The Brown Couch
“When you try to be everything to everyone, you get a brown couch.”
Growing up, I always believed our home was beautiful. My parents had lived in Japan early in their marriage and our living room was accented with Japanese chests and pottery, an old hibachi served as their coffee table. The hibachi could be partly disassembled: the rectangular wooden base included a set of three tiny black drawers on each of the long sides and the center cooking section was lined with copper. A thick wooden collar fit on top of the base like a serviceable shelf. The collar was remarkably heavy with each side about five inches square of solid wood. A removable glass top fit into the collar turning the cooking pit into a table.
My father’s grandfather was a rock hound, meaning he spent his spare time in the desert near his home searching out rocks and minerals. He had a rock saw and a polisher and when he found a rock with geode potential he would cut it open and polish it. His workshop overflowed with specimens of obsidian, malachite and quartz and dozens of geodes from his expeditions.
Under the glass of the hibachi coffee table, a small collection of Grandpa Harry’s rocks was arrayed making the hibachi coffee table even more unusual and exotic in its living room home on Chesterton Drive in 1970’s Dallas.
So, I thought my home was beautiful and fascinating. I took pride in the way my mom made our sets of Great Books and Encyclopedias and my dad’s collections of jazz and big band albums seem elegant, and admired the charming, cheery turquoise color she had selected for the kitchen. From the wall of the den, hanging kabuki masks looked down on our flower-power print couch, grimacing at the outlandish upholstery and smiling on my mother’s flair in pulling it off. We had taste and flair.
No one else had kabuki masks in the Ethan Allen world we lived in.
My father’s career had us leapfrogging across states, landing in this city for a few years, and that city for a few more before the next jump. Almost every move seemed to require a new family room couch, to suit the carpeting or the shape of the room, or the style at the time. The flower-power couch was overtaken by the blue and green plaid sleeper, which abdicated to the tufted pleather cigar-bar couch and love seat combination, in its turn ousted by a couch and love seat covered in a slightly dizzy pattern sampling the Country-with-a-K motif of the eighties.
Enter the next couch regime.
The most important thing about this next couch was that it be perfect. Maria and Larry had a long list of musts. It must have a skirt. The pillows must be unattached. The arms must be this big and not that big. The seat cushion must wrap in front of the arm. The height, the firmness of the cushions, the trim; these were all precisely proscribed. The requirements were as exact as one of those sixty-page software requirements documents I was never good at writing.
The actual fabric to cover the couch, however, was uncertain. Swatches were ordered. Swatches were held up to the walls and the rugs and the framed Carl Gorman drawing. My brother and sister and I were called to frequent summits to examine photocopies of furniture catalog pages exhibiting couch candidates and to opine on swatch ‘A’ versus swatch ‘B.’ Swatch after swatch was ranked; swatch after swatch was returned.
There were lots of summits. Sometimes all three of us, my brother, my sister and I, would be required to attend. Sometimes, I would be the only one summoned and once there would learn that my sister had already picked the stripes but Larry and Maria just weren’t sure. Were the stripes too stripey, they wondered? What did I think? And, I would be advised: don’t tell your sister we asked you about the stripes. Okay, I promised dubiously. Did I need to keep it on the down-low with my brother too?
Was this getting out of hand?
Close, Baby, Close!
I made a decision: The next time I was called in for a consultation, I would get them to agree to a fabric for their new couch. Which fabric did not matter; what mattered was putting an end to the decision process, throwing a decision-pillow on the couch question. I would go in for the close.
At the next Couch Consultation Meeting, I laid out the value prop for Couch #AB89873 in Fabric Category H, Tweed Surprise. I positioned the benefits and advantages. I watched as they nodded yes. When I heard both my parents in their own words express a future with Tweed Surprise as part of their daily life, I knew I had closed the deal. “Great!” I said. “It’s settled then! Glad to know that all this diligence and careful couch-fabric consideration has come to this glorious and final end.”
“You’ve made your Final Decision?” I confirmed.
“Final Decision!” they said.
“As in Final, Final?”
“Final, Final!” they chorused
Not So Fast
“Your father needs you to come up to the house tomorrow,” my mom said.
“This isn’t, I asked, about a couch is it?
“Of course not,” she lied. From its place on the wall, the kabuki mask winked.
In the end, they bought a plain brown couch. They had so many requirements and so many opinions, they couldn’t resolve to any choices. Nothing could fit all the requirements and encompass all of the options and opinions, except the only candidate that did not offend anyone: a plain brown couch.
The Theory of the Brown Couch:
If you try to make everyone happy, you end up with a brown couch.
After experiencing my parents attempt to buy the perfect couch, only to end up with a perfectly unexceptional, uninspiring brown couch, I developed the Theory of the Brown Couch. If a new design is unveiled if everyone is happy and no one finds it objectionable, it’s not because it’s brilliant, it’s because it’s completely uninteresting, like a light brown couch.
I love my parents and their brown couch. That said, I also love design and ideas that inspire and challenge and I have a few thoughts for those of you caught in the Brown Couch trap.
Ask to see the 4th Option
Now when I work with a designer, in business or at home, and they show me their three proposed options (designers almost always unveil at least three options), whether it’s swatches for a couch or a website project, I listen to their pitch and at the end, regardless of my initial internal reactions, I always ask which of the three they like best. That helps me see the design from the designer’s viewpoint which is usually the most holistic and the purest one, the version least hampered by my long list of requirements.
And then I say, now show me the one you liked that you were afraid to show me; the one you loved but thought I would hate, the version that wasn’t built to please me and my long list of musts. I want to see what the designer dreamed up without pre-editing their ideas. That’s the goldmine. That’s the version with the creative edge. Even when I don’t like parts of it, it’s always more interesting than the other options.
In improv, they have the concept of ‘Yes, and…” where the players are careful not to negate their partner’s creativity, instead they affirm their partner’s response and build on it. When the designer shows me the design they thought I would hate, I like to find elements within that option to which I can say ‘Yes, and.’
By the way, curiosity about the 4th option is one of the best ways to educate yourself about design on the fly and will help you learn more about how to speak design and get the most out of your designers.
Avoid ‘But What Abouts’
Go look at any B2B website and typically you will have no idea what they actually do. Why? Fear crept in. The fear of being too specific. The fear of leaving out a use case or a product line. The tagline, the copy, the logo has to encompass everything the company does. I call this the “But What Abouts.” But What Abouts kill creativity and specificity. When it comes time to select artwork for a room or a marketing campaign, a logo or a creative tag line, so many people park themselves on the brown ‘but-what-about’ couch. They get so wrapped up in making sure they tell all the stories that they don’t end up telling even one story well. Think Tires-R-Us rolling out a website homepage that says “The #1 place for the safest, family van tires” versus “The place for inflated cylinders used in transportation.”
I’m proposing that what you leave out of your design, your podcast, your portfolio, your couch or your cookie recipe might be the most important thing about it. It takes guts to edit out, to be bravely specific.
Think of it this way: an Oreo cookie doesn’t have chocolate chips or macadamia nuts or peanut butter, even though those are all perfectly wonderful cookie ingredients.
Bad Can Be Great
I once worked on a billboard campaign for a non-profit. The provocative idea we came up with was simple. Everyone hated it. It was hugely successful.
The Junior League is a well-known women’s service and leadership organization with 10,000 members internationally. Most towns in the US have a chapter founded in the last century by women of substance and social standing. In the following decades, League members invested their time and creativity into understanding and addressing issues that impacted the broader community outside of their families.
Like most chapters, the League in my town actively partnered with other community groups, business leaders and non-profits to make good things happen in our town. Our chapter had a sterling reputation; or maybe not. In fact, we found, we had image problems. As the head of marketing that year, I decided to re-brand our League and developed a multi-pronged plan, complete with a new, provocative tagline to remind the community of our positive impact over the years.
I presented the plan to the incoming president who had strong reservations. After all, our image, one of being an effective force in the community, was on the line. Years of commitment, work and effort were being forgotten or discounted and being replaced with a less than impressive reputation — and worse, we were being perceived as irrelevant. She was nervous and my idea was risky. Was I really going to plaster that tagline on billboards around town? “No,” I said. “Not if you truly hate it. But if you are willing to take a risk, let’s get the Board’s approval and go forward.”
To many of my fellow League members that with that billboard campaign I singlehandedly destroyed the League in our community. “Did you know,” I was asked, “That my boyfriend and I were out to dinner with a group and everyone was saying that those Junior League billboards were awful. They make the League look terrible.” Really? I was intrigued.
“Did you and a group of men and women really spend time at dinner talking about the Junior League?” I said. “Let me ask you, did you passionately share with them the history of our League and what we have done and are doing in our town? Did you make sure they knew that the Junior League was much more than do-good snobby women wearing pearls?”
Yes, she said, she emphatically had.
“How many other times, has your dinner conversation centered on the League’s work?” I asked.
“None,” she replied.
Two months after the first billboard went up, I was talking to the executive director of a fledgling non-profit in our community that was just on the brink of thriving, one that addressed the needs of children being emancipated from the child-services foster system. She looked me in the eye and said, “My goal is for our non-profit to be featured on one of those Junior League billboards.” The Junior League provided significant funding and leadership talent to found and support that organization. That’s So Junior League!
If we had drawn up a list of requirements for how to get the League back in the conversation we would have failed. It was edgy, unpopular and even scary to some people. If our billboard campaign idea had been put to a vote by the membership, it would have been shot down.
Is Boring Ever Good?
Seth Godin helped marketers everywhere when he wrote about the The Purple Cow: If you were driving down the road and saw cows, you might think “There’s a cow.” But if you were driving down the road and saw a purple cow, you would say to your friend “Hey did you see that purple cow.” You might even take a picture, or talk about it at dinner later. Seth’s point is simple: brown cows are unremarkable, a purple cow is wonderful — causing wonder and excitement.
So does it follow that non-boring is always great? Is there a place for a Brown Couch?
I was working with a decorator on a room in my home and we were choosing paint colors. Should we go with something bold? Orange? Or my parent’s old faithful, Navajo White? She said, “You know, this room has a lot going on.” She was right. It’s not that everything must be wonderful, it’s that at least one piece of the whole must inspire.
So choose where you will invest and strike there with boldness. Every outfit, letter, room or garden; every project plan, project launch or sales pitch should have one focal point that bothers, inspires, challenges. Sometimes you go for a purple velvet couch (!). Sometimes a brown couch is the perfect backdrop for your one-of-a-kind bedazzled Egyptian purple pillows.
You may be picking out a couch, you may be creating a new logo and website, you may be waking up a community to a new perspective. If so, consider this: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth not boring everyone.
You really have to influence the ‘afraid to be bold’ people and the “But What About” people. Show them examples of how weirdness, a big sloppy, flower-patterned couch or an out-of-place hibachi filled with rocks could make it beautiful. Talk to them. Say if you really hate it, we will kill the idea, but what if we gave it a chance. Sure, it may not work. But here’s something you can confidently say to get them on board with the purple couch: Boring Never Works.