Happiness Is Thinking Outside The Checkbox

 

Posted by:
Tate Linden

In a brief exchange I had with @kwheaton and @Bryan_El_Parker over on Twitter, both raised concerns about the way large companies hire their employees. They were responding to our blanket rejection notice posted previously on our blog. Bryan pointed out that the traditional system strips applicants of their individuality by making them check boxes, to which we said that “unless you’re a checkbox you shouldn’t work for large employers.” Kristan reasoned that not working with big employers may be easier said than done.

And so we slept on it. For a week. And here’s what came of it:

The issue isn’t that big companies can’t work with highly creative or visionary types, it’s that the best path to big company employment for people with these qualities is probably not a system that rigidly dictates and automatically enforces the form and content of their applications. If you’re genuinely creative or visionary then you’re better served by either finding another way in that allows you to show your skills, or by breaking or manipulating the ineffective process to show why they need what you bring to the table. Your goal shouldn’t be to do the best you can within the system, but to prove that the system is set up to solve the wrong problem or deliver the wrong result.

Daniel Pink explains part of the problem in his book (which is excellent, by the way,)  To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others:

…a few years ago, the Conference Board, the well-regarded U.S. business group, gave 155 public school superintendents and eighty-nine private employers a list of cognitive capacities and asked their respondents to rate these capacities according to which are most important in today’s workforce. The superintendents ranked “problem solving” number one. But the employers ranked it number eight. Their top-ranked ability: “Problem Identification.”

Checkboxes seem best suited to addressing a presupposed problem for which the right answer is at least intuited, if not outright known. And that’s why big companies use them. They believe that they know what they’re looking for and how to find it. If you don’t have a better way to see things, or a different problem identified, then checkboxes are probably not doing you a disservice. But if you do see a different problem that needs solving than the company does, each box you check will make your unique value less visible.

If you want (or have) to work for a big checkboxy organization and aren’t a checkboxy type you can, of course, just suck it up, check the boxes and hope for a job and role you can’t stand so you can change things from within before you have the life sapped from you. Or you can show them from the start that the problem that needs solving and the person they need aren’t a part of their checkbox system.

If you’re good, the considerable effort and insight this approach requires will be nothing compared to the pain and frustration you’ll avoid by having a job that encourages you to think, say, and do exactly as you wish rather than forcing you to be someone you hate to see in the mirror every Monday through Friday, holidays excepted.

If you’re not quite good enough, or the organization doesn’t appreciate your obvious talents? That’s a conversation for another day, I think.

Many thanks to Kristan and Bryan for their help in identifying this particular problem.

No Consensus on Thatcher

 

Posted by:
Tate Linden

Back in 2011, while railing against the tendency to settle for ‘non-objectionable’ over ‘highly effective’ brands, I cited a portion of this quote from the (then living) Prime Minister:

To me consensus seems to be —the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no-one believes, but to which no-one objects. —the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.

What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner “I stand for consensus”?

Those are some exceptionally important words to me, and to the organization I’ve built. I reference them at nearly every speaking engagement and each new client briefing because they’re equally applicable to the fields of branding and design.

And today they seem even more relevant and true. Today there’s a new lack of consensus. Thatcher’s passing earlier this week has been simultaneously marked by loyal praise and passionate derision from those impacted by her efforts. She is now either loved or reviled by the masses for the things she held most dear and the controversial steps she took to effectively defend those things.

I can’t imagine that she would find this particularly upsetting. Thatcher didn’t stand for consensus; she stood for her convictions. And the United Kingdom as a whole and the world at large are stronger for it.

The lesson? As goes politics, so goes branding. Address the issues, don’t avoid them. Or do. After all, it’s only the wellbeing of your organization and its people at stake.

Ten things I wish I knew about food photography before I started

Our new designer (Lindsay Garrett) recently finished up a food photography project on behalf of one of our newest clients – Meals On Wheels. We asked her to share a few tips with our fans and followers – and with her fellow employees. Today she kindly obliges us.

Welcome Lindsay – the blog is yours!

Thanks and hello to everyone!

So you’ve decided to upgrade your Instagram shots of food and explore food photography more in depth? Perhaps you’ve decided your blog requires more mouth-watering photos to better represent the amazing dishes you share with readers. Or maybe you just want to document the incredible beauty of food and the memories, flavors, and stories that accompany it.

I’ve shot thousands of photos of food and had my work published in two cookbooks, including Made With Love, the Meals On Wheels Family Cookbook. Food photography is challenging and rewarding, but usually quite tasty. Below are the top ten things I figured out the hard way, but now you can be ten steps ahead. Go forth and be brilliant.

  1. Use the sun. Your best tool for food photography is a big, bright window. It’s better to have indirect sunlight to avoid casting harsh shadows, an easy way to diffuse the light is to tape up white paper. Daylight makes it easy to produce softly lit, naturally color balanced photos.
  2. Backlight. If your food is primarily backlit, the delicious textures that you are aiming to portray show up delightfully. The subject is likely to flatten out and lose detail when lit from the front. Don’t be tempted to use your flash, use reflectors or side lighting if you need more light.
  3. Undercook your food. Meat looks juicier, vegetables retain more water, shape, and color, and grains look fuller. You can fully cook breads and cakes though, those need to be done. You can use a broiler or blow torch to selectively brown food to give the crisp look we love to savor.
  4. Smaller plates mean bigger food. Size does matter. Smaller plates will make your food look bigger, providing the benefit that you don’t have to work with as much. Generous looking portions are the way to go! I’ve been known to give food a boost by putting folded paper towels under it or an upside down mug in a bowl of stew.
  5. Tell a story. Your photo will be more engaging if the viewer can imagine where they’d be if they could eat that delicious peach cobbler. Food is a central part of our life, we associate memories with it and break bread with loved ones around the table together. Connect to your audience by showing them not just the delicious food, but the great time they could have consuming it.
  6. Get creative. While deciding what story your photos will tell, your may find you need to add props to enhance it. I have created story lines by concocting beer out of apple cider vinegar and dish detergent bubbles and sprinkled crumbs around half eaten cookies next to a glass of milk and a coloring project. I have even seen food stylists whip up fresh delicious whipped cream to dollop over a wad of newspaper stuffed in a mug to emulate hot chocolate.
    The important part is that these creative concoctions were never the focus of the shot, they were always background elements that added interest.
  7. Oil works wonders. Everything looks sexier when oiled up: like green beans, chicken breasts, blueberries, even carrots. Oil gives you a sheen that allows you more time to take the photo. It also lends the feeling of fresh cooked, fresh washed, or just moist and delicious.
  8. Crop tightly. This applies to most photography. Make sure you frame your shot with care. Getting close to your subject provides more texture, detail, and eliminates distractions such as unrelated backgrounds or tablecloths.
  9. Use a tripod whenever possible. This ensures that your photo is crisp and clean. I was taught to go so far as to use a timer or remote to prevent any bump when the finger releases the shutter. Of course that teacher also told me to hold my breath during the 30 second exposure while I was standing 5 feet away.
  10. Don’t be afraid to change your angles. We have a tendency to photograph food from the 45 degree angle we are about to eat it from. Sometimes you want to get on the same level to show the flaky layers of a pastry or from above to show to beautiful designs on a cake. I usually start off on a tripod and then having captures the shots I need, I move around the food, freeing myself to find interesting angles.

In the end it’s all about experimenting for yourself and creating mouthwatering shots. So what are you waiting for? Happy shooting!

The Thingnamer Sleeps With Clients?

No. I don’t.

But I’ve been asked if I do with some regularity, and while it’s all in fun (I hope,) I find that when I ask other creatives if they get similar lines of questioning their answer has always been something like, “No. But I gotta ask, dude…  ARE you?”

During the unveiling of a new ID kit for a husband and wife business team just this week I was again asked if I’d gotten a concept by sleeping with a spouse. And it was the wife asking if I was sleeping with her husband.

So, I’ve got that going for me.

Two things seem to consistently precipitate the question. First, we have a stable of improbably big clients that no one can figure out how we land. And second, our work tends to communicate an intimate understanding of our clients – as though we might’ve gotten the idea from pillow-talk.

Regarding our ability to land clients, I’m not sure exactly what Stokefire’s success rate is on pitches now, but I’m guessing it hovers around 80%. A couple years ago we were over 90%. But, as fun as sleeping my way to profits might be, I’m pretty sure I’d be a lot less successful using any organ other than my brain to close deals. Our secret is that we only go after projects and clients that we know (and can prove) we’re ideally suited for. Sure, we might win more business overall if we went after everything put in front of us, but the wasted strategic effort and insight is something that I can’t stomach. We put a huge amount of effort into our proposals, so I don’t like to see them go to waste.

As for sleeping with clients to get better creative concepts? I’ve never tried it. I get results by putting the client under seriously uncomfortable pressure while I’m building their brand. I challenge their stated beliefs and test their commitment to their principles. It’s like Seraph from The Matrix Reloaded said, “You do not truly know someone until you fight them.”  Every one of our break-out successes on behalf of clients has come from pushing past what they said they wanted to expose a deeper truth that they couldn’t previously express or were perhaps even trying to hide. We build the brand on that newly exposed, raw, and unchanging truth so that regardless of what challenges lay ahead for our clients, the brand’s foundation will remain strong and stable enough to surpass them.

Great branding work does require intimacy, but only in a pants-on kind of way.

So, no, I did not have sexual relations with that client.

No.

Dearest potential applicant:

In our eight year history we’ve never brought on a single intern nor employee who started their cover letter with “Dear Sirs” or “To Whom it May Concern,” and then perhaps followed it with body copy that could just as well introduce someone trying to break into the laundromat business, or maybe rocket science.

The unofficial policy doesn’t hit home for you? Consider what it would be like if a purportedly reputable organization was staffed by people so lazy that instead of taking the time to understand and address each applicant individually, they just posted a blanket rejection statement on their blog and left it at that.

Searching for Steve Jobs’s “Dent In The Universe.”

Posted by: Tate Linden

Did Jobs make a dent in the universe? Damned if I know. Frankly, I can’t find a place far enough back to see for sure.

“We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?”
- Attributed to Steve Jobs

Actually, Jobs probably didn’t say that. At least the real one didn’t. Noah Wylie said this exact line in The Pirates of Silicon Valley while playing Jobs in a made-for-TV movie. Martin Burke (the director of the movie) admitted that he never actually interviewed Jobs, though he did “have two or more sources that verify each scene” which means that all he knows is that something like that happened, but not what was really said. Even wikiquote lists it as unsourced.

Noted leadership expert (and author of Organizing Genius) Dr. Warren Bennis (or perhaps his coauthor, Patricia Ward Biederman) hedged, writing in 1996,

To echo Steve Jobs, whose Great Group at Apple created the Macintosh, each of these groups “put a dent in the universe.”

Dr. Bennis uses the phrase again twice in 1997 in the same interview with David Gergen in reference to the ideas discussed in Organizing Genius and in another interview in 1998 Dr. Bennis is back to loosely referencing Jobs’s denting.

Jump forward to 2001 and Philip Elmer-Dewitt also uses it twice in an article for Time Magazine:

He loved to tell his designers that the computer they were building — with its icons, its pull-down menus and its mouse — would not only change the world, but also “put a dent in the universe.”

In the future, says Levy, “we will cross the line between substance and cyberspace with increasing frequency, and think nothing of it.” That’s what Jobs would call a dent in the universe.

Upon his death we see the likes of Macworld and Discovery News cite the quote and reference a Time Magazine article that doesn’t say anything about the context or timing.

But it’s Playboy, of all the publishers in the world, that comes through  and actually finds Jobs’s dent under a pile of 15,000 words in an interview he gave way back in 1985. Jobs says,

At Apple, people are putting in 18-hour days. We attract a different type of person‐‑a person who doesn’t want to wait five or ten years to have someone take a giant risk on him or her. Someone who really wants to get in a little over his head and make a little dent in the universe.

So, while I can’t confirm that he made a dent in the universe, nor that Noah Wylie was quoting him directly with his often referenced script reading, it’s probably safe to assume that Jobs was at least thinking about the issues.

What bugs me more than the way this quote has grown from something he did say into something that he likely didn’t is the fact that he would think of it at all. For a man that smart and talented to choose a sledgehammer as his tool of choice seems… wrong. A dent gets stuffed with Bondo and buffed out. Pretty sure he didn’t actually want that to happen. Maybe I’ll look into it in my next post if there’s interest from the (possibly dented) world-at-large.

 

Happy +1, Us!

Almost exactly eight years ago I was sitting in my basement with a space heater blasting on my bare feet as I went through a stack of mail. It was mostly bills as I recall. But one plump envelope contained a notice from our friendly government saying that Stokefire Consulting Group, Inc. was officially incorporated. Oh, and also that we should start paying taxes and stuff.

The effective date for Stokefire’s incorporation was January 13, 2005, so we’re just past the start of a new year.

Since incorporation a whole lot has happened. Our clients have enabled us to develop outstanding and often award-winning work. We’ve worked with hundreds of organizations and many of the world’s best known brands, including Charles Schwab, Discovery Communications, Google, Heinz, Motorola, the US Department of Defense, and the United States Congress. At the start I couldn’t have imagined landing any one of them, but over the years I slowly got better at going after business that seemed improbable or impossible to win.

Since Stokefire hired its first employee in 2006 I’d struggled to find a way to teach employees how to bring in business. It never worked. I could show them how I did it, but it didn’t work for anyone else. On the plus side, it continued to work for me. We landed major projects, pulled business from agencies more than a thousand times our size, and for a while were nearly bulletproof in pitches, landing better than 90% of the work we went after. But nearly eight years in, my fingers on the keyboard and face in front of the prospective client was the only way it happened.

I write “nearly eight years” because two days before our eighth year in business I lost the right to claim sole ownership of the sales channel.  On her seventh day of employment, Lindsay (the newest member of our design team) got us a signed contract with a new client. I wasn’t even on the call. (Is it possible for me to retire from selling via blog post? Because that would be awesome.)

Congrats to Lindsay for giving Stokefire even more momentum as we blaze past eight years in business, and many thanks to all of our clients, employees, and partners who make it possible to keep doing what we’re good at and love to do. Without all of you I’d still be sitting barefoot in the basement.

And… For decency’s sake let’s just agree I’d at least be wearing PJs.

The Promise of Crowdsourced Design is Broken. So Let’s Fix It.

This is a stream-of-consciousness post. Given my history with stuff like this I’m probably about to upset a whole lot of people. So, apologies in advance.

And with that… here goes nothing…

I’ve long been on record as supporting the concept of crowdsourced design. The good folks at crowdSPRING interviewed me about it for their newsletter a few years back. And even after being called everything from immoral to a “slavemaster,” to this day I’m still a strong supporter of the crowdsourcing concept.

It’s just becoming a lot harder to support it in practice.

I’ve worked with hundreds of designers over about a dozen crowdsourced projects, spending many thousands of dollars, and in most cases ended up with highly effective work. My current project with crowdSPRING is likely to be a success as well. After only a few days and about 25 entries (many of which are strong conceptually or technically) I know the project and ultimately one of my clients will end up getting a design that helps them measurably improve their business. We’ll get there, however, despite the system that has been set up to support crowdsourcing rather than because of it.

I’ve never really struggled with the moral issues that many design professionals seem to have with the concept of crowdsourcing. In an ideal world the process of crowdsourcing should provide real value in both directions. In the case of design, the ‘client’ receives creative work – a tangible thing. The ‘winning’ designer usually receives some sort of monetary compensation, the actual amount of which is immaterial since the winning designer knows the best-case outcome so they are deeming it worthwhile.

The moral challenge for me doesn’t come from the concept at all. It comes from the way commercial crowdsourcing providers execute the concept in the real world. Those who do not receive the big payout at the end of the project aren’t given any compensation at all, even if their efforts were critical in helping the winner get the idea that ultimately resulted in payment. And that to me is a travesty.

Everyone who participates and adds value deserves compensation of some sort. To say that they all must be paid in cash, though, is short-sighted. Some clients can offer visibility (though admittedly most that offer this have no visibility to offer,) others bring advice, self-esteem, skills development, or other less tangible assets that are no less valuable than cash in the right situation.

My current thinking is that those who participate and don’t add value should still have the opportunity for compensation – but that compensation should be in the form of the opportunity for skills development or candid critique. If someone takes the time to submit concepts that are way off base then it is the responsibility of the client to tell them what’s wrong and (if known) how it might be fixed. It’s also the client’s responsibility to let a designer know when any future effort on their part is likely to be wasted effort. Unfortunately, outside of my own projects I haven’t heard a single designer say that this was something they’d encountered.

The reason I’m writing this post is because some of the value I’d always assumed I was providing was in the form of the very detailed critiques I give to every designer – be they astoundingly talented or misguided neophyte. The promise of crowdsourcing is that I (as the surrogate client) have the ability to share information with the crowd, and that the crowd can learn from my original request and from all of the follow-on advice that I give to each designer.

But crowdSPRING’s customer service informed me yesterday that critiques should only be accessible to each individual designer and denied my request to enable all designers to see all critiques, citing fairness to creatives that come up with good ideas and the likelihood of copycat work. (There IS an option to allow some people to see all comments, but those granted access are forbidden from participating in the design part.)

Here’s the problem with this policy. It turns the power of the crowd into the weakness of a long line of individuals being served, bakery-like, one-by-one and without knowledge or understanding of what’s happening before, after, or around them. The five to twenty-five minutes I spend on each critique is read once and only once rather than helping dozens or hundreds of designers understand how to make their own designs stronger and more likely to result in compensation. It also means that I, as the client, will get designs that better fit my specifications. It’s as though we’re throwing out all the benefits of working with a crowd.

I’m doing what I can to work within and without the existing crowdsourcing provider structure. Putting aside money (however insignificant) to reward those that add value but don’t get the big payday, taking time to provider serious reviews that help designers develop their skills, and publicly praising those designers who show tremendous insight or execution… It’s not a perfect solution by any means, but the last time I suggested we actually rebuild crowdsourcing the way it should actually be built all I heard was crickets.

So… I’m listening again. Are you ready to build a crowdsourcing solution that actually adds value for everyone involved instead of just the provider? Because if you are then I’m ready to lead the effort. And if you aren’t? Maybe take a moment and ask yourself what it is that you’re resisting. And if you’re willing to share your reasons for resisting I’d love to hear them.

That’s it; ramble over. Will your response be be crickets or pitchforks? (Because I’m not holding my breath for a parade.)

No, You May Not Have This Tasty, Tasty Apple.

I understand that everyone loves the Apple brand for its vibrancy, simplicity, and power. I really do. It’s a kickass brand, so it’s not surprising. But… Please don’t ask me to build you a brand ‘just like Apple’ unless Steve Jobs’ ghost is already on board to lead it. Because that’s what it’d take to make it work.

Look… Contrary to what most of the branding and advertising industry shouts at customers, the job of a great branding team is not to give you the brand that you want. Our job is to give you a brand with which you can succeed. Asking for a brand that looks like Apple may be an effective short-hand way to convey an aesthetic that you find appealing, but the whole underlying structure from which brands are actually built is overlooked in the process. Worse, the chances that what you and your staff find aesthetically appealing and what will bring a positive change in the behavior of your intended audience being the same are nearly nil.

What made Apple… well, Apple… was the insight, effort, and execution of Jobs, Wozniak, and their team. The name and logo they chose didn’t cause their success; the verbal and visible brand was a direct result of the unique qualities of the organization’s leadership expressed nearly to perfection. They changed the behavior of hundreds of millions of consumers around the globe by genuinely understanding who Apple was, delivering a product that could only come from such people, and communicating both their thinking and performance in a way that seemed to both illuminate and prove their difference. Or as I would normally put it, they used something very like Gandhi’s Pyramid. If you want to honor their brand or have similar successes then I’d advise you stop trying to copy the result of their efforts or the current state of their brand and start duplicating the effort and unique insights that led to it.

Making you look like Apple isn’t that hard. (Just ask Samsung.) But creating a lasting and valuable brand as unique and genuine as Apple from your own values and actions should actually result in a brand that in the end isn’t much like Apple at all.

 



Subscribe to our newsletter »
Mini Tweets

Archives