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The Self-Determination Project: The story behind the name

Five Keys is a non-profit that establishes and runs classrooms in prisons. But after prisoners serve their time and are released, educational opportunities are unavailable to them. In their economically-isolated neighborhoods, high school graduation rates are chronically low and many don’t acquire the skills necessary for good-paying jobs that can lift their families out of poverty.

Five Keys was a finalist of the 2015 Google Impact Challenge. Their winning proposal was to convert out-of-commission Muni buses into classrooms that would go to these under-served populations where they live, providing them with educational opportunities otherwise unavailable.  The naming of these mobile classrooms I took on as a pro-bono project. 

It was vital the name appealed to the populations Five Keys served, especially the incarcerated. I honestly had absolutely no idea, no intuition whatsoever what kind of name would appeal to them, so I went to prison to find out. Over two days at San Francisco County Jail, I facilitated discussions and creative worksessions with male and female prisoners to learn about their feelings about education, life outside prison, and names. 

I briefed the prisoners on a mock project: Develop names for BeyoncĂ©’s forthcoming album, whose proceeds would fund educating the incarcerated. This mock project would be exciting and relevant to them, I hoped, and would inspire creative, evocative names. Following this exercise, I asked the prisoners to help me name the classroom on wheels. 

In facilitating these discussions, I learned that these men and women have no agency. Even when not behind bars, their poverty severely curtails their opportunities and life choices. The idea that education empowers people to control their own life inspired the name, The Self-Determination Project. Though I created the name (the prisoners’ names weren’t so great), conversations with the prisoners and understanding their views on education led to it.

Name That Scandal

Congressional Quarterly asked me why the Trump-Russia collusion scandal has no catchy name. Here's what I said (click to enlarge):
I don’t believe there actually needs to be a catchy name for a scandal name to catch on. Exhibits A through Z to prove that point is “Email Server.” If those somnific words can become the go-to name for Hillary's (non)scandal, just about anything could catch on as a scandal name.

But for any scandal name to catch on, there needs to be unanimity. Journalists across all media would need adopt one scandal name, such as Trump-Russia, and that would become the de facto scandal name. With different names currently in play, one scandal name to rule them all will never come to pass. And that would be a shame, as the evidence is clearly pointing to the greatest scandal of our time and it deserves unrelenting attention.

Recent Work

Names I developed but haven't announced yet. I hope you like them.

Along with my recent launches of Mythic and Fond, these credentials and others can be found in the Operative Words online portfolio.

Virgin Voyages
A terrifically fun project developed in partnership with Chandelier Creative. Virgin Voyages will be reinventing what a cruise line can be. Setting sail in 2020.

Starry Internet
A radical new broadband internet service currently piloting in Boston. The Starry Station router is unlike any other. From the founder of Aereo.


Pop a handful of Plume pods into power outlets through your house to create a seamless mesh wifi network. Plume pods' industrial design has been widely acclaimed. I spoke briefly to NPR about the Plume name (my quote begins around 4:25).

Another home wifi mesh system I named, this one for Linksys. Also critically acclaimed.

Streetlane Homes
Vertically integrated, single family home rentals. Streetlane buys homes, renovates them, rents them, and manages them. Logo designed by the insanely-talented Jeff Carino of CLK Design.

Roofstock lets anyone invest in single-family rental properties. The first company to offer fractional ownership in SFR homes.

Protocol First
Unifies and harmonizes research and medical data from clinical trials.

The Wove band is the world's-first wearable, flexible display.

Wisewire is a marketplace for sharing, creating, exchanging, and purchasing educational content. Teachers who create cool stuff for their own classes can sell it to other teachers.

Future Forum
My first political naming project, Future Forum is the Democratic caucus addressing the needs of Millennials. Since Congressman Eric Swalwell engaged me for this assignment, we've worked together on many other verbal short-form assignments.

You should #probablyvote
The Millennial get-out-the-vote slogan for 2016.

Chemetry makes production of certain chemicals vastly safer and with a smaller carbon footprint.

Trove works with companies who want to transform health, the climate and the planet through food.
Founded by former White House chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition, Sam Kass. Here's his Ted Talk about the interplay of childhood nutrition and education.

Bootstrap Small-Batch Whiskey
Made by New Deal Distillery of Portland, OR.

How to Name an Innovation (the movie)

Design legend, Don Norman, honored me with an invitation to speak at UC San Diego Design Lab about naming innovations. My talk specifically focused on innovative product descriptors, the part of a name that establishes what the product’s category is, such as “smartphone” or “universal remote”.

Why is a product descriptor important? If you're inventing a “World’s First” product, the invention’s product descriptor should establish a category all its own. But naming a unique product category is not always easy.

In my presentation, “Naming the New”, I detail a best-practice process to develop an innovation’s product descriptor. Real-world project examples for Quell and Cinder illustrate how it works. The video is an hour long, but you'll probably learn a lot if you get through the whole thing.       

If the topic of novel product descriptors interests you — and how could it not?! — read my other posts on the topic, Describe Different and The Names of MIT Media Lab