#8: How Civilla got its name

And what we learned from the process


A few months ago, our team interviewed Paul Siebert — a designer, creative director, and one of our first mentors. He is also the individual who gave Civilla its name. Paul believes that names are critical to the success of projects, products, and organizations as they “shape perception almost instantaneously.” Since having this realization over fifteen years ago he has named dozens of entities and has grown a deep appreciation for the art of naming. Which is why, when Civilla was just a seed of an idea, we tapped Paul to gift our organization its name. He gladly took us up on the challenge.

Here’s what happened next, and what we learned about the art of naming along the way:

Mental Wandering

Paul knew that we aspired to bring an organization into the world that used human-centered design to change the way our public-serving institutions work. With this in mind, he carved out space to do what he calls “mental wandering.” Mental wandering, characterized by unstructured time when he lets his subconscious day dream, is one of the most important parts of his design process. He reflected deeply on the intent of the organization. He sought input from the world around him. He collected words that carried meaning. All the while, playing with relevant word associations. The process of mental wandering led Paul to two words:

  • Civil: reflecting the role of “ordinary citizens and their concerns” in civil society.

  • Village: a place of community — reflecting the notion that nothing big in the world has ever been done alone. Change is always supported by a collective.

Combining with these two words, Paul arrived at Civilla.

The Audit

Once the name Civilla emerged, Paul examined it closely. He knew that the graphical and musical qualitites of the name would impact how people received it. He wrote it down. He typed it out. He studied it to understand the visual elements of the letters. How did it look on paper? Paul saw opportunity in the way the V and A are reversed when written in caps, as well as the symmetry of the double l’s. How did it sound when it was spoken aloud? He liked the flow and rhythm of the three syllables. How did it feel? Upon reflection, he imagined having a glass of wine with the word. It embodied the warm, human-centered spirit that would be central to Civilla’s work.

The Reveal

The last step of the process was sharing the name. Paul thought carefully about how to design the reveal. He typed the words CIVIL and VILLAGE on a page, along with their simple definitions. He tucked the words into a plain envelope and addressed it to Mike with a hand-written note….

“Fragile: contains a daydream.”

He signed the back, “In design we trust.”

Mike opened the letter in awe — it was an emotion-filled gift that arrived at just the right time. He checked to make sure the url was available (it was!) and we never looked back.

The original envelope Paul Seibert gave to Mike Brennan, our CEO, revealing the name he had dreamt up for the organization that would become Civilla.

The original envelope Paul Seibert gave to Mike Brennan, our CEO, revealing the name he had dreamt up for the organization that would become Civilla.

A Provocation

In parting, Paul left us with one last provocation — a way to think about the name. “Civilla is a vessel” he said, “one which you must fill with energy and meaning and purpose. As you do, the power of the name will grow with you.” His words have served as an important reminder, one which we strive to make progress towards every day.

You may be forming a new organization, launching a team, or bringing a new project (or product!) into the world. If so, uncovering a name is a creative and spiritual act that brings forward meaning and understanding. We hope these words inspire you to take the charge seriously — and have fun with it!

If you’re interested in hearing more about Paul’s design process be sure to check out our newest episode of One Billion where we share the whole story.

— Rachel + the team

Adam Selzer