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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, 2011 at 22:17
  • @Gurzo - Ha, no (I'm the one with the cash). Though sometimes it feels like I am ;-). Oct 7, 2011 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, 2012 at 0:10

6 Answers 6

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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.

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"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).

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"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.

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  • 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, 2013 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" Apr 14, 2013 at 21:36
  • But still - without that easy answer, it's hard to imagine what the origins might have been. Apr 14, 2013 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, 2013 at 23:02
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@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, 2011 at 16:07
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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". Oct 6, 2011 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, 2011 at 16:47
  • Don't use "blue sky thinking", it's jargon and just as bad.
    – Hugo
    Oct 6, 2011 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". Oct 6, 2011 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, 2011 at 7:24
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We used "out of the box" before packaged software or any kind of software had been invented, meaning something special

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