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Tim O’Reilly on the ‘gift’ of brand building

In the first article of our exclusive SXSW coverage for this year's event, Dan Oliver reveals the truth behind the O'Reilly brand

Tim O'Reilly talks at SXSW
Tim O'Reilly talks to Jason Calacanis at SXSW 2011

Tim O’Reilly continues to be one of the leading figures in technology, and whether he’s talking about his multi-million dollar tech book publishing company, how he helped coin ‘Web 2.0’, or Ronald Reagan inventing Foursquare (think satellites!), he does it with a passion and insight not easy to match. 

In a discussion with Jason Calacanis on the opening day of 2011’s SXSW Interactive Festival, currently taking place in Austin Texas, O’Reilly revealed how one of the most (in)famous print brands on the planet came into being.

The gift of a brand

“The brand was a gift to the company, from someone that we did not know,” O’Reilly explained to a packed convention center. “For our first books a 14-year-old kid drew an image of a nut - for our ‘nutshell’ series - which was a fantastic pen and ink image. But it didn’t offer enough distinction. So we hired a graphic designer. They did something geometric and hi-tech, as you might expect, but it just didn’t match with who we were.”

O’Reilly, who always talks passionately about the importance of creating honest brands - and company cultures to match - revealed how spotting opportunity was vital to the brand’s success.

“One of our writers went home, and just happened to talk about the problem to their flatmate. She was an illustrator, and thought the unix platform name sounded like a weird animal,” said O’Reilly. “Just for the hell of it - over the weekend - she did mock-ups for seven covers and sent them in on spec. We were like, “Woah! These are weird!” Because, you know, these were weird looking animals - the ones with the big bug eyes!”

On second thoughts

However, after talking it through with the O’Reilly team, the quirky images of bug-eyed animals seemed like the perfect match for the company’s new approach, in an industry that had hitherto been dominated by impenetrably dull manuals.

“After eventually sitting down and talking the whole thing through we said “Yeah, let’s do it!” It was right for us. There was a barrier to entry with our subject matter, and we went with something out of the ordinary and distinctive. The thing is this: if you knew what those pictures were about, you were in the club! Brands have integrity. Brand isn’t just something you can paste on!”

Edie Freedman was the illustrator of the O’Reilly cover image art, and has been an employee at O’Reilly for more than 20 years. You can read more about her here: http://oreilly.com/news/ediemals_0400.html

 

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