LESSON 4: Take a stand

By July 13, 2015 3 Comments

yot punx

Punx (left); Youth Of Today (right)

I got into punk back in 1989 after discovering The Sex Pistols and some random local bands who fell into the “mohawks, leather jackets and Anarchy signs” camp. In other words, classic “punk rock by the numbers.” Being a weird kid who felt like I didn’t belong in the “normal” world, I definitely responded to their aggression and anger, but something didn’t feel right.

Their anger felt directionless and inarticulate, there was an undercurrent of self-destructiveness that I definitely did not respond to (coming from a family of fuckups, that was the LAST thing I wanted more of), and if I’m being honest, I thought they looked stupid with their ridiculous haircuts and spiky jackets. Punk was a start, but I was looking for something more– something that could channel my anger and alienation in a positive direction.

The line “living fast and dying young was just a fad for a bunch of losers who didn’t care” was like a bolt of lightning hitting my brain, because it took such a bold stand against the mindless self-destruction of the old-school punk scene

I found that in bands like Youth Of Today, 7 Seconds and Gorilla Biscuits, who were exactly what I was looking for: the aggression of punk, but channeled into a positive direction centered around a message of self-improvement. Not only were their lyrics 180 degrees from their glue-sniffing, mohawked counterparts, they looked completely different. They had regular haircuts and wore hoodies and sneakers– no stupid costumes.

YOT resonated with me because they were very deliberately taking a stand against the status quo of what punk had become: dogmatic, self-destructive and just plain stupid. They showed the scene that there was an alternative, that being “punk” didn’t have to mean being a self-destructive fuckup, and they weren’t shy about sharing their point of view. They got a LOT of hate for it (and still do), but they paid their dues (see Lesson 2: Pay Your Dues), and in the end they made a very real difference in the lives of thousands of kids like me all over the world by having the courage to take a stand.


Coffee before Starbucks: a caffeine-delivery vehicle worth 75 cents; Coffee after Starbucks: a premium indulgence worth $5

What business can learn from Youth Of Today is quite simply to stop being chickenshits and take a stand for what they believe in. Every company says they WANT to big things: innovative new products that leave their competitors in the dust, bold new marketing initiatives that blow minds, and so forth. But if you’ve ever been part of the creative process, you know that they’re rarely willing to actually commit to anything outside the status quo, so they end up just regurgitating the same tired ideas over and over, then wondering why they get the same results. They’re too scared to take a stand.


For example, I was working on a project years ago for a large packaged goods company that will go nameless who kept bringing up Method as an example of great design, and wondering why they couldn’t do something that cool. We thought this was really funny, because we had shown them dozens of concepts along those lines, but the concepts were always killed for being “too far out there.” With all due respect to the team at Method, there is nothing amazing about their product design: what’s amazing is that they were willing to take a stand against the status quo of clunky, cluttered, and overdesigned packaging and commit to simple, modern design.

If you’re wondering how to put this into action in YOUR business, it’s actually very easy. There are only two steps:
1. Put together a great creative team that can generate groundbreaking ideas
2. Trust them.
It’s really that simple. If you want innovative, game-changing products, all you need to do is pick good designers and believe in them. If everybody agrees that the first or second round of concepts is awesome, then sign off on them. Don’t keep noodling with them, watering them down until they suck. The ironic part is that making good creative is actually faster and cheaper than making bad creative, because you cut out all the bullshit that wastes time, budget and morale.

There are a zillion business books on the topic of being different from your competitors (a couple of my favorites are “Zag” and “Purple Cow“), so clearly this is an idea that business leaders are very interested in, but in my experience are spectacularly shitty at executing against– almost always because they aren’t willing to take a stand against the status quo.

I specifically want to emphasize the “against the status quo” part, because that’s what made Youth Of Today work: they saw that there was something wrong with the status quo of punk, and spoke out against it. In order for the “take a stand” principle to work, you need to identify a part of the status quo that you oppose. For example, Apple took a stand against the idea that computers were boring beige boxes for doing spreadsheets. Starbucks took a stand against the idea that coffee was a cheap caffeine-delivery vehicle.

So next time you find yourself wondering if you should pull the trigger on a cool new idea that you’re excited about, quit second-guessing yourself and take a stand! I promise you won’t regret it.

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Max says:

    Nice! Very good article, thx you

  • pl says:

    It’s about vision not budget and that’s pretty punk rock !
    I’m a designer and I know how it goes, I always get briefs where we’re gonna basically change the world but then the designs are “too simple” and maybe we’re gonna try to do something more like the competition.
    Everyone wants to be apple, but no one wants to be Steve Jobs.
    And it’s not like execs are stupid but I think when it comes down to it you have to trust your audience and that’s scary.
    But yeah that’s a great lesson, I look forward to more quality articles.

    • Finn McKenty says:

      It’s about vision not budget

      Exactly. Doing great work does NOT require a big budget! Obviously a big budget is always nice to have but it’s certainly not a guarantee of good work… in fact, if anything I think big budgets might work AGAINST quality, because everybody feels like they have to go through a ton of “process” (aka watering down everything until it sucks) in order to justify the budget.

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