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What’s In a Story?

Colorful stories

My office sometimes feels like a therapy room. There is a lot of talk around here about what turns a really good idea into a really great idea. It’s the question of what makes a good presentation, and what are the best ways to open the doors to an opportunity that could carry a light bulb idea through to a commercial success for a business venture.

I worked in Hollywood for many years. It was not a place full of good advice, but I did leave with some. When working on Bill & Ted I met with the producer. He gave me a few tidbits of advice (one being that my ego wasn’t big enough — which I have since taken as a compliment but at the time was mortified) including a piece of wisdom that has stuck with me all these years: “You only get to knock on someone’s door once to make that first impression, so make sure you do it right.” Simple in theory, but hard because sometimes we just don’t quite see the big picture and we focus on only one part of the puzzle.

Without this detail — the essence of her story — her project was only two-dimensional to me.

Fast forward 20 years. I thought of his advice last week when an artist who I greatly admire stopped by with her project: a series of drawings named 365. She had completed one full drawing or painting every day for a year. I was impressed by the concept alone and the results were remarkable. She had created a great body of work, some that had been presented in the form of an art exhibition that had made the local gallery circuit. She had formatted a selection into postcards, note cards, and hanging mobiles. She had also compiled all 365 sketches and created a self-published book through an internet printer, all beautifully laid out, with the drawings chaptered by month so you could really understand the evolution of the series. She came to me looking for some thoughts as to the next step and how best to present it as a more commercial venture for the gift market industry.

Looking through her beautifully-produced materials, I noticed she omitted an important detail that struck me as a hole in the project. I wanted to know her story and of the origin of her idea, along with some understanding of the emotional and very human process of making such a commitment, none of which were included in this book. I really wanted to understand the process; the pain and the glory. A drawing a day sounds fun as an artist, but in reality I knew there must have been days when she just didn’t want to create; that she must have suffered at some point. What about when she got sick? How did she manage to conquer all the hundreds of reasons we have not to do things?

When I asked her about this she responded in laughter, telling me how hard some of those days had been. My advice to her was to bring the story into the project. Without this detail — the essence of her story — her project was only two-dimensional to me.

Her concept reminded me of the blog that had inspired the successful film Julie and Julia in which an enthusiastic cook decided to cook a Julia Child recipe every night for a year, no matter how hard, and keep a blog of the process. In doing this she materialzed a great story that went beyond the scope of her original intention to focus on the food. It transcended the venture into a story about the struggle and trials, making it outstanding because of the story and the process of her challenge. In the long term it turned a simple idea into a story that resonated.

My meeting with the 365 artist echoed this theme to transform ideas: how a project can be brought to life by highlighting its authenticity (with a touch of humility to remind you and your audience that indeed we are all human and can relate). The story behind the project is the key. If the story isn’t interesting, then its lack of luster gets it lost in the great ocean of many.

My first real experience of this was with my own project: Vy&Elle, a company that started as a thought with a couple of friends back in the early 2000s. We started designing and manufacturing bags and accessories made from reclaimed vinyl billboards that were laying around the salvage yard that one of my partners ran.

I believe that the success of this decade-long project was mainly due to the story of the product itself (and with a lot of hard work and help). We saved over 250 tons of used vinyl billboard from hitting the landfill by reusing it and repurposing it, giving the user a sense of owning something unique and a story worth sharing. It was new to the US marketplace back then and while we saw a lot of original ideas at market, this one was vibrant.

Although the recycling element was a key part, we knew we weren’t going to save the world with our little project. After all, over 1 million tons of billboard are produced a year worldwide. We did, however, recognize the specialty and strength of the design process and what the product was — it shouted “Look at me, do you know what I am?”

We included the tag line “Who knew?” as part of the label text, because I lost count of how many times I had heard this expression from people I was showing the product to. We utilized the strength of the story to help market and place the product into over 2000 stores worldwide during its lifetime.

We had the quality, form and function, but with a twist about seeing something from a perspective we could all relate to. It made you think and ask questions. At the beginning of the project most people didn’t know that billboards were vinyl. By the end of it, the industry was recognizing the environmental impact and looking to startups like ours to help build their green corporate citizenship, and turning to less heavy toxic material that would break down easier in the landfills.

Ingenuity in branding and packaging builds roads that take you to new and interesting places. Some unexpected twists and turns are a certainty, and you’ll need a dose of fearlessness to get you there. We only get a few seconds to make an impression that could change the course of the project because we’ve connected with those around us that can be key people in bringing it correctly to the marketplace. Then again, sometimes we are just not the right fit, and that is good to know as well.

Ask the simple question, “What would make me pay attention to this?” Without a connection to the authenticity and story, a project can be hard to see through the clutter. (I’m still trying to work out why Bill & Ted was such a huge success, but I guess I will have to accept I’ll never get that one.)

Knock once, knock loudly and have something to say that people want to hear. It’s not always the right fit for the right person, but it’s always a really cool challenge to have your project pitch perfect.

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One Comment

  1. Nicola, your story makes me think of how intrinsically art and social awareness have become. Like how Shepard Fairey’s print of Obama became so popular because it embodied the spirit of rejuvenated hope at the time; like how using trash as art supplies speaks to overproduction; like everything DJ Spooky does to raise environmental awareness in his large audio-visual performance art pieces. If you tie your work into a cause, you and the cause can both go further together.

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