Shannon DeJong is a hummingbird and a drill
Shannon DeJong is the CEO of House of Who, an art house and agency based in Oakland, California, whose clients include Google, among others. Outside of her naming expertise, Shannon is an artist, speaker, and podcast host: she hosts ArtistCEO, where she uses her story to talk about how business and art can work together. Shannon's also worked at Salt, an independent branding agency in San Francisco. She's worked at Logitech, and also HP, where she was global naming manager.
Toward the end of my conversation with Shannon, she describes what she was like as a kid: "a very mercurial, precocious little thing...[that] would bounce around and just talk and talk and talk" [27:16] You can still hear that kid come through in the enthusiasm and energy she brings to this episode.
We kicked things off talking about her approach to name generation, in which Shannon starts out as a hummingbird, flitting from idea to idea. Later on, she turns into a drill, when she's more thorough and exhaustive. In the hummingbird phase, Shannon's quick to get out of her chair and go outside, sometimes driving for miles to find the right setting for creative inspiration.
Shannon lists some tools* she uses, such as:
- A dictionary (ideally the Oxford English Dictionary)
- Dictionary.com ("not the best dictionary...[but] often it gives me that base of synonyms that I start from")
- Online Etymology Dictionary
- Google Images
We also talked about how to get past writer's block, for which Shannon shared the "Stupid Rule" and the "10-minute Rule" [15:24]. Lastly, Shannon gave her perspective on "brand truth" [21:20], and says the reason she loves being a namer is that "for just these few hours, I get to create an entire world" [26:26]. Below, you'll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors). Click above to listen to the episode, and subscribe on iTunes to hear every episode of How Brands Are Built.
* To see a complete list of online resources listed by namers in episodes of How Brands Are Built, see our Useful List: Online/software resources used by professional namers.
Rob: Shannon, thanks for taking the time to chat.
Shannon: My pleasure. Good to be here.
Rob: Let's zero in on name generation. So, you get a naming brief, you sit down to start generating names. Walk me through what you do next.
Shannon: Well, I am a bit of a hummingbird when it comes to creative. The very first thing I do is just read and absorb and listen, letting it kind of sink in, because sometimes it's the stuff that I wouldn't hear on first blush or the nuance of what the client is saying or not saying that ends up proving to be a really fruitful area. You know if someone's like, "Here's the brief; we want it to be about connectivity and speed," you're like, "All right, network, hive, bee, prism, nexus, fast, cheetah pounce, run, paw." Y'know, it's like, that's great. And, once that has run out, the place that's gonna be sweet, where it's going to be truly helpful to the client and where the client could not maybe have gone on their own, is to think about the subtlety of what they're asking for and the subtlety of what the right answer could be. Especially now with the world—everything, brands, naming, trademarks—being so cluttered, it's really about these little teeny slivers of space, whether it's creative space, strategic space, where there's going to be something truthful and effective and clear. So, I like to just do a lot of receptive work first, especially because naming is such a generative, productive act.
Rob: So, talk to me a little bit more about interrogating the brief. Is there anything you can point to that that works?
Shannon: Yeah, I mean, I guess broadly I just want to ask every question until I have no questions left and I'm sitting there on the call or looking at the brief going, "Ok, Ok, I guess there's nothing left to do but start naming." Like, if I have any question at all in my head, even if it's a playful one or a curious one, like, "Hey this maybe doesn't have anything to do with naming, but how did this company start?" And then I think, practically, I will interrogate a brief or dissect it by just making sure the strategy is watertight. You know, the number one factor for success in any naming project is the strategy. It's always about making sure that you're clear what the ask is and what this name is going to do for you. So, I will always look a brief through and through and just know that there are those different pieces that I know need to be covered. I have to be very clear on what the brand—the master brand or the product brand—is about, the positioning must be ultra-clear. One thing that I find really helpful is coming back to the simplicity of this particular exercise, which is just a small part of branding writ large. It's a very important part. It's an essential part. But just reminding everyone, hey this is a name. There's a lot of other things that the brand is going to be. What do you need the name to do?
Rob: Well let's talk about a hypothetical. I don't know how often this really happens, but let's pretend that you've been given a perfect brief. Where do you start, any process or steps that you follow consistently?
Shannon: Oh yeah. Now the fun begins. I think my number one thing that I always do—so I mentioned I'm a bit of a hummingbird and then other times I act like a drill...
Rob: And explain what you mean by those two metaphors just so that I'm clear.
Shannon: Yeah, sure. As a hummingbird I like to give myself permission to...so creatively, I think I need to be able to flit from idea to idea. So, when I first sit down, I really like to give myself a ton of freedom, even though later on I will be more thorough and more exacting and I will make sure that I've covered my bases, and what am I missing, and where can I mine? And that's when the drilling comes in. The initial phase for me is always one of freedom and following the thread wherever it goes. It's organic, it's potentially disorganized. It's kind of like a little kid with a bunch of sugar who just wants to like, run around like, "Oh ooh, what's this over here? Oh, look at that! Oh, look it's a kitten. Oh, Mommy, can I have another..." You know, it's like I let myself do that because I know that that's where a lot of the creative wisdom is. And at the very least, even if that initial flush of naming doesn't produce names that are going to be viable, because like I said, the way the brain works you're going to have to be recycling and going over lots of synonyms and things that maybe aren't the quote unquote "diamond in the rough," that's where you get the volume. That's where you get the quantity, at least for me. I should say, I get the quantity and the volume and the breadth and inspiration and the curiosity, so I can cover a lot of ground if I just let my mind flit from beautiful little idea to beautiful little idea.
Rob: And just to be clear, how are you, in practical terms, how are you working at this point? Are you often on a whiteboard or working with Post-It Notes or are you in software of some sort?
Shannon: Great question. I would say that, well, first of all, I would say even my method is a little hummingbird-like in I also follow wherever the impulse is in terms of how to work. So, in the first several hours I really do just follow however I want to work. I start totally on impulse. It's like, have I been sitting at my computer all day and I'm just now getting to it? Well, opening up an Excel spreadsheet, while it can be very helpful later on with organizing, right now is going to just kill my creative mojo. So, why don't I grab a pen and paper and my running shoes and walk outside and go for a walk? I mean, I have even driven before an hour away to a beautiful setting. Especially when it's a particular kind of project and I need you know more tranquil, kind of open, expansive ideas and given myself physical space and physical beauty in order to start unleashing. Other times, I work a lot in just good old Word or good old Google Docs or a text doc. Increasingly now, I have, when I have a limited amount of time, I actually will start in Excel because anytime you take your pen and paper and you go out into nature, it takes longer. But I would say that I love starting with pen and paper. That's always a great way to start because you know that no matter what you're going to be ending up back at a machine.
Rob: And I'm just curious, when you when you do wander off into nature with a pad, you don't you don't have Wi-Fi access when you're doing this?
Shannon: Correct. Yeah, absolutely. That's part of the genius, I think, is that, to totally disconnect. I'd like to give myself a chance to see what I can do without any influence. I guess I should say without any digital influence. Because I think once I start getting into using—and there are a lot of great tools out there and they're absolutely essential, you know dictionaries and thesauruses and I think there's something called OneLook, and Wordnik, and Wikipedia, not even for words but just for ideas and how are certain concepts related to other concepts. These are all great. And for me that's more like middle process or it or toward end of the generation process when I'm starting to slow down a little bit from my raw creative fire. I think the best stuff has come from when I'm actually just sitting back a bit. And sometimes I physically do this. I sit back from the computer, I sit back from my desk, maybe I don't even have a pen and paper and I just... It's kind of that like shower moment, that lightbulb moment of, "Hold on, hold on, let me take a break from trying to generate 20 words a second and just go back to that initial listening and thinking. It's a very important step because sometimes I have had that moment and it's like, "Oh, that's the name." Like you just had this moment you're like, "That's it. Yes!" And you know that it's probably not it.
Rob: Or it's not available.
Shannon: Or it's not available. Yeah, usually that's the next thought. I think I need to have a feeling of, oh, I've had several moments like that, where I just go, "Yes, oh yes!".
Rob: You've brought up timing. How do naming projects go for you from a timing standpoint and what's the ideal? Is it to have a huge block of time in front of you or do you like to work in little sprints?
Shannon: Well, the ideal timeline is one that is two weeks for creative work where I have the opportunity to try out a lot of different modes. No matter what, at some point, I need to have a long block of time and that long block of time is always relative to the timeline and size of the project. So, if it's a quick little name list that I'm helping another agency with a long block of time might be two-to-four hours. I mean, that might feel like a good amount of time to sink in. I do feel like the minimum amount of time total is four hours. Like, I feel like it's after the four hours is when you can really get to some good stuff. And then you do hit a wall and you're like, "Ok, I need to refresh."
Rob: Let's talk about tools. You mentioned a few but I'd love to just get a list from you, if you have it off the top of your head, of online or offline tools that you like to have handy for every project or maybe there are some that you find you only use once in a blue moon.
Shannon: Sure, yeah. I have to admit, while I'm always on the search for new tools, I kind of I kind of feel a little boring or old school because as of yet I haven't found a tool that's better than my brain. But, with that said, I definitely use various dictionaries. So, I might have a dictionary here, whether that's a Webster's, ideally you have a full, original OED and you can open up and look through etymologies, but I do not have one of those. I do use, I think it's called OEDonline or Etymology.com [Online Etymology Dictionary, I believe. OneLook. Just, really Dictionary.com. It's not the best dictionary and often weeding through all of the ads and crossword puzzles and whatever I find very distracting, but it works as a tool because often it gives me that base of synonyms that I start from. Like ok, here is "fast," and dictionary.com or synonym.com, they're going to give me a definition and like top-10 synonyms. And then those synonyms, I, using my brain, or my other favorite naming tool, which is just Google, then get inspired to take that synonym and try and find what I call related or extended conceptual synonyms to go from. I also just use Google and the way I use it is I will start, embarrassingly, by just taking words in the brief or in the pathways and just typing them in. Like hey, let's just start. What does the Google brain and what does the world and what does the internet...how do they relate to this word or this pathway that I need to explore? Then I go into, I use a lot just Images, Google Images, and I'll type in various words, whether it's from the brief or even words that I have found that capture some kind of essence, even if it's not the right word. I'll write that into Google Images and then I'll get a visual palette or visual collage of more things that stimulate more thought.
Rob: That's a great idea. I love the Google Images idea just to break yourself out of...I mean frankly, you're looking at words a lot when you're doing gaming so it's even just a nice break for the eyes. Is there anything particular that you've found works well for writer's block, so to speak?
Shannon: I want to think carefully before I say this because I might jinx myself. I was going to say I don't experience writer's block very often. Maybe more than writer's block, I just get constricted and rigid and I get too narrow in my thinking and it just gets dry. So, I think that's probably my version of it. It's not a full block. But it just sort of is there's no juice anymore. And what I always do then is the Stupid Rule and the 10-minute Rule. The Stupid Rule—I just made these up right now, can you tell I'm a namer? The Stupid Rule is that I have to write down things that are stupid. Like alright, alright, now I want the next ten names, fifty names, to be totally stupid. Like you would never name this that. You would never even show it to the client. You'd be embarrassed to do it, you know?
Rob: And the Stupid Rule—I love the name—when you do that...so, I guess it's sometimes it tells you, "Ok, I'm done, because I did this and I feel like I've gotten everything out of my system," essentially? And then other times does it, it spurs another wave?
Shannon: Well, I don't think that just feeling like I'm out of ideas is the right feeling for telling me that it's time to stop. Usually that tells me that it's coming up on that first wave or a dry spot and I have to push through it. The 10-minute Rule—to finish up that thought—is just do anything for 10 minutes. If you want to stop after that, ok, then maybe it's not the right time to do it, but most likely you'll get into flow and you'll be on the treadmill and it will just, fwip! And off you go. I think it's absolutely that way with creativity. I mean anything, right, it's "I don't want to do it, I don't want to do it, I don't do it. Ok, 10 minutes, 10 minutes, 10 minutes—oh, this is fun."
Rob: So, in that example what are you doing? What are you doing for 10 minutes? I just want to understand, are you doing something naming related for 10 minutes?
Shannon: That's it. And maybe you only get 10 minutes of naming right now and then do something else and come back to it. If I'm really feeling blocked or I don't like it I'll just say, "Ok, 10 more minutes. Just do 10 more minutes." You know, I've even done that to myself three times in a row, like "Uggh, I don't want to." "Ok. Hey, hey, how about another 10 minutes?
Rob: Making deals with yourself.
Rob: Are there any specific name ideas or naming tropes you know like the "-ly" on the end of all these startup names—is there anything in particular that you're sick of seeing or that you've identified as a trend that you try to steer clear of?
Shannon: Well, it's a trend that isn't my favorite but I'm not yet able to steer clear of it because it's so pervasive, but I must say the verbable name is lovely in theory and there's nothing overtly obnoxious about it. But here's what I don't like: I don't like it because people ask for it just because they think that that's going to be a successful name, and I hate to be a broken record but I want to go back to this idea of, "Yeah, but does it make sense strategically?" And I have gotten a lot of that like, "We want it to be one syllable, real word, ideally verbable," which is nice but there's going to be tradeoffs.
Rob: To what extent do you think verbability is a real thing, though? Because "Google" is a noun, right? I mean, if anything.
Shannon: You know what, Rob, thank you! So is Apple. So is...Uber is an adjective. This is what's so funny, is that I look around I'm like, "How many names are actually..." and people are like, "You know, like Twitter." I'm like, Twitter is not...you don't "Twitter" something. You Tweet it. And I don't know, honestly, if that came from Twitter, the company, the brand itself. But I don't think so. I don't even think that they created their own language. That was done by people. That's the thing, people will do that. This is the nature of language. This is my background: linguistics. I started as a linguist and I love language and the beauty of language. This is why I'm not a prescriptive but a descriptive linguist, which just means languages is alive. Language is organic. And it will extend and bend and twist itself as memes, as trends, as tropes from person to person in this way that is beyond any one individual or brand.
Rob: I absolutely agree with you. I think what I hear you saying is that it's not necessarily our decision as the people behind the brand as to whether or not people end up using it as a verb. That's their decision, and one that they'll likely make subconsciously. But then, on top of that, I also think that brands need to be really careful about trying to impose that type of prescriptive language on to consumers or onto their customers because it—aside from it potentially not working—it could also just really backfire in terms of making them look silly. You talk about "brand truth" a lot. I think I saw it on the House of Who website and I believe you give talks about it as well. Can you just explain what brand truth is and how it relates to naming?
Shannon: Brand truth is the very simple idea that one, you don't have to be fake in order to succeed. And two, your truth is going to be your most valuable asset. I think that the branding industry and the marketing industry is often known for putting layers on and making things shiny and beautiful and glossy, and there is a time and a place for that. I'm most interested in peeling the layers back and getting to the heart of what is essential. And if you are a business and a brand, there's something truthful about your product, your offering, your culture, and the essence of who you are, and that is going to be your sweet spot. I think that that actually ends up being—especially now with the way the world is going—people want realness. People want to be able to connect with a brand and its truth, in all of its glory, wants it to be whole. And I think in terms of naming it drills down the value of essential information. You get one word, one name, to communicate who you are and hopefully you have a bunch of other brand assets that go along with it. But sometimes you don't, and it's one word that may appear in print, it may be verbal, it may be someone just passing on the street. And I think, in that one name, there should be something really essential about who you are and it should be real. Also, just in terms of the process of naming, we're talking very tactical, you don't have to go to all these fancy bells and whistles and naming trends and what's going to be cool in five years and what's most searchable. All of those things are important to consider because they're realities. But I think in the process of naming, what's most important is to think of something really clear and clean and concise. And I would call that "truthful." We recently worked on Google Home Mini, and that's not a sexy name, necessarily. It's not like, "Oh god, that's so fun, and you just say it and it's like an inside joke, and it's cool, and it's hip." But it's pretty simple and it just makes sense. And it's at the heart of what the thing is. It's a small, cute version of Google Home, and there you have it. So, I kind of feel like people often try too hard when they don't have to. There doesn't have to be anxiety, you don't have to worry like, "Oh god, we have to be super creative, or edgy, or unique, or differentiated." Yeah, those things, sure. That's where your strategy comes in. But when it gets down to naming, I say start with the truth.
Rob: Yeah, I often find myself reminding clients that no one will ever think as hard about this name as we're about to do. And try to relieve a little of that pressure and temptation to overthink it.
Shannon: I often say to people my secret as a namer is that naming is the most important thing you will ever do for your business, and...it doesn't matter. At some point, get as close as you can and do the best you can, but as long as you—again—as long as you're on strategy and you're communicating what you need to communicate, you're fine.
Rob: Well I love that Google Home Mini name. I think it's a good example of a name that's great but you don't realize it is. And the reason for that is, or the way to realize how great it is, is to think of what they could have called it. To think of all the things they might have done and some of the atrocities that other companies have waged upon us with more fanciful attempts to convey what is ultimately a pretty simple message.
Shannon: I think when I was younger and new at naming, for a long while I was like, "Oh, I want to get that that perfect name. I want to have on my resume...like I want to have named Twitter!" I want to get something that people hear and they're like, "Oh my god, that's such an amazing name!" and I'd be like, "Yeah, thanks." And at this point I really let that go and I realize that it's far more satisfying to just get a name that's right and just makes sense. And if I never get associated with it, great. And if it does its job, great.
Rob: Last question: What is your favorite thing about naming or generating names?
Shannon: Oh gosh, I think that it's a little moment to play God. It's like, for just these few hours I get to create an entire world. I mean maybe it's like—I don't have children, and so maybe it's getting to name all of these potential little babies that will grow up and go out into the world, and there's sort of like a maternal pride about giving my creative oomph to something that will live on past me. I think that's part of it. And I think the other part is it satisfies this, like I said, the hummingbird in me. When I was a kid I was a very mercurial, precocious little thing. I was super teeny with shock-white hair and I would bounce around and just talk and talk and talk, and I think at some point, people were just like, "Ok, thank you for the 15 cartwheels and the story about rainbows. But it's time to be quiet now." And I think that energy, that childlike enthusiasm for language and ideas, gets to play when I'm naming and then it gets to saddle up next to, and ride along with, the other part of my brain which then wants to make it all make sense and put it all into a structure and find a place for it in the world.
Rob: Shannon, thanks so much for making the time to chat.
Shannon: Thank you. This was a lot of fun.