Category: creativity

Back Pocket Ideas

Have you ever had a project where ideas poured freely and easily out of that big ol’ brain of yours? The flood gates of your imagination opened and you have more great solutions than you’ll possibly need.

What should you do? Pitch them all?

Absolutely not.

No matter the volume of your great concepts, refrain from showing all your cards.

A CD I worked for years ago implicitly instructed us to always hold back. He said to keep some “back pocket ideas”. Here’s why:

Use this opportunity to cull down the concepts to only the very best, to take a second look and be highly critical of yourself.

Choose to present only the strongest ideas you want to see come to life – the things you want for your book, or more importantly, that you feel certain the client will buy. Choose the ones that you think will not just be clever in the moment, but also stand the test of time.

Back pocket ideas are also useful if all the concepts you initially pitch die. It’s happened to all of us, and when it does it usually means a quick scramble back to the drawing board. Having some good stuff in reserve might just help alleviate the impending all-nighter.

Another some subtle reason for holding onto back pocket ideas is that you never want your job to look easy. If you start tossing around ideas like they are a cheap commodity that anyone can make, then that is exactly how they will be treated.

The Seven Most Hated Words in Advertising

Hate is a powerful emotion and should not be bandied about lightly.

You reserve hate for things like Hitler, terrorism or Brussel Sprouts. But you may also reserve the right to hate the following seven words when spoken by your client:

I’ll know it when I see it.

When you are presenting new creative work and at the end of the presentation you hear these seven words spoken in the ensuing discussion, run, don’t walk, and get as far from this client as possible. When these vile words (all of which are innocent enough individually) are strung together when reviewing work, the outcome is almost always deadly.

Generally speaking, “I’ll know it when I see it” means your client has no idea what they are doing, no clear direction and that makes them unwilling to commit to anything. How can they commit to an idea when their decision will make something that has been abstract suddenly become concrete?

The consequences of working once “I’ll know it when I see it” has been put on the table are as follows:

  1. You iterate until the client sees “it”. Which is fine if you are charging by the hour, but if you you are working on a fixed price, you just lost all hope of turning a profit on this project.
  2. You will turn yourself inside out trying to hit the target from every possible angle. This can be a positive thing, right? It is good to stretch yourself, but ultimately no. You have a good many talents, but good telepathy is probably not one of them.
  3. You will second guess yourself to the point of madness. Shattering your confidence in your abilities is disastrous.
  4. If you’ve read previous ramblings I’ve posted, you know how I feel about stress. “I’ll know it when I see it” is very stressful and will rarely give you the opportunity to do your best work.
  5. Since you’re already in the presentation phase of a project, you’ve eaten up a lot of time and now you are going back to the drawing board to start all over again. The potential to get stuck in an endless loop of despair is great.
  6. Odds are good your client will never see “it”. This is frustrating for both you and your client. Frustrated clients are never a good outcome under any circumstance.

Running away is rarely a good option. So how should you handle the situation should the Seven Evil Words be spoken?

  1. Even though these words will sting, keep a clear mind, stay focused and think. What was it about the work that elicited this reaction? Did you miss something? Did you have clear direction to start with? Did you have a proper brief to start from or was it started over a casual phone call? Use this time to educate the client.
  2. Ask questions. Try to tease out an understanding of why your client does not see “it”. This is hard and often times does not bear any fruit, but as a professional creative it is your responsibility to try.
  3. See if you can get the client to latch on to one thing that they do like about what they are seeing. This will give you something you can build on, even if you are starting over.
  4. Go ahead and invest a little more time on the project. Yes, this can be a frustrating option, but devote some time in an effort to keep your client happy. You could land on the right answer. Just don’t overcommit yourself, that’s where the madness comes in.

Years ago I worked at a small boutique design studio. We had taken on a new healthcare client and were in the process of building their brand from scratch. We got them to chose a name fairly quickly but we ran out of luck when it came to the logo.

Historically, when pitching logos we would show a client three designs, each carefully thought out and executed. Having named their business, we had a ton of designs in mind and pushed it out to showing five. We take in the black boards, got some disagreement and lackluster response and were asked to come back with some more designs. Okay, you don’t always hit the mark.

So we went back to the studio and worked up more designs. This time we took in seven designs. Same response. I can see my boss is getting a little testy about this, because we have shown some outstanding choices, but he agrees to go back to the studio to work on a 3rd round.

We go back to the client’s office and spread all 20 designs out on the conference room table. After some hemming and hawing, those seven words that should not be uttered came out of the client’s mouth:

“I’ll know it when I see it.”

What happened next is the stuff of legend. My boss politely says that we have given you much more than you asked for. There are multiple choices that not only solve the problem, but give the new company a strong foundation to build itself upon.

The client asks to see more designs. At that my boss stands up, gently collects all of the designs spread out on the table and calmly replies “I’ll send you my bill” and we leave.

They paid in full.

The Star Mangled Banner

On Sunday, February 18, I listened to Fergie butch the National Anthem at the NBA’s All-Star Game. What gets me, is that she has a good singing voice and had she gone out there and sung the song as it is meant to be sung, she would have done fine. Would she have been memorable? Probably not. But would she have been ridiculed in the media on Monday morning, definitely not.

This event poses a few questions.

Why do artists feel compelled to “make it their own”?

When I was a kid, my father and I went to a Rockets game at the Summit. Before tip-off, this gentleman stepped out onto the court and belted out the worst rendition of the Star Spangled Banner I have ever heard. Believe it or not, even worse than Roseanne’s debacle. He went up, he went down, he free-formed, he scatted a little. It was everywhere and the entire crowd laughed – hard. His singing was memorable for all the wrong reasons, much like Fergie.

Other renditions of the Star Spangled Banner that get me are when the singers insert extra notes and use the song as a platform to show off their unbelievable talent. Christina Aguilera  or Mariah Carey come to mind. They go up too high, hover in the stratosphere far too long and are compelled to add in a series of scales in the middle of the song, often more than once. You know, the song is hard enough to sing as it is; you don’t need to push the boundaries of it even further. Listening to their wailing, you lose the melody. You definitely lose the meaning of the song, and isn’t purpose of singing it to begin with?

Just because you have a gift doesn’t mean you have to exploit it all the time. Adele does that with her singing. Yes, she has an amazing, HUGE voice and can sing the hell out of a song. But her best music, IMHO, is when she sings quietly. Her accent comes out and she has that real authenticity and intimacy in her voice. Just beautiful. Much more so than when she’s belting out a song.

Miles Davis understood this. He was a virtuoso trumpeter, inarguably one of the most gifted jazz musicians ever. He could play as hard and fast as anyone. But listen to his “Cool” music — You can feel the restraint, the power behind his each note. With his confidence, he never had to show off, or go off script to prove himself to anyone. He knew he could make the most amazing music and he did. He regularly co-opt a song from one of his contemporaries not by playing the hell out of it, but rather crafting it until he owned it.

I take such umbrage to singers butchering the National Anthem because it is OUR song, not THEIRS. It is about our collective experience, not that of the individual.

So what does any of this have to do with design?


First and foremost, the work we do is commissioned. Rarely does a designer work in a vacuum. You give up the right of personal expression when you cash the check. The designer’s role is not to express their thoughts/opinions/etc., but to help their client realize their vision.

Your work is out in a public space. Should your biases or attitudes come through? What if those attributes convolute your client’s message? How successful is your design?

There is plenty of room for creativity in commercial design. Plenty of room to be yourself. But often times, taking the mindset of a craftsman and go through the motions to achieve excellence is exactly what is order for the task at hand.

Much like singing the National Anthem.