Author Q&A with Jamie Mustard: How to Stand Out and Become an Icon

The Iconist

Jamie Mustard shows us how to get noticed and be memorable in a world of noise.

It all starts with blocks. It makes sense that these primal, familiar objects from our childhoods would create a sense of comfort and warmth, and Jamie argues just that in his book, The Iconist: The Art and Science of Standing Out. Blocks draw us in and near, and make the message, music, art, or product memorable using these elemental modes of communication. So why don’t more people use them to stand out and grab our attention? We sat down with author Jamie Mustard after reading The Iconist (a longlist award winner for our 2019 Outstanding Works of Literature Award!) to learn more:


I loved The Iconist and read it over the span of two sittings over two days. You state this question at the beginning of the book and I think it’s a great place to start: what makes some things imprint in the mind while other things are repelled? What causes any business, science, art, idea, or message to stand out and become iconic?

Well, first of all, it’s a huge compliment that you were grabbed by the book! What’s important and underlying in your question is understanding it in the context of the time that we live in. Today, anything busy gets discarded instantly as a byproduct or side effect of the internet. In other words, we are all being bombarded with so much digital messaging and advertising that, unless we are presented with something we can instantly understand, we reject any complexity coming at us. Think about it in these terms—in 1950, an average person was probably exposed to around 250 advertising messages a day. By 1998, before the internet was in full swing, this number had risen to about 5,000 to 7,000 messages. Today, with social media and smartphones, this number is more in the range of around 10,000 to 15,000. A human being couldn’t possibly process a thousand while just living their life. We all, as humans, individuals, professionals, institutions, and corporations, now compete with this content for increasingly limited attention.

A Block (or the anatomy of what makes anything iconic in the mind) as outlined in my book is something that works like a road sign. It is something that instantly grabs our attention for a microsecond, no matter the medium, based on instinctual primal laws that cause us to lock on to something. Then, if there is something of value there, we stay locked on. In this brave new digital world you have to lead with a road sign—whether it is your art, your resume, a grant proposal, communicating with your employees or colleagues, or even sending an email—if you want to grab and hold attention and bring others in to the full complexity of what you want to show them. My book explains how to do this. Any repetitive, monolithic thing will grab and hold attention and then quickly become iconic in the mind, even in a busy, busy world. I show you how to create that thing no matter your offering or what you do.


You write about the importance of Blocks as elemental and primal modes of communication that bring us comfort because we can immediately be familiar with the message being transmitted with the image or Block used. How did you first come across this idea?

Well, I was a child of relative poverty and neglect, so invisibility was something I had been dealing with from a very young age growing up in urban Los Angeles. I always found ways to “Houdini” myself out of situations created by my circumstances. So, I guess you could say I was working on the seeds of this idea my whole life, long before the overwhelming maelstrom of the internet. This torrent is diluting all of us and is making it nearly impossible for anybody from any walk of life to get the attention necessary to get engagement and be successful in the life they truly want to be living. It is interesting that I only put together the connection between the deprivation I experienced as a child and the primal laws I lay out in the book after it was pretty much done. I then had to figure out how to weave my story into a book already filled with stories.

Around twelve years ago I was working at a PR firm in Southern California that was doing PR in an unconventional way. They would repeat the exact same article and headline in a concentrated industry or towards a concentrated audience and it was remarkably effective at driving business for clients. I had a moment where I put this together with a statement Billy Joel made about how he wrote hit songs and hooked people with music, and also how an unusual architect who became iconic in his 50’s using the same techniques with his structures. The architect had gone on a tour of the Seven Wonders of the World and had an epiphany. I had my own one day when these three elements came together in a single profound moment and I wondered if there was a pattern. I wondered if it could be applied to anything and if it was universal in terms of how human beings prefer to perceive ALL things. I raced home and wrote an 18-page outline which served as the framework for The Iconist a dozen years later. I write about this moment in the book. It took me a while to beta test it for clients across every field and confirm the pattern.


Do you find that most people you work with often have Blocks in their branding or music or business? If so, why is it so difficult to bring that message to the forefront?

I find that most people don’t and it is actually kind of startling to me. I find that most people and companies or institutions have these things but they are just buried in what they are presenting to the world, so they end up presenting nothing. Some of us just don’t know how to choose the right single offering out of many in the medium or field in which we are working.

What I most often find, and this was really surprising, is that most people think and say that they want to stand out, but when they actually get the attention, they sometimes get overwhelmed by the heat of having all eyes on them and the possibility of making a mistake. It’s kind of like public speaking—when all eyes are upon us it can induce anxiety. I explain the formula so that one can be assured they are doing it right.

Also, institutional inertia and habit play a role. I explain how to overcome these things in a simple way. Plus, we need to remember that this phenomenon has crept up on us as a culture, society, and people. The digital overload came on and then sped up, so many of us are suffering from the ‘boiled frog’ syndrome. We were already made invisible and became less and less able to get attention before we even realized it was happening to us.


You mention few people are successful without the use of Blocks. Do you have any examples of those who are and how they were able to do it without the use of Blocks? Would Blocks have made their success exponentially better? Does timing have anything to do with it?

Anything that is around long enough, especially if it is first in any sphere, can or will eventually have success just by being there and enduring. Most successful individuals and companies are using Blocks and iconic communication and just don’t realize the mechanism of what they are doing. If you understand why what you are doing is working, then you can do more of it and do it better. There are a lot of banks and even educational institutions that are successful that do not use Blocks, have been around for over a century and are successful despite not using Sesame Street-like and real communication with their customers and audience. These institutions could and would have quantum benefits from using the primal laws of attention and engagement.


I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the internet and total accessibility to information as a benefit, but also as something we must be conscious of (because of the consequences of hopelessness, disconnection, and isolation). How can we most help the dilution generation regain connection, purpose, and hope?

What I want for other people is what I strive for in myself. I want my outer life to match my inner life. We live in a time where the millennial and the GenZ generations are entering the world with what could almost be described as student loan mortgages. This is at a time where scarcity of attention is the defining work challenge of our time. In this context, roughly 87 percent of Americans do not like their jobs. Even though our work is only one-third of our lives, it is scarily 90 percent of how most of us define ourselves. At dinner parties or gatherings, the first question we often ask is, “what do you do?” not “who are you or what are you about?” which are much more appropriate and rational questions in getting to know someone.

These inherent conflicts as well as the isolation created by social media (we see incomplete versions of people only showing their best selves and we spend less time having real, in-person interaction, and it can subtly make us feel less) also creates a menacing cocktail for making us feel invisible and dissatisfied.

What we can do to offset this is to give all people of all ages a tool where they can stand out outwardly in a way that matches their internal intent. This is what I call transparency in living and when we do it we live much happier lives. In this way, The Iconist is more than a business book and is a book of social change. When we work in a way that matches our internal drive, institutions, companies, and individuals change. They all become more internally content and have more success. If enough people, companies, and institutions do this, society improves.


Transparency and authenticity are so important. How does one cultivate these if one struggles with them? What about for someone who is a part of a corporate culture that struggles to preserve these?

Again, this comes back to our external lives: whether we are an individual or organization, matching our internal intent. Often in a corporate setting, when we feel we are part of a borg, we struggle because we don’t feel like we have a voice with our colleagues or leaders. By using the techniques outlined in The Iconist, one can increase that voice and be heard and truly listened to because one can now connect in a way that is relevant and desired by their intended audience or those whose attention and engagement they desire. This instantly makes a person feel better and a company feel healthier. If one does this and understands this, and that their corporate job pays for other aspects of their lives that they love, then the effects can be fast and profound.


What are the biggest takeaways you hope readers will gain from reading The Iconist?

That all people and all institutions in their respective lives are able to stand out and get the attention they deserve for good work. I want people to walk away with an understanding that grabbing the attention of others and becoming tethered to those we are trying to reach by becoming iconic to them is a formula that can be done in minutes, with personal will and deliberation, rather than hope, luck, chance or years. Standing out and enduring is a formula and is easily and accessibly explained in my book.


Is there anything else you’d like to leave us with and/or that we should consider moving forward?

Yes, the world has changed. We live in a time where no matter who we are or what we do, we need to engage others with the power and efficacy of a warning label. If we do this, others are able to access the full complexity of who we are and what we have to offer. We need to do this for the world to continue to see and talk to each other. We need to see and talk for the world to go around. It also makes living a far more enjoyable experience as we travel through life on this very strange rock.


Thank you, Jamie, for taking the time to share your insights and a closer look into The Iconist! To order copies of this book for your organization, visit our website.


AuthorConnect Chat Series

This post was written by Karlyn Hixson, Sales Director at BookPal.  She is currently reading The Snowball System by Mo Bunnell.

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