“Think Outside the Box”… but Look Behind the Curtain

February 17, 2010

The first time I heard the phrase “Think Outside the Box” was shortly after I had graduated from college. I was working at a small but thriving visual communications firm. Concerned about growing too fast and losing control, the president invited a few business consultants in to see if they could help us manage our growth. Being a rookie designer, I was honored when the president asked me to attend the presentations.

Perhaps the stars were aligned just so that week, but of the three consultancies invited to present, the first two started their presentations the exact same way… by challenging us with a nine-dot puzzle. Solving it required connecting each dot using four straight, continuous lines—without lifting the pen from the paper.

The first consultant seemed taken aback by our questions and passion toward solving it. Apparently he had come in expecting to present the puzzle, answer a few predictable questions, watch us make some failed attempts, and then give us the answer. Until that day, he had only presented to business executives who had little interest in solving visual puzzles—not graphic designers.

By using a very wide marker, all nine dots could be connected with only one line.

When I asked him if we could use one line rather than four, he just smiled. “If you can solve the puzzle using only one line, by all means, be my guest. Just make certain it’s a straight line… and don’t lift your pen.” Before I could respond, he added, “If you solve it with four lines, lunch is on me… solve it with one line and I’ll make certain you get a raise… and bonus, too,” then winked at the president of our firm.

When I explained that my solution required a very wide pen, he began shaking his head and then with a dismissive laugh said, “No… I’m afraid that would be cheating… you have to use a standard size pen.” Then he held his marker up for everyone to see before asking again, “Okay, are you ready for the answer?” Read more

Fragments of Johnny Cash

February 3, 2010

I never met Johnny Cash in this lifetime, but in a way, I feel I know him well. Shortly after his death, a friend of mine was hired to produce a pictorial biography about his life. After remarking, “I don’t have much time or a big budget, but I still need some great images,” he asked if I would do him a favor and create photographic still lifes of what Johnny had left behind. Spending days intimately walking through Johnny Cash’s life… his personal notes, poems to his wife, unfinished lyrics, sketches, photos, guitars, correspondence, passports, calendars, albums, clothes, bible scripture tests… memories and clues to nearly every piece of his life… didn’t really feel much like a favor at all. So I agreed.

As promised, I was left alone and given total access to “be creative.” Staying focused and on task was difficult. The amount of material was vast and my mind wandered like a school kid in class. I was so hyper-focused on the subject matter, the assignment seemed meaningless.

At first I felt a little uncomfortable… like I shouldn’t be reading his personal notes, handling his guitars, or messing with his stuff… like his boots or blue jumpsuit from San Quentin! But then I realized Johnny kept all these things for a reason. Collectively, they represented him… his memories, thoughts and special moments on earth. Some were fragments… personal pieces of a complicated puzzle, clues from an unconventional life. Many of his notes, sketches and lyrics were scribbled out on random sheets of paper, crossed out, rewritten, edited, and often left unfinished. It was these pieces that I connected with most. The fragments… ideas he had worked on but never finished. The idea seeds… the work in progress… the unsolved mysteries that we all carry with us throughout our lives… hoping to someday find them a home. Read more

John Deere’s Pink Bat

February 2, 2010

Deere & Company was founded in 1837. Since its humble beginnings, it has grown into an international corporation that today employs approximately 56,000 people throughout the world.

A few years back, Deere hired me to design a coffee table book that would capture its rich history and more importantly, convey its core values. The title of the book was Genuine Values. I, along with the CEO and a few senior executives, built this idea around the following values: integrity, quality, commitment and innovation. We felt these words best reflected the core values exhibited by its founder and that have successfully guided Deere up to today.

In my new book, Pink Bat: Turning Problems Into Solutions, I share the John Deere story from a different perspective… from its very inception. It’s easy to talk about the after effects… the success story that followed. But when you realize this international corporation started when one young man saw a “problem” as a solution… the story is even more amazing. Read more