Virtues of Smaller Thinking Vol. 03: Ingenuity

Things happen for a reason. A common enough sentiment, but one that also holds much truth. In every endeavor we have a reason. In an ideal world, this reason is consistently tied to creating better ways of doing something whether it's growing an herb garden, serving inner-city youth or constructing a research methodology. In a not so ideal world (the one we live in), our raison d'être is the effort of at least looking for needed improvements in our world. In this, the third installment of our Virtues of Smaller Thinking, we will explore ingenuity and how it impacts our reaching the goals we've set.

We've established that ingenuity is the act of finding better ways of doing stuff. But how? What's the impact for ourselves? For others?

You might expect me to say that ingenuity begins with innovation or inspiration, but this is where ingenuity eventually points us. Ingenuity is harder, and is first about honesty. An altogether honest assessment of the condition of our being or the quality of an object under consideration. This is not the honesty of family reunions -- this is the brutal honesty of credit reports and blood pressure tests. In Shift, Peter Arnell tells us of his own reluctance to see himself as a 400 lb. man in favor of a more benign self-identification as merely a creative person, without all the baggage. He got past this with an unsettling realization -- his reality -- which led to a better way of living and his losing 250 pounds. Like Peter, only after we assess the subject at hand can we focus on how best to improve upon it and truly move into wider worlds of possibility. Without this candid conversation, we're probably having the wrong conversations as we move forward.

So how does this impact our work? Our processes? This is what we'll explore in more depth over the next few weeks, but know there's a good chance it might not always be pretty. We have to trust ourselves. Ingenuity can sometimes be found in fundamental changes in how we perceive ourselves and our outputs. In other words, something like epiphanies and bolts of lightning. A lot of the time, though, ingenuity manifests itself in lots of tiny revolutions as we constantly refine the way we do things. Constantly. These incremental improvements do add up and they do improve our lives. So keep your mind open to possibilities no matter where they lie. And never suppress the little voice that cries out "What if?" before hearing it out.

As for the impact of ingenuity, let's travel back in time for a moment. All the way back to the 15th century. The world is awakening from what we now call the Dark Ages. Feudal life is not a charmed one. There is no internet and no Facebook. Hell, there are hardly even any books -- and even these aren't available en masse. Along comes Johannes Gutenberg and his magical mechanical moving type. He found a better, faster way of printing books, most famously his 42-line Bible. Before his ingenuity took root, books took months or even years to transcribe by hand. Turns out, even though he changed the world, Gutenberg never became a Renaissance rock star because of his Bibles and Latin texts. He had to borrow money to keep his operations going and was even taken to court. But he persevered. And if we look closer his ingenuity produced a radical contribution to the world that continues to give.

Many folks trace everything in our modern world right back to Gutenberg's dingy workshop. Skyscrapers, VoIP, Gatorade and the combustion engine. Indeed, Mark Twain wrote, "What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg."

Movable type fed the awakening of Europe and subsequently the entire world. It helped bring about the Renaissance because texts were suddenly easier to distribute. Learning took off. On second thought, it was more like learning blasted off. Martin Luther's 95 Theses were printed and circulated widely due to Gutenberg's advancements and then eventually issued as broadsheets which led to the development of the newspaper. And now everything we know is doubled every 900 days. So while ingenuity spawned an original contribution in this instance it inspired many more to come, both directly and indirectly. Another way of saying ingenuity doesn't sleep.

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Virtues of Smaller Thinking Vol. 2: Instinct

In the first installment of our 12 Virtues of Smaller Thinking, we got hungry. Or at least hungrier than we'd been before. Hunger is our starting point, the origination of our direction. But once we press this "start" button, where do we go? We have a few ideas of where not to go and a few that make more sense. Trust us. We've seen it happen. There's a spark, an idea or even just a gesture of an idea. We immediately want to go out and quantify or qualify (pick your poison, in this case) the merits of our concept. But wait -- do we really need a measuring stick for a hunch? Can we even measure a hunch? This is a critical point, because this is the juncture between killing ideas and stoking them.

When our initial hunger leads us to action, there's an internal shift of momentum. A hunch that something is good or bad. In other words, our instincts tell us if something is worth an investment of time, money or other assets. The beauty is that we can do this all on our own. We are pre-wired to detect the quality of our own ideas. Delphine de Girardin said, "Instinct is the nose of the mind." This feels right to me -- that our minds, not just our heads, would have noses.

This early in the game it would be a shame to get caught up in analytics and statistics. We're still operating on the nebulous playing field of concepts. So a little (or a lot of) trust is needed in ourselves to allow our ideas to germinate a bit. Not always easy to do, but essential early in the life of a project. By hopping right into a swirling pool of research and analytics, we become focused on the vortex of information and not our idea. Before we know it, our concept is awash in reasons to live or die. Pretty heavy stuff for an infant.

So our point is to allow your instincts to guide you early on as you are working through a project. There's a lot we can learn from ourselves. Plus, there's plenty of time to measure and test a little further down the road.

For the next few weeks, we'll be exploring our instincts here on the PARAGRAPH blog. Specifically, we're pondering how trusting instincts early on can lead to quick victories that help establish momentum. We want to delve a little deeper into how our internal hunches can positively direct our productivity.

For every virtue of smaller thinking, we create a custom desktop and make it available to you, the people. This time is no exception. Check out the desktop below that captures a bit of the indescribable, yet potent nature of instinct and how trusting it can produce unexpected and beautiful results. Trusting my instincts, the author will eat a chocolate chip cookie for every download of the desktops. I'll even tape the proceedings when they occur.

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Brand Loyalty vs. Product Loyalty

In the mockumentary Best in Show, the film’s antics are interrupted midway by a quiet scene where Meg and Hamilton Swan, the neurotic power couple played by Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock, reminisce about how their mutual adoration for catalogs brought them together. Spilling all the details, they describe how their young love was first kindled by the likes of J.Crew and L.L.Bean (not to mention Starbucks and Mac laptops). Hamilton used to be such a huge “J.Crew person,” and both of them, we’re led to believe, still carry that mantle proudly. This vignette sets up brand loyalty as something of a lifelong affair, with the most steadfast followers displaying a kind of devotion that can seems almost religious. While the scene serves as fine proof that the “preppy” J.Crew aesthetic has become etched as fact into the shared American psyche, it also misleads us by assuming that brands possess some kind of intrinsic power over people. Marketers should beware of making the same mistake.

It can feel like a matter of instinct, the way we gravitate toward certain brands and reject others. And it often seems as if a brand’s larger message, the lifestyle it promotes, can capture a person’s imagination. But in our complex marketplace, instinct is not that simple. In the past, brand loyalty might have given a built-in advantage to companies able to own a particular a niche. And when we only had a handful of stores in town to rely on, familiarity with a brand name served as a helpful starting point. But the process of winning and keeping customers has been complicated by the fact that we simply have more alternatives than ever before. Now, we’re captivated by individual products that we can experience for ourselves.

As Fast Company’s Co.Design said just a few weeks ago, brand monogamy makes less sense in a marketplace that encourages us to explore our options:

“Today’s consumers are stingier with their brand loyalty than in the past because they can afford to be: they are burdened only by an abundance of choice and knowledge.”

As a result, we’d expect to find more people asking “Where can I find the product I want?” instead of “What can I find at my favorite store?” But if product loyalty is the priority for more consumers these days, not everyone has taken the memo to heart. Many marketers still seem to idealize an abstract notion of brand loyalty, assuming their most important task is to reach customers on that higher level. This comes despite recent warnings that companies should be striving to connect with customers through authentic, personalized interactions, not one-way brand messages.

During a recent visit to our local J.Crew, for instance, I saw the store embracing its core image with fresh vigor. No longer merely preppy in a timeless sort of way, it’s become downright preptastic. A charicature of its former self, its current look and feel can only be described as bedazzled-bohemian-chic. (You’ll know it when you see it.)

Amid those efforts to magnify the brand, the products I found in the store were without. My mission was simple: find a few little shirts suited for the warmer weather now creeping into North Carolina. What I found was an armful of Extra-Small tank tops, all of which were too baggy. At 5’11” with a reasonable amount of muscle, baggy is the last thing I had expected or hoped to find. So, while the store used to be a reliable place to pick up an item or two that I could fold into my own style, it now preaches a notion of fashion that doesn’t work for me. And because I’m one of those product-loyalists who will move on to the next store to find what I want, the case for brand loyalty just took another hit.

That’s not to say the store isn’t doing well. Sure, it’s been guarding against the sales drops that retailers have experienced lately, but according to buzz, J.Crew is staying afloat in a still turbulent economy because it offers customers good value for the price and an array of (ahem) “classic” items.

But it does raise the question of how long some companies -- and their marketers -- can expect to build a future on good old-fashioned brand loyalty while others focus on diversifying, innovating, and experimenting through products that excite us. Too many marketers assume that brand loyalty drives product popularity when it’s the other way around: customers fall in love with products first and brands second. Where would Apple be as a brand without the iPhone or iPad, for example? The truth is that die-hard fans become so for concrete reasons. If you assume that brand loyalty emerges out of anything other than loyalty toward experiences and products, you’ve lost touch with your audience.

How (Not) to Do Hunger

We’re all for positivity, but let’s be honest. The best teaching moments usually arise when something goes horribly wrong. And when it comes to hunger -- the sort we’re talking about this month -- it would be too easy and not nearly as full of delicious schadenfreude to talk about the success stories. So instead, we’re going to look at a few perfectly crafted tales of disaster that demonstrate some common hunger mistakes. (Spoiler alert.)

 

Quint from Jaws Knows what he wants and, society be damned, goes after it with passion. But he gets eaten by a shark in the process. Blood and gore definitely not an ideal side effect.

Benjamin Braddock from The Graduate Miserable because he doesn’t know what he wants. Then he gets what he’s sure he wants -- the girl -- but has no clue what to do next. Fade to black.

Redmond Barry from Barry Lyndon Wants power, love, sex, respect, and more power. And he manages to get all of that through multiple campaigns of deception, but then the house of cards falls apart. Exile from England follows.

Dr. Elsa Schneider from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Allows her desire for adventure and eternal greatness to become an obsession. This is unfortunate, clearly, because it drives her to become a Nazi. Also falls into a deep, dark crevasse while going after the Holy Grail. Dies, obviously.

This sampling of characters from popular culture proves that translating your inner hunger into something useful can be hard -- and painful, and often embarrassing. Ahh, the beauty of learning from the misfortune of others. The lesson here? Chasing after an unbridled hankering for everything all at once will leave you stuffed, but with nothing much to show for it. To truly satisfy your hunger, you have to go after the right thing at the right time. And that takes some restraint.

Virtues of Smaller Thinking Vol. 1: Hunger

Over the years we PARAGRAPHER's have, as a group, become passionate about a few things. The spinach salad at the deli across the street, short commutes to the office and experiencing four distinct seasons of weather are among them. But we also know that things often change over time, so we fancy that our minds are kept open to new experiences. And that we might never submit our improvisational spirit to one way of thinking. There is, however, one tenet that continually pervades our collective work. This is the philosophy of smaller thinking. Smaller thinking is the way we approach our questions and our answers. It's how we choreograph our meetings. It's how we designed our office. Truth is, the whole world has become a smaller, more nimble place. We believe that the ways of thinking about marketing, branding and advertising must also evolve in similar ways. Gone are the days of huge initiatives that take months or years to fabricate and that are inevitably out of date at the moment of their inception.

Awesome -- we were finally able to use "inception" in a post.

To make this school of thought crystal clear for you, the valued visitor, we've identified the "Virtues of Smaller Thinking" and we'd like to share them with you. One small, digestible bite at a time. Each month, we'll make a free desktop wallpaper available commemorating a single virtue of smaller thinking. Each one will be unique in appearance -- a PARAGRAPH original, if you will. The monthly desktop will serve as a way for interested parties to keep on the "smaller" path. We hope that you'll find the virtues interesting, useful and compelling enough to employ into your own working ways when the time is right.

Our first virtue of smaller thinking is hunger. This is not Homer Simpson hunger, or Chris Cornell Temple of the Dog hunger (that's for all you products of the 90's out there). It's the hunger, sense of urgency or inner drive to excel. Not to beat the hunger metaphor to death, but some call it fire in the belly. This drive forces us toward DOING more than THINKING, so it follows that action is the inevitable result of our pressing need for results. This is a good thing, because without action, well, nothing gets done. There are entire business platforms built on this concept of doing more. Sure we need to make good choices about what we pursue and to what lengths -- we'll get to that in another post. For now, let's identify what we're passionate about and at least follow that lead for a while without reservation. It's still a new year, and we can chart our own course. Let's set the tone within ourselves for a year of passionate pursuits.

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The 12 Virtues of Smaller Thinking, Vol. 01

Over the years we PARAGRAPHER's have, as a group, become passionate about a few things. The spinach salad at the deli across the street, short commutes to the office and experiencing four distinct seasons of weather are among them. But we also know that things often change over time, so we fancy that our minds are kept open to new experiences. And that we might never submit our improvisational spirit to one way of thinking. There is, however, one tenet that continually pervades our collective work. This is the philosophy of smaller thinking. Smaller thinking is the way we approach our questions and our answers. It's how we choreograph our meetings. It's how we designed our office. Truth is, the whole world has become a smaller, more nimble place. We believe that our way of thinking about marketing, branding and advertising must also evolve in similar ways. Gone are the days of huge initiatives that take months or years to fabricate and that are inevitably out of date at the moment of their inception. Awesome -- we were finally able to use "inception" in a post.

To make this school of thought crystal clear for you, the valued visitor, we've identified 12 virtues of smaller thinking and we'd like to share them with you. One small, digestible bite at a time. Over the course of 2011, we'll make a free desktop wallpaper available each month that commemorates a single virtue of smaller thinking. Each one will be unique in appearance -- a PARAGRAPH original, if you will. The monthly desktop will serve as a way for interested parties to keep on the "smaller" path. We hope that you'll find the virtues interesting, useful and compelling enough to employ into your own working ways when the time is right.

Our first virtue of smaller thinking is Ambition. This is not the base ambition to conquer, as in sleazy win-at-all-costs partisan politics or menacing helmet-to-helmet hits on defenseless quarterbacks. It's the ambition, or inner drive, to excel in our own right, in our own ways and because of our own skills, beliefs and direction. This drive forces us to DO more than THINK. So it follows that action is the inevitable result of this good-natured sense of ambition. This is a good thing, because without action, well, nothing gets done. There are entire business platforms built on this concept (link to Behance?). Sure we need to make good choices -- we'll get to that part in another post. For now, we just want to focus on doing more, learning from it and becoming better at what we do. Constantly. As we all start the new year with high hopes, let's focus on our ambition to do well by ourselves and by others. Before you know it, 2010 will be so last year.

Words Worth Repeating #6: Carl Sandburg

“I’m an idealist.  I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.” - Carl Sandburg, American writer and poet I like this bard’s style.  It sounds trite these days to say that life is about the journey, but we can still appreciate the sentiment.

The same goes for doing good work.  Over here, we prefer to let the ideas come together organically into a conclusion that makes total sense.  Problem-solving is always flexible, with possible solutions and potential tactics constantly molding each other.  You can’t know your destination before you know where you’re coming from.

What's in a Name?

We’ve all been there: that city whose name seems to be trying way too hard.  One of my favorite examples from around these parts (and there are a lot to choose from in North Carolina) is the town of Apex.  Oh, the irony.  Outside of geometry class, the word “apex” generally evokes ideas of sheer majesty.  But this Apex is a small, sleepy little thing just outside of Raleigh whose main claim to greatness seems to revolve around the railway station that was built up there around the turn of the last century. Poor Apex.  My guess is that it wouldn’t be treated with such scorn by people like me if its name weren’t quite so...overzealous.  It’s really a very nice place.

(By the way, Apex was originally named as such because it represented the highest point on the Chatham Railroad, running between Richmond, Virginia, and Jacksonville, Florida.  The problem with that name is that today, most of us are far more likely to associate the term “apex” with its strictly non-math definition: the culmination of something.  And realistically, how many towns can hope to represent the culmination of anything?  Talk about setting yourself up for disappointment.  Great cities are great because they have become so on their own terms -- not because they were given aspirational names.)

But my point here is not so much that silly names are silly.  That wouldn’t be very helpful.  It’s that when we’re choosing a name for something that will be around for a long time, we should be careful.

Sounds simple enough.  But too often, that aspect of naming is the victim of neglect.

One helpful guideline?  No names that are excessively larger than life (unless, of course, irony is your intention).  The same can be said whether we’re naming a child, a town, a company, or pretty much anything else.

So, let that kid be who he is.  Don’t name him Marcus Aurelius because you’re a Roman history buff.  (Hint: You’ll be setting him up for many an elementary school day of stolen lunch money.)

And let that town be what it is.  While the residents of Little Heaven, Delaware, probably do enjoy their view out onto the Bay, that name is a textbook case of biting off more than you can chew.  In stark contrast, the city of New York could just as well have any other name and smell as sweet (metaphorically, of course).

So, in other words, substance is what matters.  As a company grows into its shoes, its name becomes second nature.  The name is the company.  Inserting a fancy title from the get-go is not likely to highlight the company’s real talents.  More often than not, the most creative and successful ideas are ones that don’t try to play to clichéd stereotypes.  They dig a little deeper into who the company is and what it means to people.

Admittedly, this is all a romanticized view of how the world should work.  In ideal terms, names should not matter; character should.  But just look at what happened to Gap recently when it attempted to change the look of its logo.  In short, there was such a massive outcry against the change that Gap returned to its old look.  The original name-logo pairing had become so intrinsic to the brand that they became an icon for the whole company.  Good luck getting away from that one, Gap -- not that you would want to.

Let’s not forget to reuse.

If I were to take a wild guess about what will be the green-speak six months from now, I guess I'd say this. You know the whole phrase "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." I feel like when the green movement was first getting momentum, it was all about recycling. It was about not throwing stuff in landfills or unnecessarily polluting. More recently, it's been about reducing... reducing the amount of oil we consume, electricity we use, bottled water we drink, and our carbon footprint. I think the next phase of the green movement will be about reuse. I think there's an efficiency argument that people are starting to make. Our office is in a 90 year old building that is one of the smallest LEED platinum buildings in the country. One of the reasons it's so green is because it's so old. The company that renovated our building believes the oldest buildings can be the greenest buildings because you can reuse so much of what's already there.

WIRED magazine published a controversial story awhile back that claimed driving a used SUV is more environmentally friendly than buying a brand new Prius for that very same reason. A few weeks ago, I came across a more lighthearted reuse idea.

The great thing about focusing on reuse is that it’s not about what you should buy or what to get rid of. It’s about making the most of what we already have.