You Know, for Kids

As creative types, we are always looking for that "Aha!" moment when inspiration strikes or a solution to a problem suddenly rears its beautiful head. It's why clients hire us frankly. But what happens if inspiration strikes and we miss it or we pick a lame idea while a brilliant one sits in the trash? Remember The Hudsucker Proxy, a Coen Brothers movie from the mid 90s? It's a period comedy starring Tim Robbins as Norville Barnes, an idealistic, naive young man who has an idea that could make his company millions and be his ticket to the Top Floor. Norville reveals his idea early in the film to a co-worker in the mail room by slowly, reverently pulling a folded sheet of paper with a circle drawn on it from his shoe. He gets a blank stare in return. Norville's response is an incredulous, explanatory "You know, for kids!"

Norville's big reveal is met with stunned silence every single time. No one—including the audience—ever really gets it. All they see is a simple circle.

Norville sees the Hula Hoop.

So, how do we evaluate good ideas? After all, virtually every musical genius has a clunker or two in their back catalog and even Steve Jobs green-lighted the hockey puck mouse. Inconsistency is a consistent theme of creativity—those blessed with prodigious talent still miss the mark from time to time. Perhaps the greatest gift an artist can possess is the gift of discernment?

Part of the TBD creative process is to sketch as many ideas as possible and then revisit those ideas over the short term. This engages the subconscious mind and helps facilitate the separation of the mediocre from the bad and the good from the great. Some ideas cross-pollinate and combine to form even stronger solutions. Some ideas are dismissed out of hand. We purposely move to other projects or unrelated tasks along the way—a happy necessity in a small business where each designer is responsible for both invoicing and selling, creating and taking out the trash. Fresh eyes are sought from the other TBD partners and eventually the best options are shown to the client for another fresh-eyed review where the process can start all over again.

We trust in the process, but also never throw anything away. Sometimes a good idea goes unused simply because of taste or timing and sometimes an idea dismissed on Monday is Friday's winner. After all, one man's circle is another man's Hula Hoop.

You know, for kids.







Plot v Story

Last week my youngest son, Sam spent the weekend at a local Methodist camp. He had a chance to escape his obnoxious parents and spend a little time away with friends. Instead of chores and homework reminders, he was looking forward to some Capture the Flag and a few campfire s'mores. Most of all, he was looking forward to the high ropes course—one of Camp LouCon's biggest draws. Now, Sam is a large boy. He's not just fluffy, he's BIG. Because he's still growing, his cost-conscious (i.e. cheap) parents have chosen to outfit him in a wide range of sweat pants. They aren't exactly stylish, but they are flexible and "fit" for more than a few months at a time.

Anyway, on Ropes Day the camp counselor divided the kids into pairs and helped squeeze Sam into a safety harness and hoisted him skyward. As he slowly rose, a little problem occurred. No, it wasn't that his spotter was all of 100 pounds and required another kid's help to keep her from being pulled off the ground with him. That was easily remedied. No, it was the interaction of the safety harness with Sam's sweat pants. Let's just say that the black straps framed a part of his anatomy in such a way that it was clear that he was a boy. Explicitly. The crowd was uncomfortably aghast.

The awkwardness built until one girl let out an extended "SAAAMMMM!"

Sam knew that he was stuck. He was literally dangling overhead for all to see and couldn't do a thing about it. That's when inspiration struck. He simply shouted out "Feast your eyes!"

Nice story, eh? Actually, what you just read is a nice plot. A story would be more along the lines of "a quick-witted teenager finds himself in an awkward situation and diffuses it with humor." Simply put, a plot is what happens while a story is what it's all about.

In the business world, it's easy to get wrapped up in plot when customers are really only interested in the story and vice versa. While selling, always remember "it's about the customer and their needs." Tell your story so that a potential customer has a reason to trust you over someone else but don't get caught in the trap of talking about yourself ad infinitum. That's why every salesperson has their 30-second elevator speech ready for the "tell me about your company" question and a quick segue way into "tell me about your needs."

When branding, plot matters. The Holy Grail of brand-building is an emotional attachment with the consumer and for that you need story AND plot. Engage the reader with detail. Be relatable. Be human. The bicycle enthusiast wants to know about that time your company president took a mountain bike prototype into Telluride to work out the final kinks in the gear ratios. If bears are involved, all the better.

Finally, nothing brings a good story/plot home like a powerful image. I spent about 35 words describing my son's unfortunate predicament above, but a single image would have led the reader from "feast your eyes" to "gouge your eyes" almost instantly. In this case, words worked by themselves. What's your brand's story?




Let Me Tell You About That One Time

My wife has an interesting relationship with the English language. They are well-aquainted, but not exactly friends. Case in point, a few years ago we were talking about death—a cheery topic of conversation no doubt—and she mentioned that she didn't want to be buried, but cremated. It was less expensive. Her body wouldn't decay in the ground or be eaten by worms (which would certainly be gross). The idea of having her ashes spread at some serene, meaningful location sounded romantic. Surviving members of the family could schedule a memorial service when they were ready—or the weather was particularly agreeable—and in the meantime she'd just sit on the mantle in a nice urinal.

Oops. She quickly corrected herself to urn, but the damage was done. For the next several minutes I riffed on the possibility of mounting a urinal over the fireplace and making little urinal cakes out of her now-purposful ashes. A story was born.

Stories are hard-wired into our DNA. When we hear a story it engages our entire brain. Our brain creates images and emotional responses as we naturally want to relate the story to our own life. By observing real-time brain scans, scientists have found that a story activates that part of our brain most associated with the events taking place in the story itself. For example, if the story is about the taste of apple pie or the smell of grandma's cedar chest, it will trigger our sensory cortex and if it’s about jogging in the park it will engage our motor cortex. A story about about a person’s joy or pain will activate our insular cortex—the area of the brain associated with pain perception and the processing of social emotions. Because so many parts of the brain are engaged at any one time, a good story elicits a powerful response that connects us to one another and forms the foundation of a relationship.

Likewise, every brand has a story. Tell it in a compelling way and customers will become emotionally engaged as though they are a part of it. It's the way we are made.

Now, let me tell you about that one time...


One of life's great pleasures is the discovery of something new: an unearthed gem from a favorite band's back catalog, an extraordinary athletic feat, or a simple cat trick. One of my favorite sources of something new is the English language. With over a million words according to the Global Language Monitor there's a strong chance that there's at least one that hasn't yet entered my mental lexicon. Today It's the word "meretricious" meaning "apparently attractive but having in reality no value or integrity."

Wow. Clearly, I need to reexamine the body of my design work to determine just how many meretricious pieces I've unleashed upon the world!

James Altucher, author of "Choose Yourself", a book Forbes Magazine calls "one of the top five books every entrepreneur must read," has written about something he calls the "Idea Muscle". He writes that the cliché that ideas are a dime a dozen is simply untrue. Instead, ideas are a dime for three. He recommends this exercise: come up with 10 ideas to surprise your significant other for an upcoming date night. The first three are fairly easy, but after that the going gets tougher and tougher and by idea seven most people are reduced to counting the list over and over again hoping for a change in the laws of arithmetic.

By repeating this exercise on a daily basis about any theme you choose, the Idea Muscle will become strengthened and your life will be enriched. I plan to put this notion to the test over the next few weeks. At best the world may become a better place and at the very least my wife and I will have better dates.

Time will tell which ideas have merit and which are merely meretricious.

Gaming the System

The school year ended a few weeks ago. Normally, this is a time of relief and celebration. My wife and I (also known as "my wife") don't have to worry about our teenaged son staying up too late, starting/finishing his homework, or about which school function he's forgotten to tell us. He is not destined for MIT, but grades aren't usually an issue. This year has been different. His math grade has hovered around "U" for the last quarter or so and the class is cumulative: if he passes, he's golden, but if he fails, he has to take the entire class over.

Strangely enough, he didn't seem to care about it all that much. I asked him why he was doing so poorly and received answers like "I just don't get it." and "Lots of students are failing." I asked how he thought spending his summer retaking a full year of math would be and he replied "I can just take it again next year." "What? Taking two math classes at the same time your senior year will be miserable. You are setting yourself up for failure." With that, he explained that he only had to retake the one math class because the school didn't actually require a student to pass four years of math, just take four years of math.

The tiny cogs in my brain started working and I had a mini-epiphony. He had gamed the system! Because my son and a few like-minded slackers didn't want to take pre-calculus/calculus, they sand-bagged junior math so they could skate by senior year by repeating a class they already knew! Brilliant on the one hand, but so stupid on the other! Good GPA? College scholarship money? Bah.

If necessity is the mother of invention, ease must be its uncle. Companies rightly devote countless work-hours to streamlining processes or looking for ways to improve existing products or services. They recognize that the initial spark of innovation is hard, but refinement is something that can be worked through with effort, spit, and polish. It's not unlike the design process really. We know that what consumers relate to best—a good idea, communicated clearly—is typically the most elusive part of a project.

Perhaps I was too harsh with my son and his friends. They didn't game the system, they exposed its flaws so that it might be subsequently improved. Maybe they are just learning to beta test at a young age and have long careers ahead as efficiency managers or security testers?

Nah. I'm not buying it either.



A few years ago, my father-in-law and I attempted some plumbing work in my basement. Our primary drain was backed up, so we rented an industrial strength power drain snake and set about to clear any...ahem...debris. The work went smoothly enough. We fed the snake into the drain and did our best to stay out of its way. It chopped up some roots that had grown into the pipe and we pulled out various bits of nastiness in the process. The drain started working again. Mission accomplished.

At that point my wife arrived home from some Saturday chore and shouted down a hello from upstairs. We replied and began discussing just how we'd go about replacing the big drain pipe that had been cut loose for access and what we might do for lunch. No worries. That's when it started: a faint sound of trickling water followed by a great, big WHOOSH.

My wife had used the facilities and promptly flushed.

I recall shouting NOOOO when the spray gushed from the pipe and covered the two of us in who knows what. Actually, we all know "what" but let's leave that part unsaid.

We weathered the storm and my father-in-law let fly with these words of wisdom: "don't lick your lips."

Words to live by. Especially when life showers you with $#!&.

Every business has a mess to clean up from time to time. In the marketing realm, a poorly received campaign message or the sudden need to merge visual assets with those of another company can derail years of careful brand building. Crises happen. The right response from the marketing team is to assess the situation and take the proper steps to rectify it. Don't shy away from input. A 2014 episode of Brain Games on the National Geographic Channel revealed the "wisdom of the crowd." A group of people were asked to guess the number of gum-balls in a giant gum-ball machine. The range of answers varied as widely as the guessers and not a single one of them was correct. However, when averaged, the 20 people came remarkably close to the right answer of 2,447—missing it by just 22 gum-balls!

All data points matter. Seek them out and listen when offered. Critical statements or contrary opinions are just as valuable to the mix as those that confirm what we already think we know and can lead to an inspired solution. Remember, should a crisis environment become toxic, keep your ears—and mind—open.

And for goodness sake, don't lick your lips.


Pandora's Day

This weekend I was on my way to Lowe's to stave off a Mother's Day grill emergency. The grates on my dad's 1978 "vintage" grill had collapsed and the replacement grates simply didn't fit. He was attempting to hold them in place with looked like a long, flimsy metal tube and failing. Badly. There had to be a remedy at the local Big Box so away I went. Along the way, the story of Mother's Day's humble beginnings came burbling from my radio:

Back in 1908, Anna Jarvis sought to honor her recently deceased mother, a Civil War peace activist who had cared for both Union and Confederate soldiers, by having her Minister deliver a sermon in her honor—and the honor of all mothers. The success of that sermon emboldened Ms. Jarvis to write various members of Congress and after a few jokes about having to also institute Mother-In-Law's Day, Mother's Day became an official U.S. holiday six years later. One woman's tireless dedication changed history and the way many of us spend the second Sunday in May.

But that's not the end of the story.

Mother's Day was a big success out of the gate but after a few years, greeting card companies, confectioners, and florists began commercializing Mother's Day and it's popularity grew even more. Ms. Jarvis was appalled. Her creation had morphed into something beyond what she had intended. Later in life Ms. Jarvis even fought to have the holiday rescinded, but to no avail. The cat was out of the bag. The beast was loose. Pandora's Great Big Box of Red Carnations had been opened.

Such is the way of brands. When we release a product or campaign to the world it takes on a life of its own. Sometimes that life is what we hope for—attention, up-take, retention—and sometimes it is decidedly not. Brands need to be tended. They need to be nurtured, and they need to be pruned when necessary. That's where an experienced branding firm or dedicated brand manager can help. A diligent letter writing campaign is just not enough.

Thank you Anna Jarvis for reminding us to remember our mothers. Hallmark Corporation thanks you as well.




Yesterday Lauren Hill died. For those who haven't heard her story, Lauren was a young woman diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor who attacked her cancer with gusto and refused to allow it to derail her dream of playing college basketball. Lauren's example inspires us all to remember that each of life's moments is a gift and that there are no guarantees that we'll be given another.

Lauren's story is especially poignant to me as my oldest son—also 19—was diagnosed with a brain tumor last year. He was lucky. His tumor was operable and after a relatively short rehab, he's pretty much back to normal. When I look at him I see a young man joyfully operating on bonus time and am reminded to stop treading water and get to it. His example—and Lauren's—serve as motivation to be relentless in all things: work, play, love, life.

Thank you Lauren Hill. Rest in peace.



Hey Batter Batter

Hillerich & Bradsby, the venerable makers of Louisville Slugger baseball bats, have agreed to sell their 131 year old brand to Wilson Sporting Goods for a cool $70 million. For someone who lives in Louisville and has been around baseball for over forty years, the news hit particularly hard. Louisville Slugger made bats for Babe Ruth. They made bats for Ted Williams. When I attended "Bat Day" during the 70s heyday of my beloved Cincinnati Reds, it was Louisville Slugger who provided the beautiful black, George Foster autographed model that my brother and I carried back home and used to threaten neighborhood property values.

What struck me about this deal at first was the magnitude. $70 million seemed like a HUGE number—especially for a product brand facing such stiff headwinds. Usage of Louisville Slugger bats among major leaguers has declined to just 60% and wood bats are basically ignored in youth baseball where aluminum and composites dominate. The Emerald Ash Borer is threatening the supply of U.S. ash and H&B faces stiff competition from Canadian and Asian bat manufacturers better situated to produce bats from maple, birch, and bamboo. Anyone who has visited the wonderful Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory—and knows his way around a computer-guided lathe—can make a baseball bat as good as a Louisville Slugger wood bat. So, what is Wilson buying for its $70 million? Simple: brand equity.

It's difficult to quantify the awareness, history, and loyalty Louisville Slugger commands among consumers but Millward Brown, a market-research company, claims that brands account for more than 30% of the stock market value of companies in the S&P index. Brands are the most valuable thing that companies like Apple and McDonald's own and are often worth more than property or machinery. They signal quality and build emotional attachments that endure.

All I know is that when I was a kid, I wanted to swing the same bat as my Big Red Machine heroes. That was a Louisville Slugger—made in a factory just a hundred miles down the road. It looks like Wilson has 70 million reasons with which to agree.




Pi one on

Recently we celebrated the centennial "Pi Day", a once in a lifetime occurrence where the day's date written numerically matches pi, one of the world's most famous mathematical constants. This year, the date's accuracy stretched all the way to the ten thousandth decimal place: 3.1415. Wow! A big deal, right? I thought so, but most people I bring it up to think I'm talking about tasty desserts. Sigh.

Confusing "Pi Day" with "Pie Day" demonstrates both a communications problem and a branding problem. The communications solution is simple: tell more people about the infinite nature of pi and they may begin to more frequently associate it phonetically. Celebrate pi in a compelling and memorable way, record it, and it may catch fire as a social media meme. Will pi's magic overcome pie's taste? Time, cleverness, and repetition will tell.

The branding solution? That's a different story. "Pi Day" doesn't really have much of a brand just yet. It doesn't know what it stands for. Is it cool? High tech? Cosmic? Right now, it simply is what is it: a relatively unknown celebration of a curious juxtaposition of numbers suitable for a 30 second bit on the Big Bang Theory. The good news is that Pi can be celebrated on March 14th every year and build to 2115.

My son and I were happy to embrace the confusion and celebrate pi with pie. How about you?

A Web Template? Seriously?

Yes. It's true. This brand-spanking new TBD Design web site was built from a template. Shhhhhh.

How can this be? Have we sold our design souls? Nope. Like many of our clients, we needed a site structure that would met our needs (portfolio, blog, contact page) and worked seamlessly across all digital platforms. We simply didn't have the time or resources to create that structure from the ground up. SquareSpace fit the bill.

Here's a cautionary tale that influenced our decision: years ago, we watched a firm hire a designer/programmer whose sole task was to build a robust web site for the company in house. He worked day after day, month after month. At times his progress would grind to a halt as key approvals sat unmet or upper management shifted focus to other priorities. Regardless, the applied hours—and calendar days—piled up. After 15 months, the site was ready to debut and it looked great and behaved beautifully. High-fives were had by all until the staggering cost in billable time was revealed—over $350,000.

This new TBD website took one designer about two weeks to construct. Our hope is that the work shown—not the site structure itself—will set us apart. Thanks for looking.