Articles written by
Chris Allison
July 29, 2010

An Overlooked Method for Producing Great Ideas: Let Them Steep

Ideas, like tea, need time to steep. Beneath the surface of the water, or the surface of your mind, magical things are happening. Unfortunately, all too often people try to generate great ideas with sheer brute intellect. They suppose if they think about it long enough and hard enough, the answer will come. But that's rarely the case.

In James Webb Young's tried, true, and excellent little book A Technique for Producing Ideas, he describes a five step process for creating ideas. Steeping, or digestion in Young's metaphor, is the third step, and one of the most frequently overlooked. You see, some things the subconscious mind can process better than the conscious mind. However, our subconscious is rarely able, if ever, to engage with something while it's still attracting our surface-level attention. So, we need to learn to let things go.

This isn't to say that good ideas appear out of thin air; ideas can only be processed subconsciously after you've done the hard work of research and exhausted the conscious mind by gathering facts and digging frantically. But when you're tired, worn, and ready to call it a day, stop beating your head against the wall. Walk alway. Sleep on it. Do anything to get your mind off the problem. That's when your subconscious will work its magic, and the right idea will come to you when you least expect it.

July 21, 2010

Brand by Committee: The Straight Road to Brand Hell

You've probably heard of design by committee, and it's probably never been in a positive light. Design by committee is one of those stock phrases that you can rely on to explain why there's so much bad design in the world. "Who approved that?" we think. Everybody and nobody. The truth is, great design doesn't come from a big group of people, check lists and a long series of approvals.

But now I'm preaching to the choir. Let's talk brand by committee. It's just as deadly as design by committee, and it's just as prevalent.

Strong brands are defined by a clear, singular vision. There's no question in the customer's mind as to their position. When you have a brand whose vision is defined by one person -- think Apple and Steve Jobs -- the result is a brand that's more consistent, and therefore more clear, than brands created by committees.

Branding and design have alot in common. They're both frequently mistaken for a mysterious, intangible, hit or miss practice. But branding is anything but mysterious. Good brands have personality, vision, and the will to bring those to life in their products. Everybody knows this. Sadly, many companies still spend millions on brand research and then filter those insights through a committee, who then grinds away any valuable insights and removes all hints of an authentic personality. What's left is a stale, boring brand reminiscent of a thousand others.

July 15, 2010

There is only one way to be creative, and it's not easy or a secret.

The heart of creativity is discipline.

- Bill Bernbach


Misconceptions concerning creativity abound, but one of the most widespread and harmful is that there's some magical vein of creative thought lurking in the mysterious reaches of our minds. The myth is, those of us who aren't creative types will either never be privy to these lofty thoughts or should jump through a series of quirky, "outside the box" hoops to attain them: brainstorming, creativity training, and hipster culture to name a few.

The reality is, creativity is an applied utility. Bill Bernbach, one of the creative giants of advertising history, once said, "Is creativity some obscure, esoteric art form? Not on your life. It's the most practical thing a businessman can employ." Being creative in some intangible, general way isn't an asset; applying creativity to your work, whether it's "artsy" or not, is.

It's true, illustrators, designers, and art directors are regularly expected to be creative, but so are strategists, developers, and a slew of other individuals in the interactive space. What creative individuals have in common is a certain level of mastery, a sufficient understanding of the fundamentals to be able to bend them appropriately, combined with the discipline to pursue new ways of doing things.

The root of creativity then, in fact, has nothing to do with living a creative lifestyle or being a creative type, and everything to do with practice, the art of perfecting your skills so that you can use them in new, innovative ways.  I know this probably isn't the most exciting or easy advice to read, but it's the truth. The old cliche "practice makes perfect" might as well be "practice makes creative."

June 22, 2010

Giving Feedback: An Ability You Can and Should be Measuring in Interviews

Most companies look for certain qualities in the interview process. Technical skills. Achievements. Past jobs. But one that often goes under-valued or completely missed is the ability to provide quality feedback.

How do you know if someone will be any good at giving feedback? It's actually quite simple, and it starts with experience.

One of the most valuable things that experience provides is a vocabulary for explaining shortcomings and successes. An experienced writer can function as his own editor; he can review his work, find a flaw, and say to himself, "That semicolon shouldn't be there. That's not the kind of statement I want to make. That's not the type of pause I want the reader to take."

The inexperienced writer goes back and says, "I know something isn't right, but I'm not sure what." Telling the difference between good writing and bad writing, or good design and bad design, isn't difficult -- what's difficult is turning that knowledge into actionable feedback.

Based off this knowledge, evaluating someone's ability to provide feedback should be straightforward. If they're going to be overseeing some of your employees, show them those employees' work, then get their feedback. If their feedback is clear and detailed, bingo! You've got a ringer. If their feedback is vague and imprecise, you might want to reconsider. If they can't give actionable feedback, then they're going to be ineffective.

June 18, 2010

Great Marketing Comes from a Passion for Clarity

Today, and for every foreseeable day to come, the world of consumers will grow more complex. The media space will become more crowded. Information will come more frequently. Industry will continue to complicate.

Now more than ever, it's the marketer's job to cut through all that with a simple, clear message. Without a passion for clarity, great marketing doesn't exist. Consider some of these iconic ads: Avis, Reagan, Tommy Hillfiger, Apple. The message is always crystal clear.

And while creating a message that speaks simply to the heart of a customer may seem daunting (the company is too complicated, the customer is too distracted), it shouldn't be. It's what makes our work exciting.

The philosopher Robert Wolffe has an exemplary attitude. Of his experiences in psychotherapy he recollects:


One day, however, I started talking about my work. I tried to explain to Dr. Boling that in all of my writing, whether it was on Kant's First Critique or Hume's Treatise or Das Kapital, my goal always was to plumb the depths of the author's central idea and recast it in a form so simple, so clear, so transparent that I could hold it before my students or my readers and show them its beauty. As I said these words, tears started to well up in me, and I finally had to stop talking because I could not finish. It was the only time in twenty years of psychotherapy that I cried openly in a session.


As marketers, we should aspire to the kind of passion that Wolffe has for clarity, for making even the most obfuscated ideas (and trust me, philosophers know how to muddle it up) transparent. Anything less is bound for mediocrity.

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