Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Art of Naming

A Simple Method for Intelligently Naming and Creating Names

What’s in a name?

Some might say not much is in a name. But then they would not be looking at the reality of human behavior. A name can set potentials, or play with pre-perceived thoughts, or mislead. A name can bring people in, or scare them away. So if you want to draw people in you have one parameter already set.

How to draw in people can vary infinitely.   How you draw them in can also potentiate a good experience or drive them away after one look. People do not like being fooled, unless it is fun, funny like a punch line for a joke. If you are looking for website “hits” for example and you have no socially responsible boundaries, you can misrepresent, much like spam advertisers commonly do, but your returning patron numbers will fall steeply due to such disregard for others. They won’t come back if they didn't find what your name implied. So if you want to have a destination that people come back too more and more, you have to craft carefully so while they might initially be intrigued, will be pleasantly pleased and want to remember, purchase, sign up and otherwise return often to a place they enjoy. But its not as easy as just tricking someone to take the bait. Especially you want to help them trust you and want more of what you are sharing.

Bring them in to Keep them

Evoking a human response is easy, with the use of tools and methods that can elicit curiosity, titillation, emotional or a purely intellectual interest. We can also be creative and clever and use associative ideas to generate fun responses. We see how news, and the advertising industry and the like will often have no real ethical limits. “If it bleeds, it leads” being one standard commonly heard method for driving public interests. It’s true, that works, but at the expense of an eventual mistrust.

In the early years of advertising before being outlawed, subliminal methods were used. A frame of a movie at 1/30th of a second with an image of popcorn or a fizzy iced drink was shown to generate greater sales of condiments at theaters when added to a movie. People saw it, but it was moving faster than their perceptive attention. All of a sudden they would be thinking of something they thought was their own idea. Like Pavlov's Dog, (early experiments with suggestive influence that evokes a response) they would feel a bit hungry or thirsty and head for the snack bar. More sophisticated ideas using very subtle retouches of photos of liquor in wet glasses and bottles used for ads in glossy magazines with things like hidden skulls, and words like “sex”, “death” and other basic emotion evoking imagery embedded in the complex visual structures of ice and liquid. Sex and Death for example generally evokes very primal emotional response.  Fear and surprise are also used for the same reason. I wont go in the the deeper psychology of this, but it was very carefully thought out. Editing for a movie preview is also a careful art. Showing enough of the excitement, or the movie star or starlet to spur curiosity or a partial scene that sets an unresolved situation. Or just images to elicit curiosity, but it runs the gamut what you can do to get people to pay attention and buy, go to, or otherwise want what you are selling.

It's an Art

Many believe they might be uncreative in their naming skills, usually those with little understanding of the art. Yes, it’s an art. Naming anything can be as simple as saying what it is in common language. Yet that can not only be too simplistic and make what you are naming invisible to the market landscape, but also placing you in a category of the non interesting. But, with a creative angle, even that could work, and there are many examples. It is not always “what” you say, but also in “how” you say it. Again, creativity is the main ingredient here and we all have it. Even those who think they don't.

Many Names, Many Places

With so many different ideas and ways of naming things, it would take a series of books to outline all the possible methods by which you can name a product, a website, a business or a new kitty for that matter. But even that would be a flea on an elephants back of ideas. So I will isolate some methods to naming that are simple and general. Remembering that every type of thing you name has an ecosystem of characteristics you need to also consider. For instance, naming a new soap will have a different market and culture than naming a food product or a Web Portal.  Always consider the medium your name will be in. Web, book, product, service or whatever. It matters. Study the landscape to navigate ideas.

For some, and maybe many folks, the name  just “comes” to them. Either by a thought an accident, an intuitive source, a dream, or just something in a favorite subject they have always thought about and already have a sense of.  If you are looking for a name for a business you have been skilled at for years, you have many ideas already, being familiar with the culture and genera of it. These ideas you might already have should be the names you consider first, because they are born from your own personal creative nature, or your own personality, and such can therefore distinguish your own unique identity to others. Those are the good and unique ideas that might help you stand out in a large competitive market.

Objective Input

Ask friends to help too. Sourcing ideas from your audience is the best way to get the initial ideas. Then, sourcing from the outside of that market too. That can bring words you don’t readily think of, wrong associations or even a great word you would have never thought of from an isolated cultural context. These can afford some excellent candidates. Grouping your words into simple categorical classes for “parts” of a title can work too. Remember that each person you harvest words, names or ideas from has a potential creative ability that can help you. They might even come up with the perfect name!


Keep in mind that there are no limits in a creative process. Everything that you or others think of, or things that happen by accident or happenstance are part of the potential. Creativity is also a recognition of fundamental laws of probability and uncertainty.  Werner Karl Heisenberg  a German theoretical physicist  made foundational contributions to quantum mechanics and is best known for asserting the “uncertainty principle” of quantum theory. Uncertainty, according to this theory is a condition of reality. But it also implies that there is an infinite potential too. In other words, all things and any outcome is possible. It might not be probable, but it's not completely impossible. Creativity is then a tool to develop for every day use. Your name idea might be better than a Madison Avenue agency full of thinkers could do. It's possible! With this in mind you can see that the perfect name is not beyond your ability to find. But sometimes you will have to  go outside the lines to find it. Accidents are opportunities too. Try something slightly crazy, or make use of little accidents You just might need to stumble upon that great idea. A method I use can narrow down some of the decidedly unlimited variables. To stumble intelligently, you need to set the stage for things to stumble on. That's easy to do too. Ill tell you about that after a word from our sponsor. General Awareness.

Bigger Picture

It is important to note at this time that you have to know how you want your name, product or service to be seen. Consider what the logo might look like or what the tag line might say too. Identity Design is an expensive service that large companies pay thousands, and even millions of dollars to have their names and logos created for them. The agencies and public relations companies, who they hire, have rooms full of creative writers and artists iterating for weeks or months for them, and at great cost. They go through demographics of markets, focus groups, ad tracking and even “hit records”  for internet meta terms. How can we compete with that? Because we know we can find what we need with our own creative abilities. They don't have anything you don't have. They are just more practiced. You can do some of the same things they can with some simple methods and planning.

How exactly?

So, here is a simple method to start the process.

There are thousands of words you might find related to what you want to find.  They might just be in a big cloud in your head, and with no way to see them all. So first, make a list of all the words that you can think of. Even initial names and ideas you have thrown aside. The words might in themselves not be right, but this matters not. Put them on the list.

I make vertical columns that I can draw lines between or otherwise see each word individually. If you are so inclined, you can create categorical columns, like say STANDARD, FUNNY, STRANGE or whatever. It’s important you decide how to name the columns too, because this is about “your” naming. You can add a column for suggestions from others, or go to a thesaurus to add words to a column that might be other words for the same words you are already considering. There are many free Thesaurus websites for making fast lists.  Everything is good source material. Even similar products or sites. Sometimes it’s what they don’t say too. Search them all. If you have not found what you need yet, go through dictionaries and random trade magazines for the type of thing you are naming.

An Open Mind is a terrible thing to Chaste

Once you have your list of words, start combining them. Through this whole process you might have stumbled on the name already. That works too of course. There are no real rules. The process is the core of the method here. You are collecting possibilities. One word in itself might be completely misleading, but combined with another word can make for a great twist or a funny appropriate association you like. Anything can happen. Have an open mind and be as objective as you can. Consider how your friends, your boss, a child, your old aunt will see and associate it. It's not just how you want to be seen, but how others will see you that can be important. For a product or web destination you want as many as possible to see or purchase from you as possible, so you might want to be clever, but not alienate anyone in the process. Make it PG rated with a smart or clever twist that says something about what you are offering. They will remember that.

Case Study

Let’s say you want to make a website for Space Imagery.  Photos, art, animations or whatever. It’s not just photos from NASA or other science institutional sources, but also images from artists, photographers, videographers and designers, even comics or anything at all “Space”. It’s a tall order, but also a fun challenge. First pick some categories. I added a few hereKeep building your list too! 

What words might you add? What combinations or ideas can you already see?

Keep adding more ideas and words to the list if you 're not having luck. On a separate notepad combine them with other new ideas. Eventually you will hit the right word or combination of words to make the perfect name. You will likely find several ideas to consider. They sound good, but you have to let them simmer and think about them for a while. Show your ideas to others to watch their reactions and plan to have a tough hide, but be objective. The perfect name might be one that only "you" like, or, something everyone likes. Just remember to think and imagine how it is seen by others, how you want it to be seen, and how people will possibly react to your new name idea. Test. Make sure it is the way you want it. This is why it is good to do it yourself. Only you know what you want. Your way is the right way, but be open minded too. It can come from anywhere. "Out of the mouth of babes" even.

I've used this technique for years, and four years ago came up with a name for a product that just seemed beyond perfect, and it took only 2 or 3 meeting sessions to find it. I've used this simple idea just sitting in lectures or presentations, and was able to apply it for sharing on the spot ideas. Great if you are a creative director like I was, because as such, you are expected to be creative. Who wooda thunk?

Here are some select fun ideas over the years I've pleased clients with:

Wood Artisan, Carver, wood worker doing very curvy and creative woodwork on many applied wood art ideas.(1989)
Limber Lumber 

Fancy Chocolate Truffle Manufacturer (1987)
Haute Chocolates  

Advertiser Mailer for Coupons from Retailers (1979)

Whether naming a website, a book, organization, a new baby or a planet,  this technique is an easy start to help organize all the thoughts you have and are suggested by others to you. Now go have fun! 

Garret Moore

Links to help: