Giant Eagle. I think it started with Giant Eagle.
What is Giant Eagle? A proud symbol of American exceptionalism? A timeless nursery rhyme? A non-alcoholic beer brewed with floral hops?
The name won't register with most Detroiters. To see Giant Eagle in its natural habitat, visit Pittsburgh. For all of its majestic imagery, the real Giant Eagle couldn't be any more pedestrian. It is a grocery store – Pittsburgh's favorite homegrown supermarket. (Think Dexter Davison meets Farmer Jack + Perry Drugs.)
Giant Eagle is so ingrained in Western Pennsylvania culture that, I have to wonder, do locals recognize that the name is, frankly, ridiculous? While shopping for quality food at fair prices, has anyone ever pictured a literal giant eagle, swooping through the aisles, releasing a deep, echoing caaawwww as it deters shoplifters and restocks dry goods?
In 2017, my friend Jess and I were in Pittsburgh when we passed the Giant Eagle that sparked it all. Thus commenced a cherished activity for Jess and me: deconstructing the names of stores. And the names of bands. And menu items. And infamous political scandals.
A few months later on a trip to Portland, we noticed a curious trait of these names: many follow a simple formula that yields diverse results. Adjective plus noun. Fat Straw. Stormy Justice. Naked Dollar.
Immediately, Jess took out her notebook and divided a page in half (hot dog style). For the next 72 hours, we spoke at each other in unattached adjectives and nouns. Jess recorded our unwieldy glossary in the notebook. Upon compiling hundreds of candidate words, we started to play a game: from our list, combine random adjective with random noun. Repeat. Sure enough, each combination generated a vivid name of a hypothetical – occasionally actual – person, place or thing. Barefoot Neighbor. Speedy Gravy. Giant Eagle.
Like Juliann Wright (then-Mrs. Merv Griffin) coming up with the idea to give game-show contestants the answer and have them provide the question, we couldn't resist identifying the things that these "proper nouns" might represent. For the descriptions, we decided eschew any actual people or establishments. But as a nod to our love of travel, we did include references to specific cities, states and countries.
While plenty of word combos suggest something a bit "mature," we were careful to avoid content that was mean-spirited or outright offensive. The names and descriptions were colorful, sure, but – something you could play with your parents without blushing – moreso improper. Suddenly, our game itself had a name.
By this point, we were determined to test this game – Improper Nouns – with friends. Let's see their imaginations run free with our myriad adjectives, nouns and descriptions. To involve additional players, we needed to move our words out of the notebook and onto game cards.
Or, at the very least, onto home-printed, hand-cut sheets of copy paper.
Two toner cartridges later, we had a full set of flimsy but eager test cards: a deck of adjectives, a deck of nouns, a deck of descriptions. Numbering 1,836 cards altogether, we packed the decks neatly into cardboard tea boxes.
With our plucky little game kit, we made the rounds in basements, living rooms and coffee shops. We invited our friends and family to offer their input. We observed how participants navigated the game, watching closely for bottlenecks, points of confusion or content that missed the mark.
With feedback from more than 100 early players (not to mention some memorable word combinations and uproarious laughter), Jess and I decided – it was time to make Improper Nouns an actual thing. If we didn't do it, who would?
We hit the road for final research of individual game components. In Cleveland, we spent the afternoon at a board game cafe reviewing different formats for instruction sheets. In Grand Rapids, we browsed the game section of big-box stores to evaluate glossy boxes versus matte boxes.
Before a flight to Los Angeles, we looked on intently as a TSA officer fished the test game out of our carry-on bag. Concluding it was harmless, she asked us where she could buy one.
Along the way, we added a couple extra features to Improper Nouns: curveball cards and bonus cards. In late-night editorial sessions, we streamlined to a more manageable number of cards. We tightened wording – though we never fully identified our own recipe for a strong card. Some concepts work, some don't. Copywriters at heart, we were happy to assess on a card-by-card basis.
To prepare for prime time, we shifted our energy to design. First, graphic – layout, colors, fonts, etc. With her eye for typography, Jess even fine-tuned a lower-case "k" for better legibility. Then, packaging design: how could we fit multiple, custom-sized card sets into a single, compact, accessible game box?
We tapped an industry-leading supplier to produce the games to our spec. Our Kickstarter campaig secured support from almost 200 backers before manufacturing began. After user-focused modifications to the prototype, we approved a quantity run of 1,000 games.
With the backdrop of a pandemic and global shipping constraints, three pallets of Improper Nouns games arrived in Detroit in September 2021 – three years after Jess and I first volleyed non sequiturs while walking across the Willamette River.
Since then, Improper Nouns has consistently generated laughter and debate – plus the occasional insight for a highly marketable real-world product or service. With its 100,000+ random combinations, we've never seen Improper Nouns played the same way twice.
Who knows – play your cards right and you might find your own Giant Eagle.
Nu?Detroit is proud to present Improper Nouns Game Night at Berkley Common on Friday, November 19, from 7:00-9:00. You can try out the game over a bite/pint and take home a set if you're feeling improper. The event is free and everyone who RSVPs will be entered for a chance to win a first-edition.