The big impact of changing a single word

Pete Brown
Pete Brown // February 15, 2017

Words matter.

This is one of our mantras at Mindset Digital. In an age of hyper-distraction, when we see thousands and thousands of words every day, one key to breaking through the noise is carefully choosing your words. This is the story of how I made the slightest change in how I worded a sentence and saw a major, positive impact in my life.

Choose your words carefully

If you’ve ever managed a visual, creative project—anything from an ad to a banner to a pamphlet to a magazine—you might know that there is a point after which additional reviews and requests for edits cease to improve the project as a whole.

It occurs after the major design elements have been landed and well-executed, and feedback from reviewers wades into more and more subjective waters. After this point, it would be difficult to argue that additional changes do anything beyond fine-tuning the design to a particular reviewer’s unique taste.

As a creative director, I’ve worked for years to accommodate these requests. My job is to speak up if the requested change un-balances the design or somehow throws a visual wrench into the works, but otherwise, an italics here or a drop-shadow there just isn’t worth throwing down over.

They’re just tweaks, really. And tweaks, by their nature, are small stuff—which, happiness experts assure us, we are not supposed to sweat. One of the main lessons I’ve learned making all manner of beautiful visual projects for 20 years is not to get tweaked by the tweaks.

Showing that you care

For years, in the back and forth of review cycles, I’d get a request for a tweak, and I would respond:

“Sure thing. I don’t care.”

Often such requests come couched in elaborate hypotheticals: So what would you think if we tried to do this or that? Or a designer would ask to make a small change before press time.

“Absolutely,” I’d say. “Either way. This or that. I don’t care.”

When the brilliant creatives I’ve managed would ask me how to prioritize roughly equal projects in their workload, I’d say, “I don’t care which one you work on first.” Or, worse, “You choose. I don’t care either way.”

And what I meant by this phrase, which as I type it over and over looks worse and worse to me, is that “I don’t mind.”

I don’t mind making this change for you, because it’s not detrimental to the integrity of the design.

I don’t mind which project you choose to work on next because I trust you to make your own decision.

I don’t mind because either option seems pretty good to me.

It was a small change to make in my vernacular (although I still have a sticky note on my monitor that reads “Use ‘I don’t mind,’ and not ‘I don’t care’”), but the implications are huge.

“I don’t care” suggests that, at some level, I don’t value the project, or worse, the person. It implies that I couldn’t care less about what you want so long as I can get the project done.

And that’s not what I meant at all.

Above, creative direction by stickies

I don’t mind, on the other hand, is entirely different. It implies that while I don’t have a strong opinion on the subject, I’m happy to defer to your choice in the matter. I don’t mind how we proceed puts you and me on the same team. I don’t mind, on some level, is a sort of compliment on your choice, your design eye or your writing. That’s good stuff, it seems to say. I don’t mind doing it at all.

Words impact your relationships

Now to be fair, I couldn’t have done this work for two decades now if my clients really thought that I didn’t care. In most cases, I think, they assumed the best of intent in my utterance, or else gave me a pass for being a quirky eclectic, rough around the edges. But since I’ve made the conscious effort to use I don’t mind, I find these relationships to be stronger than ever, and my outlook, in general, to be brighter. It was a small change to make that is still paying dividends today.

Signing off now so I can send this post over to my colleague Matt Weiner for editing. He’s a bright guy and great writer, so I’m sure he’ll have lots of good ideas for improving it. Let’s do it, I’ll reply. I don’t mind making that change at all.