Making and managing meaning

When people ask me what we do at our storytelling studio Public Works, I often start with our defining line—Making and managing meaning. What does that mean? How do we ‘make meaning’ or manage it? This is a little story that explains how meaning is made and managed. 

I live near a church. I’m not a religious person; but, I love most spiritual centres as they often have an architecture that points you towards something greater and beyond the everyday world. This church exudes that same sense of otherworldly serenity into our neighbourhood; On the nights that its choir sings, everything gets covered in a layer of twinkling magic made by gospel music.

This church has a big bell with deep tolls that resound throughout our neighbourhood. Every morning, sharp at six, at high noon, and six in the evening, this bell would echo identifying the beginning, middle and end of each day—significant points in our communal framework of existing within standard time. On Sundays—the day that the church encourages its community to spend in spiritual growth—the bell was sounded thrice at seven am before mass. It sent a message to everyone—including us non-churchgoers—to remember to take a step back from the race and spend time in communion with our inner world. It made perfect sense; it was beautiful, and most importantly, it was meaningful. It was meaningful—not because hitting a big metal dome had any inherent meaning to it, nor because the bell-ringer was a divine being that brought meaning to it—but, because it was made meaningful.

The meaning came from the conscious intention in the act that stemmed from the church’s values, a rational relevance built with a universal framework of time that everyone understood, and the ritual consistency with which it was done. Because of these considerations, it became meaningful not only to its direct audience of churchgoers but also, to everyone else around. 

Earlier this year, the church changed its bell ringer. The new bell ringer rang at five minutes past six, or sometimes even ten past six. He rang it thrice, four times, and occasionally nine or ten times; On rainy days, two feeble chimes would escape the bell before the act was abandoned in an obvious hurry. The lack of intention and consistency was evident. The church bell lost its meaning to a significant degree. Its message no longer had clarity and joined the meaningless chorus of traffic in the neighbourhood. Although the church itself remains beautiful—and I have no doubts that it continues to serve its devotees the same spiritual connection—it lost one of the most meaningful interactions with its neighbourhood. 

Brand conversations are also like this. A successful brand conversation is built upon conscious intention that comes from your company’s values, a rational relevance built to your audience through the message, and the ritual consistency of a well-rounded brand personality, language, voice and tone maintained right throughout. Without these elements, your brand stories will also remain lost in the digital noise, deleted unread from inboxes, or overlooked on the feed.

In our work methodology, we construct specific tools like the Public Works’ Brand Articulation Framework that facilitates meaningful conversations. Essentially, they connect the brand personality and values to the interests and concerns of an identified audience. When on-brand messages that are current, interesting, and relevant to the target audience get presented with a consistent brand voice, the conversations become meaningful. This is what lies at the core of creating stories that generate sales and business for our clients. Want to find out more about how we work? Read more about our process here.

Is ‘meaning’ built on words?

How is ‘meaning’ constructed in our minds? Can we make meaning out of something without words? Is it through words that we understand the world? Let’s look into that.

It’s hard to even imagine interacting and making sense of the world without words. It almost seems that words are the very architecture of thoughts, and the memories formed thereafter. Is it possible to think without words? The answer to the question depends on what you mean by thinking. I think, thinking is a response, a way of making sense of things; it is an attempt to understand; an active derivation of meaning. Thinking is, essentially, processing life. Words are probably the most obvious way to think. Can you think without words? You can definitely feel and experience without words. But, experiencing pain is not the same as processing pain and understanding it. Experiencing music is not the same as processing it and deriving meaning from it. 

Oscar Wilde called language “the parent, and not the child, of thought”, suggesting that thinking is shaped by our words. He’s not entirely wrong.

But, we know artists and musicians who think in image or sound. The mathematical genius Daniel Tammet processes numbers by thinking in landscapes. Another interesting thing is how hearing-impaired people, who are cut off from both spoken and signed language, would think. There are records of a fifteen-year-old boy with hearing disability, who wrote in 1836, after being educated at a school for the deaf, that he remembered thinking “that perhaps the moon would strike me, and I thought that perhaps my parents were strong, and would fight the moon, and it would fail, and I mocked the moon,” before he was initiated into language. This is definitely thinking, processing concepts like ‘strong’ and ‘mocking’, and shows how thoughts, even somewhat complex ones, can be created without the help of words. 

So, does that mean that word and thought are independent? Not entirely. Mundurucú, a remote Brazillian tribe, has only words for numbers up to five. When studying their capacity to understand the concept of a number higher than five, it became evident that for many Mundurucú, the idea of greater than five was a difficult one to grasp. Although some showed signs of understanding the idea of ‘something bigger than this’, they were quick to categorise it as ‘a lot’, rather than attempting to define it more specifically.

We can certainly think and process information without words; using comparison, physical memories and associations with shapes, and colours; perhaps even symbols, sound, and movement. However, some meanings can only be completed in the presence of the word.

Mundurucu during a funeral process. Their perception of the world was limited by the extent of their language.

Mundurucú’s limitedness in grasping simple numerical concepts show that although ideas and concepts can be actively processed without words, they may not be fully understood in such cases. Certain ideas or concepts— most certainly numerical ones, as the study with Mundurucú suggest— cannot be grasped fully without the clarity and definition that a word would lend. That is to say, that there are certain kinds of thinking that are made possible only by words. 

Words are symbols, or pathways to symbols, that we can use to define, and zoom out of ideas in order to observe them. This means that, despite words being a very precise way to understand something, they are actually fundamental to abstraction and meta- thinking. Without words, it’s quite possible that we wouldn’t know that we’re thinking, because we would not be able to isolate the concept in order to perceive it. Sure; but, what does that mean?

How the brain processes language and meaning has interested scientific minds throughout time.

This means that for brands— whether personalities, businesses or organisations—words become fundamental to define and set themselves apart as a singular entity in a market. Brands are entities based on operating through a certain identity, and on the basis that the audience has good reason to choose their ideas, services, or products, over or in addition to others’. This decision of the audience to choose your brand is always made through a defining identity that sets you apart. Articulating this exact definition is where words become paramount to brands.

Writing content for a brand must begin with an articulation of what that entity is, and what it stands for in this world. This is why our studio Public Works often recommends new clients to invest in a brand articulation before purchasing any written content from us. It’s the most effective way to draw the true power of a medium as precise as the written word.

A brand articulation is a process where tacit knowledge about the brand is transformed into explicit knowledge. We sit down and outline the ideas, statements and personality frameworks with the involvement of its founders and key decision-makers as a workshop, or through an online questionnaire that the clients take responsibility to complete and submit. The outcome is a consciously articulated definition of your brand framing its core concepts, reason for being and the experiences that it delivers. In the brand articulations that we deliver from Public Works, a brand is first put it into words this way, then followed by a visual articulation that suggests the direction of the brand’s visual identity (depending on which point the brand is at, in its evolution). These are the most important elements for standard communications. A well articulated brand has solid ground to stand on, and speak confidently to its audience. It is from this brand articulation that all communications are drawn out from; In the case of new brands or those coming to a significant shift, sometimes even the name and visual identity are derived from the brand articulation.

Before words are strung together to communicate complex ideas, emotions and values, they are used to define fundamentals, at seed-level. Before a brand uses words to share its stories with the world, it must use the word to define itself at the core.

This is where words become fundamental to businesses. Most businesses would use words for communication—at the periphery of where a brand operates, and engages with its audience; and that is a good use of words. But, a great use of words is at the seed of a brand where it needs to be defined against the world, and brought fully into the light of our perception. It’s where everything begins.

If you want to learn more about the process and outcomes of a brand articulation, send me a message to find out how we do it at Public Works.


  • Danielle R. Perszyk, Sandra R. Waxman. Listening to the calls of the wild: The role of experience in linking language and cognition in young infants. Cognition, 2016; 153: 175 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2016.05.004
  • Brenda Schick , Jill de Villiers , Peter de Villiers and Bob Hoffmeister. Theory of Mind: Language and Cognition in Deaf Children. DOI:10.1044/leader.FTR1.07222002.6
  • Pica, Pierre & Lecomte, Alain. (2008). Theoretical Implications of the Study of Numbers and Numerals in Mundurucu. Philosophical Psychology. 21. 507-522. DOI: 10.1080/09515080802285461

Translating island experiences for fashion

SRI is definitely the most unique fashion brand we’ve seen in Sri Lanka; that’s a big statement to make, but the brand does truly live up to it. It is a brand that revolves around Sri Lanka’s mystique as the island of serendipity, where an allure of innocence and mystery mix with natural beauty. SRI captures it so well with modern style statements that could really work anywhere in the world. To create the introduction for SRI, we followed the brand identity that was created by The Future Laboratory—world’s leading trend forecasting agency.

SRI comes from a place of serendipitous ease. It exudes a sense of innocence and mystery. SRI comes alive in the same kind of intense vibrancy that you find in nature as you walk barefoot through the wilderness in a faraway tropical island.

SRI commissioned us again to create written content for launching its collection on the online fashion portal FMLK. This time, the story had to be told to Colombo’s jet set audiences. Staying true to the brand’s allure of uber-cool tropical vibrancy, we worked on creating something that is commercially sound, hard-selling and Instagram friendly.

Get lost in paradise through a timeless story artisan-woven in rich textures of twills, ombre and herringbone in tropical colours made from memories of somewhere magical. Get into the mood with urban minimalist style in futuristic easy silhouettes, perfect for the here-and-now transients, ever-curious culturists and neoteric wanderers whether in London, Tokyo, Paris, Colombo or New York.

Presenting the master expressionist behind the looks that left some serious impressions this London Fashion Week— Amesh Wijesekera—who made all heads turn with his award-winning international debut at GFW 2015. He returns to the catwalk as the designer, curator and stylist behind SRI’s trans-seasonal launch capsule that got everyone vibing in tropical modernism at London Fashion Week SS18

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If time was a long, golden beach

When Villa Oceane first approached us through our friends at the design studio Mooniak their initial brief was to write a light-hearted piece with surf lingo. But, we saw something different. As practice, we made an inquiry about the target audience of this work, and uncovered that they appreciate sophisticated and high quality experiences that were beyond just chasing waves. So, we proposed a much more poetic, dreamy tone for writing that resonated with the idea of a blissful island holiday; and, it worked.

Here are some of my favourite lines from the project.

Where the ocean fills your lungs in salty blues, while everything is rendered magical in a tropical sun-blaze, and nothing else matters.

Some say that Sri Lanka blesses certain souls with her serendipitous magic. So, don’t be surprised if you happen to find something you’ve been searching for, caught in the sun spots filtered through palm leaves, pearly smiles and the sea-swept breeze. Villa Oceane braids her days weaving in authentic island cuisine and a life philosophy built on surf, yoga and slow walks on the beach, perfected with a personal butler service that deepens the experience of easy luxury. 

‘Easy’ is how life should be lived. The mundane should be the last thing on your mind. Your only question should be whether to surf the big blue or dapple in drops of sandy gold.

Villa Oceane is a magical place throughout the year. From November to February is when you find the easiest temperatures that range between mild warm to balmy on the occasional midday. The southern sea puts forward her best time for swimming and surfing, with ocean currents mellowing down to perfect the water for easy, bathwater-warm dips, marking the most popular season. Come March, Earth’s tropics inch closer to the sun, bringing warmer days that peak in April. The surf is still up, with the waves growing in size but slowing down on smoothness. 

If life is a pursuit of happiness, why not spend your days chasing larger-than-life moments, incredible sunsets and perfect waves?

Between May and July, a short period of monsoon showers render the ocean turbulent and the sands to recede, but cast a haunting, rainy beauty across the landscapes. August brings cheerful shine but the ocean needs more time to regain her peace. If you’re content with the view of the ocean, and the stunning sceneries, this is a time with only a few visitors by the coast. By September and October, anxious surfers and swimmers set out to rekindle their connection with the water in less-than-perfect conditions because by now, the gold of the beach is starting to reappear and the ocean is seen returning to her perfect aquamarine—it’s hard to resist, and a good time to visit before the snowbirds fly in.

Experiences— they’re the only things that remain after the days have turned to dust and places to memories. So, make them many, make them rich, make them incredible.

It may be some old biological magic that lives in taste, that gives it the ability to transcend language to tell stories in wordless flavour, symphonies of colour.

The culinary culture of a place always carries the essence of its people. Through wordless stories in flavours and seasoning, you’re able to sense their habits, nature, days and lives. Villa Oceane likes to share some of her stories this way. With freshest seafood harvested off the balmy ocean waters, farm grown treasures from across the island, rich spices, and traditional culinary methods, the kitchens at Villa Oceane concoct perfect island delights to transport you across Sri Lanka, story after story.

What is paradise? Someplace where beauty and bliss are abundant, and time is a long golden beach that stands still—almost forever.

The ocean can cast a spectacular spell on your being. Its vastness can lead you to the eternity in yourself or render you small and speechless to be content with simple things – like a day spent in the breezy hush under a palm tree. Villa Oceane made her chambers with the enchanting vision of the Indian Ocean in their full view, so that your stay there becomes an unbroken stretch of seaborne magic.

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Made from paradise

When you live on a tropical island, the flip-flops you wear become such a part of your everyday identity; So, it is pretty common to have strong preferences when it comes to your go-to flip-flop brand. Mine are WAVES, because their flip-flops are made from 100% natural, local, fair-grown rubber that is completely biodegradable. So, I was pretty excited about writing the official brand profile for WAVES a few years back. When I met the WAVES team at the Samson Group’s DSI headquarters in Colombo, it was clear that they were really serious about sustainability.

For this project, we created a tone of voice that is trustworthy, earnest and warm; WAVES addressed the consumer directly, in first person, creating a moving, heart-to-heart conversation with the audience.

Part of the brief was finding a way to connect Sri Lanka’s beauty and nature to their brand philosophy. ‘Made from paradise’ became the coining phrase for the brand profile, because it drew focus to the process of making the product and its natural roots in both material choice and inspiration.

Shaped capturing the curve of ocean waves, coloured in the memory of indigenous birds and flowers, textured paying tribute to the sandy beaches, Waves is crafted by our island’s people using fair grown, natural rubber. It is an homage to a small drop of earth that remains true to nature’s sacred beauty.

We come from the life that runs in the deep blue water, fresh green leaves, and every free-roaming creature.

Devoted to leave no scars on the natural world that inspires us, the substances and the activities used in the making of Waves flip-flops are selected with utmost care. Waves is crafted entirely from genuine Sri Lankan rubber grown in the fertile slopes that run parallel to the rolling hills of the island. This rubber is harvested, treated and made into comfortable flip-flops using material and processes that meet the highest compliances and leave no trace on the natural world around us.

With our farmers, harvesters, makers, technicians and craftsmen, Waves  embraces one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful facets—her people.

This is what makes wearing Waves a much bigger experience than slipping on a pair of average flip-flops. Because, when you wear a pair of Waves, you become part of paradise, its incredible landscapes, flora, fauna and people. When you wear a pair of Waves you transport yourself to the memories of a sunlit place by the ocean. When you wear a pair of Waves you take a stand to protect nature’s pristine unfolding and safeguard it for tomorrow. When you wear a pair of Waves you touch the lives of many Sri Lankans from farmers, makers to harvesters, helping them build their families. When you wear a pair of Waves you make a difference.

Made from nature; from what we hold sacred; from smiles. Made from paradise.

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Do or die

We’ve been working with Sri Lanka’s e-commerce pioneer, Kapruka founder Dulith Herath for years now. His views on technology and its role in Sri Lanka’s economy are incredibly fascinating, and his ideas remain as groundbreaking as ever. Among the many stories and written pieces we’ve developed on Dulith, this is probably my favourite. When I met Dulith for this interview at his Java Lounge café in Jawatte, he explained how important it was for him to make local businesses understand the that e-commerce is no longer a choice. As much as the message came from a place of personal passion and conviction for Dulith, it was also important that the piece connected to his latest operation ‘Grasshoppers’ which gave local businesses the opportunity to streamline last mile delivery end-to-end. It was essential for the writer to make the connection between Dulith’s ideas and where they connect to a new opportunity with Grasshoppers. Dulith really loved the line we developed based on his own statements; ‘No more excuses, and do or die’ really captured the urgency and importance of the matter.

Since the article was presented as an interview with quotes of Dulith’s ideas and thoughts, the introduction we wrote for him needed to really nail his authority in the subject matter. Although the headline was the ‘punch’ of the article, this introduction was what really gave its weight.

Sri Lanka’s e-com pioneer Dulith Herath speaks out in exclusive interview discussing how his network of online retail facilitators, from ‘Kapruka’ to the latest ‘Grasshoppers’, gives Sri Lankan businesses everything they need to ace the online retail game.

“Sri Lankan businesses need to take a good look at how dinosaur enterprises were affected in bigger markets across the world. They were big, once relevant but completely outdated when the digital revolution happened and the online buying culture erupted. It became a fast downfall to those dinosaurs. But, we don’t have to repeat the same mistakes here. There’s room to change, but not much time. So, now is the time you need to get behind this, before it’s too late,” says Dulith Herath. As the man who pioneered the ecommerce sector in Sri Lanka, Herath has a wealth of wisdom to offer any business on how to get their online game right. Right now, he has just completed what he calls ‘Sri Lanka’s first complete e commerce facilitator network’. For years now, Herath has been working in developing the country’s ecommerce sector through his own ventures like Kapruka and Grasshoppers; going as far as meeting Asia’s e-com king Jack Ma of Alibaba. Sharing more on this, Herath joined Daily FT for an exclusive interview where he discussed the future of e-tail, how Sri Lankan businesses are losing out by not tapping into the online marketplace, and why there are no more excuses left for local businesses to get their e commerce game on point. “It’s a do-or-die really,” he says.

“It’s not even a question to ask whether e commerce revolution will happen in Sri Lanka; it’s just a question of when, and it’s already happening”

Dulith has studied the e-commerce landscapes in markets all over the world, from US, Canada, India, China to Thailand, observing the common traits. He pointed out that everywhere, the online buying phenomenon was welcomed at different paces— but surely and most definitely, it was always welcomed by consumers to eventually dominate the everyday purchasing habits. “It’s not to say that people will never go into a shop, but traditional retail will only survive at the more experiential end of the spectrum. For everyday shopping people will always resort to convenience, and online is hard to beat in this matter.” Herath also added that in every country, the entry of a giant player with major investments would bring about a significant ‘hockey-stick’ spike in the e commerce sales causing the entire sector to grow rapidly. “We’ve seen this in every country, from Amazon to Flipkart… Because when investment comes, the concessions to convert consumers into adapters become possible, and once they convert, the it’s a matter of continuing the habit. In Sri Lanka, this happened too, and the ripples of this are felt across the entire chain…and this is exactly what I hope will happen more often here with big companies like Softlogic being present. The share that investors can also gain is massive, because they’re breaking new paths here.” He assures that it’s only a matter of time for Sri Lankan businesses to realise that without e commerce, they’re not even scratching the surface of the possibilities available in the worldwide markets. “Accessibility to the online market is there now, the question is, are you ready to work towards it?”

“The idea that the markets in the South Asian region are not ready is a myth. About 15% of the Indian market is online. It’s only 22% even in the US.”

“If you look at the biggest retailers here in Sri Lanka, they’re not online. And when I say online, I mean really online. For most, getting online is a matter of adding a shopping cart to their website, cutting a ribbon and a cake, releasing a press story and waiting for something to happen. And when nothing happens, they fire the team,  start again, maybe give a discount, and have the customers flock, take the discount and never return…so it will keep dying this natural death, and they give it up saying the market is not ready. It doesn’t work like that. For me, even if 99% of my retail is brick-and-mortar, I will still go after developing that 1% because that’s the future. You need to get into it, and be serious about it.”

Herath explains that for e commerce to really work and become a success for a company, it takes the business leaders to understand that it is the future. With global statistics pointing out that online marketplace will only continue to boom, bringing in new accessibility and market shares from every corner of the world, it seems only obvious that e commerce will be the most popular form of buying and selling tomorrow. “Leaders need to motivate their teams to keep digging at it; keep investing; keep analysing the data; keep communicating with the customer…only then, it will begin to happen. And if you invest in this now, when the primary commercial channel becomes e commerce in the very near future, you will still be in the game.”

“And remember, the world is your competition now…”

Hearth spins the conversation to zoom in on another point of view. What does radical accessibility mean to the consumers here? Will Sri Lankan consumers stay loyal to local brands that don’t take the online retail world seriously, when the same or better products are available from abroad, at the click of a button? “It’s not just the Sri Lankan businesses having access to the consumer markets across the world. It’s the other way round too… our businesses need to remember that the local consumers now have access to products from every corner of the world. They can just order what they want, and have it shipped from the other corner of the world, right to their doorstep—especially with ventures like Grasshopper that we just started where last mile delivery becomes simplified and extremely economical. So what’s stopping your consumers from switching to a international competitor now?”

Herath adds that local retailers who go online and maintain their presence in the e commerce sphere will stay at the top of the consumer mind as people spend more and more of their time focused on screens.

“Everything you need to make e commerce work in Sri Lanka is there. There are no more excuses for failing at preparing your business for the inevitable future.”

Herath has connected an entire network of businesses and collaborators that can help any company to start their e commerce success story in Sri Lanka. He says that everything from infrastructure builders to delivery is now available in the country, leaving no room to hold back on the exponential growth that online retail world offers retailers. “You cannot say that there are no payment gateways in Sri Lanka—it’s there; you cannot say that there is no consumer adaptation here in the island—it’s clearly there; you cannot say there are no last mile delivery—companies like Grasshoppers are international award-winning experts at it. So, Sri Lankan retailers really have no excuses to get their online game right. It’s the future of retail, and with everything you need available in the country, what are you waiting for? Go on, make your business future-proof.

The article is online on Daily Financial Times DFT here

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