I send a lot of unsolicited emails. In many of them, I ask to buy traditional advertising spots or to help conceive a non-traditional campaign. Oftentimes, I find myself describing these non-traditional campaigns as "out of the box," as in "let's think outside the box!" But I realize this phrase can also be interpreted as "ready-to-go," "turn key" or "prefabricated." That's not what I'm going for.

Am I using the phrase correctly? Is it easily interpreted as I intend? Is there a better phrase?

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    Just out of curiosity, are you implying that you are a spammer? – Gurzo Oct 6 '11 at 22:17
  • @Gurzo - Ha, no (I'm the one with the cash). Though sometimes it feels like I am ;-). – samthebrand Oct 7 '11 at 16:34
  • I suggest not using trendy businessy clichés/slogans like this one; they really super-irritate people. See this question for related hate-words. – tchrist Nov 20 '12 at 0:10
up vote 18 down vote accepted

The key lies within the text that you used to phrase your question:

"Out of the box" = turn-key, prefabricated.

"Outside the box" = non-traditional, unusual.

"Thinking outside the box" is regularly voted one of (and sometimes tops) the most-annoying clichés and is best avoided.

Try to use something clearer: brainstorming, creative thinking, let's come up with something unique, innovative or novel (or gimmicky).

"Out of the box" has both meanings. To think out of the box (or outside the box) is to solve a problem by tackling it from a different perspective. This refers to the nine dots puzzle.

Rather obviously, an "out of the box" feature is one which a product has when you first buy it and take it out of the box it comes in.

  • I'd require a citation before I'd accept that whoever coined the phrase was thinking of the nine dots puzzle. I agree that it is a neat application of it, but I doubt that it is the origin. – Colin Fine Apr 12 '13 at 9:14
  • Fair enough Colin. Wikipedia agrees with you: "The origins of the phrase "thinking outside the box" are obscure; but it was popularized in part because of a nine-dot puzzle, which John Adair claims to have introduced in 1969.[4] Management consultant Mike Vance has claimed that the use of the nine-dot puzzle in consultancy circles stems from the corporate culture of the Walt Disney Company, where the puzzle was used in-house" – Dominic Cronin Apr 14 '13 at 21:36
  • But still - without that easy answer, it's hard to imagine what the origins might have been. – Dominic Cronin Apr 14 '13 at 21:37
  • Dominic: I disagree. To me it is a very clear and (retrospectively) obvious metaphor: everybody else is trapped in the "box" of conventional thinking. – Colin Fine Apr 14 '13 at 23:02

@Hellion's answer is probably right, but I don't think the distinction is so clear-cut. In an episode of Battlestar Galactica1, for example, the expression "out-of-the-box" is used with the meaning of non-traditional, innovative:

Starbuck: Rumor mill has it that you’re planning an op.

Adama: Rumor mill’s right, for a change. Captain Adama and Col. Tigh are working up a plan now and I need some serious out-of-the-box thinking.

Starbuck: Out of the box is where I live.


1: Season 1, episode 10 of the 2004 production.

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    To my ear, that's just bad dialog-writing. :-) – Hellion Oct 7 '11 at 16:07

How about "blue sky" thinking? Certainly to me, from the IT industry, "out the box" implies a solution that works straight "out the box".

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    Actually, I hear "off-the-shelf" much more often in IT to refer to something that is ready to use "as-is". – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Oct 6 '11 at 16:18
  • Might be a factor of me always working in big data centers or maybe a US/UK thing? Mind you my 15 years with IBM exposed me to enough US jargon. I hear "off the shelf" a lot as well. – Wudang Oct 6 '11 at 16:47
  • Don't use "blue sky thinking", it's jargon and just as bad. – Hugo Oct 6 '11 at 18:45
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    I've never heard "blue sky thinking" and I'm not really sure how that could equate to "think outside the box". – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Oct 6 '11 at 21:31
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    It's common enough that at least one survey said it was the UKs most hated phrase, maybe I should downvote myself. – Wudang Oct 11 '11 at 7:24

We used "out of the box" before packaged software or any kind of software had been invented, meaning something special

protected by user140086 Jan 1 '17 at 3:26

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