Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sagmeister's wisdom and life's lines.

"So, are you going to get your book signed or what?" my friend asked as we exited the packed auditorium. "Nah, this place is a mad house. I don't stand a chance." I replied.

We moved to the side and discussed the presentation we'd just witnessed. I safely leaned on a table as the crowd somehow continued to grow.

Years ago, Stefan Sagmeister was promoting his latest book, Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far. If you haven't seen it, it's a celebration of visual thinking and life realizations. All acquired on a year long sabbatical. I believe the way he captured words and statements inspired today's illustrative lettering movement. In fact, here's a project he did with the crazy-talented Jessica Hische herself: "Obsessions make my life worse and my work better."

The actual list of things he learned was inspiring. A mix of profound, simple, humorous, bold, and humble statements. Each line given its own execution and mini book within the die-cut-sleeve housing. (As you probably know, Sagmeister is seriously unafraid of x-acto knives.)

The things he learned:
  • Complaining is silly. Either act or forget.
  • Thinking life will be better in the future is stupid, I have to live now.
  • Being not truthful works against me.
  • Helping other people helps me.
  • Organizing a charity group is surprisingly easy.
  • Everything I do always comes back to me.
  • Drugs feel great in the beginning and become a drag later on.
  • Over time I get used to everything and start taking it for granted.
  • Money does not make me happy.
  • Traveling alone is helpful for a new perspective on life.
  • Assuming is stifling.
  • Keeping a diary supports my personal development.
  • Trying to look good limits my life.
  • Worrying solves nothing.
  • Material luxuries are best enjoyed in small doses.
  • Having guts always works out for me.
Seeing him speak in person added so much depth to each of those lines. My friends and I were getting ready to head out. Just then, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the man himself, asking if I wanted him to sign my book. I looked to my side. Apparently, in the midst of the crowd reorganization, I had unwittingly become the head of the massive book-signing line. I fumbled for my book.

So what did I learn? All of the above. And, there are times in life when you'll get a chance to be at the front of the line. It doesn't happen often. You may not be ready, but take advantage. In the meantime, always be learning. (No one is ever really ready.)

[ This is preliminary inspiration for a piece I've been invited to create for The Denver Egotist. Here's a link to last year's phenomenal 2010 series. ]

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Denver Fifty 2011: Great ideas can't hide.

Sincere thanks to Bryce Boyer (photography), Ryan Johnson (copy), and Gneural (illustration).

Behind the thinking of The Denver Ad Club's call-for-entries campaign.
In advertising, there's an advantage when you're the audience. You know things outsiders won't uncover in a focus group. So, armed with a lifetime of subliminal creative knowledge, I took on the Denver Fifty creative brief with the excellent Ryan Johnson of Vladimir Jones.

Our challenge.
Get people to enter their best ideas. End needless brilliance un-acknowledgement. Combat the possibility that agencies are holding ideas back because they may not understand the concept of this bigger-than-local show. Inflict a sense of urgency to enter. Then, promise and deliver fame if they make the prestigious few that are The Fifty. 

Our hero, and obstacle.
Creatives. We get distracted. We're always busy. We push the deadline. Wait a minute, what were we talking about? Oh yeah... Basically, we respond to challenges, praise, and deadlines. We fear judgment, but endlessly seek awesomeness. Is it possible to threaten and compliment creatives simultaneously? (Yes, and that's what we did.)

Great ideas can't hide.
What if, in theory, we took the creative's idea entry decision out of the equation? What if they had no choice in the matter? They had to submit to submission. Because the Denver Ad Club was watching. Waiting. Well aware of their great ideas and willing to confiscate them. 

Introducing The Five-0.
Who or what is The Five-0? The audience will never really be sure. What they did know was that The Five-0 was coming after their ideas. A threat and an incentive – encouraging agencies to submit their ideas to The Fifty. Or else.

With Five-0, we liked the play on 'The Fifty' and that it's a slang term for the police. We also liked taking these idea police in an unexpectedly shady, omnipresent direction. Because there is no clear right or wrong in the idea business. The Five-0 were undercover. They were staking out agencies. They were calling out ideas. Curiosity. Paranoia. Good times. 

The photo concept and art direction.
For the photo shoot, I honed in on this creative paranoia with the exceptionally talented Bryce Boyer and a team of amazing people. We pulled off six fun conceptual photos with six actors in six locations in two days. And also a short spot with special effects and original scoring.

I wanted to emotionally portray creatives in moments of idea vulnerability. Protecting and concealing their great ideas. Each shot shows an idea development device. The actors are creative stereotypes I dreamed up. The prima donna, tortured artist, early adapter, quirky guy, witty girl, and rock star. They could all be art directors or writers. The modern wardrobe is neutral and blends into the scenery. Timeless and cinematically-embellished styling.

To build up the unsettling atmosphere, we were shooting in both modern agency and creepy historical locations. It's funny, the first horror movie I saw was Poltergeist. It was most scary because it was shot in a modern day neighborhood. You couldn't write it off as something that would only happen in an abandoned haunted house far, far away. And as a kid, it made you think twice about your own closet.

I wanted all the focus to be on the actor's expression. They have an exaggerated, self-idealized glow about them. The glow that follows true visionaries. Usually, you don't see it. You sense it. They are passionate and you want to believe in their ideas. The whites of the character's eyes are drawn out, capturing pure emotional overreaction.

The line between this going campy or being visually arresting was thin. Our initial casting shots gave us insight into this delicate difference. We found the best direction was the moment you think you may have heard something, but you're not sure. It's subtle, but really intense.

By blending reality, emotion, and imagination – the images came to life. A secondary Five-0 shadow in every shot held the set together. We pulled the blues, greens, and warm tones. Blacks went to dark blues. I didn't want this to be the expected film noir look. I wanted it to be dark, but modern and vibrant.

The ads were posted on Ads of the World, The Denver Egotist, AdWomen, ffffound, and a bunch of other great sites and collections. Lots of thanks to Bryce Boyer (photographer/director/producer), Ryan Johnson (copywriter), Debbie Clapper: Gneural (illustration), Spillt (effects), Post Modern (color), Stephen Zinn (editor), Blorp Corp (sound), Peter Lugo, Ben Marrow, Ben Dicke, Shannon McKinnon, Danielle Lebens, Alaina Reel (actors with Radical Artists), Katelyn Simkins (stylist), Jamie Barkley (wardrobe), and Reese St. German (photographer's assistant), XYZ Graphics (retouching), Vision Graphics (printing), and Sherman Street Event Center and Lee Reedy/Xylem Digital (locations).

And here's the spot. The creative struggles with inspiration. Then she has it and gets lost creating it. And, well I don't want to give the rest away. See for yourself:

The Denver Fifty 2011: Call for Entries from The Denver Egotist on Vimeo.

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Monday, September 5, 2011

Past and Present. Blended.

Dear Photograph,
I told you there would be better days.
Joel Witte
I've seen the future, and the future is… well, actually it might be the past. Albeit a never-ending, future-feeling remix of the past. Yesterdays. Todays. Tomorrows. Layers upon layers of intuition gleaned from years of exploration. Reflections and realizations.

Dear Photograph, a blog by Taylor Jones, overlaps frozen moments from the past with present time and space. Old photographs lined up in current surroundings. Literally matching physical perspectives while looking back with if-I-had-only-known-then emotional perspective. The effect is powerful. Sometimes quirky. Sometimes heartbreaking.

It's a simple, yet profound idea. Family photos of strangers, evocatively telling us so much more than what we would have taken from the photo alone. Exposing introspection in a visceral way.

The photograph is tangible, but captures something fleeting. Something gone the second it is taken. Never to be exactly replicated. Always remembered as it was.

As time passes, you begin to remember the photo. Not specifically the moment as much. Maybe through something new, like technologically revisiting our former haunts, we'll find a window to the past. And see the future.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Creatively agnostic.

As Garreth Kay beautifully articulated, the underlying strategy for everything from Making Digital Work was that "we need to become keen observers on human behavior." Technology advances. Digital strategy adapts. Motivation changes. No matter what the medium, remember, you are trying to reach people with something they find meaningful. And that's a constant.
"When people share content, they're building their brand. Not yours." – Daniel Stein
Everyone is uncomfortable with the ever-changing technological landscape. Get comfortable with that. Even the students at Boulder Digital Works are becoming experts in technology that may be obsolete by the time they graduate. And that's fine. They're trained to be creatively agnostic. To experiment and tinker. To engage in play that leads to legitimate implementation. To see the bigger picture.

From the beginning conceptual phase, include people who are well-versed in emerging technology. They are the illustrious makers. Creatives are sometimes perfectionists. However, the tension between the makers and the idealists creates better work. Both sides pushing each other forward. Collaborating in a more iterative way. Allowing ideas to drive technology. Steering away from technology for technology's sake. And making sure ideas can actually be implemented before a creative visionary promises something crazy in a pitch that cannot be done. (Only doable crazy please.)

Innovation thrives when teams are cross-trained. Creatives learning technological possibilities. Developers reading Hey Whipple, Squeeze This and knowing how to foster a concept. Account people up-selling through understanding both sides and building optimal project teams.

The sooner we realize we are uncertainly certain about anything, the better. After all, as Bernbach warned, "Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art." We are persuading human behavior. And for now anyway, you can believe that.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Politically creative.

No matter where you reside within an advertising agency, you're going to need some political prowess. Trust me, I'm a creative incumbent. You need it. Internally and externally. Like it or not, you are being judged.

How do you masterfully persuade a room? Can you command respect from your team? Do you effortlessly inspire action?

Much like a hopeful politician, the optimistic creative cautiously begins a new campaign. Carefully crafting strategy. Aligning personal belief. Preemptively asking questions and preparing for debate.

I've written about the art of selling before. It comes down to your own authentic endorsement. There's a difference between passionately standing behind the work and apologetically running through creative you wish could have been better. Your audience will sense it. Go in there unprepared and prepare to head back to the drawing board.

As a creative, I feel your pain. Our tendency is to dwell on what could have been. 

Sometimes, we're too close to it. Or maybe there were too many obstacles. Either way, we have to ignite the spark. The one that shows up in our eyes when we present work we're truly excited about. The unmistakable glow surrounding a passion project explanation. The unwavering confidence reassuring your direction. The contagious charisma leaving your audience wanting more. Maybe even without revisions.

Creativity is not really measurable. It's subject to popular opinion.

Back your work with research. Emphasize why it speaks to your audience. Be ready for an opposing view, or ten. And, most importantly, make sure you are an avid supporter of the work. And yourself.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rethink your thinking.

What inspires you? It's different for everyone else, right? …or, is it?
What?! You mean I'm not the only one inspired by advertising, creativity, culture, design, and observation who admittedly has a slight music and film addiction? Do I have a doppelganger hanging out in a coffee shop somewhere getting excited about random things like this or that. (I won't go into all my what-I-thought-used-to-be-original intricacies, but yeah, it turns out they're really not. Sorry hipsters, you're probably not alone either.)

No matter how eclectically specific your interests are, you have a tribe out there. My advice? Find them. It will save a lot of time and inspiration hunting.

As a pursuer of patterns, it's getting easier to find like-minded people. 
Though I have only started playing around with the nuances of Google+, the platform seems primed for combining the best of all social connectivity. All in one aggregated place. And let's face it, Google already knows everything about you anyway. Maybe someday you can just have Google auto-update your status for you. You'd probably have to set some ground rules for that to work. "No Google, you may not post my social security number or +1 cat videos while driving my online persona. Thank you." (Okay, if the cat videos are indeed hysterical, I'll go either way on that last rule.)

The question is no longer "What inspires you?" It's, "Do you actually have time to pay attention?" Because if you do, inspiration is everywhere.
An engineer may not care about an art installation. But, what if that nonsensical sculpture inspired a legitimate structure solution. And then what if a surgeon thought like that engineer? The most phenomenal development of the connected world is the immediate access to so many perspectives.

Inspiration is a catalyst for rethinking your thinking.
We're really not that different. It's amazing how small the world is. And I'm very excited to hear some of the world's most connected digital planners, instigators, and creators address this issue at next month's Boulder Digital Works workshop. In person. I'll have updates on that in future posts. And, if you're going to be there, say hi. I'll be the one that is, well, probably like everyone else there.

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Monday, July 4, 2011

Is this good design?

Poster designed by Bibliotheque.
Before complete brand integration, Dieter Rams feared the world was becoming “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises.” A very prophetic statement from the early eighties. 

Everything good is usually designed, but not everything is good design.

We have a tendency to influence each other. Brands fall victim to 'me too' design and strategy. Especially among like-brand competitors. We must always ask ourselves, "is this good design?" And, if it is not, how can it be?

Design is a cross-platform discipline. No longer does it only apply to artists drawing pictures. Writers, programmers, engineers, and strategists all must be fluent in design. Good design results from inspired collaboration.

Anyone creating anything should take a minute and familiarize themselves with or revisit the 'Ten Commandments' of design. Human-centered in philosophy, the thinking ventures well beyond art alone. Whether you create products, campaigns, or identities – this list thoughtfully explores why design should and does matter.

Dieter Rams: Ten Principles for Good Design

1. Good design is innovative – The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

2. Good design makes a product useful – A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasises the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

3. Good design is aesthetic – The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

4. Good design makes a product understandable – It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.

5. Good design is unobtrusive – Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

6. Good design is honest – It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

7. Good design is long-lasting – It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.

8. Good design is thorough, down to the last detail – Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.

9. Good design is environmentally friendly – Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the life cycle of the product.

10. Good design is as little design as possible – Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.
“I think that good designers must always be avant-gardists, always one step ahead of the times,” he said in a speech to the Braun supervisory board in 1980. “They should – and must – question everything generally thought to be obvious. They must have an intuition for people’s changing attitudes. For the reality in which they live, for their dreams, their desires, their worries, their needs, their living habits. They must also be able to assess realistically the opportunities and bounds of technology.” – Dieter Rams
For more inspiration, read Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams and check out Objectified.

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Adventures in failure.

Wieden+Kennedy has been embracing failure since 1988. It's working. And, as the mural demonstrates, sometimes doing things the hard way is more meaningful.

Fail harder. Fail faster. Fail better. Fail forward. For the love of awesome, would you just get it over with and fail already?

Small failures are encouraged right now. In theory anyway. It's part of our rapid-prototyping-world-in-beta lifestyle. Get it out there. Test it and fix it as needed. Everything is fluid. Feedback is immediate. Nothing is forever. (Well, except for diamonds. And maybe that poorly-planned tattoo acquired on a drunken whim.)

But what about the big failures? The ones that draw a line before you in the sand. Daring you to courageously step forward or cowardly bury yourself right where you stand.

"You can be comfortable or outstanding, but not both. Extraordinary begins with discomfort." – Sally Hogshead
Many a creative recalls a time their ego was destroyed – that is by someone other than themselves. Their book metaphorically or, in some cases, actually ripped to shreds and thrown back in their general direction. One brutally honest moment. And, thank God for that moment. Here's your adversity. Now, what are you going to do with it?

Failure is a powerful motivator. Learn from its lessons. Let it make you and your projects stronger.

There's a reason why scar tissue is the strongest tissue in the human body. And that it stands out. A timeless reminder of a misstep or an averted prognosis. A defining characteristic they may use to identify us someday. One look at the mark and we recall how we got it. Maybe even what we experienced right before it was embedded. Forever. The sound of rusty trampoline springs. The smell of overheated car side pipes. The pre-surgical anxiety while helplessly slipping under the veil of anesthesia.
"Wisdom enters through the wounds." – shamanic quote capturing the inherent pain of creativity
Box of Crayons adds some great thoughts around that quote, "I love the liberating sense that it is only through our bruises and scrapes and errors and mistakes and stumbles and confusions and hurts and tears and anxiety and wounds, it is only through the time we spend in the shadow that our wisdom grows. Seek out experience and stumble."

Invest in yourself. Find a way to be mentored by smarter people who know how to do things that you don't. People who fear mediocrity over failure. And yes, you're probably going to fail. Eventually. But if you're bold enough to avoid the plateau, it's just part of the adventure.

[This piece is cross-posted on The Denver Egotist.]

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Commercial comeback.

Think back. Back to a time before Tivo. It was the decade Chiat/Day changed advertising with their groundbreaking 1984 Apple commercial. Saving humanity from conformity in a spot officially airing once and barely mentioning Apple.

Then in 1985, I was introduced to the quirky art direction of JWT's Joe Sedelmaier. It was through a VCR game, of all things, featuring a collection of his work. You'd watch a spot and then answer a series of questions. Everyone knows his work for Wendy's and FedEx. However, his Alaska Airlines spots were my favorites. He was famous for making non-actors famous.

Before everything was social, advertising was social. Commercials were famous in the 80s. T-shirts, board games, and mascots. Even with Tivo today, social media is pushing appointment TV and bringing back commercial relevance. I'm hoping this leads to more Super Bowl-worthy campaigns shutting out the apparently endless Progressive Insurance spots. It's time for new thinking in traditional media.

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Saturday, May 28, 2011

A new idea? Well okay, just this once.

I'll admit, I'm addicted to ideas. Adrenaline-laced epiphanies. It just took one, and I was hooked. I want more. 

It's not just the idea itself, it's the whole process. 
The inception of an idea. The rush you get when you make an idea better. The contagiousness of a good idea on the loose.

Work backed by a powerful idea, is no longer work. It's a mission. 
You can't help yourself. You're obsessed with it. The project seems to almost effortlessly manifest itself. (Though you've no doubt lost hours in it.) You want it to be good, with all your being. It's part of you and your team. It's like Christmas morning when it all comes together, and you can't wait for the world to open it. 

Making the decision to work for better ideas is not an easy road. 
But, if you seek them, the work down the line will also be better. And often easier. If the idea is big enough, it becomes a master plan. Executed in many ways. Schedules struggle to account for the upfront ambiguity better ideas require. The cycles between engaging and disengaging from the project. Better ideas usually happen somewhere in between. Push past adequate or even good. That's where better lives.

Do you dare put yourself out there? No strings, spotters, or nets.
You have to think like an entrepreneur. Along the way, you might fail. Maybe a lot. But then again, you might succeed. In a much bigger, more meaningful way.

"In bold projects, it's a fine line between a big win and a total crash and burn. Reason? Success happens at the bleeding edge." – Scott Belsky
Sally Hogshead has a great post on whether it's better to broadly appeal to the masses or truly engage a smaller audience… really, really well. Vanilla versus pistachio. Safe and effective or bold and adventurous? Both have their place, but yeah, I'd rather go with pistachio.

Will everyone get the idea? Does it matter if the ones who get it, really get it? And come back for more. Because they're hooked. And they can't help themselves.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Accidentally innovating with purpose.

At our creative meeting, I issued a team-brainsqualling challenge. The task had absolutely nothing to do with anything we were working on. It wasn't supposed to. We had no reason to get hung up on preconceived notions or restrictive details.

Everyone split up into three teams. No one HAD to do anything, but they knew the other teams might be presenting their ideas the following week. Implied group competition, strengthening team camaraderie.

Once the first email started, the ideas kept building. Team member's strengths enhanced each new revelation. Programmers, designers, and writers all equally participating. Before long, no one knew who's idea it really was. It became the entire team's idea. And everyone involved felt passionate about it. People lit up as they walked through details. It wasn't about winning, there was genuine excitement in hearing each team's thoughts.

The exercise was from Caffeine for the Creative Team. The challenge: to conceptualize a piece of playground equipment for today's kids – incorporating relevant technology.

Teams tapped into their own nostalgia, their kid's passions, and their technological prowess. One idea harnessed energy. Another focused on atmosphere and environment – for the kids and adults. And another team created an elaborate maze, laid out with a new mind-mapping program they found.

How we work together can make or break a team. Everyone works differently, but the team has to come together at various points in the process. Building excitement and expanding on thoughts. It should never be individual against individual. Ideas should evolve in a back-and-forth manner. You face your inner critic, refine as needed, and then throw it out into the group. Repeat as necessary.

Before the team's presentations, I asked a couple of questions with some interesting outcomes. First of all, there was no budget and ridiculousness was encouraged. Even without parameters – everyone imagined something that was safe for kids to use, could "probably" be built, met a business or health objective, and solved a problem. In fact, some of the thinking could be the seed of an idea for some of our client's companies.

Creative teams should take time to play every now and then. It reminds us why we love what we do and that there are always unexplored possibilities. Who knows, it could accidentally be innovative.

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

The surface is deep.

The surface glimmers with intrigue and anticipation. It promises possibility and invites speculation. It curiously holds our attention. Begging us to look closer. Denying us details. Leaving us wanting more.

Disenchantment is in the details.
How long can you hover above something without getting mired in mundane minutiae? Will you stave off reality's inevitable infiltration? Can you hold the spotlight while the next big thing's shadow creeps closer. And closer. Until darkness overwhelms.

Advertising varnishes the surface.
Something forgotten becomes relevant. A product in a sea of like-products becomes the shiniest option. With extreme sheen and authenticity, a brand becomes the generic name for an entire category.

From the outside in.
Good advertising changes the perception of what's underneath the surface. Great advertising captures and celebrates real value below the fold. A new surface attracts an empowered audience of brand advocates. Prepare to deliver, or frivolously step aside.

Surface knowledge.
In Wired UK, Russell M. Davies has an interesting take on knowledge depth. He explores surface fascination – ironically deep for creative people. By overlapping surfaces, they create something the world swears they've never seen before. Maybe they haven't. Maybe they have. Either way, it sure is shiny. Let's get a closer look.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

The thinking man's creatives.

I've Been Thinking About Abstract Expressionism: 2009.11.21,
originally uploaded by Julia Kay.
Design Thinking is dead. Well, sort of.
And no, this doesn't mean we can stop thinking. Or that "because it looks cool" flies as a stand-alone concept. That's like ending a debate with "because I said so." You may have won the battle, but you've also rendered the battle meaningless.

The Design Thinking legacy.
Cleverly disguised as a process, Design Thinking became serious business. Less like art and more like thoughtful engineering. Businesses willingly invited quirky creativity to the innovation table.

Design Thinking as an overall descriptor is admittedly confusing.
It's not just design. It's the empathetic perspective that makes something matter. The advertising magic when David Ogilvy changed a homeless man's sign from "I am blind. Please help." to an emotion-evoking "It is spring and I am blind."

Make way for the Creative Quotient.
So what's next in our quest to quantify creativity? According to Bruce Nussbaum's Fast Company article, Creative Intelligence (CQ) is the new Design Thinking. He defines the more inclusive CQ as "the ability to frame problems in new ways and to make original solutions."

Excuse me sir, but I need to verify your CQ.
Who knows, maybe someday we'll have to take a CQ test to get into universities or earn an agency position. You test over 200 and you're a freakin' certified creative genius. Go ahead, acquire your intimidatingly-cool eyewear and refine your bizarre creative rituals. The lesser CQ-scoring minions await your brilliance.

But seriously, can creativity really be assessed?
Someone could individually have a high CQ, but creativity requires fuel from different variables. Project passion, collaboration, and even opposition. Robert Fabricant of Frog Design responds to Bruce Nussbaum's article with some valid considerations inspired by the esteemed Wile E. Coyote.

Whatever we call it, the world needs divergent thinkers.
Fearlessly-curious thought leaders who don't accept "well, this worked last time" as a definitive answer. Smart creatives who explore the messy intersection where multidisciplinary perspectives meet. A team of hybrid technologists, idea writers, strategic planners, and visual visionaries. Here's to the thinking man's creatives, and their crazy new solutions that (gasp)… just might work.

[This piece is cross-posted on The Denver Egotist.]

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Saturday, April 9, 2011

TEDx Mile High – inspired citizens inspiring.

Heroes walk among us. They're doing things and telling people what they're doing. Asking tough questions, and working to solve them. Taking responsibility, and delivering empowered action. The key idea from the inaugural TEDx Mile High was sustainability. For ourselves and our world.

The heroes were merely inspired citizens, no capes. They were engineers, politicians, entrepreneurs, parents, athletes, musicians, teachers, and leaders. With one goal – to make the world a better place. Today and tomorrow. And to motivate others. (All humbly introduced by the FearLess ad legend himself, Alex Bogusky.)

If every person in the sold-out audience actually took action on one thing as challenged, imagine the effect. And then every person who watches the videos later. And then everyone they share the videos with. What if intellect-driven compassion ran rampant?
"It's one thing to be empathetic. Compassion implies action." – John Hickenlooper
Let's just say TEDx Mile High was truly action-packed. An emotional roller coaster. In between speakers, they showed some amazing examples of TED greatness. Stacey Kramer explains the best gift she ever received – a beautiful perspective. Gever Tulley shows us the importance of tinkering (love the noted 'decorating of the unfinished project' behavior at moments of frustration.) Poe Rives uncovers a hilarious 4-o'clock-AM conspiracy.

A sampling of speaker inspiration:

Paul Polak is 77-years old and changing the way corporations think. Showing them how to create profitable businesses to serve the poor with dignity. And he's not just telling them, he's going to third world countries and making it happen.

Robyn O'Brien walked us through some mind-blowing food industry realities. How in the last decade, the United States allowed new proteins and additives into the food system. Highly profitable, fairly untested elements. Europe said no, they had not been proven safe. The U.S. opted for the 'had not been proven dangerous' stance instead. So now, Kraft and Kellogg's produce different products for the U.S. than they do for the countries opting out of this change. Well, guess what, cancer is way up in the U.S. Especially in kids. Our health system is buckling. Our financial and physical strength to fix this root problem left weakened.

Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers without Borders, asked us all to write our personal mission statements. Companies are built around mission statements. As individuals, we should do the same. He also asked us to rethink poverty. We are all born wealthy. We're alive. Anything we have beyond that should be considered 'wealth enhancement.' Focus on fixing internal poverty through education and health. Help people find their passion and use that passion to make a life for themselves. And, until we fix internal poverty, there will be external poverty.

Whew, that's a lot to process. I'll link to more in future posts. In the meantime, find your passion. And do something.
"Let blatant audacity be our nature. Let's dream beyond our capacity." – Obura Tongo

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Monday, March 28, 2011

We used to ask a lot of a logo.

We'd expect it to carry the weight of the brand on its back. Logos were single-handedly responsible for brand recognition and product legitimacy. On the start-up's list of things to do, having a good logo was perceived as a huge step between dream and reality.

Fast forward to a multi-channel, socially interactive, and ever-changing competitive landscape. Logos are important, but they alone cannot do the job.

Your brand needs support. A personality. How does your brand speak? What does it believe in? Can it adapt and inspire relevant content?

Graphically speaking, rigid corporate identity systems have lost traction to more flexible structures. Providing familiarity, but allowing for some interpretation. Think Apple.

Yes, a timeless logo still represents the core essence of a brand. But, your logo is not your brand. Your brand is much more.

Check out this post from Mashable and see where brand identity is headed.

[Cross-posted from Burns Workspace.]

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

The four-burner stove theory.

Ever since I stumbled across David Sedaris's friend's 'four-burner stove theory' in a number of articles, I can't help but periodically evaluate my theoretical burner usage. This symbolic stove represents four quadrants of life we all try to balance:
“One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.
If you think about it, it's easy to do. Become focused on a couple of areas and ignore the others. I've done a lot of burner combining as well. Friends at work. Family as friends. Brainstorming while running.

Seriously, can a person really have it all at the same time anyway? Something probably has to give, unless we miraculously find more hours in a day. Or take up speed-laced espresso and clone ourselves.

An extreme example of burner combination: A while back I read an article about a successful agency woman. (Her name and agency escape me.) From what I remember, she was basically running her life on one combined burner. Her and her husband managed the agency together. Full. Freaking. Time. To those inquiring about her success secrets she said, "If you have friends, forget them. There will be no time." They literally lived at work. Home, family, and work were one. She did everything there – from working out to giving herself haircuts. (And yeah, she could afford a sweet haircut, but apparently losing that precious time was not an option.)

Along with reasonably combining burners, we should probably turn them down instead of completely off. Work gets busy… that burner goes full-flame while the others stand by on a low simmer. When you're catching up with family and friends, crank those burners way up to make up for lost time. All of this is fine and well, that is if we can actually control our burner usage.

Unfortunately, this theory rings true at a subconscious level. Whether it's survival or not, we don't always realize we're cutting off burners until the pilot light goes out and it's hard to get them going again.

What if we just simply burn out? Can we get a new stove and start over? Well, maybe. Just make sure it has a good warranty.

Or, if you're so inclined, embrace the craziness and get a fire pit.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Idea intelligence and creative espionage.

This is a covert operation – taking you deep behind the scenes of creative intrigue. Precariously dangling you over the edge of the obvious and testing your ability in the art of negotiation. How far are you willing to go in order to sell an idea?

We didn't really know what my uncle did. We weren't supposed to. Gone for months at a time. Moving from country to country. My aunt went about her daily activities, patiently waiting for his return. Knowing just enough on a need-to-know basis. So, not much. (She says she can relate to The Good Shepard.)

He's retired from the agency. The stories quietly buried somewhere in his mind. Every now and then, you catch a glimpse in his eyes. Something hinting at experiences we'll never comprehend. A world we're not familiar with. Maybe for our own good.

To those of you up for the challenge, I'd like to pass along some espionage traits that may or may not be related to my uncle's influence. Focusing on how we can use these characteristics to sell creative. Incognito ingenuity. Or, something like that.

1. Exude confidence and effortlessly earn trust. – As Wieden + Kennedy pointed out, "trust is the secret sauce if you want to do groundbreaking work." Establish, protect, and maintain it.

2. Blend, but be bold. – The top agents are regular people with extraordinary capabilities. They are your neighbors. Strive for greatness, but be humble.

3. Be able to tell a story. Hilariously. (Bonus: In multiple languages.) – Humor and effective storytelling lead to clients liking your team. Wanting to work with you. And consequently, being open to your team's concept.

(My uncle has endless comedic material. In a battle of wit, he will win. Always. I'd leave the dinner table, having to gain composure after laughing myself to tears. He'd have people rolling in Spanish as well. I didn't completely understand what he was saying, but the locals did. And they were dying.)

4. Observe the room quickly, but extensively. – Be able to read personalities and adjust your pitch accordingly. Picking up on tone and gesture cues early can help avoid potential missteps later.

5. Negotiate, but empower the client's buy-in. – No one likes to be forced into an idea. And yeah, medieval interrogation techniques are generally frowned upon. Give away some ownership by including the client's direction in the genesis of the idea. Provide shared reason not to kill it.

6. If the creative becomes significantly compromised, retreat. – Have a colleague helicopter you out of there. Change your identity and go into hiding until it blows over. If you can, grow a beard. Train in a reclusive dojo perched next to a ridiculously-steep ravine in some random arctic location. Whatever it takes.

7. Always reemerge with a better idea. And mean it. Your clients can sense doubt. So, never give yourself a reason to have it. Believe in the work. (Or repeat #6.)

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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Manufacturing happiness.

Happiness is contagious.

Definition 6 proved that Coca-Cola could enable happiness. But, what was the catalyst for the Happiness Machine's success? Yeah, college kids like free stuff, but that wasn't the magic. For the people in the videos, it was the element of surprise. An unexpected disruption during a mundane activity. For the video viewers, it was more about watching people's reactions to the machine in action. The happiness ripple effect. 

Corporations are manufacturing happiness.

Believe it or not, Stanford's MBA program offers a coveted class on designing happiness. Tomorrow's leaders are learning how to leverage happiness – boosting employee productivity and inspiring meaningful customer connection.

According to the Fast Company article, Professor Jennifer Aaker focused on: "how people find happiness, keep it, manipulate it, and use it as a resource."

And, successful companies are doing just that. Zappos is delivering happiness. In fact, after future Zappos employees go through training, they're offered $4000 to walk away from the job. If they stay, they want to be there. No question.

Google's infamous 20-percent time project demonstrates the benefits of allowing employees to pursue something they're passionate about. Some projects turn into Google-funded reality. One guy is trying to buy a country for his project. How will that help Google? Who knows. But, he loves his job. And that will come through in his work.

Happiness is a benefit superseding pay or even product feature incentives. If you legitimately offer happiness, you have our attention. Even BMW's campaign boldly seeks ownership of "Joy."

Aaker defines happiness as "a state of well-being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy." Younger people equate it with excitement. As you age, it's linked with serenity. But, meaningful experiences make people happy at any age.

So, it's as simple as that, right? Make happiness. Experience happiness. Be happy.

On a personal level, it's not always that simple. The desire for happiness is stronger than the feeling of fulfillment when experiencing happiness.

It's human nature. The endless pursuit of happiness is a double-edged sword. Anticipated possiblities and over-zealous expectations can hinder joy in the now. We search for more happiness, but don't always realize when we have it.

Does happiness mean as much when you don't know what it's worth?

It really is the little things, and learning not to take them for granted. The blessing of family and friends in difficult times. Career success after years of hard work. A tragically-beautiful song called Happiness, that drags you through darkness before enlightening you with an optimistic chorus. Or, when Edward Norton says, "This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time." And you realize, it is. And you should be happy. And you should find a way to manufacture happiness.

Because, like I said, it's contagious.

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Music, vision, and story.

It's been ten years since I first saw this movie. It still breaks my heart. Hell, I even watched the original Spanish version. It's a movie people either love or hate. Well, needless to say, I still love it.

Never before had I been so moved by a soundtrack visually intertwined with a story. For example, "Everything in its Right Place" perfectly captures the film's concept. There are hardly any lyrics, but it stays with you. Yorke wrote this song at the band's reluctant transition into major fame. It set the tone for Kid A – an album delving into how technology was changing human interaction. It's eerily prolific.

"Vanilla Sky" blends songs with the story. The combination creates a visually-lucid, audio-drenched environment. Almost like another character – interacting with scenes and hovering above like a dense fog. Giving us nostalgia. Evoking panic. Making us question what's really happening.

Roger Ebert sums the plot and potential for confusion best, "Vanilla Sky," requires the audience to do some heavy lifting. It has one of those plots that doubles back on itself like an Escher staircase. You get along splendidly one step at a time, but when you get to the top floor you find yourself on the bottom landing. If it's any consolation, its hero is as baffled as we are."
Confused yet? You're supposed to be. The end of the movie explains how we got confused. What really, uh, might have happened. However, when the dream element comes into play, you don't really know what character to trust.

Though exhausting, the movie is full of thought-provoking dualities. Mortality and immortality. Perception and reality. Success and happiness. Meaningful and meaningless. Vanity and value. Emotion and numbness. Decision and consequence. And the lesson we walk away with? "The sweet is never as sweet without the sour."

At each step, we're confronted with determining the 'what is' and longing for the 'what might have been.' And then, just when we think it's over, it takes us full circle. Opening our eyes at each end.

[For more examples of music and vision perfection, see my Digital Kitchen rant.] 

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Irregularly scheduled interuptions.

Today. I'm working on a presentation. Listening to an audio book. Watching a movie. Thinking about a campaign. Catching up with a friend. Writing this blog post. All-at-the-same-time.

We've become comfortable in a state of constant interruption.

They say every time you get interrupted, it takes twenty-five minutes to get back to where you were in the creative process. This is a very big problem when interruptions are constant and your job is creativity. Especially, when most of the time, we're the ones interrupting ourselves.

It's not surprising that profound concentration is an endangered art. 

We gladly offer a fraction of attention to everything and everyone we interact with. Maybe it's procrastination or process avoidance. As Luke Sullivan mentioned, for whatever reason, we hide from the creative gift. On purpose. When we first get the brief, we tell our team, "We're on it." But, yeah, we're not. At least not right away.

Initially, we're afraid of dealing with the creative challenge.

Why? Because, when you first start coming up with ideas, they're going to suck. Sometimes horribly. Cliches, elementary connections, half-baked ridiculousness. Things that have been done or are off target. General lameness. All of the things you have to exorcise from your head before you can move on. It's painful, but there's no avoiding it. This phase leads to uncharted territory.

Sooner or later, we have to make time to create.

Find that quiet place where your mind can exhale and methodically work through an idea. Walk away with all the collaborative thinking, shut the door, and finally make sense of it all.

As much as I love creative solitude, interruptions are part of the process.

Within reason, they can fuel inspiration. Save us from getting hung up on something. Trick the mind into lucidly retrieving subliminal thought when you're not concentrating on being creative. Ever try to make yourself "be creative" on command? Yeah, that doesn't usually work.

I shut off the movie. Wrap up my conversation. And the book. Scribble down random campaign thoughts. Genius! What if… oh, never mind that sucks. I'll come back to that later. And lastly, I finish this post.

Now, FINALLY, I can concentrate on my presentation. 

< Self interruption > Screw it, I'm going for a run.

[This post was inspired by Luke Sullivan's talk that the Denver Egotist covered here.]

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Choose boldly.

There it is. A simple philosophical thought exponentially magnified through development and execution. Whether or not Jim Beam is worthy of such a grandiose movement, it's pure genius from StrawberryFrog.

Willem Dafoe embodies the "Bold Choices" campaign. Any actor who can realistically play Jesus, a vampire, and everything in between has serious choice range.

The idea that life is a series of choices is a powerful thought. That your choices define you. They incrementally change who you are. If you were offered the same choice that you made years ago, would the "you" today make the same choice? Maybe. Maybe not.

What if you could give your younger self choice advice? I love the raw honesty in this post answering that very question.

The "Bold Choices" spot illustrates life as a mixture of better, worse, and seemingly insignificant choices. Most people have maybe a dozen pivotal choices in their lifetime. Those are the ones we relive. They torment us. They make us smile. We learn from them. They push us toward greatness. They hold us back. We celebrate and fear them.

At each crossroads, we decide whether or not we will be bold. Life adjusts accordingly and we get more chances to change our course.

Fate is not something that just happens. It depends on choice and thrives on opportunity. So, choose boldly.

[Here is Strawberryfrog's behind the scenes footage.]

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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Declarative methodology.

About a year ago, I made a fairly bold statement when introducing myself to the Denver Ad Club board of directors. It went something like this, "I'm with Burns Marketing. If you haven't heard of us (insert dramatic pause) you will."

Those that had heard of us believed me. The others probably just thought, "Uh, who the hell is this chick?"

Since then, I've been on a mission to deliver on my declaration. To get us into award shows, up our game, and raise awareness. I'm very happy to say we made it into everything we entered last year: the Denver 50, ADCD, AMA, and BMA awards. I blogged here and there. And, along the way came across some great new talent and visionaries through the Ad Club's NEXT creatives program, the HOW Conference, our design internship, judging, and presentations.

So now what? 

Well, apparently we take it to the next level. We work harder. Bring on the creative briefs. I'm refining my methods. Again.

Approaching a creative brief is like method acting. 

You train yourself. Get in the mindset of your audience. It's metamorphisis. Improv with a set of parameters. If you can't relate to your audience, read autobiographies. Find relevant personal blogs and see what motivates them. Learn how to think like another person thinks.

Best transitional actor example? Christian Bale, hands down – even though he claims to just wing it. Not only does he drastically transform himself physically to support a part, he also dramatically changes from character to character personality wise. There is a deep, underlying character motivation exposed in each of his roles. He masterfully instigates battles between internal and surface emotions.

If you stumbled upon The Machinist after seeing him as Batman or Patrick Bateman, you might not even recognize him. I will always be amazed at how he brought American Psycho to the screen. After reading the book, I didn't think it would be possible to make his character's violent narcissistic absurdity likable or believable without it going in a wild cartoon-psychedelic-dream-state direction. He made a monster into something real. Something you wanted to understand. I read somewhere that he based the character on Tom Cruise. Drawing from Cruise's projected warmth and friendliness oddly counteracted with blank nothingness behind his eyes. Intense, charismatic energy on the outside. Neutral, character-shifting mystery inside.

So, how far are you willing to go? 

Can you care about everything and nothing? Can you tap into your inner child on command? Can you set your own point of view aside for a moment and dedicate yourself to your client's audience?

Can you deliver on your crazy declarations?

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Art is weird.

I've been going through my old school papers and process/sketchbooks. The conclusion I've drawn from this mass of yellow-paged insanity? Art is weird. That, and I used to have legible handwriting.

It all comes back. The sleepless nights at my drafting table. The wasted hours at the copy place. The blinding glow of a computer screen in the dark. The looming and horrendous x-acto blade incident stories. (Thankfully, I only had one. It involved me gathering the courage to go back to the cutting board and find the rest of my finger – not knowing exactly how much I was missing. Only a sliver, nonetheless, unpleasant.)

Color analysis and perspective. Form and function. Deriving meaning from someone's vision. The critiques. The presentations. The deadlines. Uh, well, I guess some of that never left. It just evolved into advertising and marketing.

The funny thing about art is that there are rules, but there are no rules. In fact, you're encouraged to break the rules, but you must know how to do it and have a reason. Art as a science relies on aesthetic balance and intended purpose.

At it's best, art is a rebellion against what exists and a celebration of what's possible. So much of art cannot be learned. You have it or you don't. Basically, you hone your natural skills and learn to bullshit eloquently. Don't get me wrong, it all comes down to selling artistic meaning. And, that's not easy when you've got a room full of business-minded people.

Art thrives between the lines of what's obvious or taken for granted. Sometimes I think it's weird that I love my job so much. It's not like I'm saving lives or anything, but I hope to be inspiring people in the lives they live. Painting pictures through art and messaging. Using humor and authenticity as my mediums of choice. 

Sidenote: Does anyone else still have the school anxiety dreams? You realize you've enrolled in a course and haven't been there yet. Can't find your locker. Can't remember the lock combination anyway. Maybe you find out there was a mistake and you didn't actually graduate so you have to go back. The list goes on. Anyway, like I was saying… art and apparently artists are weird.

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Sunday, January 9, 2011

More time.

It was the summer of 1981. I stepped into a movie theater for the first time, with my father. It was just us and The Fox and the Hound. I felt so lucky for this one-on-one adventure. For an hour and a half we enjoyed the show on the biggest screen I had ever seen. The time flew by. That day I fell in love with movies and visual storytelling.

Growing up, time with my dad was limited. He was a manager and devoted his life to the company he worked for. Exhausted when he was home, no doubt three daughters were a bit much to deal with. My early memories with him reside mostly in summer vacations and holidays.

As I got older, he quietly pushed me to succeed in school and sports. Every hour-and-a-half game, he was there. Every accomplishment, he celebrated. He made time. The thought of disappointing him was something I could never fathom. For the most part, I always tried to follow his advice.

Last Thursday he had triple bypass surgery. My youngest sister sent me a message the moment he was on the heart pump. Indicating he'd be sustained through technology for an hour and a half. I've never felt so helpless. So far away. Knowing that his heart was not beating on it's own. That his life was placed firmly in the hands of a surgeon I didn't know. It was the longest hour and a half of my life. Would the main heart artery graft from his leg artery work? How can they even do something like that?

I still have trouble even physically writing the word artery. If I were there, I would have been a mess. Or passed out. Guaranteed. Although, maybe having to deal with my extreme squeamishness would have helped distract my mom. Thankfully, she's a nurse. And a saint.

I should have been there, even though he told me to wait and see him when he was out. He was so optimistic the night before surgery, I took his advice. As usual.

I feel so very lucky that he's doing well in spite of the long road to recovery before him. I'll hear his voice for the first time today since the procedure. They say once heart patients make it to this point, they start looking forward to feeling better than they have in a long time. That symptoms they've been attributing to aging will disappear. He's been given the gift of more time. And, as a wise man once said, time is luck. Don't waste it.

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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Collaborative creation and Naked Tennis Guy.

It's Sunday morning. I'm surrounded by creatives, Play Doh, random craft items, and butcher-paper-covered tables. Just when I thought things couldn't get more bizarre, a very tall Stefan Mumaw, author and creative director for Reign, walks into the packed room wearing a nun's habit. He welcomes us to the "Church of Creativity" with a tactic for us to remember his main point – that "creativity is a habit."

First of all, where had our childlike craft enthusiasm gone?
We're artists, right? It's funny, the craft situation was so daunting for most of us. We were probably going to have to make something. Right there, with our hands. On the fly. Dear. God.

Scary situation number two, we would most likely be creating things with teams. 
Teams of design-minded strangers. Two more random insights that Stefan made about designers in general:
1. They are the most competitive creatures on earth.
2. Do not play practical jokes on them. Just don't.

As kids, this sea of craft tables would have no doubt been an awesome situation. Somewhere along the way we forgot how to fearlessly create things. How to be so very proud of those ridiculous creations. Boldly hanging them on the fridge for all to see. Unapologetically, basking in glittery-macaroni-pasted glory.

Collaborative creation.
Throughout the challenges, we remembered that creating is fun. We made Sasquatches, amusement park rides for bugs, and unrealistic work station designs. We drew right on the table and had no place to hide our thoughts-in-process. No one was judging. Ideas flowed freely and grew from group input.

Collective brainsqualling.
Collaborative creation is where the creative industry is already going. Stefan pitched a team brainstorming method with co-author Wendy Lee Oldfield that they call brainsqualling. It's a big wave of creativity that comes in fast and then dissipates, to build again later.

Think before you think.
His team gets a creative brief and then thinks about it individually for a week or so. A team of 5-7 people who think differently get together for the brainsquall.

Disarm the room.
Stefan was a master, as noted by the nun getup. How do you get a room full of big egos to leave all that alpha-dog-wanna-be-insecurity at the door? To let loose with good, bad, and half-baked ideas that lead to better ideas?

He told us about a project his company was working on for a tennis client. For the brainsquall, he entered the room in 1980s-era badass John McEnroe attire. Tennis match footage was projected on the walls of the room. In the spirit of McEnroe, he hurled tennis equipment around and threw tantrums.

Limber up those creative muscles.
When the room is fully disarmed, he starts with an exercise to get everyone feeling creative. In this case, they had to come up with a tennis-related super hero.

The power of Naked Tennis Guy.
The favorite imagined superhero? Naked Tennis Guy. Think about it, let's say you're out in the world doing something villainous. Out of the corner of your eye, you see this naked dude – arms crossed, staring you down with extreme vigilante disapproval. While you are completely shocked and caught off guard by the inherent nakedness, he chucks a tennis ball at you. That's it. That is his power.

Unleash the creativity.
For an hour or so, let the ideas flow. Then walk away. Incubate the group ideas. Repeat as necessary.

And, remember, no one expects the Naked Tennis Guy.

[If you want more insight from this workshop, here's an overview from the HOW Conference.]

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