The medium vs. the message

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

I was recently asked to participate in an "unpanel" discussion about the way we communicate, and the value of the medium versus message. Questions (below) were sent to me ahead of time to help facilitate the discussion. That discussion will happen tomorrow in Durham, NC's Central Park. So I'm going to formulate some answers here:


1. What has changed our relationship with each other now that social media have quantified it, made it visible, and pushed it into the public domain? Social media creates more connections that last after the physical ones disappear. We don't have to make as much of an effort to create relationships in person, because we know the discussion and connection will be made (or be continued) online. We are able to touch more people in less time, but our relationships suffer because we are either unlearning -- or never learning -- how to scratch beneath the surface and go beyond the "what" and "how" to the "why" of the people we meet. And if we don't watch it, we will all become broadcasters instead of conversationalists.




2. What remains invisible/unquantified? Emotions are not expressed well online. Just as in email, happy/sad conversations work better in person or on the phone.


3. Does the message matter? Or the form/medium? Today, the medium dictactes the message more than ever. The more popular mediums reflect the ways we "prefer" to communicate. If you believe, like Marshall McLuhan that a lightbulb is a medium, then your surroundings dictate much of how you interact and communicate and we should focus more on the "medium" than ever to mold how we communicate. (When you think about it - planning the physical layout/decor of an office might be one of the most important business decisions a CEO can make.)


Marshall McLuhan


4. How do we know whether someone who is listening is actively receiving what we say? How do we know whether the person listening "gets" what we say? Because we are all mostly broadcasters online, we have more to say and share it more publically. If we focus on a theme, we are probably more likely to be heard because people will seek us out for our expertise. We are more narrow in our focus and our reach. I often realize I'm actually touching more people than I thought I was. People sometimes come out of the woodwork to comment on something I've said or done, and it makes me feel like people are observing me rather than interacting with me.


5. Do you feel more in control, or aware, of this exchange/communication (or the breakdown thereof), online? Offline? In groups? One-on-one? Written? Spoken? I see a breakdown of  one-on-one communication in person. I don't see us writing well or in a way that celebrates language. I think we are overrun with buzz words.



Aether gathering

The universality of before & after

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

I'm fascinated by what our society collectively gravitates toward. Many of my friends (me included) live in more of an indie film bubble. Sometimes, I step out and and watch more mainstream TV/movies as a way to understand what the majority likes. Beyond the predictable plot lines are commonalities that click with lots of people. If you can get past the schlock, you can probably unearth a few pointers on how to attract a crowd. Those truths can help my work as a writer just as much as an artsy film with exquisite title design.

Apparently, we all love a good weight loss story. The TV show The Biggest Loser's big finale was watched by 7.2M viewers in May of this year. We like seeing someone shed weight because they also change their lives in the process. And every time a recovering addict announce how many days they've been clean, everyone applauds. We like transformation. We like the sideshow of the overweight girl baring her fat rolls for all to see, but we also enjoy seeing her fight her way into a new set of abs. One of the most universally accepted symbols of transformation is the butterfly. There's a pattern here somewhere.


The lowly caterpillar, before.

All of these stories are dramatic because we knew what came before. You were obese. Drunk. Or crawling on the ground on all 16 legs. Things were really bad. And now that they're better, the story is that much more endearing. Before creates drama (what's going to happen?). After captures the imagination by inviting people to fill in the blank. Simply by revealing the "before" part of your story, you're creating context and bringing the viewer/reader/audience along for the ride.

Say your product/service/design/presentation is in a cocoon now. What will it become when it emerges?

The phrases "once upon a time" and "the end" put us in the mood for a story. These are classic before and after techniques.

Quick thoughts on telling before and after stories:

  • I think more creative work should be shown in the context of before and after. (Here's the packaging before I redesigned this soap container, and after.)
  • Give people context for a presentation or a speech. (I did this to prepare before, and my goal is to achieve ____ once I'm through.)
  • Use this as a device for a short story. Mix it up. Tell the "after" first, then reveal the "before."
  • Use it to sell your idea to a venture capitalist or future client. Set up the world as it is, and the world after your idea/service/product arrives.

Of course, most of our time is spent in between before and after in the "during" space. So don't forget to enjoy your trip--and look out the window once in a while.



And how does that make you feel?

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

It should be at the top of your bulleted list. The bolded sentence in your brief. The "key takeaway" from your kick off meeting. The one thing the brand team agrees on:

Design should make you feel something.

There have been a lot of debates lately over what design should actually do (or be rewarded for doing). Of course, Steve Jobs' life and recent death reminded us all of the importance of giving design a seat in the boardroom. (And kinda late to the game Pepsi just added a Chief Design Officer to their staff, saying, "We firmly believe design and design thinking is a significant vector of innovation and therefore growth.") Pentagram's Paula Scher recently declared her disdain for Justified, AIGA's awards competition that rewards measured results instead of purely recognizing design (or using words like "beauty, creativity, surprise, innovation, and inspiration" in the description of the award).

I volunteer with several different non-profits, and we need design help from time to time. I am currently helping one of these groups revise their logo to better reflect who they are now, versus the logo they adopted during their origins as a sort of start-up. When you work with groups like this, it's important to remember that no one is getting paid, time is money and brand is something you have to beg, borrow or steal to make happen. I want to make sure the designer is treated as well (or better) as he would be at his day job. And I want to make sure the group's members understand the design process. So I tell them that a logo can't do everything. It can't answer most marketing questions. It can't describe the mission statement. It can only make people feel something. It can also provide a bit of meaning through context or concept.

Feeling vs. thinking

This post is very focused evoking emotion and feeling something. I also value strategy, collaboration and results. It's just that if you start off with cardboard, you have to add A LOT of sauce to make it edible. What is the point of design (and writing) if not to make you feel something? It is more fun to feel.

If I feel it, I will react. If I think too much about it, I might not.

I want to see more of this and this and this. Even this. (And this, which is the theme song for this blog post and is also almost NSFW, BTW. D'Angelo sure can make you feel something.)


Be it, or say it. Choose one.

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

It's the difference between posturing and participating. I can't tell you how many times I've used this advice in my work. There's never a situation where it doesn't apply to a writing assignment.

Are you going to be it? Or say it?

Are you going to be a cool, or say you're cool? Are you actually building on a core value, or claiming a new benefit/personality trait? Are you being, or seeming to be? (We could apply this line of thinking to our own personal lives, but that's another blog post.)

I'm serious when I say this be it/say it exercise applies to any writing assignment. Take a look at an ad in any magazine and you'll find they are either being it, or saying it. Now, decide which ones are more effective. How about the magazine itself? Is it saying it supports women? Or does it make them feel inadequate enough to buy $75 face cream?

I've spent the majority of my career helping others get to the truth.

Several years ago, I became frustrated enough with the lack of focused, meaningful direction in the creative process to initiate something I called a brand truth process. The name itself explains the goal: truth. The process actually went something like: research, strategy, truth, create, but the real goal was to be, rather than to say.


Esse Quam Videri: to be, rather than to seem (to be)

The goal of be it/say it is to be authentic. And being authentic means not faking it. And faking it means protraying an image of yourself that isn't real. Which seems like the definition of most advertising. So, following in my friend Chris Grams' (author of The Ad-Free Brand) line of thinking, engaging in this type of branding process might mean doing something other than advertising. 

Be a part of your local community. Be an advocate for a cause. Be an ethical business owner. Be an inspirational hero. Then say it. See where it takes you.

I know I've said a lot of things. But I've only been a few.

Ask why. Then ask again. And again. And again.

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

Here. Let me give you my business card.


It tells you where I work. My title. My email and phone number. And you get a feel for my taste in design. You'll also find out whether I sweat the details.

For something I almost didn't go to the trouble to create, my business card has made a crazy amount of difference in my life. The picture of it, above, received more likes and comments on Facebook than some of my amazing photos of Paris/Bruges/Amsterdam. People who know me and see it say it suits my personality. People who don't know me comment on the "hey," colors and design as if they've never seen anything like it.

This was a small effort on my part. And it made a world of difference.

So why do we let things like business card design slide? Why don't we seize these opportunities to have fun, create and connect?

Compliance vs. asking why

I tend to fight the power. It's not that I don't follow the rules, I just can't easily settle. And really, do any of us truly want to take things at face value? We tend to fight the relevant battles, let the others slide, and move on. Business card design is a battle easily lost.

If you've ever taken a DISC assessment, you know what the "C" stands for. It's compliance, and I scored in the negatives in this category. (Those with a high C score go into the military or a related field.)

It's not that I want to be disruptive. It's that I naturally want to know why before I do anything. (That natural curiosity must translate as being non-compliant to the DISC assessment experts.) So, why share this personal information that could influence my next manager to thing twice before hiring me? To find out why creative opportunities are seized or missed.  

What if we let it slide? Will we regret not having a cool card? Or not having one at all? Why does it matter? What does a business card really say about us anyway? When I became a freelance/contract writer, I realized I didn't have a business card for the first time since grad school. So many of them are uninspiring anyway. What's the point?

The question meaning makers ask is "Why?" Then they ask it again and again until they find out what matters.

So channel your inner four-year-old and ask why with me:

I don't have a business card. Why?

I usually get them when I work for someone else. Why?

Hm. I really never thought of it this way. Why?

Because I'm so used to waiting to be issued one. Now I don't have to take whatever comes to me. I should make my own. Why?

Because, for the first time in my life, I can.

Okay, maybe the conversation didn't go this way, exactly. But the point is, in every way possible, if you want to find out why something really matters, ask why. And keep asking until you get to a point where you make a realization you've never made, or see a path that wan't on your map yesterday.

In every way possible, if you want to find out why something really matters, ask why.

And do you see how you could substitute a product brief for a business card in the above example? If someone gives you a task, or a half-baked marketing plan, start asking why.

I love my card. Why? It makes me laugh. Why? It tells you who I am without trying too hard. (Etc.)

P.S. Scout's honor: This was published way after I wrote my "why" post.

P.P.S. So was this.

I'd do your math homework

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

 When I was in grad school, my professors would use simple exercises to get us headed in the right direction. I remember one technique used by Jelly Helm, who I had the priviledge of learning from in my second year at Virginia Commonwealth University's Adcenter (now called the Brandcenter). I can't remember details like this from my undergraduate career, but these Brandcenter exercises have claimed a permanant place in my brain.

Jelly asked his students to write five-word love letters that convinced someone to go out with us. The beauty of this exercise is that it's as simple as it is powerful. It made us write sincerely, convincingly, persuasively, etc. I wrote a lot of love letters that day (I'm nothing if not prolific.).

By a show of hands, my most popular letter was: I'd do your math homework.

Not every guy would respond to my note. But the idea is that my kind of guy would.

So, building on my theory that YOU ARE CREATIVE (IN ALL CAPS!!), I think this is an exercise anyone can practice to write more convincingly about your business, your self, etc.

I remembered it when trying to come up with an idea for an article I wanted to write about my new passion project, the Triangle Wiki. How do we make a wiki accesible beyond our little band of geeks? We also worried that businesses would cut and paste their brochure copy and call it a wiki entry. (See the bottom of this page. Even the press had different ways of spinning the Triangle Wiki.) So, during the official wiki launch last week, I remembered Jelly's little exercise and I invited everyone to think of something they love in their community and write a page about it on the wiki.

Try it. Write more love letters and fewer headlines. Who knows? Maybe someone will write you back.


creativity explained

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

You are creative. Your teachers or parents may not have encouraged you to believe it, but you are. I've always believed that. But what is creativity, really? I have never seen my definition of it articulated so clearly than in this amazing Charlie Rose Show episode--the last of a twelve-part series. This video debunks the word "creativity," opting instead for the title of problem solver. Panelists Chuck Close, Oliver Sacks and Richard Serra chip away at their process, revealing in detail how they have created some of the most incredible works of art in this century.

be got into the woods

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

"Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish." -- John Muir, champion of Yosemite.

Just returned from an all-too-short, three-night trip to Yosemite National Park. Instead of trying to wax poetic about this place, I think I'll just refer you to John Muir. He said it best. But I did manage to take a few pictures (like the one above) that begin to capture the majesty of the park.

raw material

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn


This isn't fully cooked. Instead of sharing something more fleshed out, here's what I'm reading/injesting/chewing on this week:

The resume is dead. Long live the bio. - I have a lot to learn from this article. Let's face it--resumes have some catching up to do. Everyone is putting themselves out there via social media/blogs, and the resume is still in the B&W Times Roman realm.

What/how/why to write - There's a ton of advice out there on this subject, but this article seems to hit a nerve with every bold subhead. I see words that mean a lot to me like involvement, honest, value and desire to belong. And it's not advice just for companies or bloggers--it swings both ways.

Skip "about me" and tell me why you're here - I love this "Why I blog" post by social media guru Shannon Paul. A post like this is a great alternative to an About Me section on your blog. Telling me why you're here reveals your motives and creates trust.

Brands as patterns - The title of this article is fascinating to me because I've long been a proponent of repitition with my branding projects. So what's the difference between creating brands through patterns vs. repitition?


2011 AIGA Leadership Retreat recap

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

This is a blog post I wrote for the Raleigh chapter of AIGA after attending a national chapter leadership conference in Minneapolis in early June. As you can imagine, we met dozens of incredible people and learned enough to fill up a Moleskine. But, mostly, I came away with this piece of advice: If you have a chance to get involved in your local AIGA chapter, do it.

More than 250 AIGA chapter leaders from across the country gathered in Minneapolis from June 2-4 to discuss national AIGA goals, individual chapter successes (including AIGA Raleigh) and participate in prototype sessions, working lunches and debates that went into the wee hours of the night. We exchanged trading cards, learned how to run a design camp, met colorful characters, supported design interns, talked about some kick a&# chapter websites, welcomed some new chapters—and the conversation hasn’t stopped since.

In fact, the conversation is just beginning. Starting with our next community meeting where Jonathan Opp and Matt Muñoz will reprise their inspiring presentation on the AIGA Raleigh rebranding called “Building a Chapter Brand Around Community.” This presentation sparked a thousand questions from the audience and will hopefully create more community-based branding projects in chapters across the country.

We brought back ideas and free schwag (and some pretty cool AIGA Raleigh 25th Anniversary T-shirts), but most of all we reconnected our chapter to the 65 other chapters who are all willing to share their ideas, event plans, mission statements and branding projects with you. There is no better time to get involved with AIGA Raleigh. We’re looking forward to seeing you on July 13th.

Prototyping vs. brainstorming – how to help teams create together.

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

This is a blog post I wrote for the incredibly insightful photographer, Charles Gupton and his passion project called Mindfire.


Most people share a mistrust (hate) of brainstorming meetings. They feel contrived. High pressure. Hollow, without context. Add strangers to the mix and we worry if we’ll work well as a team. And if you’re in mixed company, too often the creative people feel pressure to come up with the best ideas. Don’t get me wrong. I love working with other people. In fact, the highest compliment you can pay me is to say you like partnering with me. I just think if you’re looking for a great idea, traditional brainstorming isn’t the way.

Last week, I found myself at a conference of AIGA (the professional association for design) leaders on a small team of eight strangers working to solve to an organizational problem and deliver a solution the next morning.

Instead of calling them brainstorming sessions (or the conference favorite: “break out sessions”), they were called prototype sessions.

Prototype: An early sample or model built to test a concept or process

or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

I love the key words here: “sample,” “test,” “act,” “learned from.” Note that it’s not about a finished ad, logo sketch or tagline. It’s something to learn from—not something to do.

So, back to our prototype session. Our goal was to find ways to incorporate lifelong design education into AIGA. And the beauty of our session was that we’d been prepped well

1. FODDER: We all signed up for this session before the conference. And in the day or so previous, most of the Prototype session topics were covered in general session.

2. FOCUS: We had clear goals: To create a sentence or 5-word mission statement, elevator speech and 1-week/6-month/1-year launch plan. And do all this within a certain time limit.

3. FINISH: We had to present something, so we knew the idea should be fleshed out enough that it could communicate well with attendees.

Each of these goals became our common purpose. In the end, we came to a very human, real prototype to test: We all want to learn things we don’t know. So let’s start by admitting what we don’t know publicly (on Twitter using the #AIGAidk hashtag). Then, at the six-month mark, let’s collect our need for knowledge and by the one-year mark, let’s start educating. 

Most of all, let’s stop storming brains. Instead, create context by prepping well, and encourage success by setting clear goals (What can we accomplish in the first week?) with a deadline.

good habits and the "raw desire to do stuff"

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

A couple of weeks ago, a friend said he wished his company would hire sales people who actually call clients back. His coworkers were literally receiving emails/voice mails from clients and ignoring them.

The conversation made me think about passion, drive and action. How can you hate your job so much that you neglect to complete your core task: return a call from a client?

Are we too busy to call people back? This kind of avoidance fascinates me. We can't call people back, but we can spend a lot of time talking about things we can't keep ourselves from doing like procrastinating, smoking or watching TV. We throw ourselves completely into activities that give us nothing in return.

What if we re-framed bad habits as passion? Would we feel good about being a passionate smoker? Better yet--what if we replaced bad habits with passion projects?

What do you obsess about creatively? Where does your mind go to entertain itself when you're in the shower, taking a walk or commuting?

I'd like to go back to Scott Belsky (again) in Making Ideas Happen quoting Jon Ellenthal of Walker Digital:

I recall the days when I was a resume snob, he says. [But now] I would trade experience for initiative and the raw desire to do stuff in a heartbeat.

I would bet my collection of sea glass recently acquired from Mont St. Michel that most of us could uncover a passion project if we tried hard enough. (This would also prove my theory that everyone is creative in their own way.) And that you should be skeptical about hiring someone who doesn't have at least one passion project.

So, if we haven't already, how do we uncover these passion projects and how to we get everyone involved--not just the "creative types"?

They aren't destructive (but they might feel like it) - Think of something that can suck you in as much as cheese nachos after too many beers, but won't regret in the morning.

They fill a hole and might be spiritual - Work and family/friends can't be the end all, be all. There should be something else. And that something else might be so close to your soul that it feels spiritual. My friend's passion project is running, and she will fiercely challenge you if you tell her a long run does not equal church.

They've been there all along - I have no specific scientific research to base this on--just my personal observations--but I think we are who we at 3 or 4 years old. Everything after that builds on the preschool version of us. So when you're digging around for your own "raw desire" or passion project, think about the things you were interested in during those early, formative years.

Like Jim Henson said in the little green, square It's Not Easy Being Green and Other Things To Consider:

Growing up as an artist, I've always been in awe of the incredible beauty of every last bit of design in nature...I love to lie in an open field looking up at the sky. One of my happiest moments of inspiration came to me many years ago as I lay on the grass looking up into the leaves and branches of a big old tree in California.

So the next time you find yourself avoiding the very thing you're getting paid to do--or looking for something more rewarding than a Saturday afternoon reality TV marathon, try a passion project. Besides writing and helping people, mine looks like this.

once upon a time, we failed beautifully

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

Once upon a time, one of my creative teams came up with a campaign that sold service by telling fairy tales. Long copy. Character development. Trolls under bridges. All that. It seemed wrong for the category. It didn't obviously pay off the strategy. It took a while to sink in. We loved it.

We tried to sell it by simply asking our clients if they liked to read good stories. We presented the campaign in book form and passed out milk and cookies. We even proposed creating :15 trailers that lead to a YouTube page full of bad service/good service tales. And, as a last resort, we proposed running it as a test just to see if it caught on.

We didn't sell that campaign. And I can't forget it.

Christopher Butler over at Newfangled made a great point in a post he wrote about storytelling online.

...somehow, the concept of storytelling doesn't seem to have worked its way down from the worldwide mega-brands to the next tier of businesses in which you and I work. But why shouldn't it? After all, we're endeavoring to speak to the very same people they are?

Everyone likes a good story (and Butler points to Harry Potter books as proof that we actually prefer long stories). We all talk about telling stories. It seems obvious. So why didn't the campaign sell? Like Butler said, storytelling isn't news in our industry. And my friends over at the Makin' Ads blog make the case that storytelling is expected—that every good ad should have elements of storytelling in it (concrete, unexpected and emotional messages). Storytelling sells. It's appreciated and even expected. So why didn't the client buy our stories?



Scott Belsky gave me a hint. In his book, Making Ideas Happen, he talks about a storytelling workshop he attended where the participants were asked to give positive feedback only. By enhancing what works, the strengths are stronger and the weaknesses fall away. But we're all conditioned to point out weaknesses first. We even make rules that become crutches to help us dismiss work. (Nobody reads long copy anymore.) Belsky says it's actually harder to give affirmative feedback than to dish out criticism. And when you're presenting to five people and two of them voice negative opinions, rarely does anyone challenge those opinions with positive feedback.

That's what happened to our campaign. It was dismissed fairly quickly and no amount of chocolate chip cookies could save it.

But it was a beautiful failure. We failed better that day than we had in months. Let's do more of that. It makes a better story, doesn't it?

everything I said could be totally wrong

Posted on by Laura Hamlyn

I've worked in advertising since 1993. A layperson (my Aunt) generally thinks my work is about magically finding that silver bullet that sells something. And shows like Celebrity Apprentice push that perception by asking B-listers to spend 24 hours creating a great "slogan" that will sell suntan lotion or steaks.

The lesson I've had to learn over the years is there is no magic bullet. My best ideas haven't come easily or instantly. They've incubated, baked, kicked and screamed and hidden in the back of a dark closet. That's why I tend to gravitate towards statements like "everything I said could be totally wrong."

I was lead to the title of this post by a tweet from Daniel Pink, a man dedicated to helping us understand the way we work today. He referenced the Manifesto Project website which includes some pretty deep thinking from Mike Mills. I particularly like this thinking from Mike:

+ Everything I said could be totally wrong.
+ Everything is transient. Everything is a process not an object.

If more people knew this truth about creativity, it might scare them to death--especially clients who have a lot riding on results and outcomes. But if we embrace it, it just might take us to another level of creativity.

I recently read an article called "The Power of Uncertainty" on Behance's 99% website that covered the same territory, and it made me a little uncomfortable:

Be comfortable “working in ambiguity.” The key to true creative problem solving is the ability to work in ambiguity – to explore the full range of possibilities without jumping to conclusions. The poet John Keats praised Shakespeare for this trait, which he called “negative capability.” As Keats defines it, negative capability “is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In short, we must feel comfortable moving forward without always knowing exactly where we are headed.

As writers, designers and art directors, it's not our job to know. We really don't know. We just spend a lot of time trying to, and in the process we find some amazing solutions. But I could be totally wrong.