Revisiting inspirational quotes and speeches during these times? JFK’s “go to the moon” speech is a good one—especially the less-famous part of its most quoted sentence.
- An insightful presenter at a conference I attended a couple years ago drew my attention to this part of JFK’s speech.
Before I share my thoughts about an inspiring speech from 57 years ago, I’d like to thank all the medical professionals and caregivers who are on the front lines of this health crisis right now and truly inspiring us every day.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” — President John F. Kennedy, Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort, September 12, 1962
The first half of that quote gets printed onto motivational posters and placards, and is the oft-used sound bite in archival footage of President Kennedy, standing before a large crowd in Houston. I personally have always liked the second part, though. I interpret JFK’s words as stating that while the destination is putting a man on the moon, the journey to get there—to create, to innovate, to find bold solutions to new problems—is what will truly benefit the nation in the long term.
A few sentences later Kennedy inserts a mention of “winning,” and the fact that the U.S. did beat the U.S.S.R. to the moon in 1969 was a point of national pride. But the collaboration—the “meeting of the minds”—of the best entrepreneurs, experts, scientists and engineers led to a new era of technological advancements in health care, public safety, transportation, computing and more. And the journey that began with that speech still has not ended. To borrow another iconic quote from these events, the “giant leap for mankind.”
A thought for these times
I’m reminded of how we are now being forced to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills today, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While we as a nation did not “decide” to take this journey, and perhaps we were instead un-prepared in many ways, I think it’s important to remember that we as Americans and as humans are capable of re-inventing the world as we know it for the better.
Sometimes we are challenged to do so, like emerging mere decades after World War II with not only a powerful, greatest-nation-on-earth United States but also a rebuilt and productive Europe and Japan. Other times governments or entrepreneurs set a goal, like someday relying completely on autonomous vehicles to save time, lives and natural resources. I’ve been a skeptic of when and if a driverless society will happen, but I am very certain that the energies and skills involved in that quest have already led to safer vehicles today.
Now we face a new challenge, and this health and financial crisis may be the biggest we’ve seen as a nation and as a global community. On March 20, 2020 these events seem scarier than any world war or terrorist attack. We’re all looking for reassurance, and my article here can’t give you a whole lot of that. All I do offer to those who are reading this is a reminder that the United States has shown a great tendency for collaborating and innovating toward a long-term goal, with a complete acceptance that the journey to that goal will require a lot of hard work and heartache. Another passage just a bit later in Kennedy’s speech:
“We ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous, and dangerous, and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”
We need to control the spread of, treat, and find a vaccine for COVID-19, that is no doubt the goal. And we must organize the best of all our skills and energies for the journey toward that goal and beyond. We can find better ways to minimize and control viruses. We can discover effective new ways to travel, educate and work, even as we return to our old airports, schools and offices. We can re-invent logistics and the supply chain. We can improve how we care for our elderly and protect our children. These are unprecedented times that will require unprecedented vision and innovation, and these qualities are embedded in our nation’s DNA.
When social distancing ends, we can also end cultural and political distancing. We can emerge from this less divided, and more whole. The years since our last all-encompassing crisis in 2008 have also been among our most divisive culturally and politically. But now it’s time to re-examine our shared DNA, to re-discover who we really are—a nation built on one moon shot after another.
I recently heard Elexicon’s Creative Director Mike VerStrat cite the aphorism “knowledge is power” to distill the essence of how we add value for our clients. He pointed out that our work is fundamentally about helping our clients organize, optimize, and deliver knowledge for their customers.
The last part of that phrase got me thinking—something like “knowledge … is power … power … energy … knowledge is energy? We’re an energy company (but not that one).” YMMV, but that’s where my mind went. So.
The Energy Business
Energy companies are in the generation and transmission business. The same is true for Elexicon. You want the knowledge you’re developing, organizing, and delivering to act like a sort of energy, galvanizing your customers to make a purchase or set an appointment or otherwise use your product or service. We can help with that. We also deal in a kind of infrastructure maintenance to support both generation and transmission.
In the context of a website, content is electricity—it’s necessary for the site to run. And as in regular life, the source of the electricity matters. Is it cheaply produced but toxic in the long run like a spewing well of crude oil? Or is it carefully adapted to the need and sustainable like a wind turbine off a windy shore? Is the byproduct of its production going to pollute the surrounding air and blunt the cognition of its users? Or is it suited to the local topography and prevailing winds, enabling fresh air for smooth comprehension? Elexicon strives for the latter in both cases.
We could help a client get up and running with cheap fuel, but the long-term damage that can do to a brand is never worth it. We’d rather carefully sight out the project and craft an energy solution that is suited to the landscape.
The most important thing in this context is that the customer gets what they need and feels good about the source. Our content services, including strategy, writing, editing, and management, ensure you deliver clean energy to your customers regardless of medium.
Energy is no good to anybody if it’s not transmitted where it’s needed, when it’s needed. We understand that. We build delivery systems that get your knowledge where it needs to be, whether on a website, social media platform, trade show booth, or executive report—when it needs to be there.
We can redo your existing wires with a website overhaul or just update them to get up-to-speed with a rebrand. And if the need is an all-new hookup in the form of a spin-off brand or product launch, we’re there too. Whether the infrastructure already exists or needs to be built from scratch, our branding, strategy, design, development services can make sure your project connects.
The real life Grid is a hodgepodge network that requires constant upkeep to avoid a system-wide shutdown. It’s in desperate need of modernization. Elexicon’s energy production and delivery systems are held together with more than duct tape and chicken wire. We use modern frameworks that lay down a strong foundation, enabling simpler upkeep and reduced reliance on costly workarounds. And we work with reliable, stable hosts that help us avoid systemic risks analogous to power lines perilously close to tree branches. But if a tree branch falls on a line on a unusually windy day, we’re there to repair the line and restore service.
A bit of a sidenote while on this topic: in terms of real life energy used, we strive to ensure the work we do is lean and makes efficient use of the world’s energy while directing our customers to responsible hosts.
Reducing Energy Loss
Another feature of the real life energy grid is energy loss due to transmission over long distances and at various points from generation to point of service. For our purposes, this translates to anything that increases bounce rates, prevents user action, and, in most cases, reduces time on site. We work to avoid energy leeches in our work, working hard at optimization to enable your users to feed off the energy you produce, interacting with or reacting to it—even adding to it via social media or user-created content.
Power to the People
The phrase “knowledge is power” is a translation from the Latin “scientia potentia est,” where “potentia” is “power.” Without getting too deep into the muck trying to be cool with root words, it’s worth noting the connection to the English word “potential.” Knowledge begins as potential. We can help you make it more than that.
Whatever product or service you offer, you want to enable customers to do something. Like a real energy company, that’s our goal too. We enable you to empower your customers with the knowledge they need to accomplish their goals through your product or service.
What can we help you power?
A few years ago I decided that Elexicon needed to re-focus as an agency. I felt like we were drifting a bit, and lacking direction … and that started at the top, with me. Without going into much “inside baseball,” we spent some valuable time that summer of 2014 in weekly meetings where we discussed a range of different topics: Our history, my vision for starting the business, pinpointing what we’re really good at, and identifying what we might not be as good at. We looked at some of the classic wisdom and models for increasing effectiveness and productivity, such as Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits and the Eisenhower Matrix, along with devising some thought exercises of our own.
Another source of inspiration for our meetings was Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why, and his highly popular TED Talk of the same title. The book’s subtitle is “How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” and its premise is that leaders inspire by discovering and defining the “Why” of their team or organization’s work. Sinek wants us to focus on Why we do the work that we do, and make that the foundation of How we do our work and What we ultimately produce. Since the TED Talk was made way back in 2009, I’m sure many of you reading this have probably seen or heard of the “Start With Why” model and watched the talk. If not, I recommend this 20 minutes of viewing…
Now that everyone has at least seen the video, I will say that Start With Why isn’t a panacea or magic bullet. The “Golden Circle” does not apply to everyone and everything, but I do think it’s a valuable concept to consider and a worthy exercise to go through in most cases, as we do in many of our client strategy sessions.
So, I started to relate the Golden Circle concept to our work at Elexicon. From the start, it was very useful in helping me not only think about the “Why” I started the business in 1999, but also Why our team and I were passionate about our work 15 years later. The next question: Was the “Why” the same as it was in the beginning? For the most part, I thought so … which was reassuring: The firm I envisioned had become a reality — with the caveat that at that particular point in our history we were wavering from that original vision.
The D.N.A. of “Why”
Entrepreneurs start their business for a variety of different reasons, but their motivations usually involve: a.) Doing something they’re good at and passionate about; or b.) A great new idea for a product or service that they feel has a chance to get first-to-market. More often than not, the business vision is a mix of both. For me, it was mostly “a” with a little bit of “b.” My education and career path in the 90’s aligned well with a burgeoning new field called “web design.”
- I earned my degree in Technical Communication, with a specialization in Technical Illustration.
- My first job was with an agency called (appropriately) Technical Marketing, Inc., as a technical writer. I primarily wrote assembly instructions and user guides for office furniture.
My second job started out as a technical writer tole that expanded to also include graphic design, illustration, and U.I. design for a manufacturer of color quality control instruments and software called X-Rite. I wrote and designed guides to help their users understand the basics of color science (and how to use their products), helped design their software interfaces, and wrote software Help systems in HTML.
The next role in my career was marketing manger for a small software company, CCMS Inc., where I wore all of the above hats: Writer and designer of their technical and marketing communications; their print materials and their software Help systems.
Then … this software company needed a web site.
More building blocks
I loved working with all of these skills, especially when I was able to “multi-task:” When I was able to write, design and illustrate a manual for X-Rite, or write and program a Help system for CCMS. And the common thread through all of these projects was that I got to explain how things work with words and pictures, and organize all of this information with hierarchy and taxonomy, with typography and hyperlinks.
I quickly moved from learning how to build my employer’s web site to picking up freelance web site projects to deciding that I wanted to design as many web sites as possible. As I absorbed as much information as possible about how to create great web sites, I soon found my brethren in the vanguard of this burgeoning new industry: The information architects, the usability experts and user interface designers — professionals who blended technical savvy with written and visual creativity into “information expertise.”
The Information Architects
Richard Saul Wurman’s iconic “Information Architects” book defined a new discipline that had already existed when it was published in 1996, but didn’t have a name. But with this seminal work, boy did “I.A.” have an identity now, serendipitously arriving at the dawn of the World Wide Web when it could branch into a whole new frontier. Wurman profiles designers of print and environmental information systems, as well as interactive designers and their work in the adjoining years of the CD-ROM and Internet eras, such as Clement Mok and Nathan Shedroff. But there is no question that Wurman — previously a “traditional” architect by trade — is the godfather of the discipline himself. (Wurman would go on to found the TED conferences that continue to thrive today.)
The Usability Experts
Then there were the usability experts like Jakob Nielsen, who may be credited with single-handedly maintaining the sanity of the early World Wide Web. That’s a bit hyperbolic, but Nielsen should be recognized as the authority in bringing the best practices of software user interface design to the Internet — and for reminding web designers and developers to value the practice of simplicity. While browsers and devices have changed over the past 20+ years, his 10 Usability Heuristics still hold a “ten commandments” level of relevance in the world of U.I. design.
The Information Designers
A related discipline within the sphere of the Information Architecture and Usability is information design and data visualization. Wurman folded some examples of this work into his profiles of designers and communicators who are practicing Information Architecture, but the more recognized authority on this specific practice is Edward Tufte. Tufte’s equally iconic books’ titles say it all: Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations, Beautiful Evidence.
In these books, Tufte highlights what he considers to be extraordinary works of creating simple-to-understand visual representations of complex data and information. In his first book he identifies what he considers to be the “Citizen Kane” or “Sgt. Pepper’s” of genre: Charles Joseph Minard’s statistical graphic (created in 1861!) that tells the story of Napoleon’s march to Moscow by literally visualizing distance, direction, size and even temperature. (A poster of the Minard drawing has been proudly displayed on my office wall since before Elexicon was founded.)
When I studied these publications and their authors, I did not decide, “that’s what I want to do for a living.” The situation was rather the opposite: I already knew that being a visual communicator was what I wanted to do, and what I was becoming good at. Wurman’s “making the complex clear,” Nielsen’s “practice of simplicity,” Tufte’s “clear thinking made visual” — these men and their helped me identify the very best practices that I should follow when starting my interactive design agency.
(Quick story: When I sat down with my boss to tell him that I was resigning to start my own business, I explained my decision by showing him my Minard poster. I stated: “I want to start a business that does this,” assuming he’d understand that I wanted to create awesome visual design work that made complex data clear and easy to understand, and that I did not want to start a business to invade Russia.)
Leap taken. Agency named. Elexicon is born…
Everything comes together
Let’s fast-forward 15 years, and return to our work on the “Start With Why” explorations. We reflected on my personal professional history, and then focused on the agency’s work and found rather obviously that the agency’s original D.N.A. remained strong. Our clients, team members and projects continued to add “strands” to that D.N.A.: I would hire like minds, we would create an excellent infographic or build an elegant information architecture, and those deliverables and capabilities would lead to similar projects. Looking back at our body of work, we seemingly had remained on the path we started down. But what was that path exactly? How would I describe it? If it was indeed the same path, if we remained true to our D.N.A. for that decade and a half … that could define our “Why.”
Building our Golden Circle off Sinek’s examples, we (like probably everyone) started with the “Apple Why” that has prominence in the YouTube video:
Why: “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.”
How: “The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly.”
What: “We also happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?”
To Elexicon, “we believe in making the complex clear by practicing the art and science of simplicity” was our “we believe in challenging the status quo.” Inject that with our copy writing style that follows that very mantra and: We Make Things Clear.
Why: Everything we do, we strive to Make Things Clear. To clarify the complex by practicing the art and science of simplicity.
How: We do this by prioritizing visual strategic planning, information architecture, and human usability into all the work we do: Planning, writing, creating, designing, developing and marketing.
What: We create usable structures, clear content, simple designs and beautiful code for web sites and apps; user-friendly interfaces for software; and engaging experiences for marketing and technical communications, including as infographics, data visualizations, and explainer videos. And we simplify our process through thoughtful planning, project management, measurement, and analytics.
In the spirit of the Elexicon brand, we had some fun with our own “golden hexagon” below. All our engagements and projects have a Why, a How and a What, but we always start with “clearly, beautifully, thoughtfully…” Whatever work and deliverables come after that are driven by the goal of making things clear.
“Why” is product- and service-agnostic
Notice how interchangeable the “How” and the “What” are! We can swap out services and deliverables under the “Why” terms of Clearly and Beautifully and Thoughtfully, and the bullet points still work! As Sinek notes in the book and video, consumers will buy the next “thing” that Apple brings to market, not because of what it is, but because of Apple’s compelling and now-entrenched “Why.” His example there was, who would buy an MP3 player from Dell? Apple wasn’t just a computer company, but they were able to become a music and phone device company (among many other non-“computer” products) without anyone batting an eye.
Over the past 20 years, our core services and deliverables have remained similar, but they’ve gradually evolved as technologies have changed rapidly year after year. By always putting our “Why” front and center, we’ve been able to weather all those changes. We’ve never hung our hat on a specific type of creative deliverable, or specific development platform. Instead, we start with Making Things Clear and let that guide us toward the client’s goals, and the right strategies, tactics, deliverables and platforms. And Make Thing Clear has created a more natural and cohesive foundation for our agency culture.
What about you?
What passionate pursuit did you build your business around? What purpose have you instilled in your team that makes them jump out of bed in the morning and race into work? Some of you may know it for sure, and have your own “Why” statement. Others may just need to think about it a little more. In any case, Elexicon is an agency that can help you bring your “Why” (and your How and your What) to life through creative and digital communications.
You’ve heard the old adage, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s the “How” (the hammer) and “What” (the nail) taking the lead. Starting with your “Why” opens up the toolbox to more possibilities. Clients and teams don’t want to work with a “hammer and nail” company. Customers, employees and consumers are looking for a little sense of what you believe in, and maybe they can believe in it too.
If our particular brand of agency focus above fits with how you would like to differentiate and promote your products and services, connect with us.
Because I’m the Astronomy Guy at Elexicon, I’m once again going to use my work as an excuse to post about Space.
Here’s a breathtaking photo of the Orion Nebula.
This image of the Orion Nebula is one of the largest and deepest ever taken. It was done using the HAWK-1 infrared camera attached to the Very Large Telescope in Chile, an 8.2 meter telescope that can see celestial objects in extraordinary detail. This image is not exactly what was released by the European Southern Observatory originally; the observations were remastered by astrophotographer Robert Gendler to bring out more detail and to really shine a light (so to speak) on the phenomenal beauty of this immense stellar nursery.
There’s some important science lurking in this image, but there’s something I want to point out first. The glowing part of the nebula is actually just a small part of a much larger complex called the Orion Molecular Cloud. It’s a dense, cold cloud of gas and dust, invisible to the eye, and stars are forming in it. A clutch of stars happened to form near the edge of the cloud, and once they switched on after birth their intense radiation began carving enormous cavities in the gas, chewing away at the material in the cloud.
Because they’re near the edge, they eventually ate a hole on the side of the cloud. In a sense they popped the bubble, blowing out the cloud at their location, which happened to be on the side of the cloud facing us. When we look at the Orion Nebula, we’re actually seeing a dimple or divot scooped out of the denser material. The lower density and much hotter gas filling that dimple glows brilliantly, creating the nebula we see.
This image actually shows that extremely well. Redder material is denser, and the blue glow suffusing the nebula is lower density, hotter gas, tracing the shape of the cavity. It’s an extraordinary glimpse literally inside the nebula.
In other words, you’re looking at a star factory. This video from the Science Channel explains what goes on inside that factory:
The TL;DR version: when gravity clumps enough material together, pressure can build to a point that the atoms of that material fuse together. Those atoms then release their energy in a chain reaction that ignites as a star. A star is a perpetual series of nuclear explosions balanced by the contracting force of gravity—until the fuel runs out.
How star formation relates to content strategy
We sometimes see attempts to trigger website ignition by throwing all available website-y material together in one collection of web pages. Unfortunately in those cases, physics isn’t taking over just because staff bios, a company history, and excerpts from brochures about products or services are gathered together.
Without strategic planning and intentional organization of content, you can end up with a loose mess of material adrift in a nondescript corner of the universe—er, the internet.
Here’s the thing: those clouds of dust in the photo above are the same material that ignited to become stars. The clouds are reflecting light from nearby stars or radiating heat from those stars as light—they’re not giving off their own light.
A website that is similarly just a loose association of website-y stuff is also defined in contrast to other, ignited websites using similar material—competitors. And it won’t look as good as a cloud of space dust backlit by stars.
This applies at the page level, too. For example, efforts to make the homepage ignite can lead to unusable clutter that drives visitors away or leaves them with an unclear path to what they need. You don’t want a page like that standing in contrast to the ignited homepage of a competitor.
The lesson: you won’t get ignition with your website without some intentional arrangement of the material. You want the web equivalent of the atomic fusion that ignites a star.
But also remember: once you have ignition, you won’t have the balanced forces of chain reactions and gravity holding it together. You need a plan in place to keep the fires going.
We can help with that
Elexicon’s content strategy services can help you figure out what you have and what you need, as well as how it all should be arranged to achieve a stable, lasting ignition. Together with our design and development services, we can help you achieve a clear, usable, and human-centered experience for your users.
Your website can shine on its own. And, hopefully, outshine the rest of the stars.
As founder of Elexicon, one of the most frequent questions I get is “where did you come up with the name?” Sometimes they follow up with … “It’s cool!” — so these folks just answered their own question: It popped into my head, and I thought it was cool! 🙂
But what made it “just come to me?” Well, it was 1998 (cue flashback visuals and sound effects), and I started a business to follow new opportunities in the web site design and development space. I also wanted to remain focused on my background and ongoing freelance services in technical communication, information architecture, user interface, and marketing communications (all these things converged nicely into web design, of course). All things Internet and dot-com those days had an “e-” attached to their name, so I started the classic scratch-pad exercise: “E-Communication”? “E-Userinterface”? “E-Infoarchitecture”? Nah … but the word “Lexicon:” now we’re getting somewhere. A Lexicon — a unique language and vocabulary — brings meaning, understanding, and purpose to a branch of knowledge, a culture, a sport, a brand. In our new business, we’d master the “E-lexicon:” the lexicon of interactive communication and digital interfaces. Perfect! It’s all one word, capital E, no hyphen: Elexicon.
Even in those early days, domain names for businesses were getting snatched up left and right, so my hands were shaking when I secured elexicon on Network Solutions. As a purist, I take not a small amount of pride in having “elexicon.com,” not “ElexiconTeam.com” or “ElexiconUSA.com.”
So next time we see each other (hopefully soon!), you’ll have that answer and we can get to whatever other questions you may have!