Surprising Yet Familiar Ne'er the Twain

Too surprising, too familiar, or both? (Definitely too expensive and too hyped. Remember Ginger?)

One of the things we’re always trying to balance creatively at Knock Knock is the balance of surprising and familiar. When we do things that are too far outside the brand, the response from sales reps, retailers, and buyers can be, “What’s Knock Knock about that?” or “Where’s the funny?” If we make stuff that’s so surprising it’s hard to understand, it doesn’t sell. But if what we make is too familiar—retreads, sequels, etc.—then the product is boring. So the solution is to have elements of both, to be able to recognize the brand and the product’s role in the brand but also to sprinkle in enough surprise, delight, and fairy dust. I think this tension exists, or needs to exist, in all creative output, whether product or fine art or music. Things that were great but “ahead of their time”? Too surprising. If you can’t understand something at all, have no familiar hooks on which to hang your brain, then it’s alienating (like our Deep Boxes). And we all know what boring is.

“A good ending should be surprising yet inevitable,” some prominent writer (in my glancing research, I’ve learned there’s controversy about the original source—David Mamet? John Updike? Aristotle?) said about novels. It helps to think about the quote in terms of who-dunnits: when the killer is revealed, you want to be completely shocked yet be able to trace back through the entire story to find hints that support the conclusion.

I’m sure smarter and more dead people than me have come to the following conclusion: tension between opposing forces is what makes things work. Surprising/familiar. Surprising/inevitable. Compositional pulling from top to bottom, left to right, elements slightly off-center or asymmetrical to allow the viewer’s eye to make that grounding “kerchunk.” The whole concept of perfect beauty requiring a small mistake. Jolie-laide. Wabi-sabi.