When freelancers grow up, certain things tend to happen. A website goes live. A printer is installed. And the individual tasks that comprise a professional specialty get inventively named, capitalized and adorned with the trademark symbol. But when this new taxonomy doesn’t reflect experience or transmit knowledge, it can seem as though it’s just an expensive menu to flash at client briefings

I may name things for a living, but I haven’t been in a rush to create titles for the things that I do. My plan is not to invent my proprietary methods but to allow them to emerge, examples and names and all. The first such method that I’m compelled to describe is fittingly most useful during the inception of a naming or branding project, and its goal is to augment (or in rare cases replace) the typically logical brief with unexpected and evocative shortcuts to the endgame.

Triangulation™ takes its name from the classic geometric technique used in geographic surveying by which an unknown position can be derived from what is known about existing locations and their spatial relationships to the missing data point. Applied to naming, Triangulation™ denotes a process of selecting those existing brand names (within the relevant and broad realm of adjacent categories) that will serve as inspiring reference points for the new name. The key question: Which three or four or five names that already exist in the broad category you plan on entering capture the essence of what they denote with the lexical dexterity and type of message you’re after? The axiom: There exist names that are equally similar to and different from the name we are looking for and it is these names that we want to both belong among and distinguish ourselves against. The other axiom: The best brand names aren’t so much invented as found.

Moerenuma Koen in Hokkaido, Japan, designed by Isamu Noguchi. Photograph by Natalia Osiatynska, 2009.

As an information-gathering technique Triangulation™ can work both when one person contributes an answer and when twenty do. It adapts to a workshop exercise or an e-mail interview as well as it does to a conversation. It is a thought-freeing exercise, flexible because it can be applied across such different competitive and cultural paradigms. Relevant names can include not just the competition and sister brands in a client’s portfolio, but also the names that might wind up appearing alongside the new name in various everyday settings, or ones that simply feel overwhelmingly pertinent to the target audience or the client’s business.

The application of this method to my work follows the somewhat heretic observation that a brief isn’t always the motivating medium it aspires to be, especially when it is a seemingly airtight brief that isn’t giving rise to any viable solutions. Sometimes verbalizing strategic assumptions appears to block the creative mind instead of opening it, much like the way witnesses to crimes are reported less able to recognize a face if they have made a previous attempt to describe it using words. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a flawless brief (and highly recommend what pre-eminent Oakland-based naming expert Nancy Friedman has to say on the subject). I’ve merely learned that sometimes you need to take your brief, flawless or flawed, and fold it up into a paper airplane so you can try something different.

That’s really it, distilled: Triangulation™ is the brief that is completely different.