Need an Inspiring Brand Name? Look Outside

Nancy Friedman
Mar 25 · 3 min read

Where do you find a brand name? More specifically, where do you find a powerful, memorable, lasting brand name?

The answer, in one famous instance: outside the window.

In 1982, computer scientists John Warnock and Charles Geschke were working in Warnock’s garage in Los Altos, California, on a page description language for controlling printing. The product would end up being called PostScript; in 1985, Warnock and Geschke would license it to Apple.

PostScript is a solid product name. But Warnock and Geschke, who had been colleagues at Xerox PARC, had bigger plans. They needed a company name that wasn’t defined by, or limited to, a single product.

They found that name when they looked outside the garage window and saw Adobe Creek.

Thirty-six years later, Adobe Inc. (originally called Adobe Systems) is a global leader in creativity software; its products include Photoshop, Lightroom, InDesign, and Flash, as well as software for video editing, audio editing, and digital marketing. Corporate revenues surpassed $9 billion in 2018.

And the Adobe name has kept pace, because it always was more than a random choice.

In Spanish, adobe describes a sun-dried brick made of earth, water, and organic material such as straw; it can also refer to a building made of adobe bricks. (Adobe came into Spanish from Arabic al-ṭūb, which translates to “the brick.”) It’s one of the oldest building materials in the world. Indigenous people in the Americas, and especially the American Southwest, used adobe construction for centuries — it was valued for its durability and thermal properties — and, beginning in the 18th century, Spanish settlers continued the tradition.

Consciously or not, Warnock and Geschke understood the significance of adobe to their own project: creating the building blocks of a new technology. Their “clay” was zeroes and ones; their “buildings” were documents (at first) and websites (eventually).

The Adobe name succeeds on multiple levels:

  • It was meaningful to the founders. Adobe Creek was their neighbor, their source, their inspiration. It has a long human history: it was the site of an Ohlone settlement and is near the Mission Santa Clara, founded by Spaniards in 1777.
  • But the name wasn’t too personal: it communicated to a wider audience. Companies named after the founder’s dog — I’m looking at you, Zynga — don’t have the same potential.
  • It served as an empty vessel for future expansion. I’ve told the Adobe name story countless times, and only rarely have I encountered someone who knows what “adobe” means. Most people think it’s a fanciful name like “Kodak.” Knowing the meaning adds resonance, but the name succeeds even if you don’t know it.
  • It’s easy to pronounce in many languages. The alternating vowel-consonant construction is clear and phonetic. (“Kodak” shares this property.) No diphthongs; no quirky English spellings.
  • Visually, the lower-case d and b form bookends in the wordmark: a symmetry that pleases the eye. That’s important when your primary audience is designers.

Perhaps most important, “Adobe” was, and remains, distinctive. In the early 1980s, the names of dominant technology companies were clipped words like Intel and Intuit, blended words like VisiCalc and Microsoft, compound words like Autodesk and WordStar, acronyms like IBM and DEC, descriptive names like Texas Instruments and Digital Research … or founders’ names like Hewlett-Packard and Cray. Adobe fit none of those categories. It stood out; it commanded attention rather than blending in.

The Adobe story is an excellent example of lateral, rather than literal, thinking: approaching the problem not straight on but from a side view. This “side view” came from a garage window. Yours may come from the sidewalk beneath your feet, a sign in a subway station, a bird’s nest on a tree branch. To find your own memorable name, train your powers of observation and look around.

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Nancy Friedman

Written by

Writer, name developer, brand consultant, idea-ist. Find me on Twitter and Instagram (@fritinancy) and in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Startup

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