Tom Wolfe: ‘Logos are strictly a vanity industry’

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In 1972, Tom Wolfe criticized companies for creating logos for no other reason but to look modern:

The abstract total-design logo is the most marvelous fraud that the American graphic arts have ever perpetrated upon American business. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, these abstract logos, which a company (Chase Manhattan, Pan Am, Winston Sprocket, Kor Ban Chemical) is supposed to put on everything from memo pads to the side of its fifty-story building, make absolutely no impact–conscious or unconscious–upon its customers or the general public, except insofar as they create a feeling of vagueness and confusion….Yet millions continue to be poured into the design of them. Why? Because the conversion to a total-design abstract logo format somehow makes it possible for the head of the corporation to tell himself: “I’m modern, up-to-date, a man of the future. I’ve streamlined this old baby.” Why else would they have their companies pour $30,000, $50,000, $100,000 into the concoction of symbols that any student at Pratt could, and would gladly, give him for $125 plus a couple of lunches at the Trattoria, or even the Zum-Zum? The answer: if the fee doesn’t run into five figures, he doesn’t feel streamlined. Logos are strictly a vanity industry, and all who enter the industry should be merciless cynics if they wish to guarantee satisfaction.

To which Mark Wilson at FastCoDesign adds his two cents:

I can’t top Tom Wolfe–but I’d add just two more observations to his own:

1. Paying a Pratt student $35 to make a logo is. . .pretty much what Nike did to create the swoosh in 1971, the year before this criticism was printed. Wolfe surely would not have heard of the tiny Oregon shoe company yet, meaning his criticism was, at least partially, prophetic.

2. You could replace “logo” with almost any overrated trend and “business” with “the American people,” and this whole excerpt still sings. Try “fancy hamburger” or “wide leg pant.” Wolfe makes an almost algebraic argument in this passage that any product that one must rub their chin whilst critiquing is almost surely a fraud.

Of course, logos are ubiquitous. Branding is critical. We think in logos. We associate items with certain brands.

Businesses will hop at any chance to flash their latest logo on stationery, a building, football club jerseys, whatever, to impress. No siren nor Jumpman goes unnoticed.

Becoming Amazon-proof

Amazon buffets the shores of brick and mortar retailers. No business is Amazon-proof. No business is sacred in the internet-era.

We have to assume that everything we do today will at some point be replaced by something quicker, cheaper, and more personalized.

Dumping the problems on tomorrow will get us rekt.

How do we remain anti-fragile?

The first thing Darwin’s finches did was grow adaptive beaks. They survived by optimizing their behavior for the micro-market. Some formed specialized beaks just for eating seeds, other grubs, buds and fruit, and insects.

Specialization prolonged their survival.

Sure, the big companies have all the data. But their experience at harvesting attention often fails to attract the customer in search of a unique experience.

People want to consume things they talk about. And they don’t always want Starbucks.

Decisions are either ‘irreversible or reversible’

'Failure to experiment sufficiently', #quotes, ralph waldo emerson, experiment quotesSometimes your work is just going to be a 5 out of 10. It’s not worth scrutinizing every performance. The only ill is in hesitating, not starting what you think you should do.

Jeff Bezos has an interesting system for making decisions. He sees them as either irreversible or reversible. The simple heuristic pushed him to start Amazon, knowing that he could just go back to his old job if things didn’t work out. Writes the Farnam Street blog:

“Bezos considers 70% certainty to be the cut-off point where it is appropriate to make a decision. That means acting once we have 70% of the required information, instead of waiting longer. Making a decision at 70% certainty and then course-correcting is a lot more effective than waiting for 90% certainty.”

First we try, then we deduce

If the door swings both ways, why not give whatever we’re passionate about our best shot. The worst that can happen is that someone slams the door in our face or locks the other side. And that may be just the message that it’s time to pivot. They’re meant to astonish us, to jolt us out of our everyday thoughts:

We don’t need to collect all the information before we endeavor. We can reduce indecision by replacing it with the astonishment of doing. There is little reason to think in absolutes. Wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” —Ralph Waldo EmersonClick To Tweet

Susan Ressler’s photographs document the absurd corporate life of the 1970s

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Diver © Susan Ressler (1979)

Photographer Susan Ressler released a collection of black and white images capturing the corporate culture of Los Angeles in the 1970s. From the clunky computers to the banal office plant and male-dominated executives, she captures the industrial economy perfectly.

Ressler writes on her website:

Executive Order” depicts corporate America in the late 1970s, mostly in Los Angeles and the Mountain West. The sunbelt was exploding and so was corporate excess. Daylight Books is publishing this work in Spring 2018. Why 40 years later? Because now, in the era of Trump, we face the same dangers that ensue when corporations are deregulated and when profits “trump” people.


Her images are stark reminders of a culture that was and still is prevalent today.

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‘Don’t read the words. It’s bad enough that people use Powerpoint as a sort of teleprompter.’

Animation Presentation GIF by David Urbinati-source.gif

If you use Powerpoint, a few principles and tips to keep in mind when using type on a slide:

Don’t read the words. It’s bad enough that people use Powerpoint as a sort of teleprompter. Much worse that you don’t trust the audience enough to read what you wrote. If you want them to read the precise words, stand quietly until they do. If you want to paraphrase the words, that can work.

Big font, few words. And use pictures. Your narrative is the message.

Words on slides by Seth Godin

‘Blockchain represents the second era of the internet.’

52 Insights interviewed legendary business strategist and author Don Tapscott about the blockchain. Bitcoin is the archetype, kind of like how email was for the web.

His predictions are always worth listening to:

The blockchain is the second frontier of the Internet:

The way that we view it is that blockchain represents the second era of the internet. The first era for decades was the internet of information. Now we’re getting an internet of value. Where anything of value which including money, our identities, cultural assets like music, even a vote can be stored, managed, transacted and moved around in a secure private way.
And where trust is not achieved by an intermediary it’s achieved by collaborative cryptography through some clever code which is why Alex and I call it the trust protocol. Trust is native to the medium.

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Illustration by 52 insights

The blockchain benefits the stagnant middle class:

We do have a prosperity paradox today, that for the first time in history our economies are growing, but our prosperity is declining, we have growing wealth but a stagnant middle class, the only solution to this problem is the so-called redistribution of wealth taxing the rich and distributing the wealth.  We believe what blockchain enables is a redistribution of wealth that is through blockchain we can create a more of a democratic economy where we a priori distribute the wealth through peoples direct interaction with the economy.

Creatives will get their cake and eat it too:

We can ensure that creatives of value are more fairly compensated, so songwriters who have had their revenue destroyed by the internet can now post music on the blockchain and because of a smart contract your music is now protected by intellectual property rights. So those are just a handful of ways where we can create a more democratic economy in the first place.

The blockchain is future of the economic order where everyone owns their own virtual identity, all backed by ‘cryptographic proof.’ But will blockchain empower more equality or unfold into data exploitation as the FANG (Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon) have done to round one of the internet?

Cross your fingers. 🤞

The case for playing the long game

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Jeff Bezos in 1990

Good things take time. If we all settled for immediate results, there would be no Apple, Amazon, or Tesla.

The world’s best leaders are visionaries. They work years ahead, having planted the seeds for what’s happening now to springboard them into the future.

When asked what he thinks when analysts congratulate him on a good quarter, Jeff Bezos said:

“Those quarterly results were fully baked three years ago. Today I’m working on a quarter that will happen in 2020, not next quarter. Next quarter is done already and it’s probably been done for a couple years…If we have a good quarter it’s because of work we did 3, 4, 5 years ago. It’s not because we did a good job this quarter.”

So what type of futurists should we be, the tortoise or the hare, the fox or the hedgehog?

Get ready to go years being misunderstood.

An irrational reward system

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Greed taints everything. It is a bug in laissez-faire economics.

The insatiable desire to have more compels humans to cheat.

Civilization intends to be wild on its fairest terms. But too many people up top are biologically prone to control natural selection. Those hit hardest become the angriest of mobs.

Economics is human, purely biological; a Darwinian struggle to come out on top in a state of unfettered capitalism.

Coercion is natural, freedom is artificial.

Once the dopamine surge subsides, it triggers the cycle to gamble all over again. In the hunt for feel-good chemicals, we lose all sense of rationality.

A Grand Don’t Come for Free

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Do the work

Social media is still a game of numbers. The more followers you have, the more credible you appear. Removing the public follower count as Snapchat, Tumblr, and VSCO does, puts content first.

The entrepreneur bros on Instagram with one hundred thousand followers are all acts. The Ferrari, the yacht, and jewelry are props.
Dressing for success is a canard if there’s zero effort to put in the work to compensate the expectation.

There’s a gap between what someone thinks their worth and the amount of money in their bank account. You’re not a billionaire even when your ego tells you otherwise.

Putting on a show is real work for actors. Sharing an online facade is a substitute for real life that requires human effort. Skip a step and the lacking the fundamentals will be sure to let you know you’re out of place.

The marketers are the buyers

Ditch the logo (photo via David Beale)
  • The dealership leaves its logo on your license plate when you drive off the parking lot.
  • WordPress stamps its logo into the footer credits after you set up a blog. “Proudly powered by WordPress.”

You can remove the branding with a screwdriver or change the code in the footer.php file.

Most people find the branding tolerable or at the least, not annoying enough to remove. Others like to signal their participation in the larger community. Few people remove the logo completely. They take the extra effort to white-label their property.

People are the product, the promotional carriers of the branding virus. The seller is always subtle, ready to stamp the extra awareness where it can get it.

The price is right

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If you want to sell more of something, list it second.

The sophisticate never orders the first option in the wine list. People choose the second wine option on the list; the bottle that also happens to be the most popular and most profitable.

Back in the day of CDs, the music listener never bought the album because of the first song. They bought it for the second track, which was usually the lead single played on the radio.

Lists can make for a deceiving design. Customers pay a premium for their misperception.

A little less data, a little more action

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It’s easy to lose yourself in the details and get caught in the maelstrom of facts. But if you turn your focus on the customer experience, you can start to see the forest through the trees.

McDonald’s can keep improving the taste of its smoothies to negligible sales results. It turns out that it’s not the taste that drives consumption but rather the purpose.

According to a study led by Harvard business school professor Clayton Christenson, the majority of smoothies sell in the morning. Commuters revealed that they wanted to hold onto something filling in their hand for the ride to work.

Data tells only half the story. The other half explains the actual choices people make. Practical observation goes beyond a spreadsheet and into the streets.

Marketing vs. Sales

Marketing is sales. There’s no way around it. You’re trying to tell a story so that someone buys your product.

The sales person is also a marketer, but their role is to close the deal which can often be intimidating.

Shoppers today like to walk into a store and use their phone to navigate it. They’ve seen the marketing; they’re aware of the deals; they don’t want to be sold to but rather find products by themselves.

Marketers are salespeople and vice versa. The key difference is that marketers speak softly and carry a big stick while salespeople persuade aggressively or try to trick you. Which is the better customer experience?