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Getting Hired

How to Expertly Define Your Ideas

A picture is worth a thousand words, which is why designers need to be well-versed wordsmiths.

Walk into any company brainstorm and it will sound like people are speaking different languages — designers tend to communicate in ways that their sales and marketing counterparts don’t understand and vice versa. It creates an inevitable tension (especially at the beginning of the idea generation phase when concepts are imaginative abstracts) that bogs down the entire iteration process.

That’s why the team from the creative agency Verdes has created the new 479-page dictionary, the Brownie’s Guide to Expertly Defined Ideas v. 2, that teaches designers how to communicate in a way that their business peers understand. Defining ideas more precisely extracts subjectivity, streamlines communication, and reduces time spent on group projects. In other words, if are unable to describe your idea to someone, it won’t stick — regardless of the idea’s potential. 

The New York City-based Verdes, which has worked with Nike, Twitter, and Pernod Ricard (and also hosted a 99U Conference studio session this year) has divided the book into chapters based on 70 generic marketing terms like “youthful,” “heritage,” and “big.” Readers can then search through each section to find sharper words that provide a more nuanced version of the generic term. Youthful, for example, could be described as active (related to movement), modern (related to time), lively (related to spirit) or sassy (related to attitude).

“The more specific you can be with your idea’s character, the more unique it will be,” says Verdes partner Greg Matson, who goes into greater detail below on why designers should expand their vocabularies.  

Why do designers, in particular, need a guide for defining thoughts and ideas when they primarily speak using images?

The first part of the process always starts with words. So when you’re creating a new brand, or rebranding, the whole process is trying to assign certain characteristics to the brand. More specifically, you use adjectives and, more specifically, you use positive adjectives because no company wants to be described negatively.

Other than companies talking up their products, what problems did you see in this process? 

There were two niche problems we were annoyed with: One, when we would [talk about our work], companies would use very clichéd words – optimistic, youthful, modern – and that was impacting the design process down the road. Because when you start with generic terms, it articulates itself in the design phase in generic ways. The second issue is that there was no collection of the words that were used, so you spend weeks finding these words. Then you have your client meeting and, because everyone has in their head a different version of what this company’s persona or character is, you end up subjectively arguing or compromising and end up back to a generic place.

How does more accurately defining ideas help a designer communicate with someone from other departments, such as marketing and sales, or even investors?

When you come up with your idea, you need to think about what is has to go through, and not just subjectively fall in love with your idea and, acting like an artist, try to push it through. Because then you wind up in those rooms sitting next to a hedge fund manager arguing over the color yellow. It’s a subjective debate that is impossible to win. What we’re trying to do is make ideas objective decisions that everyone can see why those decisions were made and why they are in the best interest of the objectives you’re trying to achieve. We’re trying to take subjectivity out. We’ve been taught to celebrate this artistic process, when that isn’t the process that our ideas have to take.

We’re trying to make ideas objective decisions that everyone can see why those decisions were made.

Letting people from the marketing and sales into the creative process sounds frightening to a lot of designers. What benefits are there to it?  

We found that when we do this process, and include everyone in on the definition of an idea before it is expressed visually, it takes a lot of the rounds out. Because, if I come with the idea visually expressed and that visual expression doesn’t match your business objective, or another person doesn’t think it’s feasible, or it doesn’t match what was in the boss’s head, then by not being iterative, you’ve done a lot of whole that might not be right. By involving them in the work phrase, everyone can agree on the right character, so that when you get to the visual articulation of it, half the job is done and it’s not you running the whole marathon and hoping you got it right. It’s an iterative version of design that doesn’t rely on design as the first part, but actually uses words as the first tool.

Can you give us an example of how companies have used this book?

It has worked with with some of the bigger consumer goods brands, like a beverage company that has like 30 tea brands. The way the brands are working right now, especially in packaged goods, is that the product is so de-emphasized and the brand is so emphasized. So much of what companies do is find opportunity markets, and it’s not the product that is unique, it’s the brand that is unique. The book has been useful for these big companies that are just re-marketing things that exist, to different groups of all. They spin out these brands to specific audiences.

This is an iterative version of design that doesn’t rely on design as the first part, but actually uses words as the first tool.

Walk us through how this ideas defining process worked with one of your clients, Haven Life Insurance, starting with the problem to be solved.

Life insurance is one of the least rewarding products in the world. You buy it every month, and yet while you’re alive, you never see anything for it. It only pays off when you die. So the way life insurance companies have always worked when they start to become brands is one of two ways: They are generally positive lifestyle brands about the big moments in your life or they personify themselves through a spokesperson, like a gecko. I don’t know why.

How did Haven approach this differently in terms of marketing and branding?

Haven Life Insurance wanted to talk to a younger audience, people who would be more likely to buy something strictly online and the brand is all about honesty and frankness. A unique product difference Haven had was that their product was entirely online. The company made an algorithm where you type in your information and you can essentially get insured in 20 minutes, versus the weeks it takes with other companies.

For this we decided their brand should reflect this simplicity and stand against all the confusion that other insurance companies tell you, like when they talk about the positives of life insurance, when it’s really “death insurance.” It’s like you don’t buy unburnt insurance – you buy fire insurance. No one was ready to confront what you actually sold. Haven was all about, “you buy life insurance in case you die,” and that was a headline we ran on a billboard. We distilled their products through words and the first step was describing what their brand was.

How long did this defining ideas process take?

The company needed to move really quickly and that is one of the best things about our process – you get the speed of an algorithm and you don’t have to pay for the time it takes a typical branding company to get to the same result. The creative element is still there, but the repeatable processes are fast-tracked. Instead of us going into a cave and coming back and maybe getting the prompt right and then doing two more rounds and finally getting there, it turned this lengthy process into a four-hour active consensus with Haven.

More Posts by Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the former editor of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him on Twitter at @mattmccuewriter.

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