to be a colouring book for advanced children with a level of sophistication and artistry that was inline with other publications, like the Tattoo Colouring book and Let’s Make Some Great Art by Marion Deuchars. It was this complexity that made Secret Garden appeal to an older market, creating a de facto adult colouring book in the process.

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Johanna Basford: Secret Garden

The success of adult colouring books is a dream for publishers, mainly because they’re dependent on the printed page. Colouring is an easy way to plug out, to ignore our phones, our computers and all the achingly smart technology that surrounds us and begs us to constantly upload our thoughts. Instead, it allows you to reflect inwardly, moving you towards a meditative state.

But there’s so more to adult colouring than mindfulness. If quiet and meditation was all we were after, we would have stuck with the prescriptive model of painting by numbers, a trend that became very popular amongst adults in the 1960s and 1970s. A huge part of the success of Secret Garden and so many other adult colouring books is the freedom it gives us to be creative. This creativity is of course restricted to colour and medium choice, but even this limited freedom forces to take a break from the overdeveloped language processing part of our brains, making us engage with our underdeveloped non-lingual expressions. 

Many people fear the idea of filling a blank page, and this comes from the often misheld belief that they aren’t creative. By acting as an entry point into creative activity, adult colouring can help people to tackle this fear. Michael Bierut, my fellow partner at Pentagram, was recently discussing Johanna and her work on his podcast, Observatory, and he said “there is something great about giving people a way in with creativity, even if it has multiple training wheels on it,” and I agree. The great result of adult colouring is not the act itself, it’s the subsequent acts of creativity it inspires. It’s a gateway drug, if you like. 

Instead of looking at adult colouring as an infantile and mindless activity, I think we should see it as a training ground, a nursery slope for artistry. It’s not childish and it’s more than meditative, it’s a process and practice that allows you to start engaging with the dreaded blank page.