One moved and the others blindly followed. 

Such is the world of a minnow.

Growing up, few things brought more joy than trolling the shallows of my grandparent’s lake in Northern Wisconsin. Armed with dime store plastic nets – my brother, cousins, and I patrolled the shoreline for all things in motion. Tadpoles, frogs, leeches and of course, schools of minnows were common targets. On occasion, the minnows moved together in such harmony they fooled our young eyes into believing we were stalking a record smallmouth. A flailing swipe quickly proved otherwise. Undeterred by the minor disruption, they would quickly reform to tease the next of us.

We were too caught up in the chase to ponder why fish school. While we proved time and again to be unworthy adversaries, they do so for protection. Small, nearly identical fish, acting in unison, confuse predators into thinking they are one larger creature. Schools bring fish together during mating season and allow the group to swim more efficiently.  There really is safety in numbers.

It’s difficult for anyone (but a keen observer) to distinguish differences in the individual fish. Being inside the school is probably a different story. They may look at each other and think, “I don’t look anything like that guy!” 

It seems the world of business learned from the fish. Take a stroll down the rows of wine in a liquor department. Odds are, you’ll find shelves stretching from one end to the other dedicated to just one type. Makers attempt differentiation with bottle types, labels, geography, and so on.

If you’re a wine fanatic, you might enjoy the nuances and appreciate the differences. To most of us, it’s hard to tell one from another. It appears as one big mass of confusion.

We hear all about differentiation. New and improved. Fresher. Softer. Differentiation is in vogue. If you’re part of the cluster, the game of constant one upsmanship creates meaningful differences. From outside the bubble, it looks like the school of fish – moving, yes, different, no.

So if the more things change, the more they look the same, how is that a few companies manage to break the tail-chasing cycle?

It’s no coincidence that many disruptive technologies come from unexpected places, outside the industry. One can imagine in the early 1900’s horse and buggy manufacturers working on smoother rides, faster hitches and other features. Along comes the car. In the 1950’s, no doubt there were engineers lying awake at night trying to figure out how to make keys that don’t stick, only to get sideswiped by computers. Software and the internet combined to bring a tidal wave of change.

I recall in the late 90’s conversing with a Kodak manager at a charity event. He confidently predicted that digital cameras wouldn’t impact the film market for at least 50 years – classic “in the bubble” thinking. 15 years later, the digital camera market, already past maturity, is struggling to compete against phones.

The world of graphics is no different. Traditional mindsets follow a predictable pattern. Faster presses, new materials, online ordering, digital pre-press and printing aimed at getting a leg up on the guy down the street.

Except he usually isn’t down the street anymore. He may not even be on the same continent.

To outsiders, we recognize our company gets lumped into the “School of Graphics" fish.

Our goal has been, and will be, to stand out from the others from an outsiders perspective, not our own. There’s nothing wrong with our industry. It’s just that we realize “new and improved” starts to look old after a while.

Since 1953, exploring has been at the heart of what we do. We call it Discovery. Sometimes Discovery takes mundane forms, liking finding errors and minding the details of daily business. At times we’ll re-engineer a part from the beginning to achieve a design look at a lower cost point. Occasionally, we’ll come across an idea that imparts radical change, such as when we started created graphics that apply automatically, or incorporating technology that adds functionality to products.

A durable graphic that automates TV broadcasts of poker games? Yup.

Still, we realize much of what we do is perceived as the same. That means we have work to do. We wake up each day trying to find the best, most innovative ways to produce a durable graphic.

We don’t know what the future will look like. We just want a hand in shaping it. We want to look a little different than the rest.

For more information, read Youngme Moon’s book “Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd”

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