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.


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 Roller Coaster

About a year ago I had a big decision made for me. After a corporate reshuffling, I found I was no longer on the org chart.

The dream of striking it out on my own had been lingering in the back of my mind for years, having regretted shutting down my practice in 2010 for the safety and security of full-time employment. Perhaps now was the time to chase that dream once more.

As this life altering event unfolded, all the signs pointed to restarting my practice. Family and friends strongly encouraged me to hang my shingle out, and I did so in early summer 2019. Since then, I have worked hard, and been quite blessed and lucky in that I’ve been able to do some great work for great clients, making a solid go of it.

Being a solopreneur has taught me a lot about survival, which today is more important than ever. One of the most important lessons starting out came from Sara Blakely, in a post on LinkedIn. She posted this doodle showing the life of an entrepreneur:

Everyone who has ever tried to make a dent in the universe understands this. There are always highs and lows, rarely a point where you get to level off. What I have also learned over the past year is that this roller coaster is not bound to the usual rules of time, with ride up and down lasting a few minutes, a few hours or even days. It’s hard to get used to.

What hit me was how appropriate this doodle happens to be when describing (for those of us who are lucky enough to not be suffering with the virus) the emotions we’re going through right now.

There are good times when we can smile, relax and be with people we love, making the best of a terrible situation. What greater joy in life is there. Then other times we can sink to the lowest depths, panic-stricken to the point of paralysis. Are my family and friends going to get sick? Is out economy going to collapse? These emotions run rampant.

Whether you know it or not, or want to or not, accept that everyone is now living the life of an entrepreneur. Uncertainty is our way of life now. There will be good times and bad times. Ups and downs. Cherish the ups when they’re here and be gentle with yourself when you’re low.

Our world has forever changed. But just like we Americans did after 9/11, we learned to adjust to the new world. It’s not easy and the road ahead is full of turns whose corners you cannot see around.

Welcome to the life of an entrepreneur.


There are Only Two Kinds of Design

I discovered a podcast called My Favorite Album that is about music critics, or other smarty pants-types in the industry, talking about albums that had a huge impact on their lives — the records they go back to time and time again. Being a self-proclaimed music snob, I’ve been choosey about which episodes I’ll listen to, but the other day I listened to the episode of Scott Sharrard discussing Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

Sharrard played in the Allman Brothers Band, and in his view, Kind of Blue had huge influence on the direction Gregg and Duane took the group.  What?

How do you get that? This southern jam band’s biggest influence is the modal, cool qualities of one of the most signifiant jazz recordings of all time? How is that possible?

Sharrard went on to explain how this cosmic duality is possible with an amazing quote from Duke Ellington. As Duke elegantly put it… There are only two kinds of music — good and bad. Let that soak in for a minute.

When I heard Sharrard relay the quote, a revelation hit me almost immediately. There are only two kinds of Design, good and bad. What’s the difference a print ad, a package, a sign system, an app, a website or anything else that a designer would make? The only differences are the tools used or skills needed to execute the design, but the underlying concepts and principles of greta design are fundamentally identical. For all you specialists out there, let that soak in.

I’ve spoken about this elsewhere in the site, extolled the virtues and praised the benefits of being a generalist. Looks like I have Duke Ellington to back me up on this one.


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