Navigating the Unknown: the Power of Courage, Collaboration and Choice

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“The Deep End” by Madison Schneider
Hero image
“The Deep End” by Madison Schneider

As a creative in changing creative times, not a day goes by that I don’t wonder where to next?

I think about this in relation to our work and our industry. I think about it in relation to our business and our relationships. I think about it in respect to creative people, their minds and hearts and the truth that, if they don’t feel connected to their thinking and making, none of it will be of value.

So, I’m curious…

How do we move forward?

I don’t know.

These are powerful words.

How often do we allow ourselves to say them? How often are we afraid to?

What becomes possible when we do?

What if “I don’t know” was the beginning of our exploration instead of the end?

When we start something new — creatively, professionally, personally — we’re taught to make a plan and get underway. We believe it’ll be a clear path, a straight line. But the truth is there are always unknowns up ahead. To make progress, we must constantly adjust to ever-changing conditions. Keeping an eye on what’s up ahead and trusting our skills to navigate, we have to take one step at a time.

An example. In 2014, Alaska Airlines came to Hornall Anderson and said, “For more than 80 years, we’ve been building loyalty in the Pacific Northwest. But things are changing. Help us make a deeper connection with present and future flyers.”

Independent enough not to follow. This was so strong and so clear that it united otherwise divergent worlds and diverse people. Athletes. Artists. Dreamers and doers of every shape and sort. When it came to Converse’s 100-year anniversary, we launched a campaign called “Connectivity” (thank you, Anomaly) that connected all these different people through the badge of individuality they shared: the Chuck Taylor. One shoe, one shared belief, across the globe, through time. Then we went into cities and put out an open call to present-day advocates and catalysts who also believed in the power of the creative spirit, inviting them to be a part of photoshoots that would become brand marketing. An endless chain of independent people all pulling for the same thing.

Although the work we do doesn’t require the same physical demands as that of a tall ship, it’s important to remember the individual and collective effort required — as well as what becomes possible when we apply our energy toward a clear and shared goal.

Prior to agency life, I spent time with another kind of canvas. As a founding member of Converse Brand Design, I was part of the team charged with moving the brand forward in the early days of the Nike acquisition. From brand positioning to seasonal storytelling, global initiatives to retail displays, our work was guided by a singular belief.

This is hard. It reveals our edges. It makes us feel exposed and vulnerable, unequipped and unprepared. So instead, too often, we stay in the space of knowing where we are not pushed or threatened.

This is limiting. When we choose comfort over challenge, we miss out. Our clients miss out. And the people on the other side of all of the intention, investment, trust and understanding miss out. When this happens, we contain possibility to what has been — instead of what could be.

The truth is there is always more. More opportunity. More inspiration. More meaning. This is the place we’re always trying to reach, what we always want to feel and share: that there is somewhere new to go and something new to find.

To get there, we must believe it’s worth it. Worth the work. Worth the struggle. Worth trading the ego of answers for a world of possibility that waits on the other side of “I don’t know.”

The core livery design in Hornall Anderson’s rebrand
The core livery design in Hornall Anderson’s rebrand
The core livery design in Hornall Anderson’s rebrand
The core livery design in Hornall Anderson’s rebrand

With Virgin America, the destination for Alaska was the same — but the way forward changed. The solution was to embrace what made each brand great: the unconventional, thoughtful, vibrant spirit that, together, invited even more to love.

The takeaway: Chart a course. Get underway. But, also, be honest about changing direction when necessary. One leg of the journey at a time. Push on.

To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.
Joseph Chilton Pearce

From the face on the tail to in-flight collateral to airport signage to bag tags, there was a clear and consistent message: “We get you.” We knew where the brand was going… and then something changed. In 2016, Alaska acquired Virgin America and a whole new challenge came into sight: merge two distinct and beloved brands to become the Most West Coast airline.

Our company was organized in 1908 fully believing that there was an earnest demand from the retail shoe dealer for a rubber shoe company that would be INDEPENDENT ENOUGH NOT TO FOLLOW every other company in everything they do.
1913 Converse Catalogue
Hornall Anderson’s “More to Love” livery design
Hornall Anderson’s “More to Love” livery design
Hornall Anderson’s “More to Love” livery design
Hornall Anderson’s “More to Love” livery design
SSV Westward under full sail off Grand Bank, Newfoundland
SSV Westward under full sail off Grand Bank, Newfoundland
SSV Westward under full sail off Grand Bank, Newfoundland
SSV Westward under full sail off Grand Bank, Newfoundland

Many years ago, long before brand design came into sight, I made an incredibly uninformed decision. I signed on to be a deckhand aboard a 125-foot schooner named Westward, which was sailing from Woods Hole, up to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, through the fjords, and south to Cape Cod.

Over the weeks I was on board, I learned a lot about what it takes to navigate the unknown. Today, almost 20 years later, those lessons continue to push me. They invite exploration in new waters, alongside crewmates of all kinds, guided by the following three concepts.

Sail By Sight.

Haul Together.

Converse “Connectivity,” the 2008 global campaign designed to tap into the cultural heritage of the brand
Converse “Connectivity,” the 2008 global campaign designed to tap into the cultural heritage of the brand
Converse “Connectivity,” the 2008 global campaign designed to tap into the cultural heritage of the brand
Converse “Connectivity,” the 2008 global campaign designed to tap into the cultural heritage of the brand

The takeaway: Being honest about who you are and what you believe in can set you apart. But being brave enough to own it will connect you to others who feel the same. This is where value and impact wait.

Sing Out.

Sean Bercaw, Navigator, Captain, Lifelong Sailor and Message in a Bottle Thrower
Sean Bercaw, Navigator, Captain, Lifelong Sailor and Message in a Bottle Thrower
Sean Bercaw, Navigator, Captain, Lifelong Sailor and Message in a Bottle Thrower
Sean Bercaw, Navigator, Captain, Lifelong Sailor and Message in a Bottle Thrower

Our captain aboard Westward was named Sean Bercaw. A lifelong sailor, he was everything a captain should be: strong, steady, solid. On this day, in a squall off Cape Brenton, he was also something else. I came on deck and saw Sean, sitting alone on the bowsprit, red foulies punctuating a world lost in the fog. And he was singing. Almost inaudible, it was peaceful, grateful, joyful. In that moment, he was simply a person, alone in a storm, singing. I think about it often. The choice to see our challenges not as something to rail against or muscle through, but something to welcome. To sing out into. As one of my Hornall Anderson crewmates says, “easy to say, hard to do.”

Rani Hong, Founder and President of the Tronie Foundation
Rani Hong, Founder and President of the Tronie Foundation
Rani Hong, Founder and President of the Tronie Foundation
Rani Hong, Founder and President of the Tronie Foundation

This is Rani Hong. When Rani was seven, she was stolen from her family and sold into modern-day slavery. Through unwavering determination and miraculous twists of fate, she overcame horrific experiences and truths about our world. Today, Rani is a UN Ambassador and the Founder and President of the Tronie Foundation. She’s made it her life’s work to end modern-day slavery by 2030.

A few years ago, Rani came to Hornall Anderson for keynote speech writing on the subject of supply chain transparency, presented at the UN and the Vatican. She entrusted us to tell her story as a means of impacting the lives of so many others (more than 45 million people, in 2016). During our time together, Rani would talk about being the light, not the flies in the eyes. This has been her choice, and proof of incredible strength in a storm of overwhelming adversity.

The takeaway: There is great hope even in great struggle. As humbling as it is empowering, how we meet challenge — and how we overcome it — is a choice.

The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
David Foster Wallace

A few years after I made way through the unknown of the North Atlantic, David Foster Wallace gave a really big commencement speech at a really small liberal arts college in Ohio. In it he talked about the fluidity of our lives and “what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to remind ourselves over and over… ‘This is water.’ ‘This is water.’ ‘This is water.’” Whether sailing or thinking or making or simply being a person moving through this world, this is where our work begins.

The journey will show us the way. Our strength will continue to be greatest when combined. And when the going gets tough, we can look out into the fog and choose — with optimistic intention and surprising grit — to sing out. These are not easy things, but they are important, even critical. The good news is that, each day, we are called to raise the sails and explore.

Let’s move forward together.

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