Triangulation™

When freelancers grow up, certain things tend to happen. A website goes live. A printer is installed. And the individual tasks that add up to a specialty get inventively named, capitalized, and labeled proprietary. But when this new taxonomy doesn’t reflect original vision, it’s just an expensive menu to flash at willing clients.

I may name things for a living, but I’m not in a rush to name all the steps in my process. My plan is not to design a list of proprietary techniques, but rather to keep doing the work and to note the methods so useful and so unique they call out for a name. The first such practice I want 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 left-brain brief with some unexpected, evocative left-brain 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 message tone 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.

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 just as nimbly as it does to a conversation. It is a thought-freeing exercise, flexible because it can be applied across very different competitive and cultural paradigms. Relevant names can include not just the competition and sister brands in a client’s portfolio, but also 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 business at hand.

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 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—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.