Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Preschool Web Lessons

I run into a problem every now and again. Like many of you with kids, despite an incalculable amount of toys, every so often my children sit among the puzzles, dolls, balls, trucks, beads, books, and art supplies and complain that they have nothing to do. At my worst, I tell them if they don't think they've got enough stuff, I can make space for new stuff simply by throwing out or selling the current crop. But at my best, I call in my wife who changes out the baskets of "things" for toys, games, paper and markers, etc. that have been hiding in closets for months, just waiting for their big moment in the rotation to come out and be used again. The idea is so simple, but it comes from watching our kids' preschool teacher put out new and interesting things for the kids to come up and play with on a daily basis. Each day, a new set of interesting things to touch, consider, explore, try, and engage with.

You see where this is going, right?

Today, in discussing a next wave scope of work, a client of ours laid out clear objectives of: getting people to return to our site multiple times and to increase the amount of time they spend on the site with each visit. There's certainly nothing remotely wrong with that goal on the surface. Who wouldn't want to strive for that? It's a cool, informative side married to a fun idea and campaign. But it wasn't designed with Preschool Considerations, if you know what I mean. Which is to say, it was conceived to entertain and inform not to change shape on a daily basis.

But the truth is, if the hope is to get users to come, stay, and return, we must concept the work with that teacher mentality - introducing new pieces, featuring engaging content, creating unexpected and exceptional experiences and tools, etc. I know this is old news in this here digital world, but I find myself fascinated by the overlap of how people create engaging content and contexts for a specific target simply by bringing the shiny stuff out of the closet with some consistency and frequency. It doesn't matter if your world is hi-tech or analog, if you want someone to come back and stay, you've got to give them something new.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Drawing Inspiration

My family ordered pizza and watched "Up" last night. And yes, I continue to marvel at Pixar's technical innovation (how did they light that girl's room up like a kaleidoscope as the balloon-house rose above it?). I can't believe what I watched is animation. I simply refuse to believe it. My theory is that in addition to computer wizardry, there is a healthy dose of magic that is added in post-production and that is how the film turns out the way it does. It's just a theory.

But amazingly, I am more astonished by the aspect of this film that has nothing to do with computer animation or RenderMan technology. I think the true genius of this film (and, most of Pixar's offerings) comes through the storytelling.

"Up" is a clinic in taking a basic story idea and developing richness around it. The basic outline couldn't be simpler: From childhood, a man finds his perfect match. They love each other. They live a long, beautiful life together. But she dies before they can ever do the one big adventure they'd planned since they were children. In her absence, he feels the weight of her death at every moment. How does he move on?

That's where the genius of imagination creates depth and nuance and metaphor. It is the moment in the process in which the author stops thinking solely in linear waves, but in the abstract, in analogies and symbols, in the "what if" and limitless possibility. And in this part of the creative process, in which the expected and the familiar are gently set aside, true creation is allowed to play and breathe and lead and expand.

In "Up", the protagonist Carl's problem is the heaviness of age and adulthood, and so ironically his backstory is that he sells helium balloons - a lighter than air occupation that is entirely connected to the emotional nature of childhood. 

The writers have his dying wife giving him her “Adventure Book”. At a page labeled “Stuff I’ve done”, Carl (and the viewer) think that the rest of the book must be blank, because Carl has never had the courage to turn the page. And yet, at the critical moment toward the end, he turns the page only to discover that Ellie had placed pictures of their whole life together in that section – it wasn’t empty after all. The truth is that life with Carl was the adventure. That the “Stuff” they’d done together was the stuff of their own adventure. Their journey together was the story.

And, of course, there's the beautiful twist that our protagonist must literally let go of his house and possessions in order to move on living in the future. 

But I didn't intend this post to be about plot recap. More about taking a simply truthful story and allowing imagination and potential take it to places elaborate and undiscovered and unexpected. I am inspired to apply this to everything I touch. The question is: how? I see how this is the expectation for artists and writers, but can this be done in the planning world? Is there room for imaginative layer and abstract discovery and promoting the unexpected? What forms does that take? Is it in the brief? At the briefing? In a presentation? Pitching new business? Or only when a creative team shows the desire to go there? When is it appropriate? When is it not? Would a client go for the ride? Would a creative team? How is creative license and the spirit of inventiveness used for constructive positive outcomes vs distracting cleverness?

Inspiration can be a tricky proposition that comes with a lot of questions when a person seeks practical applications for it. But at the end of the day, if I'm not trying to tell a story that's never been told, I guess I think...what's the point? I think the gang at Pixar would agree.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

An Ear for Passion

I watched and listened to our Director of Design, Steve Cullen, walk through a wall of thoughtful design for a client today. And although the client was mostly reacting to the offerings from what I perceived to be a place of gut-level reaction (much like the way an untrained eye such as mine reacts to art in a museum), I was fascinated by the depth of thinking and the absolute conviction with which Steve was describing every facet and detail of the work as he moved from typeface to iconography to palette.

What I realized is this: if you're talking passionately about something you love, I don't care what the topic, I will listen to you go on and on for hours on end. I might not agree with your point of view. I might not share your passion for the subject matter. But it doesn't matter if it's the history of salt, or why legs bend, or how a kite works, or the creation of a neon sign above Broadway, I will sit and listen and you will amaze me.

Sadly, I think the converse is also true. Which is to say, if you're talking about something I am drawn to from the deepest, most authentic place in my soul, and you're simply mumbling your way through your thoughts, you will lose me in the first five minutes. And odds are if it's something I really care about, you'll not only lose me, you'll upset me.

The bottom line is this: the world needs passion. It needs people who get excited about soap suds, and numbers, and produce, and design. And those people's voices need to be encouraged and heard. Many of us are ready to listen.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Social Singularity

Over a year ago, I made the very purposeful decision to take the twitter application off of my facebook profile (this was before "selective twitter" was up and running). I was noticing that there were things I wanted to say to my twitter followers that made sense to them and to that medium that the old friends, family, and grad school crowd wouldn't find relevant or even make sense. Though it felt odd at first, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to keep those worlds separate. That people who knew the way I was currently thinking (as a brand strategist and pseudo-cultural anthropologist) were all captured on one medium while those with whom I relate to in a different (though no less authentic way) I was connected to on another medium. Not exclusively, of course, but separate to some extent.

And for a while, this plan worked very well.

Recently, my brother started a twitter account. I was amazed, excited, and then alarmed. Last night, my wife and I talked about her entrance into the blogosphere as an aspiring novelist, and the various ways to get connected and to promote her books and build a community. And lo, the conversation included some overlap into the distinct worlds I had created for myself. Today, a friend from grad school started following my tweets. The fastest growing demographic segment on Facebook are women over 55. The norm is now that your parents are on the same platforms as you, sending you links, "liking" your status updates, commenting on your posts, and re-tweeting your insights and confessions.

We knew that this, like all trends, was inevitable. That was the whole idea behind it, right? The Influencers and their trickle-down technologies eventually must either move on to a different, less crowded space, or concede that those circles of distinction must at some point become crowded to the point where all personal networks are populated by the people from previously separated spheres of your life.

This convergence of the members of disparate real life and/or digital circles is known as Social Singularity.

The implications of this go hand-in-hand with the past decade's obsession with the notion of the "democratization of exclusivity" or "massclusivity". When we all have access, various things happen. Innovation and evolution become necessary as new platforms are born and grow. The heavily populated social spaces either lose their appeal, or evolve into hubs of active, though uncontrollable communications (see: YouTube & the gross increase of Twitter spam). And most importantly, in a very positive way, the newcomers to the digital social space make the space a more viable place to develop new means of contact and community, as there becomes less education and dispelling necessary when people jump in and experience things for themselves.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Truth in Creativity, by Maurice Sendak

For those who don't know me, I have two kids: Sadie, 6, and Charlie, almost 3. We love reading. LOVE it. I will spare you the column-that-could-be about the very best in kid lit and instead give you my thoughts on the amazing rediscovery the world is having with the 1963 Maurice Sendak classic, Where the Wild Things Are.

First off, the film looks insanely delicious. God bless Spike Jonze and any other director who chooses costumes over CGI (also a column-that-could-be). But more importantly, the release of the film has given many of us dads a chance to dust off a copy of the book and share it with our kids with a bit more care - lingering over the illustrations, considering the simplicity of the words, and asking on each page, "what do you think Max is feeling here?"

This is what I love. In a 10 sentence book, Sendak nails childhood. I mean, NAILS it. Who hasn't felt angry and wild and filled with feelings that are too big for our bodies? And yes, yes of course "let[ting] the wild rumpus start." If for nothing else than for the magic of those three words. But clearly for reminding us of what it means to feel alone and isolated and wronged and the need to rebel.

But these days I find myself intrigued by the feelings of loneliness Max experiences when the rumpus is over and he wants to be "where someone loves him best of all." The part of the book most of us don't remember or consider. The time-to-go-home part. The part that completes Max's journey. The part that brings remorse and need and closure to the experience of being a kid.

This book is a study in truth expressed creatively. Find the truth of a human experience, (and not the kind of truth we Brand Strategists like to throw on a creative brief really quickly - you know, the daypart/website pattern/general-generational characteristics, but a real essential understanding of what it's like to be human - kids have big, wild feelings and need to get them out and then need to know that they can have those feelings and still be loved best of all) and then tell that story in a surprising, tender, delightful, and daringly original way.

It's what any creative endeavor should strive for, be it a book, song, painting, classroom lesson, brainstorming session, and, yes, advertising & marketing too.

So, thanks, Maurice Sendak. From my kids to my colleagues, thanks.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Apple Calls it Quits (a "what if" exploration)

It is never a good sign when a blog entry begins with a disclaimer. And yet, I offer up the following: I am not a technologist, but I love technology. My wife and I still use our VCR (sometimes). My iPhone was a birthday present, but I almost cried when I dropped it within the first week of having it. I do not have HDTV. Clearly not an expert, I am, I’d say, an observer. A lite-social-networking, twittering, blogging, account planner. I like the conversation. I am fascinated more by the social implications of technology than by the wizardry of the mechanism. I offer this up as a canvas, a backdrop for the conversation I’m keen on having.

In the unlikely event you’ve been living on a planet other than ours for the past couple weeks, you will have undoubtedly been witness to the launch of the iPhone3Gs (the greatest, fastest, most powerful of the 3G's, now with cut and paste!). The frenzy this launch stirred amuses and confuses me. People were once again lined up, huffy and aggressive outside of Apple and AT&T stores for hours. I mean, like 12 hours or more. And others have been expressing for months their plans to get the new device right away. Give their first gen iPhone to the missus, to a kid, to eBay. It didn’t really matter, so long as there was a place for it to go to justify the new purchase.

But as I sat there, with my own suddenly ancient piece of handheld networking iCapability, I wondered, what if the folks at Apple just closed their doors? What if Steve Jobs pulled a Wonka, and just…no more. Aside from the obvious economic ramifications (unemployment, the cost of switching various hardwares) and the disappointment of MacJunkies like myself who will miss out on new designs, and the feeling of “us” that comes with aligning yourself with this anti-PC community. Also, let’s limit this to personal technologies so that the discussion doesn’t meander into the need for medical advancements or better aviation. If we’re just talking about our everyday, humdrum hardware needs and usage, I wonder what we’d be missing. Aren’t our computers fast enough? Can’t we find what we hope to find? Don’t we have enough access? Enough games? Couldn’t we conceivably have full, prosperous, connected lives if personal technologies did not advance beyond this point?

I know Ray Kurzweil's answer. Help me out here, followers of Singularity. What would the argument be? That it is inevitable that technology must continue, must advance because the merging of humanity and machinery will bring about our best-self evolution. But I’m posing what if we put on the brakes at this point? What if we stop now?

What if we thought more about Sherry Turkle’s approach? What if we question what the relationships people are developing with technology? Turkle argues that:

Our new intimacies with our machines create a world where it makes sense to speak of a new state of the self. When someone says, 'I'm on my cell,' 'online,' 'on instant messaging,' or 'on the web,' these phrases suggest a new placement of the subject, a subject wired into social existence through technology, a tethered self. I think of tethering as the way we connect to always-on communication devices and to the people and things we reach through them.

Wow. Look at the big brain on Brett! (aside: I am fully prepared to be schooled on both Kurzweil and Turkle. I don’t mean in any way to dumb down or reduce their thinking. Both are worth studying and understanding in any way possible.) The truth is I wonder if we need new technologies to continue driving us toward a new kind of connection. Some would argue that the new connectivity exchanges human contact for honest conversation. That although we don’t see one another, we feel more free to express our truest thoughts, to let our id run free, to say what’s really on our minds because it’s not really us, it’s our online selves. The converse to that is that people need to learn to interact eye to eye. That our humanness is critical to our survival as a species. What I’m asking is shouldn’t we work on learning to make direct, personal, actual human connections, decisions, negotiations before lining up to get the next gadget that will do it all for us? It’s like Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.”

Now the twist. Although it seems I’m arguing against the development of more technology, I am more trying to start a dialogue. Keep in mind, I love my laptop, my iPhone, the ability to text. To tweet. To post to tumblr. To videochat my wife and two kids from the road. To cleverly update my status on facebook. And so on. So, talk to me. Tell me. Instruct me. I could use it. I’m earnestly inquiring as to what we’d be missing if we could pause personal technology development at this point in time and make due with where we’ve arrived.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

two simple words

I just bought a new notebook. A return to the Moleskine blank page journal model after an ill-thought departure in which a sketch book took its place. (No bad-bad against the sketch book, but there's something about that hard black cover, the size, the experience of it.) Ach. This is all beside the point.

When I open it up, I write the same two words on the first page as I've written on my notebooks for the past few years: "what if..." (the ellipses is optional)

I daresay these two words are potentially the most powerful two in all of the English language. They hold more potential energy than any I can think of. They ask us to consider. They go beyond the norm, expanding our sense of what's possible.

A much, much, much smarter man than myself, Sandy Goldberg, Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern likes these words too. When I met him at last year's Idea Festival, I was struck by our shared devotion to these two small words. He led a too-short discussion about the power of "what if..." in which he described the phrase as an important tool in a philosopher's arsenal of possibility.

The problem of not indulging our ability to wonder and allowing "what if" thinking to seep into our processes is that "we end up taking the efficient cognitive path in substitution for imaginative thinking." Professor Goldberg's words there. And his example was walking through a forest for the first time. We can either explore and take paths untaken or we can go where we clearly see others have been. Typically, we take the path we see others have been and soon our footsteps have worn a path through the woods that becomes visible and clear, which is helpful in some regards, but it is hazardous in others. You see, with a well-worn path through the woods, the next interloper tends not to consider a new path, and instead walks safely to the other side without a second thought.

Our brains work in similar ways. In thinking in ways that have worked well for us in the path, not only do we stop considering the untrod possibilities, but we actually have a hard time forcing ourselves to explore the non-path should we so much as force ourselves to try.

I work as a strategic planner. It's the dreaming of ideas that makes my job interesting. The past months in particular, I have had cause (good fortune) to offer up my thoughts about a couple of several brands' (to remain unnamed) current and future positions. As I presented the "what if" directions to them, they were met with various reactions. For the most part, they were received with "we like the way you're thinking about this", which is great, but a couple of responses were more like "no. that's not us." Which is fine. My ideas are far from perfect. My batting average on these things is somewhere along the Mendoza line, so I'm hardly in a position to disagree.

I think I'm not bothered by the rejection of the ideas as much as the velocity in which a couple of them were administered. I wish I could get clients to pause and consider. To ask "what if" a lot more. As I've said, rejection is not my issue. I'm fond of the ensuing conversation. I'm interested in getting us after the pursuit of the thing; the collaboration that whittles the idea down or morphs it or (yes, truly) sinks it altogether.

Here's my challenge to you: if you're on the agency-side of things, I dare you to include in every strategy brainstorm, creative brief, client presentation, and concepting session (yes creatives - you glorious, misunderstood geniuses too); I dare you to include one moment or slide or devoted, focused consideration to "what if..."

If you're on the client-side of the map, I implore you to contemplate. Have vision. Consider. Challenge. Discuss. But most importantly, allow. Allow "what if..." to have its moment. Give it a beat. Allow for the possibility of something different. Allow for magic. For "my god, I never thought of that." Allow for absurdities that translate into consumer consideration that translate into commitment that translate into staunch declarations and onomatopoetic rapture. But also allow for the unthinkable. The horrendous. The belly-flop. Give some space to experimentation. Not committed dollars. Not even a greenlight. Just allow for the idea that something not found in flowcharts, graphs, and telephone surveys might be alarmingly relevant and staggeringly effective.

To each of you, I say good luck. I hope you take me up on my "what if" challenge. I happen to think the unknown is where innovation lies. And I think you'd be surprised at what can be inspired by opening up a conversation with two simple words. If you'd like to see them again, they're written on the first page of my Moleskine.
the thoughts and opinions expressed below are entirely my own, and are not necessarily shared by my friends, family, or employer. (though they very well might be...)