When Only One Will Do

I’ve been thinking about words recently. A lot. Between finishing up the editorial and design process for our first book and working with the masterful contributors for A Brief Message, I’m seeing words in my sleep.

That’s why when I recently ran across a passage about words in what I thought was an otherwise non-word-type book, Eat, Pray, and Love, it stood out. Elizabeth Gibson, author and protagonist of this semi-auto-biographic book, reveals that a city can be described by a single word — a word that can represent its spirit; a word that’s on the mind of everyone. She explains:

“Every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. If you could read people’s thoughts as they were passing you on the streets, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought.”

She goes on to explain that the word for Rome, for example, is “sex” and the word for New York City is “achieve.”

“Whatever the majority thought might be—that is the word of the city. And if your personal word does not match the word of the city, then you really don’t belong there.”

Now as a fan of the economy of words, I really like this concept. Not just the thematic nature of what this stands for, but the mathematics of it all. If my word doesn’t match my city’s word, then I don’t belong there? That’s a pretty simple equation. More things should be that black and white.

As it turns out, we’re already running projects this way. Hillman Curtis uses a similar philosophy as described in his MTIV book in 2002, using single words to stand for the theme of a project.

Concentric circles hold common words that clients use in project meetings. The most common word used to describe the project becomes the theme, guiding the project throughout the process. From a chapter in MTIV: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer

Hillman’s design team uses a three-ring target on a piece of paper, keeping track of words that clients use in meetings. The words and ideas clients “repeat and get excited about” are jotted down in these concentric circles. The word repeated most often, gets the center target, and becomes the “emotional epicenter” of the project.

I really like this.

There’s something about the constraints of one word that seems to bring needed focus, painful decisions, and the like. Constraints are healthy. And I suspect these one-word constraints are all around me. I just haven’t been paying attention.