More Postcards from the Future

When all the university classes went online this spring, my oldest came home from Texas State to spend the rest of the semester with us sheltering in place. Thankfully she did not bring home any Covid-19 with her, but she did bring home her Netflix account. She set it up on the TV downstairs and I have to admit, I’ve enjoyed the heck out of it. Especially Abstract and some of the crazy-ass anime me and the kids have watched.

By far the best documentary I’ve seen, though, has been Dr. David Eagleman‘s “The Creative Brain“. I was first exposed to Dr. Eagleman’s incredible, yet easily digestible work, in a promotional book Rigsby Hull did a number of years ago (gorgeous design — love the Didot!) for Sappi. Since then, I’ve become a big fan of neuroscientist. I was pissed, though, when “The Creative Brain” wasn’t broadcast on PBS: it was only on Netflix. So if anything good has come out of the pandemic, it as that I got to see his program.

“The Creative Brain” is fantastic. Of course I’d delight in it. The program includes interviews and insights from Michael Chabon, one of my favorite writers, Bjarke Ingels (nice URL), one of my favorite architects, Grimes, who I find interesting, and Robert Glasper, among others. I’m listening Glasper to while writing the first draft of this post. To say my little-boy-heart exploded watching this show is an understatement.

The funny thing is, that after a few minutes in, I ran got a notebook and pencil, and found myself taking notes. There were so many ideas, perspectives, insights and pearls of wisdom scattered throughout that I did not want to forget any of them. When the show ended, I read through my notes and had an idea — why don’t I share my notes. But not in some boring way — do something more fun with it.

I chose a few of Dr. Eagleman’s thoughts, and designed a series of banners that were broadcast on Instagram a couple of weeks ago. My own thoughts accompanied Dr. Eagleman’s words. For those who do not follow me, here is the series:

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Try Out Ideas

It has never been easier to make something; send it out into the world to see if it works. Try out as many ideas as possible. See what will work best.

Push Boundaries

I used to work for a creative director who always offered three solutions to answer a client’s problem. The first direction would be solid, but within arm’s length of where they were, while the second direction would push them a little further out of their comfort zone, and finally the third would be way out of left field. This approach helped our clients see where they were and where they could be. This technique pushed ideas further as clients rarely went with the first (safe) option.

Consider What Does Not Exist

My fifth grade teacher said there was no such thing as “What if…?” questions. Although she’s a very nice lady, nothing stifles creativity faster than not questioning the status quo.

Aha Moments

Sometimes ideas pop in your head while in the shower. Sometimes they show themselves while out on a run. Sometimes they appear on the back of a napkin. “Aha!” moments are everywhere happening all the time. Be prepared to receive one.

Try Something New

Doing something new is hard and fraught with risk and the chance of failure, but this is the only way to make progress.

Get Off the Path of Least Resistance

It’s easy to quit when the going gets tough, but creative solutions require hard work.

The Balance Between the Familiar and the New

Early in his career, David Bowie pushed all kinds of boundaries with his music, appearance and attitude. No matter how weird things got, at its core, Bowie’s music was grounded in straight-up rock-and-roll. He was able to push boundaries while still being accessible to a wider audience.

The Power to Imagine the World Not Yet

You don’t need a crystal ball to see the future. Creative people look deep inside themselves to see how things can be.

Creativity Does Not Equal Comfort

No great idea ever came from laying around on the sofa.

 


 

I posted a piece on LinkedIn about a year ago entitled “Postcards from the Future”. I nicked that headline from something Rosanne Cash said on an an episode of Freakonomics Radio called “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?” (Ep. 368). Here’s what Ms. Cash said:

Problems can be inspiring. If I can’t work something out in my life, I take it to language. I take it to melody. And sometimes, well, it all can be going to the Met and standing in front of that painting of Joan of Arc. That painting has inspired me. Sometimes they come out of nowhere, you think, and then it turns out that they came from the future. And I call those songs postcards from the future.

Isn’t this is exactly what Dr. Eagleman has been doing: sending us postcards from the future.


Lightning Strikes Twice

The 2nd in a series about how big ideas are good for business.

Some ideas are so big that if they work once, surely they will solve other problems, too.

I’m not opposed to recycling ideas for different clients. In fact, a creative director I worked for years ago encouraged it. Now, I hate to think we would commoditize our creative output, but when you’re in the business of generating lots of solutions, you start to see how the same answer can solve multiple problems. This approach saves the agency time and money when the same answer solves multiple problems. But is this good for clients?

Back in my agency days, we landed a plum account, doing national recruitment advertising for Compaq Computers. For younger readers out there, Compaq was swallowed up by HP back in 2002.

Compaq made solid hardware that did nothing flashy, but their products worked well. And all the computers, printers and other bits they manufactured were all a lovely shade of beige. What’s funny is that their industrial design was a mirrored reflection of their own corporate culture. Not a lot of sizzle, not a lot of sexy, but that is exactly who Compaq was looking to recruit.

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Our assignment was college recruiting. Because it was a new account for us, one of the bigwig CDs from the New York office sat in on the initial client meetings where strategies were discussed. Since Compaq was local to Houston, it was decided to bring me and my writing partner, David Morris, in on the project to add a little local flavor.

So this jack-wagon from New York calls to brief us. In the meeting with Compaq, it was decided the “theme” for that recruiting campaign would be “water.” Dave and I just looked at each other, rolling our eyes (good thing there wasn’t any Zoom back then). Then Mr. Jackwagon instructed us to not show him any of that trite, predictable, low-hanging-fruit crap — or else! (I don’t recall if he actually threatened us, but we’ll say he did just for dramatic purposes.)

So Dave and I banged our heads together. After some brainstorming, doodling, crying, hand-wringing, fist fights, a few beers and the like, we agreed the coolest thing about “water” had to be Aqua Man, especially pre-Jason Momoa. In fact, we really liked that over-the-top drama from the mid-1960s DC Comics.

For our initial comps, we went to a comic book shop, bought an old Aqua Man, scanned it in and created a story about an underwater superhero who used Compaq technology to defeat the forces of evil. Captain Q was born. No one saw this concept coming. Our CD loved it so much that this was the only idea pitched to Compaq, and they jumped in head first.

I won’t go into all the production details because that is not the point here – and that is an adventure in and of itself – but I have to mention the immense talents of the dearly-departed George Toomer, the illustrator who helped bring our vision to life. Using George’s art, we crafted  messages for mailers, a 12-page comic book, ads, handouts, booths, banners, and all the usual campaign trappings. It all worked extraordinarily well. So much so, the campaign exceeded all projections and goals way ahead of schedule. A big win for Compaq and the agency. A big idea in action.

When I first decided on writing this post, this is where the big idea ended. I was planning on going into excruciating detail about how the Compaq project went. But then I had another idea:

Does lightning strike twice?

Before we go any further, let me clear the air. I’m not above stealing, even from myself. Austin Kleon is right, but I am a professional and do not condone outright copying or plagiarism.

Maybe the big idea is not about the success we had for Compaq, or creating a superhero, but more about using a medium again for another project.

Comic books are surprising versatile. As a medium, you can do just about anything with them because they are both visual and verbal. You can cheat the boundaries of conventional narrative, play with the defined spaces and create entirely new universes. What’s even better, rules and conventions keep getting broken as artists push the boundaries even further. Comics are an amazing art form.

Since most of my work is in the B2B world, seeing comics in a corporate environment can be downright shocking, and the unexpectedness creates both impact and memorability.

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*COE = Center of Excellence, PR = Project Request, POS = Point of Sale

While at Sysco, I was charged to come up with a new position that would help the Brand Managers’ push their heavy workloads more efficiently through the design production process. We created a position replicating what the agency world would call an “Account Manager.” Briefly, the role would be like the account executive you’d call at your agency to get your projects knocked out, but for our purposes, this would be an internal position, not outsourced one.

This was not the big idea. How the Account Manager was introduced to the marketing staff was.

What we wanted to do was be able to show the Account Manager in action so that the Brand Managers could see how much easier their lives would be with this person’s guidance.

The initial presentation took the form of a skit, where I played the role of the Account Manager, and four of my peers played various characters who would touch the project as it went through the production process – the client, a coordinator, designer and Quality Control. To support the story, I created a comic book, where each frame described a step in the process.

After the presentation, each member of the staff was given the comic in the form of a puzzle, something colorful and fun that they could keep at their desk as a constant reminder of how the new Account Manager was going to help them.

There was no room for ambiguity. Understanding was crystal clear. A couple of Brand Managers told me this was hands-down the best presentation they’d ever seen at Sysco.

The big idea here is about using mediums differently. There are always opportunities to recycle ideas, turning them into something fresh and new. As these two stories started coming together, it occurred to me: maybe Marshall McLuhan is right – often times the medium is the message.


Actions Speak Louder Than Words

The first in a series about how big ideas are good for business.

Since the inception of the idea for this series, a lot has happened in the world. This first topic has taken on greater significance in light of the events in late May since the aftermath of George Floyd’s unfortunate death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

Let’s get started at the beginning…

Back in my studio days, I worked on the Cabot Oil & Gas annual report for 6 years. Each fall, we would meet with the CFO and his team to discuss general themes and topics that the executives wanted to communicate in the book. We would then go back to the studio and brainstorm how to best articulate those messages into a compelling narrative. If all went according to plan, the brainstorming would guide the visual approach as well.

For the 2002 annual, we were given very explicit direction: they wanted to talk about their company values.

Before going too much further, I want to clear the air. I’m not a fan of corporations talking about values or other soft, fluffy attributes about their brand. Most, if not all, companies can make similar claims, so from a branding perspective there is little to no differentiation between the competition. I’m not talking about taking sides on an issue, rather about inherent qualities about how they see themselves.

Secondly, I find it weak when companies hang their hats on these platitudes like they’re something special. For instance, it should be table-stakes that they will act with integrity when you’re a publicly-traded company. I don’t think they should be boasting about it.

Further, extolling your virtues is merely chest-thumping in my book, of which I am not a fan of, either. No one has ever trusted a brand because they said they were [insert value here – generous? “woke”? caring?]. No one cares how great you say you are.

Lastly, in my experience, I have found that when most companies that say they are [insert value here – i.e., diverse, responsible, team-focused, family-friendly, etc.], they are often times just the opposite. The only way a brand can truly exhibit any of these wonderful qualities is by living them on a daily basis. As Holden Caulfield might say, talking about all this in marketing pieces makes it all sound phony.

Just to be clear, I am not a fan of this sort of virtue-signaling approach to branding. Not that a company cannot or should not strive for high ideals, but should this be the focus of your marketing?

Back to the annual report: How do you reconcile all these issues and still meet the client’s expectations?

It takes a big idea.

My father was a civil engineer. When I was a kid, I remember going to his first office, which was nothing more than a tinky building the size of a double-wide, with only enough room for him, his partner and their receptionist because half of the space was filled with shelves containing core samples.

If you don’t know, core samples are small sections of the earth drilled out and pulled up to the surface so that geologists or other scientists can study them to get a better understanding of what the ground is made of under their feet. In the case of a civil engineer, they wanted to understand what is underneath the structure they are building so that it doesn’t fall down. Kind of important.

This is where the real value of creativity comes into play. Being able to make connections with the knowledge gained through life experiences gives shape to new, big ideas, connecting seemingly disparate bits into one cohesive thought. Big ideas are unifying, encompassing many different facets of life to make the something new, more accessible and relatable to more people. It becomes easy and natural to make the leap from core samples to core values. Both give us understanding — core samples tell us about the earth, whereas the core values help us understand why we can trust a company.

The 2002 annual was titled “At of the Core of Cabot,” with a core sample exquisitely photographed for the front cover. With this image we are visually telegraphing to investors that we are giving you a reason to believe.

This big idea adds depth (no pun intended) and context to an otherwise fluffy marketing pitch. Because their business is grounded (pun intended) in core samples, it becomes a perfect metaphor to talk about Cabot’s values: stability, discipline and integrity. These values are intrinsically intertwined with their beliefs and the way they operate their business, much in the same way a core sample is central to oil and gas exploration.

There was one key ingredient to ensuring the success of this particular big idea, and that was that Cabot could back it up. That was what the annual was all about after all. They used language that anyone else can use for themselves, but once you dig into the report, readers found that Cabot can back up all these claims.

And that leads me to back to virtue-signaling, becasue there is a lot of it going around these days. It’s one thing to say you are a certain way, that you believe or feel this way or that. But where it counts the most is in your actions. Can you live up to what you are saying?

When it comes to building a strong brand, if a company can live up to its high ideals, I’ll hang my hat on that messaging every day.


The Time Machine

Numbering notebooks started in 2006 when I started writing in Moleskine’s. Currently working through #71, a Leuchtturm 1917. That’s quite an investment.

Like so many right now, I have spent an unusual amount of time sitting in on webinars covering a broad range of topics. Throw in my steady diet of podcasts and not only do you start to become a fountain of knowledge, but you also begin to spot trends.

One trend I have picked up on lately is the idea of Morning Pages. This daily practice was introduced by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way, which I read back in the mid-90s. Although many of the concepts she recommended did not stick, Morning Pages are an integral part to starting my day everyday.

For the uninitiated, in a nutshell, Morning Pages are sitting down with paper and pen at the beginning of every day and writing for 20 minutes straight. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling or grokking too hard on anything, you just empty your head of thoughts.

I find that some times I ramble on wondering why I am wasting precious amounts of paper and ink. Other times I merely report on the activities of the previous day, but sometimes I actually stumble into an exploration of a new idea or dig deep into something weighing on my mind.

Lately, the pop-psychologists are all highly recommending this practice. I most certainly agree with them, as I have been dutifully writing my Morning Pages almost every day for the past 25 years. I find the practice to be helpful, getting me ready for a productive day ahead as well as helping me see farther down the road.

I wanted to share one unexpected benefit of this practice. Towards the end of each year, I’ll go back and reread the Morning Pages for that year, starting at January 1 all the way to the current date. Usually takes a few days. Sometimes I just scan through the pages, but every once in a while I will uncover a treasure trove of what I was thinking about. Seeing how thoughts, events and actions played out over the course of a year can be enlightening.

But the real benefit is going further back, rereading the Pages from years ago. What was bothering me back in 1999? Who was pissing me off in March of 2016? What battle had I won in the summer of 2006? How did all this play out over the years?

That’s interesting, but what’s even more more interesting is how rereading the events of the day can instantly transport me back to that time. Thoughts and memories long forgotten come back to life, often vividly. I’ve found that not only writing, but also doodles and sketches in my notebooks, do the same thing. It’s amazing how thoughts come back to life.

These aren’t just notebooks – they’re time machines.

There’s the old adage that if you do not learn from history you are destined to repeat it. Some things in life are worth repeating – how did you manage an seemingly impossible challenge the first time around? Or, are you looking to make a change and you can now trace your life back to a particular moment when you found yourself at a fork in the road that led you to where you are today? There is tremendous value is learning from your own experiences and reflecting on them as continue to move forward with life.

Being able to travel back in time while flexing your creative muscles — needless to say I highly recommend you write your Morning Pages. You never know what you might find, that morning or years from now.


Pick Two

More than a few years back, Lowell Williams became a partner at Pentagram and came back to his old stomping grounds in Houston to give a presentation about his experiences to the local AIGA chapter.

He opened his presentation with an idea that has since stuck in my mind. How do you decide if you should take on a new project? He had a very simple method.

To take on a new project, it must meet at least two of the following criteria:

Outrageous fees.
Compelling work.
Fun people.

That simple. Now let’s look at the logic.

You cannot have just one. No one is going to give you a bucket full of money and not expect something in return, like maybe doing a little work for them. Nor are there projects lying around on the ground just waiting for someone to bring them to life. And “fun people” are, well, generally called “friends”. So, at a minimum you have to have two.

The fees are straight-forward. If you’re not going to get paid, why bother. Wait a second … if the work is really interesting, there’s a chance to learn or grow, or the finished piece will look great in your book, maybe you’ll want to take the project on. And it the client is a fun and lively group that you’ll want to hang out with after the project wraps … alright, let’s do this! See, his method works.

Another angle: The project is super interesting, a real challenge that will stretch you, but the client is going to be equally challenging. Charge them out the wah-zoo. It’s amazing how a hefty check in your bank account can ease the pain of the 75th round of revisions at 3 o’clock in the morning.

On the flip side, the work isn’t all that interesting but you really like the client, use this as an opportunity to make a little money. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Of course, the Holy Grail is a project meeting all three criteria. In my career, I’ve been fortunate to have had a few such projects. They’re golden: the opportunity to do some amazing work that I am especially proud of, while making some new friends and money along the way.

Mr. Williams is right; a project must meet two points, but in my mind, strive for meeting all three.


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