If you go to JFK Airport, you’ll see a hotel that looks like an alien spaceship and the Sydney Opera House had a baby. The hotel was originally built in the 1960s as an airport terminal for TWA Airlines.
The entire aesthetic orbits around TWA’s brand, with three core themes:
- Airplanes: TWA’s industry.
- Bright Red: The color of TWA’s logo.
- The 1960s: When the hotel was built and TWA was thriving.
Every design decision returns to these themes (from an old TWA plane transformed into a bar, to red carpets, to Beatles music on the speakers, to the old-school flight attendant outfits that look like something Marilyn Monroe would’ve worn, to the rotary phones in the bedrooms that I couldn’t figure out how to use).
The core concepts are simple.
The implementation is borderline excessive.
And that’s the point. Eero Saarinen, the building’s architect, once said: “Once one embarks on a concept for a building, this concept has to be exaggerated and overstated and repeated in every part of its interior so that wherever you are, inside or outside, the building sings with the same message.”
Writers should heed this principle.
So often we add complexity in an effort to make ideas more dynamic. Instead we should simplify ideas to make them memorable. As a creator, if your message doesn’t feel “too simple,” it’s probably not simple enough.
Sings with the Same Message
Let’s start with the last sentence of Eero Saarinen’s quote: “…sings with the same message.”
Early designs for the TWA terminal were scribbled on a restaurant menu in 1956. The original shape never really changed. Saarinen turned them into 60 blueprints, which the builders later turned into the actual structure (I visited the hotel with an architect who was astonished to see such a low number of blueprints, as modern buildings of this size have hundreds and hundreds of blueprints). Perhaps builders were able to construct the building from so few blueprints because the basic themes were so clear.
In the world of movies, I think of Snakes on a Plane. As a viewer, the title tells you so much about the movie you’re about to watch. Though simple, it adds suspense without revealing anything about the plot. You know you’re not going to get parrots in the cabin or elephants in the ocean. The creators could discard anything that didn’t revolve around the core theme: Snakes on a Plane.
Like Saarinen’s directive, the movie’s core themes don’t just sing. They are also “exaggerated, overstated, and repeated.”
At dinner recently, a friend asked why Peter Thiel’s Religion is my most popular essay. One reason is the premise is extremely simple. In it, I say: “People know that Peter Thiel’s business philosophy is inspired by Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory, but if you look carefully, his core ideas spring up from his Christian faith.”
That simple premise wasn’t just straightforward for readers. It also helped me write the piece. The title, Peter Thiel’s Religion, made it easy to know what to keep and discard in the editing process. The simpler the message, the sharper the razor.
Trusting the virtues of simplicity is one of the toughest challenges I face as a writer. Complexity gives mouth-watering fun, dynamism, and novelty. Since today’s epiphanies are tomorrow’s common knowledge, committing to something already found is often harder than finding a new idea. But good ideas are worth doubling… tripling… and quadrupling down on.
Do Less, But Better
Idea sprawl plagues many writers.
If idea sprawl writers were designing the TWA Hotel, they’d add a blue carpet, a section about trains instead of airplanes, and a section designed around a more recent decade. In doing so, they’d destroy the aesthetic. The hotel designers deserve awards not for innovation, but focus.
In a lust for novelty, too many writers try to explain their entire worldview in a piece instead of committing to a simple message and relentlessly zooming in. Their writing wanders all over. It lacks a central message, one that repeats delightfully like the chorus in your favorite song.
You don’t need many ideas to successfully communicate. Just one good idea.
Once you find a concept that works, you need the blinders to stay focused and the diligence to develop it. Only once your piece feels as exaggerated as the airplane theme at the TWA Hotel, as overstated as its bright red carpets, and as repeated as Sinatra and The Beatles in the lobby do you have a concept that can shine.