Eli Altman started freelance naming at age sixteen
Eli Altman runs A Hundred Monkeys, a naming and branding agency in Berkeley, California. A Hundred Monkeys was founded by Eli’s dad, Danny Altman, in 1990. Eli grew up helping his dad come up with name ideas, and the second he was old enough to sound like an adult on the phone, he was taking on freelance naming projects. In addition to running A Hundred Monkeys, Eli wrote the Amazon bestselling naming workbook, Don’t Call It That. He has a new book coming out soon called Run Studio Run, all about the business of running a small creative studio.
It’s easy to understand why clients working with Eli—he’s laid back, easy to talk to, and has a great sense of humor. Naming can be a big challenge, but Eli has a calm confidence that makes it feel a little less daunting.
Eli and I started the conversation talking about why, in Don’t Call It That, he suggests purposely coming up with bad names for whatever you’re naming. As for the naming process at A Hundred Monkeys, Eli describes it as “systematic,” pointing out that “naming is a very subjective activity … if you really get buy-in to the process it’s much easier to get buy-in to the result.” Eli’s personal name generation process mixes individual and group exercises as well as offline (with a notebook and pen) and online activities (using resources like Wikipedia).
I asked Eli about pitfalls for new namers and clients. He listed two:
- Expecting the “Eureka moment” (expecting that a name will “jump off the page”): “That’s just a failure of imagination … people like that fantasy because it makes the decision easier for them.”
- Being (too) descriptive: “All you have to do is look at the brands you interact with every day … what percentage of people who walk into a Starbucks get the reference?”
Eli described the differences between the first and second edition of Don’t Call It That (the second edition is 40% longer and contains vignettes from people who used the first edition to name things). We talked about what it was like to grow up as the son of a namer and how that led to Eli’s earliest freelance experiences. Finally, as usual, I asked Eli what he likes most about naming. He responded, “Getting to manipulate language in new and creative ways … I loved it when I first did it, and I still do.”
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors). Click above to listen to the episode, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or elsewhere to hear every episode of How Brands Are Built.
ROB: Eli, thanks for joining me.
ELI: Thanks for having me.
R: So let’s talk about Don’t Call It That. I’m looking at my first edition copy of it right now, very proud to own.
E: Limited edition.
R: Exactly. I need to get a signature in here. One of the first exercises in here is, come up with some bad names for your project. Why is that a good place to start when you’re trying to name something?
E: I guess there’s a couple reasons, maybe chiefly among them that I think people are actually a lot better at coming up with bad names than they are at coming up with good names. It’s like it’s an easier place to start. I think most people’s approach to naming something if they’ve never done it before. It’s just to sit at a table with a blank sheet of paper and a pen and wait until genius strikes them, which is a really frustrating and anxiety-provoking feeling. But coming up with bad names is just, it’s fun and quick and easy and I think once you do it you have some fodder in front of you to look at and figure out, “Well what makes these bad?” And then if I know that then if I flip that equation then what would make a name good? So to me it just seemed like a nice, easy way in.
R: Yeah, that’s a good point. It takes a lot of the pressure off I suppose. When you do have a naming project with a full creative brief and everything that you need to get started what kind of process do you have? Is it sort of systematic or is it a little more loose and freewheeling?
E: We’re very systematic. I think that naming is a very subjective activity and that because it is and because somebody’s hiring you and then bringing you in to help solve this problem if the process that they are faced with at that point is just you freewheeling, coming up with a bunch of stuff, seeing what works, what doesn’t it doesn’t feel like you’re really taking ownership over that situation. If you really get buy into the process it’s much easier to gey buy into the result. Whereas if you just show someone say a list of 100 names how are they going to tell which of those are good, which stands out to them? It’s just a paradox of choice issue where that decision … There might be a great name in there but good luck finding it.
R: Right. What’s your take on naming in a group setting versus individually? Do you like the group brainstorms or do you feel like naming is something that needs to be done individually?
E: I think, well we definitely do both. Depending on the type of project it might be more of one or the other. I think some projects are by nature very research-oriented, that if you’re working on something really technical or specific or with a lot of considerations in play in those situations we tend to go a bit more individually. Find our angles, do our research, and then we’ll talk about it throughout the process. I think getting together periodically is really important just to check and see where people are, what’s working and what isn’t. Then say you’re naming like a pizza place or something like that. I think in that case it’s a lot more effective to just throw a bunch of ideas around and see what happens because there’s is a delicate balance of considerations at that point. It’s more just like, what’s the weird-
R: Right, fun ideas.
E: Funny, interesting shit to come up with. Yeah exactly.
R: And so you’re probably not diving into the history of pizza making, although you might. But probably less so.
E: Yeah. It’s a different type of pizza entrepreneur.
R: Personally when you’re in the name generation phase is there any method to the madness? Do you feel like you can describe the process that you personally use?
E: You know one, I’m certain that I’m not using the same process every time. That it’s really just kind of a flipping through a bunch of different ways of thinking about something and just seeing what different angles are, different metaphors, allegories, related ideas, different ways of looking at a problem, taking different input like different things we’ve heard from the client or that we know are important to communicate and just rolling them around. And so it really depends on the project, it depends on what’s working too. That you have some sense initially based on interviews and briefs and stuff, like what are clients looking for? But then once you share names you learn a lot about how people will actually react to them. I think to me I’m building this model in my head of how somebody is interacting with names that we share. Like what are they responding to? Are they driven by the poetry of words, their etymology, a usage example? There’s so many ways that people could talk about something as subjective as a name. Really digging into the ways that clients think about names tells us a lot about what’s going to work and what isn’t. So I’m basically just refining this model in my head. And then obviously there’s some sort of course correction involved there because just because they might want something a certain way doesn’t mean that we think that would be a good name for something.
R: There’s serving the client and then there’s serving the greater good of putting good names out into the world.
E: Right. I think anybody who’s done this for any amount of time professionally has figured out the lesson of, if you don’t like a name enough to be proud of it and share it when the project’s done then don’t put it in front of the client because that’s going to be the one that they’re going to pick.
R: You talked about your own generation process really varying based on the project. But are there any special tricks or go-to approaches? I don’t know, like maybe if you hit writer’s block or something like that do you have a couple of things that you turn to to try to get back into the project?
E: I guess we do a fair bit of writing too. So at 100 Monkeys we do naming. We also do just a fair bit of positioning, messaging, stuff like that. And so, whereas I think writer’s block really exists for that type of writing I actually don’t really think it exists for naming. I think that you can go down a path and you can find everything that you think fits on that path. But if you’re not finding anything then that’s more indicative of how effective the path you’re taking is and that naming isn’t … It’s not like you’re going down one road and you need to find the best place to stop on that road. There’s a million roads you can go down. And so if you’re barreling down one and it’s not yielding anything interesting then get off. Find a new place to look.
R: Right. What about even just writing out your list of names or when you’re generating names? Are you working with a pad and pencil or Microsoft Word or something like that?
E: I use a notebook, a notebook and a pen. I think all this stuff ends up in a computer obviously but I think that … I also think one really important distinction when coming up with names is like whether you’re doing that with resources on your computer, that’s one way to just pour through a bunch of resources like Wikipedia or whatever. Then there’s also just sitting and thinking. I think it’s important to do both of those things on any project because they yield vastly different results. And so the notebook allows me the flexibility to do it both ways, that if I want to shut out … Because the problem is you’re working on your computer and it’s like, and then you get an email, and then you get a notification, and then you get a text. And so all this shit’s coming in. You really just want to focus and so many people shoot themselves in the foot with regard to their own focus all the time.
R: Even just in the realm of name generation it’s tempting then to go to Thesaurus.com or look up a word on Wikipedia and things like that. And if you’re really trying to avoid that then I guess a pad and paper helps or a pad and pencil helps you do that.
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R: When you were talking about it being important to both work offline in an analog kind of way and then also getting online and doing research, doing both for every project, do you have a default order? Am I right that maybe you prefer to do the offline stuff and just get the ideas out first before you look to the internet?
E: That’s interesting. No, honestly I think I just go with whatever I think will be an easier place to start. Because just the diversity of projects, like if we’re doing a biotech project or something like that I can almost guarantee I’ll start online. Just because I need to feel more comfortable with that subject matter before I really dive in. Whereas if it’s a donut shop or something yeah, I’d probably just start something.
R: Something you know too well.
E: Yeah, I know very intimately. Then I’d probably just go for it. Like, “What? How do I need to educate myself to name a donut shop?”
R: Got it.
E: It’s not to say, you can research anything which is great and fun. But I think in those instances where you feel like, “Okay, I squarely get what this is” might be easier to just start on your own.
R: In Don’t Call It That you have a great list of, or at least you mention a few mistakes or pitfalls that new namers sometimes make. What are things that you feel like you see a lot just off the top of your head or that you’ve seen recently?
E: I’ll give you two. One is expecting the eureka moment, that’s probably the biggest mistake. One of them I see is that you … This, “Well, we’ve looked at a lot of names but I haven’t found the one that just jumps off the page at me.” That is just a failure of imagination basically. Like it doesn’t-
R: Is that what you tell your clients?
R: That’s harsh.
E: No, it’s direct. I think clients appreciate that when you’re direct that it’s just like love at first sight. It makes for an easier Disney movie but it doesn’t connect with reality, that look at a real relationship. When you first meet someone you might realize that there’s the potential for it to turn into something great, but you don’t actually know it. You feel the potential. And so you’re looking for that and that’s not this like, “Oh my God, there it is.” People like that fantasy because it makes the decision easier for them. You don’t actually have to make a decision between options. It’s just like, “Oh, of course. This one’s just jumped, there it is.” Whereas you’re not factoring in reality. It’s like, “Can you actually have this thing? Is it trademarkable? Could you get a URL? Does it mean something offensive in another language?” You know what I mean. There’s so many things you actually … So many tactical points that a name needs to hit that this, “Oh my God” moment. Even if you were to miraculously have it you’re not through the woods yet. So that’s one. Another one I think is just being descriptive. People are afraid that if your name doesn’t say what you do that people won’t get it. Which I think all you have to do is look at the brands that you interact with every day and you’ll see that, “Oh yeah, I actually interact with a lot of brands where I’m not sure what that means.” It’s like, what percentage of people who walk into a Starbucks get the reference?
R: Right. I want to ask you about that because I’ve seen a lot of namers talk about avoiding descriptive and I completely get your argument and agree with it. But I think I’m sure you would also concede that there is a time and a place for a more descriptive name, maybe not for a company but for a feature on a product or something like that. How do you think about that at 100 Monkeys or how do you draw that distinction of when names should be more or less descriptive?
E: Yeah totally. I think it really gets down to navigation functionality questions like when we do a lot of product architecture where we’re talking about 50 products, a couple of hundred products or a product that has 25 features and things like that. You don’t want to put really interesting, evocative names on everything. It just creates this mess, like in design it’s like you want to track when you’re looking at a layout, you’re tracking where your eye goes first and then the order in which you move through a layout. It’s kind of a similar thing with naming. If every name you’re presenting is similarly evocative or attention-grabbing where do you go first? You get confused with everything trying to vie for your attention simultaneously. I think it’s just a bigger decision about what your hook is. Where do you really want to grab someone and bring them in? And then once they’re there how do you help them find their way around? Which probably leans a bit more on being descriptive than it does on just being like, “Look at this cool name for a thing.”
R: You told me the other day that there’s a third edition of Don’t Call It That coming out, I think you said in the near future? Can you talk a little bit about the book and the differences between the different editions just so that people can understand that?
E: Sure. Well yeah, so the third edition is actually kind of far out. I’m finishing up Run Studio Run now, which should ship in like July. And then once I get that out into the world then I’m sort of turning my energy back to Don’t Call It That a bit. Between the first two editions the first edition was just that, it was my first take on the helping people work their way through a naming process. And the second edition was like 40% bigger than the first edition. It includes a lot of vignettes from people who used the first edition to name things.
R: So you got a lot of feedback and people telling you how they were using the book?
E: Yeah exactly. And that’s it. I put it out there and it’s hard with the first edition because you’re like … You’re not really getting any feedback or if I wanted to just release a draft to people it would take a long time for them to … I’d have to find the scenario where they’re actively going to name something. So it’s waiting for all the stars to align on that. I guess I was just too impatient. But the second edition factors in a lot of what I heard in terms of feedback from the first. And also just includes a bunch of other stuff like found some more name types and some better examples, some new chapters. I think there’s about 10 new chapters in the second edition.
R: One thing that people aren’t going to be able to tell on a podcast is the book is beautiful. I mean you’ve clearly put a lot of work into making it not only really useful and read really nicely but it looks great as well. Can you talk about who you’ve worked with to make it look so nice and the thinking that went into making it such a well-designed book?
E: Thanks. I owe the credit to my publisher and design partner Brian Scott who runs Extra Curricular Press in San Francisco and also Boone Design. So he’s a designer and a publisher. When I was coming out with the first edition I was really lucky that there was actually some interest in publishing the book. I thought that was going to be an uphill battle on its own. I think a lot of publishers are really looking for this niche-type of thing so that worked out all right. You know Brian was the only one who was really open to how the book was visually going to come together. Most publishers, that’s just kind of on their side of the fence. They’ll design it how they want to design it. It might give you a few options on the cover or something like that. But considering this is representing my professional life I really cared a lot about how it looked. And so that was totally a collaborative effort. And then the cover on the first edition was hand-lettered by Caitlin Galloway in San Francisco and the second edition, all of the chapter heads and titles and everything were done by Miguel Reyes of Commercial Type in New York. And we’re using Commercial Type fonts in the book as well.
R: So cool. Well, it looks great.
R: I don’t usually ask namers a lot about their personal lives in these conversations but you have kind of a unique story as a namer. Your dad started 100 Monkeys in 1990 and I believe you’re the only second generation namer out there, or the only one that I’ve talked to. What was that like growing up in a namer’s household? Are there any stories or experiences along the way that shaped you as a namer?
E: Yeah. I mean it was really fun. I didn’t know that it was a weird or unique experience until I was a lot older. But I think we worked a lot at naming around the diner table or on long car rides or things like that, just trying to get my dad to write something down. Because he would say all sorts of garbage and then every once in a while he’d write something down and he’d be like, “All right, that was actually a decent one.”
R: So that was a little win whenever he broke out the pad and jotted something down?
E: Yeah. It was like a legal pad and he used the Le pen, which I guess is the Le Car of pens. That was kind of the goal and I don’t know. I mean both my parents, they’re writers. I think that’s helpful too, that I just grew up with a lot of writing and a lot of reading and general appreciation for language. And so at 16 I started … Once my voice basically got deep enough where someone thought there’s a chance I could be an adult I started doing freelance projects. I honestly would have done it earlier if I could have got away with it.
R: Was our dad able to put you in touch with a lot of people to do that for or did you really initiate that on your own?
E: So, it was basically that I would do the projects for people who couldn’t afford to work with 100 Monkeys. So if somebody just … Because we’d get all sorts of people write in. Like, “Oh, my little landscaping business,” or something like that. And we’d say, “Well this probably wouldn’t work for us but I’ve got somebody for you.”
R: So you used to do that as a kid and now you’ve written Don’t Call It That for similar purposes I suppose to help people do this in an easier or less expensive way?
R: So you’ve kind of replaced your 16-year-old self with the book?
E: Exactly, yeah. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Also I think it’s just important in terms of getting reps in too that the number of projects I did that way, I don’t think I could have gotten more experience in a lower pressure environment. So it was really a nice way in with a bunch of people who … Most of them were tremendously happy with the work. But it’s also people who were difficult or didn’t like anything and I was just really happy that I got to go through all of those experiences pretty young and refine my own process over time.
R: I want to end on just a fun question. You’ve been doing this for a long time, what is your favorite thing about being a namer and coming up with name ideas?
E: I think my favorite thing about it is just getting to manipulate language in new and creative ways that so many people just think of language as just there are words and those words have definitions, but the contextual meaning of language, the associations, the feelings of whether a word feels smart or interesting or foreign, it’s just like all of those kind of nuances of words or whether a word feels different when it’s with other words or on its own, just really diving into that kind of character, that’s what I love about naming. I loved it when I first did it and I still do and just appreciate it with maybe more detail at this point.
R: Eli, thanks so much for making the time to join me.
E: Yeah, thanks for having me Rob.