How to Make a Broom Last Forever, and Other Important Lessons

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I’ve had this broom for more than 25 years. Other than the paint chipping in places, it is still in pretty good shape considering all leaves, grass clippings and whatnot I’ve swept up over the years.

How is that? You’d think that after 25 years of sweeping the bristles would be bent over to one side or the other. No matter how good the Shakers designed brooms, this is bound to happen at some point.

When I was in high school I learned how to draft. Not how to pick players in fantasy football or how to get behind a big truck to deflect the wind, rather I learned how to make technical drawings used to build things. Like houses, machinery, furniture, etc.

Drafting is done exclusively on computers nowadays, but back in those dark ages of high school we used pencils and paper, the same way Brunelleschi did back in the Renaissance, when he practically founded the practice of architecture for the Western world.

One of the keys to being a good draftsman (or draftswoman, as the case was with Beth, the only girl in my drafting class), was the consistent weight of the lines you drew. Different thicknesses in lines could mean different things depending on what you were drawing. This subtlety might not be that important when drawing an exploded view of a tool, but if you drew something designed to handle electricity, the varying lines thickens might lead to something slightly more explosive.

The key to consistent line weight was to twirl the pencil while you drew. You do this by slightly twisting the pencil in your fingertips while you pulled or pushed it across the page. Try it for yourself. When you learn how to do this — and there is a trick to doing it — you not only get lines that are consistently the same, but you can go long stretches between having to sharpen the pencil.

So what does this have to do with the durability of my broom? Surprisingly, everything.

As an experiment, after destroying another broom I applied that same idea of twirling a pencil while drawing to sweeping. Twirl the broom every time it is used, never sweeping in one direction for more than a few strokes. The bristles never have the chance to get bent in either direction, so they have stayed straight all these years.

This is a very handy tip I’m sharing to help extend the life of your broom.

But this story also shows how taking a creative approach to even the simplest task can solve a problem. How taking two completely different things and combining them into in a new and novel way can produce a solid result.

Drafting and sweeping couldn’t be further apart, but by making a simple creative connection, the problem of wearing out my broom was solved. So much so, I haven’t bought a new broom in years.

So the question becomes what are things you do in life that might be applied to other areas of life, inside or outside of work, to make things better? Learning to see and make these connections is a giant step towards creative problem solving.


Hidden in Plain Sight

The 4th in a series about how big ideas are good for business.

Ideas are everywhere. They float around all the time just waiting to be discovered. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a 1000 times: On any given day, anyone can come up with a great idea. The key is to know where to look.

Years ago I discovered the art of Sister Corita Kent, a Catholic nun who made and taught art in southern California in the 1960s-70s. Very bold and graphic, her work has been admired for years. Charles EamesBucky Fuller and Ed Rucha were also big fans.

Sister Corita is famously known for her “10 Rules for the Immaculate Heart Art Department“. But it is one of her personal mantras has stuck with me over the years: Look at everything. Not just art and culture, but science, news, books and any and everything our world has to offer. If a large part of creativity is combining two or more seemingly disparate things into something new, then the bigger pool you have to draw from the better the chance you’ll have of making something original.

But being creative is more than just being observant. I believe there are two additional crucial ingredients.

The first is curiosity. You might think this is splitting hairs and should be rolled up under being observant, but curiosity is different. It’s not that you want to see something new, it’s that you want to understand that thing. I can watch NASCAR all day but will never understand it because I am not the least bit curious.

The second is timing. When you are aware of your surroundings, you are much more receptive to finding new things. Let me give you an example of what I mean by a newly acquired awareness: When I got engaged to the love of my life, I had no idea about how gigantic the bridal industry is. No idea how many magazines, stores, specialty items, shows, programs, etcetera, there existed for brides-to-be until I knew that world existed. Scared the bejesus out of me, and I am certain it’s even scarier these days.

So, how is being more observant and aware good for business? Here’s a real-world example:

I had the opportunity to work on a fund-raising campaign for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. At the time, they were looking to grow the Diocese, make improvements and extend their outreach. They engaged the studio I was with to develop a campaign. We needed a solid concept to hold all the different pieces of communication together to deliver succinct and consistent messaging.

While brainstorming, I had this idea. A big one. Being a new dad at the time, nursery rhymes and children’s songs were a big part of my life. While knocking around ideas, this came to mind:

Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, and here are the people. 

You couldn’t ask for a better message platform. It is familiar to just about everyone, yet so perfectly relevant to the mission of the campaign. The concept also lent itself to become a rich visual feast, extending the visual messaging by showing people of different ethnicities and ages doing the hand movements that accompany the rhyme. Merely being aware brought the concept to life.

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We put together an elegant design highlighted with photography by Ricardo Merendoni.

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The program was as successful as it was surprising, helping the Diocese meet their goals and fulfill their mission. This is a prime example of a big idea in action.

Seeing rather than simply looking is such a key element in producing excellent creative work. I’ll leave you with some good resources to start you on the path to hone your observation skills:

How to See, George Nelson: Nelson is one of my heroes who helped shape the US after World War Two. I don’t know that he was the greatest designer ever, but he knew who to surround himself with and how to get the very best design done. His book “How to See” is exactly what the title says it is … a how-to manual that every artist should commit to memory.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards: My 11th grade art teacher recommended reading this book and I scoffed at her. After thumbing through its pages at the bookstore one day, I thought to myself “Why read about drawing when the best way to learn about drawing was to just do it?”. I put the book back on the shelf only to pick it up decades later. Ms. Edwards’ book is filled with more than the how-to’s, it is filled with even more why’s.

Ways of Seeing, John Berger: You can find the original TV broadcasts of Ways of Seeing on YouTube. They are extraordinarily dated and downright hilarious at times, but the information Berger presents is second to none. Reading the book instead of watching the program will scrub away some of the 1970’s veneer, and leave you with nothing but a wonderful treatise on art, life and seeing the world.

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, Alexandra Horowitz: All of the other books mentioned focus on art or design. But On Looking, instead looks at (no pun intended) the rest of the world. Although it can be long at times, it is a delightful read meandering from art, science, exploring and a number of other fascinating subjects.

The Art of Noticing. Rob Walker: Rob is a great thinker and writer. And The Art of Noticing is not only a terrific book, but his weekly newsletter supporting it is full of wisdom and continuations of themes in the book.

The Art of Looking Sideways, Alan Fletcher: Finally, of all the books I have on my shelves at home, this one never collects any dust. It is a constant source of inspiration. From the careful design of each spread to the content on each page, The Art of Looking Sideways rejuvenates my soul every time I open it. I suggest not reading it cover to cover. Rather, pick it up on occasion, turn to any random page and start there. Repeat this process any time you are stuck looking for ideas, need a break, can’t sleep at night or want to take an adventure.


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.

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.

*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.


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