January 13, 2020

Small audio big change — the impact of headphones and small speakers on our music

With listening experiences now emphasizing the small and the intimate, how does that factor in how music is produced now? We take a glimpse at how the prevalence of headphones and small speakers have changed music.

The Small Speaker Effect

Nowadays, we bring music with us everywhere we go and it’s not hard to find at least one friend at a gathering who brought a portable Bluetooth speaker. The ubiquity of not just these personal speakers but also the even smaller ones we find in laptops, tablets and smartphones means music production is catering to lower common denominators.

In a Quartz article by Dan Kopf, he notes some of the key technical impacts:

  • Drivers: Drivers are the key component of sound devices that emit audio. Quality varies, but it’s safe to not everyone is an audiophile and therefore uses cheaper headphones with lower quality drivers. Further, integrated speakers in a laptop aren’t usually that great simply because there’s no impetus to improve on them.
  • Highs/Lows: Because of the limitations of lower-quality speakers, they can’t accurately reproduce the treble and bass (high and low frequencies) that were mastered in the studio. The result is unpleasant and harsh sounds.
  • Reduced Dynamic Range: This means songs are mixed with less dynamic range, and that music production involves testing with smaller speakers such as on smartphones to see if the sound is still perceived as loud or present.

The Podcast Effect

The rise of the podcast as well as listening for therapeutic effect has emphasized privacy and a sense of intimacy around our listening habits, which of course, means a greater role for headphone and earbuds. In an article for The New Yorker by Amanda Petrusich, she points out some of the effects on music production, which again, cater to the needs of the listener:

  • Performance: he notes Selena Gomez and Billie Elish’s tendency to sing closer to the mic almost as if whispering (not unlike ASMR, cut less potentially creepy).
  • Lyrics: the cultural emphasis on the personal narrative means songs might be trying to make “one-on-one” connections between artist and listener. Petrusich notes the highly personal, introspective and confessionary lyrics of Drake and Kanye and wonders if headphone-centric listening encourages certain music genres.
  • Privacy: In a similar vein, she references former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne (who wrote How Music Works) on how certain music genres encourage headphone usage because well, no one necessarily wants to blast their overly emo, offensive or sensual music tastes for everyone to hear (and judge).

The Takeaway

Unsurprisingly, music as a medium is going through shifts directly impacted by the way we experience the world more privately, through smaller personal devices including smartphones. This isn’t too unlike the decision to stay at home and watch certain genres of movies while we’re only willing to go to movie theaters for big epics.

But aside from just being a matter of personal preferences (to which the music needs to adapt, as it always has), there are, of course, negatives that include the real physical dangers of constantly tuning out the rest of the world as well as early hearing loss for both listeners and the people mastering for headphones.

Yet, on the other hand, headphones could simply be a necessary adaptation in an increasingly noisy and distracted world and as mentioned before, can invite us to look inward (which isn’t always a bad thing).

Unless you’re an audiophile, you might not care if the sound of music dramatically shifts as long as it sounds fine and gives you what you need. But just like the risk of going through life wearing rose-colored glasses, there is something to be said about spending too much of your day with a drastically altered soundscape in your ears.

December 12, 2019

When less is not more: How typefaces are swinging away from peak minimalist

It seems we’ve hit a point where “less is actually less,” at least with regards to typography in brands. We take a look at the re-emergence of more embellished typefaces in a market that’s likely had enough of peak minimalism.

How we got here

Eliza Brooke for Vox points out the association between minimalist design (and typefaces) with the expediency offered by lifestyle start-ups: “Rather than being descriptive of the product itself, startup minimalism indicates how that product will be purchased and delivered to the shopper: digitally, easily, inexpensively, and with a smile,” she says. “It promises no bullshit and no imposition on your busy schedule.”

It could be said that this level of approachability, which Rachel Hawley describes as “creepy cheerfulness” wasn’t just the doing of new, then-exciting start-ups but a series of factors that followed bigger shifts in technology and culture:

  • The Biggest Players Move: Visual rebrands of big companies such as Google and Facebook in the mid-2010s generated ripples that led newcomers and competitors alike to follow suit.
  • Mobile-first: Simpler fonts are often associated with designing for mobile experiences.
  • Load Times: Likewise, simpler elements mean less information to load and therefore, faster load times on devices.
  • Effort: No one’s saying that sans serif fonts are always easier to develop, but the absence of serifs, representing an entirely new set of design decisions, certainly streamlines the process a little more — especially when your competitors and the rest of the industry are doing the same.
  • Effort: It’s not just the companies that are demanding simplicity in visual language. Howard Belk explained the association customers have, in between simple messaging and the honesty of the company they’re interacting with. For this reason, branding that’s visually easy to process gives assurances to customers having difficulty making sense of a complex world.

What is Didone?

Didones are a category of typeface that emerged in the late 18th century but was not coined until the ‘50s. The name combines the surnames of famous typefounders Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni. This category is characterized by:

  • Serifs: Serif typefaces have embellishments at the end of the strokes in their letters (as opposed to sans-serif typefaces like the ones used on this website). Didones have long narrow serifs.
  • Contrast: Didone has a strong contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  • Vertical weight axis: Vertical strokes tend to be thicker.
  • Modern: They were and are considered more “modern” due to their simplified and relatively unadorned appearance, especially in contrast to the Old Styles that were more defined by the hand lettering styles of scribes.

Despite its long history, Didone’s are still in use, including the eponymous typefaces Didot and Bodoni. Modern typefaces like Didones represent a more complete departure from the typefaces that resembled the handwritten tradition such as Old Style (also called humanist).

The pendulum swings back

Hawley chalks the return of Didones to several factors that accompany the transition away from Peak Minimalism:

  • Luxury: the re-introduction of embellishments with Didones adds a sense of luxury and sophistication to the brand that’s being promoted with the typeface.
  • Startups and Youth: Hawley notes the emergence of Didones for new companies and start-ups marketed toward millennials such as wine club Winc.
  • Gender: Similarly, Didones have been appearing in the logos of brands marketed towards women including clothing retailer Modcloth and Flesh, a shade-inclusive makeup brand.

As the shift in the opposite direction continues, we think it’s likely more brands will return to reflecting their brand, what they’re selling and the audiences they’re targeting in their choice of typefaces (being more specific).

The Takeaway

While this analysis only looks at Didones, only one category of typeface, we’ve noticed other brands seek to visually design themselves with typefaces that buck the stripped-down minimalist trend we saw at the beginning of the decade until now.

This could mean keeping the same minimalist typeface albeit with bolder, louder fonts, drawing from the past with typeface families that are time-tested or doing something completely different with custom typefaces or hand-drawn branding.

Unsurprisingly, when a given “look” or style becomes so popular that the market becomes saturated to the point it becomes the new normal, it becomes that much more important for a brand to stand out and for a more refreshing human touch to come back to the visual language. As Hawley puts it:

“Within the broader minimalist framework, however, ornate flourishes such as that of the Didones sate their viewers’ need for a reprieve from the visual austerity of the past decade, and the political austerity for which it has served as the default style. Sitting on the train, I found myself captivated by an advertisement for mattresses I can’t afford, of all things, simply because its typography injected a moment of beauty into a day spent being bombarded by advertisements that, with rare exceptions, look more or less the same.”

December 2, 2019

Scratching the Surface of Growing Fan-aticism

It’s easy to write off fandom as a passionate if slightly silly appreciation for a person, group or subject matter. But left to grow in the unchecked recesses of the Internet, toxic fandom has the potential for destructive real-world consequences that mirror political or religious extremism.

“Regular” Fandom

Fandom and fan culture in principle are relatively benign and enjoyable things. At all layers of investment, they provide everything you could ask for in a community centered around a traditional culture:

  • Common interests: no explanation needed.
  • Sense of belonging: a sense of camaraderie and acceptance from like-minded peers.
  • History: the continuity from a pool of shared knowledge.
  • Fashion: a costume, uniform or outfit that indicates and celebrates membership.
  • Language: a visual, textual or spoken set of symbols, words and mannerisms.
  • Artwork: any manner of artistic output that’s inspired and influenced by the subject of interest.
  • Products: themed merchandise from tees and caps to duct tape.
  • Events: gatherings both formal and informal that incorporate all of the above. These can mark certain times, honor more long-held traditions or be inspired by similar events in other regions.

Each of these factors gives a would-be fan any number of things to latch onto and explore upon “entering” the culture. There’s something for everyone in the sense that some fans will choose to geek out over the technical minutiae like sports stats, the creators’ life, production notes and such, while others are drawn to the greater energy that defines the group.

Fan Activism

If we start to move away from the idea of fans and fandom as a means of uniting around and celebrating something, fan activism is one more step towards bringing the “magic” of that culture into the real world and one aspect of fandom rooted in actively driving change with respects to:

  • The Subject Itself: examples would be petitioning to say, bring Family Matters to Netflix, stop Ben Affleck from becoming Batman, or change plots in a given story.
  • The Industry: fans of a given industry might seek to drive change in how the industry that surrounds their favorite things functions such as equal pay for female athletes.
  • Society: For one, the Harry Potter Alliance uses “elements of our favorite fictional universes as metaphors for making sense of complex, contemporary issues,” and encourages fans to contribute their talents and skills toward changing society and the world.

The last case is notable because it repurposes the passion, talent and connections formed from the original fandom and applies it to a different context. In a similar vein, the 501st Legion is a costumed group of Stormtroopers (villains from the Star Wars franchise) that also does charity and volunteer work.


Whether you call it toxic fandom or fan-aticism (our coining), this aspect of fandom is where strong views boil over into the real world and pair the same desire to directly effect change of activism with the threatening, destructive, physical and potentially illegal behaviors of extremism.

“Fandom is a pure and precious thing, and no one should feel conflicted about being invested in a pop-culture figure or property,” explains a Wired article on toxic fandom across different fields. “If you express that investment by being a worse person, though—treating appreciation like warfare, demanding dogmatic purity tests, attacking people, or seeing yourself as some kind of a crusader—than it’s probably time to take some time and re-assess things.”

While toxic fandom grabs the most attention with singular events that expose that aspect of the culture in all its ugliness, they all appear in a larger context of other moving cultural and political parts.

  • Sports: Soccer hooligans can either be a toxic presence at a game regardless or be steered towards political ends.
  • Music: From Beliebers and One Directioners to the man who tracked down a Jpop star from IG photos, toxic fandom has the potential to harm regular people, fans, and creators alike.
  • Fiction: Sci-fi is particularly visible culprit with “old guard” Star Trek and Star Wars fans being hostile to new diverse fans and developments.
  • Gaming: GamersGate similarly underscored misogyny and backlash against diversity from fans against those the industry (we won’t get started on the bile found among gamers).
  • People: Even outside the entertainment world, there are legions of fans of famous people that will defend their name such as with entrepreneur Elon Musk.

This list of fields and examples within each are certainly not exhaustive, but in all cases, we can see that in all cases, situations frequently are boiled down to tribalistic “us vs. them” dynamics.

Where we’re going with this

We see that fandom can offer an uplifting common ground for people to unite, share and create around (and even do good), yet it also has the potential to turn sour, producing the same zealot-like devotion we’d see in extreme political, religious and criminal groups like gangs.

While we’re sure most readers are huge, even massive fans of certain things (even if you wouldn’t want to admit it), we know there will always be people who take things too far and worse, they’ll take it offline into the real world. This matters because as industries like professional sports, gaming and tech fields continue to make strides in certain directions, by and large that are more inclusive, large moves like that will cause friction with disgruntled so-called “true fans”.

We’ve been quite fascinated with the depths we’ve plunged thanks to the role tech and social media has influenced our world. The use cases have generally turned out pretty negative. But that’s not to say we can’t find the silver lining and utilize all this technology for something great. It’s time to align the right incentives.

November 28, 2019

On the Need to Diversify Standardized Visuals and "Re-Image" the World

Whether we realize it or not, widely copied and distributed visual elements like graphics and photos represent and shape our consciousness. With the rise of diverse emoji, there’s never been more momentum to give these “standard” visuals a much-needed update.

Sharing the Space is Important

Icons are distilled representations of reality, usually used to efficiently communicate and be easily recognized in highly visible places. Copied and distributed often enough, they repeatedly influence our consciousness, both online and off.

“Space also includes the digital world, which unlike physical space, is theoretically limitless.The digital realm is governed by an audience’s access and attention, and value is determined by the reach and visibility of competing content,” says Erika Kim, head curator for the Noun Project. “Quality representation and visibility in these spaces — especially public or highly visible space — implies legitimacy and value, which translates to influence.”

In her article on gendered depictions of different jobs and roles in icons, she lists three ways graphic designers can even the playing field:

1. Make equal depictions in terms of quantity and quality: Male and female equivalents of a given role such as astronaut, as well as even application of design principles to avoid unintended meaning (which elements are larger, in front, or placed in a position of authority or power?)

2. Appropriate depictions:  Aside from ending the blatant perpetuation of outdated stereotypes (say, anachronistic or inappropriate depictions of women in certain jobs), Kim encourages creating less commonly seen depictions that challenge rigid gender roles.

3. Meta Data: Consistency in the titles and tags between variations on a common image. For instance, a male and female icon titled as “business person” would have similar tags or synonyms such as ‘manager’, ‘leader’ and the like instead of a different set of meta data for each.

It’s a big lift, but it’s not that heavy

If the popularization of emoji is any indication, similar updates in diversity to standardized assets are quantum leaps, stepping stones or no big deal at all, depending on who you ask. After emojis became more widespread beyond Japan with Apple’s iOS 5 in 2011, the world adapted to using the icons in addition to just text and the more basic emoticon.

After Apple introduced racially diverse emoji in 2015, there were concerns over whether they would be abused or introduce new problems into a space that didn’t have them before. That said, some studies have shown they’ve been largely used as intended and have been a net positive for inclusiveness. Just like the many special characters than your computer is capable of producing (you’ve never heard of the interrobang‽), even if you don’t need to use them, someone else most certainly does.

Similarly, having images that represent the diverse people in the real world means a lot to those traditionally excluded from these spaces. For one, TONL is a stock photography company that features culturally diverse people. But more importantly, it represents both a demand for that diversity from paying customers, but also that there’s still room for change in seemingly calcified symbols representing objective truths.

The Takeaway

Whether it’s emoji or stock assets like photos, footage, icons and graphics, these elements are intended for wide distribution and can appear at multiple corners of online spaces, shaping our collective consciousness. This analysis isn’t the end-all be-all take on how to approach diversity in standardized visuals, and there are likely to be hurdles and friction on the way, but we recognize the need for that diversity and that the updating process is long overdue. The ever-shifting ways in which we communicate about a complex world is going to require more nuance, and that can only be conveyed by having greater diversity in our visual choices.

November 21, 2019

How to Avoid Climbing Up Mount Stupid
or Into The Fraudster's Cave

We look at the relationship between knowledgeability and confidence, including the pitfalls of both overestimating and underestimating ourselves. We look at the risk of climbing up Mount Stupid and climbing into The Fraudster’s Cavern.

Mount Stupid and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Often charts that feature Mount Stupid place “knowledge” or “experience” of a given topic on the horizontal X-axis and “confidence” or “self-perception of competence” on the vertical Y-axis. Mount Stupid is an anomalous region of the graph where the Y-axis is a lot higher relative to the X-axis. In short, it’s a peak where people are overconfident in their competence despite lacking significant experience or expertise. Webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal also frames the chart around the “willingness to opine on a topic” against actual knowledge of said topic.

The chart featuring Mount Stupid is often used to illustrate the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is a cognitive bias where people lack the self-awareness to realize their overconfidence in their cognitive ability. It was originally described by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999, who also studied the effect’s prevalence in different cultures.

The Fraudster’s Cavern and Imposter Syndrome

Charts that include Mount Stupid often depict the “land” that follows as an upwards curving line that implies exponentially increasing confidence as expertise rises. But these charts don’t include another anomaly, one that accounts for a related if not opposite phenomena of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: Imposter Syndrome. The term “impostor phenomenon” first appeared in 1978 in “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” an article by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes.

Imposter Syndrome is another common bias where highly competent people who are externally recognized as such incorrectly believe their success has been achieved by pure luck or by perpetually deceiving (or defrauding) others into overestimating their competence. In short, they’ve only been “faking it ‘till they make it.”

For the sake of our graph, we’ve put this anomaly near the far right side of the graph where it can potentially pop up. In keeping with topographical metaphors, we’ve called this The Fraudster’s Cavern to illustrate how those with Imposter Syndrome underestimate their competence and thus may also be a lot less willing to opine about it.

The Culture Factor

In later studies, the prevalence of both the Dunning-Kruger Effect and Imposter Syndrome (and their associated “symptoms”) was shown to differ by culture.

Depending on what our given society emphasizes, be it a high level of self-esteem or self-criticism, these values have the potential to influence individual tendencies and actions, such as whether repeated failure leads to self-directed improvement or moving onto other things.

Independent of the cultures we grew up in or are influenced by, it also goes without saying that everyone and anyone is vulnerable to barking up Mount Stupid or slipping into The Fraudster’s Cavern at some point in time — even if we don’t suffer from something that pervades our lives longterm such as the Dunning-Kruger Effect (or the opposite known as the Jonah Complex, which involves avoiding applying one’s talents).

The Takeaway

It’s not hard to see how these two tendencies can crop up in the world of creatives. Certainly, creatives are no strangers to the sense of self-doubt, but against a cultural background that often encourages or forces us to have an opinion on a variety of topics, there is always value in admitting you don’t have all the answers — yet.

We’re at the point where the speed at which we absorb information far exceeds the time we commit to mulling over, challenging and consolidating that information, must less our perspective on it. As a result, it’s not hard to see why we risk unwittingly becoming mountaineers or spelunkers. The keys to solving these? Seeking out quality feedback from honest peers and being willing to take constructive criticism well.

With every achievement, comes the belief that you need to reassess where the next goal or peak lies, should you aim to dedicate time and resources towards improvement. While we agree that life itself changes dynamically in the face of a goal, there’s often a lot of additional baggage with the relentless pursuit of goals. It’s perhaps an oversimplification of the belief that at some point, you have to come to terms with how your life looks and how your relationships play out in the face of “growth.”

November 18, 2019

How Class is Limiting Performing Artists

We look at how class plays into the lives of performing artists, specifically actors, and what does it mean for shaping culture through media. By examining the realities of a career as a performer, we talk about why it’s important for diverse viewpoints to stick around for the long game.

The Reality of Performing Artists

Interviewing and pitching clients is part and parcel with any creative career, especially if you’re independent. But for performers, there are a few factors that when combined, make the economics of staying in the profession particularly difficult (which of course, includes getting low-balled like all other creatives).

  • Training: just as being a photographer isn’t just about clicking a shutter button, being a performer isn’t as simple as doing your best impression or showing off your best dance moves.
  • Maintenance as Lifestyle: One key to getting repeat or more lucrative work is specializing in a given style or role. Depending on the demands (either of physicality or difficulty, for instance) that means adjusting an entire lifestyle towards the maintenance of their primary creative tools: their body and their mental health.
  • Pay-to-Play: Staying in the game costs money independent of maintaining the aforementioned healthy lifestyle. This applies whether you live and work in a place that has strong industry regulation that includes guilds (labor unions) or, like Hong Kong, where there’s little to no support.
  • High Rejection Rates: Rejection comes from all kinds of factors independent of how well someone auditions. Even if a performer learns to cope with it as a matter of life, the reality is each rejection means one less paycheck.
  • Constant Spec Work: Auditions are similar to design contests in that you have to rehearse and train to shape yourself to compete with others for the approval of the client (i.e. casting director). Combined with the aforementioned high-rejection rates, this results in a lot of free work that might not be used at all.
  • Job-to-job: Full-time roles are limited as well, unless you’re able to join a theatre or dance company, a media company as a host or, subject to qualifications, behind-the-scenes or administrative roles.
  • Career Limitations: Constantly keeping schedules flexible to allow for model castings, auditions and ideally, important but high-commitment “plum” roles means performers frequently work other jobs where they may have to artificially cap hours or aspirations.

Why this matters

You might not watch live theater or watch movies, but these mediums have institutional power that retains a lot of influence over the creative output of a given society and what the public sees. And since the audience is effectively the market for creatives, their culturally-shaped tastes, affect which stories get ordered to be made, how many roles are created and which performers get hired.

It’s worth mentioning that the competition for limited roles has also sparked debate over race and nationality (specifically between the US and UK) at the Hollywood level. Yet, the class-wide decline of actors from certain backgrounds is an issue that can have long-term consequences.

Scottish actor James McAvoy, himself the son of a builder and psychiatric nurse, put himself through drama school working at a bakery. Although he emphasizes he has no beef with the success of actors educated at prestigious schools, he warns of what happens when only one group of people become responsible for all the artistic output:

“That’s a frightening world to live in, because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part, and that’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

The Takeaway

Regardless of the creative field involved, we think it’s important that people get onto a career path that aligns with their aptitudes and passions. The issue is even when both of those are present, not everyone has the same socio-economic opportunities to carry them out all the way, whether that means going through the formal education route that leads to a career after or learning on the job.

It’s not a simple matter of being able to afford individual items like new drawing tools or dance classes in the early stages once you’ve decided to pursue a creative career. It also means having the means to support yourself between dry spells to stay in the game for the long term once you start working.

Even as working creative professionals continue to struggle with the validation of the industry, we likewise have to be wary of the next generation of creative storytellers having opportunities to make their voices heard by being hired. We often talk of the need for diverse viewpoints in the media and the need for stories to be told by different people as well — not just in terms of what they look like, but the circumstances they came from that enrich their work in ways you just can’t imitate.

November 11, 2019

Complex gets more complex with foray into product development

Digiday’s Tim Peterson explores media company Complex’s foray into product development that includes helping companies to reach its audience. We look at how this move fits into the bigger picture of connecting media, product and paying customers.

Complex gets more complex

In 2002, Complex started as a menswear magazine founded by Marc Ecko, founder of streetwear brand Eckō Unltd, known for its silhouetted red rhino logo. Over the years, it’s grown beyond its print origins to become a multifaceted media company that’s helped to popularize street culture and fashion. As can be expected of most media companies, there’s a lot of branches to it, all which are named after and tie back into the master brand.

  • Complex Networks: The video-centric network of creators and brands that includes other publications and shows.
  • ComplexCon: The multi-day event that is normally hosted in Long Beach, but recently hosted its first edition in Chicago.
  • Complex Collective: A research product that gives companies access to a panel of individuals signed on to provide feedback on any number of things including products and media.

What is Climate?

As Peterson writes, ComplexCon saw the company launch its first NextFront event, which helped the company to pitch its content and commerce business to over a hundred companies. It was here that Complex announced both Complex Collective and Climate.

Climate is a new division of Complex that will help use its expertise with working with both advertisers and audiences to develop products for other companies — and targeted at Complex’s discerning audience. Under Climate, this type of consulting work would become more formalized, where they’d already done so on an ad-hoc basis. For example, earlier this year, they connected Anwar Carrots and PepsiCo.’s Brisk to produce a line of special-edition beverages).

Hot Sauce, anyone?

This isn’t quite the first time Complex has worked with developing successful products. First We Feast is itself an online food-culture magazine and YouTube channel owned by Complex Media. Its channel produces several video series including The Burger Show, The Curry Shop and most notably, Hot Ones.

Hot Ones has host Sean Evans grill his celebrity guests as they dine on increasingly spicier chicken wings. What seems like a simple if entertaining concept has helped Complex to produce its own line of hot sauces, including Last Dab XXX, which generated $500,000 in sales within 48-hours of its October 17 launch.

As further proof of the company’s ability to leverage its properties to create opportunities elsewhere, that series is also being adapted into a 20-episode game show hosted by WarnerMedia Entertainment-owned TV network truTV (and shot in Atlanta in case you were wondering).

The Takeaway

Complex Networks isn’t the only media company to head in this direction and joins BuzzFeed and Clique Brands (formerly Clique Media Group). The basic idea is to use all of that experience gained from engaging a given audience and creating media products for them to form a profile other brands can use to then produce physical products that speak to that same audience. Done properly, this ensures a win-win-win situation for the original brand, the brand crafting the product, and the end buyer.

In the same vein, we recognize the benefit — and for a primarily digital media company, the importance — of having tangible connections between people and a brand. It’s not always about trying to sell merch (though our upcoming web store will certainly do that). Rather, it’s sharing with our supporters and audience the same experience we’d like to physically hold in our own hands. This means working with brands we either already respect and whose products we’d eagerly integrate into our lives anyways or those we know would be a good fit for our audience.

October 10, 2019

How the English Language's Disproportionate Influence Skews Global Narratives

No one questions English’s status as the world’s go-to language for business, tech, tourism and academia, but that popularity has also made it disproportionately influential on news. In a chapter of Hostwriter’s Unbias the News: Why Diversity Matters for Journalism, journalist, writer and managing editor of the Global Investigative Journalism Network Tanya Pampalone looks at how English’s prominent status can lead to skewing of entire narratives. We break down an excerpt of that chapter published for GIJN and look at how this inequality also means missed opportunities for interactions between the non-native and non-English speaking world, creative or otherwise.

By the Numbers

Kai Chan, a distinguished fellow at the INSEAD Innovation and Policy Initiative, put together the Power Language Index in 2016, which measures which languages in the world hold the most influence based on five key factors.

  • (G)eography: countries spoken, land area, tourists (inbound)
  • (E)conomy: GDP, PPP, Exports, FX market, SDR composition
  • (C)ommunications: Native speakers, second-language speakers, language family size, tourists (outbound)
  • (K)nowledge & Media: Internet content, feature films, Top 500 universities, academic journals.
  • (D)iplomacy: United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Supranational Organizations (SNOs).

Based on these factors, Kai presented the world’s top 10 languages, their respective number of native speakers and their score for each factor:

  1. English: 460 mil (G1, E1, C1, K1, D1)
  2. Mandarin: 960 mil (G6, E2, C2, K3, D6)
  3. French: 80 mil (G2, E6, C5, K5, D1)
  4. Spanish: 470 mil (G3, E5 C3, K7, D3)
  5. Arabic: 295 mil (G4, E9, C6, K18, D4)
  6. Russian: 150 mil (G5, E12, C10, K9, D5)
  7. German: 92.5 mil (G8, E3, C7, K4, D8)
  8. Japanese: 125 mil (G27, E4, C22, K6, D7)
  9. Portuguese: 215 mil (G7, E19, C13, K12, D9)
  10. Hindi: 310 mil (G13, E16, C8, K2, D10)

These numbers don’t include the number of non-native speakers. In the case of English, Kai’s research reports over 500 million people who speak it as a secondary language. Other figures place the total number of English speakers at between 1.5 and 2 billion people.

The Perceptual Impact of English

This staggering influence of a single language that came about through various blends of colonialism, commerce, religion, media, and education, extends into many industries including that of news.

In their analysis of 54 million news items from 4,708 news sources in 67 countries in 2015, researchers Lei Guo and Chris J. Vargo found that wealthier countries both attract most of the world news attention and are also more likely to decide how other countries perceive the world.

Miraj Chowdhury, the Bengali editor for the multilingual Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), points out how two newspapers in Bangladesh have circulations of over 500 million, yet the English-language Daily Star with only 50 million dominates the international narrative about that country.

Quality withstanding, it represents a situation where a single source disproportionately shapes a perspective not because of what it does, but simply because of what it is. This dynamic has profound effects on both the news and journalism industries:

  • A story isn’t a story until it surfaces in English: Journalists Ben Nimmo and Aric Toler wrote about the Russian journalists who exposed the troll factory back in 2013, before it was involved with American politics.
  • Awards can’t judge non-English assess properly: Unathi Kondile, South African editor of a Xhosa paper, points out how judges can only properly assess Afrikaans or English written content. This means submitting Xhosa content for consideration becomes a waste of time.
  • Applications based on English ability, not talent: Journalists have to submit applications to international conferences and fellowships in English, which does not reflect their journalistic talent but does affect their chances.
  • Translations skew perspective towards English readers: Journalists quoting non-English-speaking subjects might be forced to translate terms that have no common or accurate English equivalent. Similarly, emphasizing interviews conducted in English can mean a less than accurate picture.

Linguistic Privilege

Seeing the ‘p’ word might trigger a few eye rolls, but in the context of a globalized world, this one can’t be ignored because it applies to basically anyone reading this analysis and because it remains a source of inequality far beyond the world of journalism.

Linguistic privilege is yet another package of benefits we can unwittingly receive whether we’re native or near-native speakers of English. It’s also one we’re less likely to feel because after all, we’re all speaking the same language, right?

Yet we aren’t always speaking it on the same level. When we interact with people who are non-native speakers (especially with a poor command of the language) or people with impeded speech, it’s easy to forget how uneven things are. To give some examples of how “not all languages are created equal.”

  • “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”: Many regions have a prestige variant of language that is still held in a high standard such as Received Pronunciation (the “Queen’s English”) for the UK and General American English within the States. While there are actually many accents and dialects of English, only a handful that almost always includes those two, command the same impact. This is why they dominate ESL materials and the aspirational goals of many learners.
  • The cool factor: If you take English, pair it with digital media and package it with modern aesthetics, it makes for a very effective vector for spreading language and its associated culture (and potentially politics) — and for having it be received more readily. It goes without saying, English is not one of the most widely spoken and officially supported languages, it’s one of the coolest too.
  • Mobility: Of all the non-native languages we’ll see while traveling, there’s a much higher chance it’s going to be English. Even if native words are not translated for us to understand, having them transliterated for us to reference (such as on road signs) is already enabling us to travel and move around with ease.

The Key Takeaways

It’s very easy to dismiss the issues of non-native speakers as “well, you gotta learn English. That’s the way the world works,” but this attitude might only be accurate for so long. The number of secondary-language English speakers is rising daily, and more and more people are growing up speaking more than one language.

This isn’t a call to “stop being ig’nant,” and go out and learn a foreign language (though there’s plenty of other benefits in doing so, even if they’re not cognitive). It’s a reminder to recognize the place English still has in our globalized world, where that reputation came from and how that can skew entire dynamics.

So next time you find yourself in situations where English is the lingua franca between you and another person:

  • Dial back: This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to “dumb down” your language, but scale back the in-jokes, the pop culture references, the jargon and the slang. You might be understood better if you used less of them.
  • Slow down: We get it, it’s hard to be patient when time is money. But be aware of how stressful it is for some non-native speakers to try and communicate with you all the same. Consider slowing down when you’re speaking and process what people feel and intend versus purely the words they’re using when you’re listening.
  • Let them breathe: Similarly, if someone is translating for you on the spot, keep in mind that it is also a challenge and stress you don’t have the burden of. Let the person helping you know they can relax if you don’t need the play-by-play or be polite when you do want to know what’s being said.
  • Empathize: If there’s miscommunication, try to think from a communication problem-solving standpoint towards understanding and common ground versus whose understanding is to blame. Everyone’s seen the rude tourist who assumes they’ll be understood better by being louder, getting more irate and gesturing more wildly. Don’t be traveler.
  • Dig deeper: Assumptions already mess things up between native speakers, the same applies when communicating with non-English speakers. There’s no harm in asking questions to get the full story or more details. If there’s content or a good story on the line, it’ll be much better for it.

English, like a lot of cultural capital, is something that’s so widespread now that it becomes its own thing depending on the region. There are as many varieties of English as there are music genres.

In the case of a “foreign” accent, it often means another language is pulling on it, affecting the way it sounds and making it unique. Like with any sound outside of your comfort zone, it might sound strange and you might not appreciate all of its nuances, but recognize there’s a scene for it, one you gotta respect either way. Who knows, your next client, collaborator, friend or opportunity might come from it.

October 3, 2019

Foot Locker Bets On Cultural Authenticity With Greenhouse Incubator


Streetwear and sneaker industries continue to mature into lucrative segments whilst brands are upping their investment in cultural capital for the next phase of the game. Once considered a core part of the sneaker landscape, Foot Locker is trying to find its place in the modern battlefield of sneakers, fashion, and youth. The recent launch of Foot Locker’s Greenhouse hopes to give it the “cred” needed to expand beyond its household name as a retailer.

What is Greenhouse?

Project Greenhouse is Foot Locker’s recently launched initiative that’s meant to change how the brand interacts with a younger, culturally-savvy customer base. Greenhouse is headed by Mel Peralta, founder of watch brand FLüD. In his words, “Inclusivity, empowerment and innovation are really our three big pillars behind the identity of Greenhouse.”

This modus operandi is meant to be drastically distinct from the corporate obligations of Foot Locker proper, and for this reason, Greenhouse will have its own separate office far from Foot Locker’s Manhattan headquarters. “We wanted to make sure that we had a group that was really close to culture, that was not breathing our own air all the time,” said Foot Locker CMO Jed Berger to HYPEBEAST. To do this, Greenhouse will revolve around three key parts:

  • Collaborations: directly working with designers and creators on projects with cultural impact.
  • Concepts: connecting with brands in unconventional ways.
  • Think Tank: creating culturally-progressive initiatives within the company itself. This was Green house’s original purpose as a purely internal project before it branched off.

In Execution

Keeping with Foot Locker’s strong retail roots, Greenhouse will exist as an app where customers can buy exclusive product and check availability for items limited to select stores. But the primary goal for the incubator remains to create cultural capital through the talent it works with. Here are some of the names attached for the initial launch:

  • Photographer Christina Paik
  • Davin Gentry of Diet Starts Monday
  • Banga of PaperBoy Paris
  • Artist Victor Solomon
  • Designer Nicole McLaughlin
  • Founder of VFILES, Julie Anne Quay
  • Treis Hill of ALIFE
  • Dao-Yi Chow of Public School

Included inside the scope of this first push is O-1, a sustainability-focused e-commerce platform headed by Chow, and Project 366, whose aim is to identify young talent and offer mentorship towards retail early as opposed to waiting until they’ve had to grow their brand on their own

“All the cool kids are doing it.”

Foot Locker is certainly not the only brand to launch public-facing initiatives geared towards folding in young stakeholders into its ideation strategy. Regardless of their scope or under what dynamic the initiative operates, the end goal is to create a gateway on the side specifically for creative talent to connect with a brand or other brands, and to fast track them towards contributing their skills to the industry. Other brands that have done this:

  • LVMH Prize by Louis Vuitton: A program to empower and equip young designers with experience and resources
  • Studies____ by Reebok: A Kerby Jean-Raymond (of Pyer Moss) initiative focused on pairing designers with Reebok
  • Pensole: An ongoing footwear design program
  • Sneaker Essentials: A co-created curriculum featuring the Fashion Institute of Technology and Complex Magazine

Cultivating Talent for Tomorrow

At a time when brands are both mirroring the moves of their competitors while trying to differentiate, the launch of Greenhouse demonstrates how important cultural relevance and authenticity will be down the line. Part of that has meant that brands took stances on politics in a bid to demonstrate a better understanding of their target markets through their PR and business decisions. That was the output end of the brand strategy. On the input end, recruiting and nurturing loyal talent is as essential an investment as proprietary technology.

Why? In the constant arms race to show how different or better a brand is over its competitors, Foot Locker as a retailer is both late and outclassed compared to larger brands. That said, with sneakers set to outsell fashion footwear in the States by 2020, there will still be plenty of business to go around for this rapidly maturing segment. And when other brands join the fray, it will be interesting to see how their initiatives operate differently, what emerging talent they find and what new ideas come of them.

What’s the Missing Link We See?

One of the most frequent conversations we have is around structure in the realm of creativity. Structure manifests itself across both back-end and front-end elements.

  • Business (back-end): How do you create a viable business and build in the day-to-day requirements to ensure you can monetize your creativity?
  • Creative (front-facing): How do you plan out consistent and scalable creative execution?

In our experience, ideas are rarely the hardest part. Anybody can come up with a good idea, at least once. But understanding how to build something that can consistently exist in the realm of relevancy and (financial sustainability) is much more difficult.

September 5, 2019

Companies are not investing in creativity — even when it translates into business value


Companies agree that creativity is the most important factor for sustained commercial success. In spite of that, companies are putting their money into other drivers and unsurprisingly feel the latter aren’t delivering the creativity they need to move forward.

By the numbers

  • Correlation between creativity and financial performance: Top companies in terms of creative score were 67% more likely to have better Organic Revenue Growth, 70% more likely to have better TRS (total return swap) and 74% more likely to have higher EBITDA. (Creativity’s Bottom Line, McKinsey)
  • Creativity as predictor of success: 85% of surveyed CMOs believe creativity and big ideas that build the brand and create emotional connections are the single most important factor for future success. Yet, only 54% of CMOs believe they’re actually delivering on that creativity. (Network CMO survey 2019, Dentsu Aegis)
  • Tech and data trumping creativity: According to Forrester, spending on Data and Analytics, Advertising Technology and Marketing Automation grew 33% between 2017-2019 —twice as fast as overall budgets and five times the rate of spending on creativity.
  • AI to feature heavily: Marketing leaders surveyed reported a 27% increase in incorporating AI and machine learning over 2018 levels. This will increase another 60% within three years, and will be even higher for bigger companies and those that conduct more of their sales via the internet. (The CMO Survey, Duke University Fuqua School of Business)
  • ROI on Creativity: Under one model, shifting tech investments back into creativity would create an 18% ROI over six years. (The Cost of Losing Creativity, Forrester)

Why priorities need to shift

There’s a lot more at stake down the line if companies don’t start re-investing in creativity—that is, allocating more spending towards projects, tools and people that generate fresh ideas, which in turn make them stand out, emotionally connect with their market and get ahead. For one, brands aren’t wowing people anymore: despite the recent emphasis on customer experiences, those have plateaued, especially when it comes to improving brand loyalty and stickiness.

Another issue is “digital sameness.” Whether it’s being able to conveniently book flights or pay in advance for services, functional experiences are now the same. Brand apps and websites both perform and look similar and all serve the exact same customer needs or use cases in the same way. In short, brands are losing their edges and corners, their “intangible” elements in our parlance.


We should note that investing in creativity doesn’t mean putting more money into our accounts, nor does it just apply to large companies. It means valuing creativity as a concept and resource that produces a foundation for future results. This applies to whether you run a small company, run a team within one, or work for yourself.

  • Freedom and head space: At the company level, this could translate into putting time, effort and yes, money, into the infrastructure and culture that spawns new ideas while attracting and retaining talent. This includes supporting amenities and policies that give employees freedom, which result in that much needed head space to both come up with and execute new ideas. We might have the occasional grievance with their buggy updates, but word has it that  the people working for Adobe are living in line with the brand’s vision of promoting creativity through their company culture.
  • A better relationship with technology: Today, creatives and companies have access to a litany of powerful technologies. However, if we can take some learnings from companies splurging on expensive tech to solve all their problems, it’s that we need to consider how these new technologies actually help to support creativity and the brand vision. For instance, does that new app you want to subscribe to save time and energy in the long run, even after an extensive first set up? Is it effective as is out of the box, or can it be adapted to better suit your creative needs? Even more importantly: is there future value for you in the experience of learning to do something rather than leaving it up to tech?
  • Shifting the culture: Arguably, we stumble upon a fork in the road with regards to which side makes the first big moves: do companies realize that they need to keep feeding the Golden Goose and start allocating more money, or does the market (i.e. paying customers) start looking for things they want or haven’t seen yet? Either way, if we want to see changes, we can always be proactive by making our voices heard and taking a firmer stance in regulating the value we offer, thereby increasing it and our leverage.
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