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The Blog of Emily McDowell Studio


On Having Ideas: Start With Your Brand

This week, I'm taking a detour from the stationery show talk to address a question I get a lot, which is "How do you come up with your ideas?" OK. The answer to this question has a lot of different pieces, but I want to start with something that might not sound obvious at first, but is super duper important: A simple way to begin is by coming up with three adjectives that define your brand. Elegant. Cozy. Whimsical. Classic. Funny. Inspirational. Uplifting. Modern. The descriptors can be anything-- but choose them carefully, because the key moving forward is that everything you create will be all of those three things. My three adjectives are: Insightful, Relatable, Colorful. (See -- I do this too!) You have to be willing to kill even your favorite ideas if they don't fit the adjectives, because if an idea doesn't fit, it's not right for your brand. I'm not gonna lie, this hurts, like finding a pair of pants that make your butt look awesome and leaving them behind in the dressing room. But ultimately, “because I like it” is not a good enough reason to add something to your line. If you’re going to build a cohesive, successful brand, you’ll need to consider your product ideas more strategically.    

For example: Above is a great card by Rifle Paper Co.

It's beautiful, right? But if I had this idea, I'd kill it -- because it doesn't fit my brand. It's colorful, but there's nothing especially insightful or relatable about it. And if I painted a card like this and added it to my line, it wouldn't sell as well as the other things that DO fit my brand. (I'm sure it does really well for Rifle, though;  it fits seamlessly within their brand look and feel!) But! The good news is that it's actually EASIER to come up with ideas when you have strong brand guard rails to measure them against, because it will help you narrow and focus your thoughts. This streamlines the process and makes it less likely that you’ll be overwhelmed by possibility. It also gives you a easy first step in evaluating your ideas, since being on-brand is part of what makes an idea worth keeping. What else makes an idea good? Here’s how I evaluate mine. Any idea I come up with has to meet all the following criteria in order to be considered for production: 1. Is it consistent with my brand? Does it match the brand description I’ve written for myself? If it’s off-brand, even if it’s clever or funny or pretty or I love it, it’s dead. 2. Has it been done before? Are there products with the same message or look out there? If so, it’s dead – unless there’s a very good reason to keep it. 3. Is its message universal and relatable to a majority of people? If it’s too specific, it’s dead. 4. Do I like it, and can I articulate why I like it? If I can’t say exactly what resonates with me about an idea, it’s dead. If I'm an expert on anything, it's coming up with ideas. Are they all good? F, no. 90% them are terrible. But the most valuable skill I took away from my career in advertising was the ability to generate a ton of ideas in a really short amount of time and be able to quickly and objectively decide if they work. At this point, after ten years of practice, my brain can evaluate an idea based on the above criteria almost instantly, like when you start to be able to dream in a second language. But this does take practice. And the process works just as well if you do it slowly and deliberately. In future posts, I'll go into the whole coming-up-with-ideas thing in more detail. Let me know if this was helpful!


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