What have we here?

One thing we’ve all had friendly disagreements about is what, exactly, a cloud looks like. I say it’s a puppy crouched down to play, you say it’s a scorpion ready to strike (which says a lot about our personalities, by the way). Things in the sky are like nature’s Rorschach ink blots—a group of stars look like a crab or a bear, or at least did to someone at some point. So what do you make of this?

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Maybe you see a downward-looking Easter Island head, or a stylized outline of New England, or an unfortunate Tetris piece. But probably you didn’t see this:

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The reason Thomas Lamadieu’s work caught my attention is not because it’s a playful use of negative space. Rather, I’m intrigued by how a set of given parameters (in the physical sense), became the foundation for something so wildly different and interesting. It’s not that there’s obviously a woman sitting in that space (as with the arrow in the FedEx logo), but it does make sense how one grew into it, imaginatively.

We’ve been talking about structure around the office lately, and how to make it work for rather than confine us. Deciding that a certain amount of time will be devoted to creative endeavors is a great idea, but we’ve noticed that often our internal projects get brushed aside because they’re not “urgent,” and so get put on the backburner for a while. It turns out that a while can easily turn into forever, as we’ve all discovered at various points when we take a look back and see the detritus of unwritten stories, unplanted gardens, DIY projects that never get off the ground, blogs left to die—the list goes sadly on.

Perhaps a solution to this common quandary is to install some hemmed in space into the week and just go for it. Dig into those projects (and only those projects) during that time period, which is to be considered inviolate. We’re going to try it out and see how it goes. In the mean time, here’s once more sky drawing for the road. I don't know about you, but what I see when I look at that space now is an opportunity to expand.

Point of Inspiration: Beware the Brackets

The boxes labeled A and B are the same exact shade of gray...It’s March, and we’re all a little mad, of course, but it’s not the NCAA kind of brackets I mean here (although, that said, Harvard?!). The brackets I want to draw attention to are the ones we use, often without knowing, to confine our perception and judgment. These brackets can spell trouble for the creative and critical processes we rely on both in work and play. (In the instance above, we bracket the boxes labeled A and B within their immediate surroundings, and usually fail to see and believe that they are, in fact, the exact same shade of gray.) If you’re ever tasked with evaluating a number of things (pitches, positionings, creative concepts, and the like) you probably assume that you keep an open mind throughout the process and maintain a pretty even hand. Well, a recent study shows that’s probably not the case (sorry!). When researchers evaluated data on decisions made in over 9,000 business school interviews, they found that judgments were affected not so much by who came directly before, as we might expect, but on the overall strength of the entire day, which is, of course, completely irrelevant.

A lot of factors go into how we evaluate ideas and people, and many of them are external to the ideas and people themselves—that’s just life. But imagine someone is an absolute star in the making, but interviews last on a day full of qualified-to-good candidates. What happens? According to this study, our plucky up and comer will likely get scored low simply because of the mental brackets placed around that group of candidates. Interviewers, for a number of possible reasons, are reluctant to give high marks after giving several others high marks (or conversely, reverse all of the above, and a sub-par candidate could be recommended because of a number of preceding low marks). Now, replace “candidate” with anything you’re in charge of making a call on.

Often at fault in these situations is the gambler’s false belief in the law of small numbers, otherwise known as, “they can’t all be heads.” We tend to be suspicious of streaks in what we suppose to be a random series of events—we notice and question it when a coin lands head side up 15 times in a row. By the same token, if we read three strong proposals in a row, we might “correct” for our judgment and double down on the next one, which, when we see it for what it is, is a mistake in judgment.

Surely this is beginning to ring true, at least to some extent. If you’re not prepared to admit that you’ve probably misjudged some things in your professional life, let’s lower the stakes and say it’s just wine on the docket. Have you ever been to a tasting where you liked every single wine? Probably not. And yet, it’s entirely possible to like five wines in a row, without having low standards or a pathetic palette. We just assume a certain ordering of quality will emerge in any set of people, objects, or ideas.

Why should we care about this? Because many decisions we make are folded into arbitrary subsets created by the confines of a day, a meeting, or an attention span.  If we bring these brackets with us to new ideas or viewpoints, we can easily miss out on something good, or even revolutionary. This is not to say we can’t allow experience to inform decisions, but we should be open to the possibility that a streak of seemingly great ideas might really be great. In the end, some brackets are determined for us, but other times, we can, and should, expand them as broadly as possible.

Also, happy March Madness to you!

Point of Inspiration: Jordan XI

Lately, there's been nothing short of hyperbole surrounding a few notions of Michael Jordan. He's turning 50. OK! He's being compared to Lebron James (and vice-versa). OK! I see this as a result of a slow news cycle -- I mean, football season is over. I get it. But examining the vignettes associated with MJ's birthday this past weekend, I was able to glean a point of inspiration that was perhaps less obvious than a career of clutch performances. Or was it? Once upon a time, Jordan was king of basketball and the world was his oyster. The Chicago Bulls had just completed a three-peat. Nike was cranking out Air Jordans (and had been for some time), selling them all over the world to a culture of hypebeasts. The merchandising of Jordan was unprecedented and would forever reshape the world of sports marketing.

And then Michael retired. We know now that he came back (for another three-peat!), but at the time it was unexpected and almost unbelievable that he would walk away, and he made it sound so convincing. For many, it was time to shelve a multitude of basketball memories alongside ten versions of the Air Jordan and wait for the next big thing. But that was before the team behind Air Jordan had a say in things.

Photo courtesy of Nike

 "I started designing the Air Jordan XI during Michael's first retirement — I kept saying he would un-retire. People at Nike gave me a hard time, so I wanted to show those assholes that we could make the best Jordans ever. The XI was the first basketball shoe to have a carbon-fiber plate in the sole and patent leather. By the time I showed Michael, he'd started playing again."

~ Tinker Hatfield

And so it began. Again and again. Hatfield and his design team worked on engineering a shoe they had every reason to believe might never be produced. And per Tinker's quote, they didn't aim low. They aimed to create the best that had ever been designed. Many still argue that the XI is one of the most pivotal Air Jordan designs in the line's illustrious history.

So instead of hanging it up, the designers stuck to their guns and innovated their way to a new solution worthy of production. And as it turns out, it was also worthy of un-retiring. Years later we see multiple athletes now signed to the Jumpman line with shoes and all sorts of gear being churned out for the inner athlete in all of us. One could argue a lifetime of clutch performances, or designs, has risen from the dust of Jordan's first retirement.

Some compelling stats about the seemingly "doomed" Air Jordan:

+ According to UBS, Jordan Brand sales increased 89% year over year in 2012 + The Jordan brand controlled 58% of all basketball shoes sold in the US in 2012 + LeBron James is the top-seller among current players with shoe deals -- Jordan still outsells him 6 to 1

Looking at this story of design and gumption, one might assume sticking to one's guns can often pay off ridiculously well. That's true. But it's duly noted that it doesn't always work out so well -- see any list of other athletes who received shoe contracts that lost money for the labels. It would also seem that we never know where new opportunities will surface. All of this seems to point to instinct. Trust yourself. Trust your vision. At its origin, the allure of  the Jordan brand was all about the shoes. In the end, it became a full line of unexpected offerings, a full-fledged brand. Take a look at espn.com from earlier this week.

They call it XX8. So instead of poking holes in the process, I'm happy to imagine the scene when the team said to one another, "It's time to fly."


Dave Alsobrooks, Partner

The PARAGRAPH Project is a marketing research and strategy firm based in Durham, NC. We are, at times, a strange brew. But this is what works for us — and inevitably, it works for our clients. The types of people who work at PARAGRAPH are strategists, anthropologists, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, negotiators, students and builders. Herein lies our value. We are able to look at problems from many different perspectives and apply this diverse point of view to solutions for our clients. After all, if we conduct the same research in the same ways as our competitors, what advantage do we gain? By using old research methodologies in new ways and inventing new methodologies unique to each client’s research objectives, we quickly explore more territory to find insights often overlooked. We believe creativity is the missing link between useful information and actionable inspiration.