I’ve been working on this cover design for Wired. And it will be the kind of cover design that, in some manner of streetside merchandising, will literally leap to the street. Bold. Simple.

When I first got the call to do this, it was from a friend, Margaret Swart, who’s the design director there. And she mentioned that the concept was Free! by Chris Anderson. I’d presumed this was Chris Anderson, a friend, that runs TED | the design conference in Monterey (now Aspen and Long Beach).

But no, it’s the other Chris Anderson. The Anderson of “The Long Tail”. And what that refers to is the idea of the progressive spinning out of an idea, a reach to consumers as a long tail or trail, from the opening intimation of a thought to the perfection of entirely customized relationships to brands. You might have read it. His premise is that the market isn’t about focusing on simply mass solutions to transfix community, but that the long tail is in fact speaking to serving millions of people. Differently — each of them. If Netflix has 10 million titles, available, all the time, every month. Then how many actually get seen? 99%.

I was thinking about this.

But the concept of the tail, interestingly, is at the heart of retail, as an etymology. And as anyone will tell you, I’m always looking for the etymon, the Greek word for the true meaning of things. Know that, and you know the word and its world. Where it came from, the meaning lies there.

But there’s a link to retail — conceptually, at least.

The tail.

What is interesting here, of course, is the very concept of the tail, the thread from an entity, something stringing things together. Something made, customized for the person. Tailoring. Retail. And if you really explore deeper into the nature of the tail, it goes back to some pretty curious interpretations of “tail”, ranging from the sexual implications to decoration and applications of things: design — as it were. The space of that kind of concept, is thousands of years old, pre Roman, to the Indo European legacies, that area of the birthplace of language that is northwest of India, north of Persia, deeply eastern European and southern Russia. The place of the roots of most of our languages in the west.

tail (n.)
“hindmost part of an animal,” O.E. tægl, tægel, from P.Gmc. *tagla– (cf. O.H.G. zagal, Ger. Zagel “tail,” dialectal Ger. Zagel “penis,” O.N. tagl “horse’s tail”), from PIE *doklos, from base *dek– “something long and thin” (referring to such things as fringe, lock of hair, decoration, horsetail; cf. O.Ir. dual “lock of hair,” Skt. dasah “fringe, wick”).
retail (v.)
1365 (implied in retailing), from O.Fr. retaillier “to cut off, pare, clip, divide,” from re– “back” + taillier “to cut, trim” (see tailor). Sense of “recount, tell over again” is first recorded 1594. The noun meaning “sale in small quantities” is from 1433, from M.Fr. retail “piece cut off, shred, scrap, paring.”
tailor (n.)
1296, from Anglo-Fr. tailour, from O.Fr. tailleor “tailor,” lit. “a cutter,” from tailler “to cut,” from M.L. taliator vestium “a cutter of clothes,” from L.L. taliare “to split,” from L. talea “a slender stick, rod, staff, a cutting, twig,” on the notion of a piece of a plant cut for grafting. Possible cognates include Skt. talah “wine palm,” O.Lith. talokas “a young girl,” Gk. talis “a marriageable girl” (for sense, cf. slip of a girl, twiggy), Etruscan Tholna, name of the goddess of youth.

“Although historically the tailor is the cutter, in the trade the ‘tailor’ is the man who sews or makes up what the ‘cutter’ has shaped.” [OED]

The verb is recorded from 1662; fig. sense of “to design (something) to suit needs” is attested from 1942. Tailor-made first recorded 1832 (in a fig. sense); originally “heavy and plain,” as of women’s garments made by a tailor rather than a dress-maker.

What, then, to the long tail here? The trail is to the customization, to my thinking; it’s about the shaping of an idea that becomes a space of commerce and community. It’s the shaping, the paring — the preparing of — the fabric of an environment that then is a kind of suited rendering to concept.

Wow, long running, that exploration. That tail. But I was thinking about it, I thought I’d finish it.

tsg | nyc