★ ★ ★ Starbelly is a casual Castro neighborhood café serving California comfort food in a typically laid back atmosphere. Known for their pizzas, creative wine- and beer-based cocktails, and late hours (by San Francisco standards), they also make a fine burger.
The patty is half pound of Prather Ranch ground sirloin and comes with all the traditional fixings: lettuce, tomato, onions, and the same house-made pickle we discussed in our review of Super Duper (Starbelly and Super Duper are under the same ownership). The challah bun (Pinkie’s Bakery) is super fresh and deliciously buttery, if a tad on the flakey side. We ordered our burgers medium rare (of course). Nathan’s came medium while mine was medium well. Overall the burger was filling and flavorful. Starbelly’s commitment to sourcing quality local ingredients made a positive impression, but the overcooked patty kept us from giving it four stars.
Full disclosure: Starbelly’s owners are clients of ours and we’ve just helped them brand and name their latest restaurant. While we didn’t have anything to do with naming Starbelly, I’m friendly with the people who did, and our former intern designed the logo.
Out of genuine curiosity, I asked our server about the meaning of the name. This was his answer:
“We paid a couple of guys in The Mission to come up with 2,000 names for us. Then the owner’s kids picked the one they liked best.”
So many things about his explanation are revealing about non-designers’ perception of the creative process, that we had to make it this week’s lesson. Let’s break it down:
First, I love that he characterized their creative partners as “a couple of guys”—not the name of the agency or even, broadly, that is was an agency. Just two dudes. It makes it sound like they took a stroll down Valencia street looking for talented hipsters with access to post-it notes and a dictionary. For those readers unfamiliar with San Francisco, The Mission District is a rapidly-gentrifying corridor once home to muralists, thrift stores, and dance companies and now widely viewed as ground zero for third wave coffee and mustache wax. I love that our server invoked the designers’ location as their sole qualifying credential.
Second, it is telling that he framed the process as “paying…for 2,000 names.” In naming quantity often is inherent to the process, but the truth is you’re paying for one name (or rather, the expertise required to craft a name)—it just may take 2,000 to get there. Viewing design as a quantitative exercise rather than a qualitative one is troublingly common. It suggests that if, after considering the first 2,000 names (or 20 tag lines, or 10 logos, or whatever), you haven’t been introduced one you like, then another 2,000 (or 20 or 10 or whatever) might do the trick. But that’s probably not going to happen. The real trick is to strive for better understanding. Maybe the designer needs to ask new or better questions. Maybe the client needs a new or better way to evaluate the options. Maybe both parties need to revisit the goals, criteria and parameters. It’s the difference between investing and simply playing the lottery.
Lastly, the assertion that the decision was ultimately made by the owner’s children—while probably apocryphal—highlights an important dimension of our cultural relationship to expertise. Since I happen know the “two guys in the Mission” I can tell you that one of them has an MFA in writing, the other a BA (from Harvard) in the Philosophy of Language and Aesthetics. They are qualified and experienced professionals who were hired for their expertise. Since I also happen to know and work with the owner and recently named a new restaurant for him. I can attest to his design savvy and the intense consideration he gives every aspect of his business. Decisions are sometimes made intuitively, but never lightly and always in the context of a considered and well thought out strategy.
It may make for a good punchline to contrast the image of a couple of young hipsters spending weeks churning out thousands of names with the image of a couple of children picking their Seussian favorite, but it’s probably not accurate. And while it pokes light-hearted fun at the apparent futility of creativity—even evoking the common lay-criticism, “My five-year-old niece could have done that!”—it assumes a dispiritingly cavalier attitude toward professional creativity.
In fairness, my exchange with our server was brief. He probably wasn’t involved in the process, and simply provided the highlights of a story he’s heard second hand. I’m not faulting him in any way. It’s a good-sounding story, easily told and easily shared. It is also a humbling reminder of how the design process is viewed and valued by those outside looking in.
The Creative Lesson
Perhaps part of the reason is that we (designers) haven’t done an adequate job of branding the idea of design. If our cultural fluency with design is to improve, designers and design organizations are going to need to do a better job of making clear what we do, how we do it, and why it matters. We need to do a better job of telling our story.