Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Fast Company

A Geodesic Life

with one comment

After three years of work—and more than a few twists and turns—my latest book, Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller, is finally here. I think it’s the best thing that I’ve ever done, or at least the one book that I’m proudest to have written. After last week’s writeup in The Economist, a nice review ran this morning in the New York Times, which is a dream come true, and you can check out excerpts today at Fast Company and Slate. (At least one more should be running this weekend in The Daily Beast.) If you want to hear more about it from me, I’m doing a virtual event today sponsored by the Buckminster Fuller Institute, and on Saturday August 13, I’ll be holding a discussion at the Oak Park Public Library with Sarah Holian of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, which will be also be available to view online. There’s a lot more to say here, and I expect to keep talking about Fuller for the rest of my life, but for now, I’m just delighted and relieved to see it out in the world at last.

Their brand is crisis

leave a comment »

A while back, The New Yorker ran an engaging piece by John Colapinto about the branding firm Lexicon, which specializes in coming up with product names for corporate clients. It was published nearly six years ago, but it’s stuck in my head, after so many other articles have faded, in part because the work of Lexicon—which has named such brands as BlackBerry, Pentium, PowerBook, and Dasani—feels like a distillation of what writers and artists do all the time. It’s hard enough to write a distinctive slogan or jingle, but trying to evoke so much in a single word, like Swiffer, resembles a form of black magic. (I’m reminded of the protagonist of John Barth’s novel The Tidewater Tales, who keeps cutting down a short story until it consists of nothing but the word “olive.”) But there’s a science to it as well. Colapinto writes:

Lexicon employs two in-house linguists and consults with seventy-seven others around the world, specialists in languages as diverse as Urdu, Tagalog, and Hindi—a critical resource, [founder David] Placek says. They screen names for embarrassing associations. (The industry abounds in tales of cross-linguistic gaffes, like Creap coffee creamer from Japan, Bum potato chips from Spain, and the Chevy Nova—in Spanish, the “no go.”) They also offer input on the unconscious resonance of particular sounds. In the mid-nineties, Lexicon funded a linguistic study whose results suggested that the sound of the letter “b” was one of the most “reliable” in any language—“whether you were in Poland or Paris or New York,” Placek said. He mentioned this to the Research in Motion executives, and they decided to capitalize both “b”s: BlackBerry.

Yesterday, a story broke about another brand that starts with a “b.” Bodega, a startup that has raised millions of dollars in venture investment, inspired a flurry of online rage after Fast Company published an article with the headline “Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete.” The profile, which was responsibly reported and written by Elizabeth Segran, summarizes the company’s pitch as follows:

Bodega sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card…Bodega’s logo is a cat, a nod to the popular bodega cat meme on social media—although if the duo gets their way, real felines won’t have brick-and-mortar shops to saunter around and take naps in much longer.    

There are obvious problems here, both on the practical side and on the level of what we’ve somehow agreed to call “optics,” and they’ve been capably pointed out by others. But the company’s name, which appropriates a term for corner stores in urban areas often owned by immigrants, didn’t help. As Segran relates:

I asked [founder Paul McDonald] point-blank about whether he’s worried that the name Bodega might come off as culturally insensitive. Not really. “I’m not particularly concerned about it,” he says. “We did surveys in the Latin American community to understand if they felt the name was a misappropriation of that term or had negative connotations, and 97% said ‘no.’ It’s a simple name and I think it works.”

When I first read that quote, shortly before the firestorm broke, I thought of the famous line from Fargo: “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there.” It seems safe to say that if you feel obliged to check whether or not your brand name is a “misappropriation,” you’re probably better off not using it, and that the three percent of respondents who find it objectionable might cause you a disproportionate amount of trouble. (Focusing on “the Latin American community” also overlooks the fact that many people are more than willing to be offended on behalf of others.) In an apologetic post that was published late yesterday, McDonald asked rhetorically: “Is it possible we didn’t fully understand what the reaction to the name would be?” He answered himself:

Yes, clearly. The name Bodega sparked a wave of criticism on social media far beyond what we ever imagined. When we first came up with the idea to call the company Bodega we recognized that there was a risk of it being interpreted as misappropriation. We did some homework — speaking to New Yorkers, branding people, and even running some survey work asking about the name and any potential offense it might cause. But it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people.

Personally, I’d be curious to know which “branding people” they consulted, and whether they were seduced by the “reliability” of the letter “b,” or by the word’s “consonant-vowel-consonant pattern,” which, as Colapinto notes, is “among the first that infants learn in any language.”

Whatever the process was, the result was that Bodega ended up with just about the worst name that it could possibly have chosen. Its business model has other issues that make it unlikely that it could pose a threat to anyone, much less one’s favorite corner store, but it could easily have positioned itself to make it seem that it was targeting big chain drugstores, not independent businesses. Instead, it chose a name that was like a torpedo aimed at itself. It was a self-inflicted wound, and you could argue that the editors of Fast Company were ready with almost unseemly glee to ram the dagger home. Yet it was bound to happen sooner or later, and the real question is why none of Bodega’s investors raised concerns about it at any stage. You could say, quite reasonably, that the culprit was the lack of diverse voices in technology and finance, but I suspect that something else was involved. The founders were clearly aware of the potential for trouble, but they were so in love with their name and logo that they ignored it. It was worse than a sin—it was a mistake. And if they’re penalized for it, it shouldn’t be for being offensive, but for being bad at what they were supposed to be doing. As Colapinto writes:

Placek said that it can be dangerous to become too programmatic about what he calls “tactical” aspects of naming. The real goal, he says, is to determine what “story” a client wishes to tell about his product (it’s faster, it’s more powerful, it’s easier to use) and then find a word that evokes it, without being predictable or even necessarily logical.

For better or worse, “Bodega” was definitely a name that told a story. And it ended up saying more about its founders than they probably would have liked.

Written by nevalalee

September 14, 2017 at 9:20 am

Apple and the cult of thinness

with 5 comments

The iPhone 6

Recently, I’ve been in the market for a new computer. After some thought, I’ve settled on an older model of the MacBook Pro, both because of its price and because it’s the last remaining Apple laptop with an optical drive, which I still occasionally use. The experience put me in mind of a cartoon posted yesterday on Reddit, which shows a conversation between an Apple user and a helpful technician: “So what’s this update you’re installing?” “I’m just removing your USB ports.” “Great!” Apple’s obsession with eliminating unsightly ports, as well as any other features that might interfere with a device’s slim profile, has long been derided, and the recent news that the headphone jack might disappear from the next iPhone has struck many users as a bridge too far. Over the last decade or so, Apple has seemed fixated on pursuing thinness and lightness above all else, even though consumers don’t appear to be clamoring for thinner laptops or phones, and devices that are pared down past a certain point suffer in terms of strength and usability. (Apple isn’t alone in this, of course. Last week, I purchased a Sony Blu-ray player to replace the aging hulk I’d been using for the last five years, and although I like the new one, the lack of a built-in display that provides information on what the player is actually doing is a minor but real inconvenience, and it’s so light that I often end up pushing it backward on the television stand when I press the power button. As far as I can tell, there’s no reason why any device that spends its entire life on the same shelf needs to be so small.)

Obviously, I’m not the first person to say this, and in particular, the design gurus Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini wrote a long, devastating piece for Fast Company last month on Apple’s pursuit of beauty over functionality. But I’d like to venture an alternative explanation for why it has taken this approach. Apple is a huge corporation, and like all large businesses, it needs quantifiable benchmarks to drive innovation. Once any enterprise becomes big enough, qualitative metrics alone don’t cut it: you need something to which you can assign a number. And while you can’t quantify usability, or even beauty, you can quantify thinness and weight. Apple seems to be using the physical size of a device as a proxy for innovative thought about design, which isn’t so different from the strategy that many writers use during the revision process. I’ve written here before about how I sometimes set length limits for stories or individual chapters, and how this kind of writing by numbers forces me to be smarter and more rigorous about my choices. John McPhee says much the same thing in a recent piece in The New Yorker about the exercise of “greening,” as once practiced by Time, which involved cutting an arbitrary number of lines. As Calvin Trillin writes elsewhere: “I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story—a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact—was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten percent of it. The greening I did in Time Edit convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself ‘Green fourteen’ or ‘Green eight.’ And one of these days I’m going to begin doing that.”

The MacBook Air

Apple appears to have come to a similar conclusion about its devices, which is that by greening away weight and thickness, you end up with other desirable qualities. And it works—but only up to a point. As McPhee observes, greening is supposed to be invisible: “The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed.” And once you pass beyond a certain limit, you risk omitting essential elements, as expressed in the book Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman, which describes the process of the legendary film editor Walter Murch:

Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat. “It can be done,” says Murch, “and I have done it on a number of films that turned out well in the end. But it is tricky, and the outcome is not guaranteed—like open-heart surgery. The patient is put at risk, and the further beyond thirty percent you go, the greater the risk.

And Apple—which has had a long and productive relationship with Murch, a vocal champion of its Final Cut Pro software—should pay attention. In the past, the emphasis on miniaturization was undoubtedly a force for innovative solutions, but we’ve reached the point where the patient is being endangered by removing features of genuine utility. Murch’s thirty percent factor turns out to describe the situation at Apple eerily well: the earliest models of the MacBook Pro weighed about five and a half pounds, implying that once the weight was reduced below four pounds or so, vital organs would be threatened, which is exactly what happened. (Even more insidiously, the trend has spread into realms where the notion of thinness is entirely abstract, like the fonts that Apple uses for its mobile devices, which, as Norman and Tognazzini point out, are so slender that they’ve become difficult to read.) These changes aren’t driven by consumer demand, but by a corporate culture that has failed to recognize that its old ways of quantifying innovation no longer serve their intended purpose. The means have been confused with the end. Ultimately, I’m still a fan of Apple, and I’m still going to buy that MacBook. I don’t fault it for wanting to qualify its processes: it’s a necessary part of managing creativity on a large scale. But it has to focus on a number other than thickness or weight. What Apple needs is a new internal metric, similarly quantifiable, that reflects something that consumers actually want. There’s one obvious candidate: price. Instead of making everything smaller, Apple could focus on providing the same functionality, beauty, and reliability at lower cost. It would drive innovation just as well as size once did. But given Apple’s history, the chances of that happening seem very slim indeed.

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2015 at 8:56 am

The Friends fallacies

with 2 comments

The apartment from Friends

Last year, the real estate site Movoto took a close look at the houses and apartments featured in fifteen iconic television series, crunching the numbers to see which characters would really be able to afford the homes in which their fictional lives took place. Not surprisingly, many shows turned out to paint an unrealistic picture of how much house you can have, and the lead exhibit, as usual, was Friends. Rachel and Monica—a fashion coordinator and a chef—were estimated to earn a combined monthly salary of $9,300, while a comparable apartment of 1,126 square feet in Greenwich Village would set them back $5,000 every month, or well over half their gross income. “Most sitcoms,” a related article on Fast Company concludes, “ultimately serve as lifestyle advertising,” and there’s no question that viewers are often left with unrealistic expectations about the quality of life they can reasonably expect upon, say, moving to New York after college. But this only gets at part of the answer. If the apartment on Friends is twice the size it should be, it’s because it’s essentially an ordinary apartment cut in half longitudinally and unfolded to create an invisible proscenium arch. Monica and Rachel aren’t living alone: they’re sharing the space with three cameras.

The sets in sitcoms, in other words, aren’t explicitly designed to arouse viewer envy, at least not in terms of their size: they’re simply a pragmatic response to the logistics of shooting a three-camera sitcom with a live audience, and the proportions of these apartments roughly match those of the soundstage. In another Fast Company article, the interior designer Iñaki Aliste Lizarralde, who is often asked to recreate sitcom sets for his clients, goes into greater detail about the compromises that the format entails:

Almost all the shows have triangular proportions to lend the sensation of depth to the sets. Even the apparently squared sets are in fact trapezoidal…and sometimes it’s very difficult to translate to a sheet as “real houses” because all the tricks of the set decorators are in evidence.

A show filmed using a single camera isn’t subject to the same limitations, which is why a series like Girls can get away with sticking its characters into cramped, depressing, “realistic” spaces. Whether Friends would have seized the imagination of its audience to the same extent if it had been shot in the same way is something we’ll never know. But there’s no doubt that some combination of the show’s practical demands and the attractiveness of the cast and their stories fused into one in the minds of many viewers, until they could no longer safely be separated.

Parks and Recreation

It’s a pattern that we see repeated in other elements of storytelling, in which conventions that were originally introduced to solve specific problems of writing, staging, acting, or direction become bundled up with the larger fantasy that the narrative presents. The fact that actors in so many movies and television shows are always smoking doesn’t point to a vast conspiracy with the tobacco companies: it’s more a reflection of an actor’s need to do something with his or her hands. Actors are always looking for bits of business, and the cigarette—with the rituals of lighting, puffing, gesturing, and stubbing it out on the ashtray—is manifestly the best prop ever devised, even if its collateral damage has been immense. Similarly, the ensemble cast of a show like Friends, which provides writers with useful pairings and combinations for generating plots, leads to a form of unrealism of its own. Most of us don’t spend our lives hanging out with the same set of six friends from our twenties, and we don’t engage in humorous adventures with our colleagues after work. People drift apart; they move away; they find themselves more preoccupied with marriage and children; and the last thing many of us want to do is spend more time with the people we see at the office. But none of this prevents me from watching Parks and Recreation and feeling a stab of regret that I never found that kind of family in the workplace. (If anything, shows that have suffered from creative turnover, with supporting players disappearing abruptly and stars departing over contract disputes, are closer to real life than the few that manage to keep their core casts intact.)

You could even say that the idea of a plot itself affects the way we see our own lives, and not always for the better. For reasons of economy, fiction is usually tightly focused on one aspect of the protagonist’s world: our real lives are a constant balance between the competing demands of work, love, family, and other kinds of fulfillment, while stories generally only have room for one of the above. That’s often the correct choice, as far as constructing a workable plot is concerned, but it rarely reflects the complexity and messiness of everyday reality. And the imperative for a story to deliver a neat beginning, middle, and end has problems of its own. A romantic comedy, for instance, focuses on a single slice in the story of two people, and very few have ever tried to consider what might happen in the years and decades after that closing kiss. (From a viewer’s perspective, this isn’t always a bad thing. Many of the best fictional romances actively create a dynamic of tensions that would realistically shake any relationship apart within a matter of weeks. It’s hard to imagine Cary Grant settling down with the Katherine Hepburn of Bringing Up Baby, but that movie is so fun precisely because it creates an impossible pairing and focuses intently on the handful of days in which it could be expected to survive.) Movies and television aren’t out to fill us with dissatisfaction: they’re only trying to crack the hard problem of holding our attention for an hour or two. But when we make lives of our own, we need to use a different set of blueprints.

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2015 at 8:47 am

%d bloggers like this: