Book review: Orbiting the Giant Hairball

This is not my usual kind of book, but it was a gift from my great friend Jeremy H. And I really, really enjoyed it.

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Every once in a while, I get comfortable thinking: “Hey, we’re pretty creative here. We do cool stuff, we’re open-minded, we experiment. We’re still young, we’re not afraid to try.”

And then I read a book like Orbiting the Giant Hairball, and I realize I’m far from exercising my creative potential, as are most other people.

The full title is Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace.

The author is Gordon MacKenzie, who was the Chief Creative Officer (and other, better-titled, roles) at Hallmark.

The book is about how to stay creative in a corporate bureaucracy. I think a lot of the advice is hard to implement, maybe even impractical. Some of it is downright ridiculous and would get you fired. But it’s surely entertaining to read about, at least, and there are some great nuggets here.

The author likens big companies to giant hairballs, and the creative people as orbiting those hairballs. As opposed to being inside them, which is the default, or inertia-driven, approach. If you’re in orbit, you’re intimately related to the hairball, but outside of it, and not part of its most annoying parts. It’s an interesting metaphor.

More specifically, the author defines the hairball as “the corporate tendency to rely on past policies, decisions, and processes as a formula for future success.” That really strikes a chord with me. It’s too easy to fall back on these defaults, especially if they give you some initial success.

And that’s just the start of a great book. It’s worth reading for humor value along.

But the other unusual thing about this book is its designed. I got this as a gift shortly after raving about my Kindle. I still love the Kindle. But this was the first book I read in a long time that reminded me of the beautiful options available with book design.

I’m not talking about Tufte-style visualizations. Rather, I’m talking about the creative use of doodling, illustrations, variance in fonts and font sizes, unusual layouts, and more typographic approaches. This book, which is self-published, by the way, does it really well.

All in all, an usual book in my library. No spies, no assassins, no Mossad, no sci-fi, no bankers, but really fun to read, and maybe even inspirational at times.

By the way, there was an interesting Fast Company article interviewing the author a couple of years ago, for the curious: How Is Your Company Like A Giant Hairball?

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