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Opinion / Why We Wrote a Dictionary

by Contagious Contributor

Verdes, a product design agency, created Brownie’s Guide to Expertly Defined Ideas to help creatives brand new concepts. Here's why. 

When is the right time to stop doing what you’re good at? It’s a question that started nagging us a few years ago. In our industry – and we imagine with most jobs in creative field – it always feels you’re doing something new, applying your special set of skills to new challenges with every project. But really, aren’t we just repeating what we’ve gotten good at over and over?

If that's true, how can we communicate those skills to others? Being good at something usually means you’re busy doing it, but stopping and sitting down for a moment and figuring out the best way to share your expertise is an eye-opening experience. And sometimes, it leads to writing a dictionary.

We certainly didn’t plan on creating a dictionary (and probably wouldn’t have started if someone told us that’s what it would become), but engineering our process to become a repeatable operation forced us to inspect and evaluate an act that was on autopilot.

To turn a personal practice into a product, muscle memory had to be studied and explained. These reflective acts helped us better understand what we thought we had down pat. The job we got pretty decent at, and kept redoing each time from scratch, was the process of branding.

For the first step in this process, we use words as a tool. More specifically, we use adjectives to define the character of a brand before even starting with aesthetics. It’s a practice that firms bill big companies lots of money to perform and is used to establish nearly every brand in world. It’s a practice used to pull together large groups of dissimilar people and get them to rally around a shared point of view.

When defining the ‘who’ of a brand, our aim is to find the most appropriate, apt and honest descriptors in the form of a half-dozen positive adjectives. When we went to compile an exhaustive list of these, it turns out there aren’t as many positive adjectives in English language as you might think.

By going through all the adjective dictionaries and actor’s thesauruses, all the branding decks we could get our hands on, we gathered a pretty complete collection of all the appropriate words. There are around 800. Once we had this pool, we worked with a linguist to put the pool into buckets, organizing those 800 words into some 70-plus categories based on the most generic root word.

Like a thesaurus, this collection can be used to start broadly, and then dig deeper into descriptors. In the process, these nested sets generate an articulate and ownable set of adjectives that give a brand a distinct and valuable character.

Every time we took on a branding assignment, we would dig into the dictionary – back then in the form of a Google Doc. Having the adjectives centralized and accessible meant a week-long exercise now took a day. No longer did we have to start over each time or spend miles scrolling down We could create a new result for each client, with the ingredients within arms reach and the process prepped and ready to go whenever we needed it.

Once we realized the method worked, we wanted to share this niche practice with others outside of our organization. So we took the elegant and easy to use Google Doc and made it into another elegant and easy to use format: a printed dictionary.

Turns out there’s nothing elegant or easy about making a dictionary. But the resulting 500-page tome contains thousands of quotes to give context to the words, commissioned images to give the words a break and an inventive design that gives the book a unique presence (but also made it a total pain in the ass to print and bind).

We named it Brownie’s Guide to Expertly Defined Ideas. Like a dictionary defines words, it helps to define new products, services, businesses, movie scripts, book pitches, websites, music videos, advertising campaigns and any other concepts that need to be clearly explained before they can be realized.

Most of us bill for our time, so it might not seems like a profitable idea to take what you’re personally good at and figure out a way to automate it and share it.

But giving yourself a chance to reduce the amount of time you repeat yourself is a worthwhile effort. It can make you better at your thing, whatever your thing is, and free you up to try more new things.

And by finding a way to share what you’re good at with others, suddenly you go from being good at your job to creating ways for everyone else to be good at theirs.


This op-ed was originally featured on Next Practice, a Medium publication from Contagious about the future of creativity in marketing. Read more about Next Practice and how to share your thinking on Next Practice with us.