Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Design nurtures gender equivalence

Can Design make offensive things acceptable?

As a branding and design practitioner for consumer brands, I have had the privilege to work on over 500 brands in the last one decade. My involvement or participation has mostly been in the packaging design solutions for such brands. 

By the way, this article is not about my record or experience. It is about how some projects cause discomfort when dealing with the brand design objective, noticed especially within my team of project managers, creative & strategists.

There are many categories or consumer products which are difficult to handle in brand design because of the enormity of the size of the market for such products. Difficulty also arises when there are more generics and unbranded than the branded counterparts, and information on such SKU’s (former) is difficult to gather and analyze. India has vast small scale sector manufacturing consumer products which we all use knowingly or unknowingly and some of these companies have far more loyal customers than their superior branded counterparts.
Such discomfort is a macro issue and not my subject in this piece.

Another problem is the import of cheaper foreign made (substitutes) consumer products. They add to the grief because they sell phenomenally well without much or any marketing or branding design thought. They are successful in distribution and make availability (SCM strategy) almost look like a joke. You may not get branded products (advertised products) as readily as these products which are often available as replacements for your regular purchase products.
Such discomfort is still manageable for popular brands with Innovation & Design thinking.

Having set the background let’s see which micro issues and products can cause greater discomfort as a brand design practitioner (in places where position is that of a non user). There have been more than three occasions, in which I was involved, when we were briefed on brand design solutions requirement for sanitary pads. In India it is considered as a dark category (only to speak) because advertising is all over the place for sanitary napkins. But I feel for sure that it is a category where men generally lack both basic & critical knowledge (unless you are a brand manager or marketing manager or production manager at the R&D facility or the likes). As a brand design solutions provider there were couple of unavoidable problems which I noticed on my face.
  1. ·        First of all was the presentation of information for briefing or discussion purposes as a non user to the design team which included actual consumers of the product. While sharing information was a piece of the problem, the other bigger problem was sharing insights, making inferences and devising strategy,
  2. ·        Second was the demonstration of the new product and its key benefits (NPD) as  non user & detailing the USP and differentiation as provided in the brief to a set of consumers,
  3. ·       Third was reviewing the design and the supporting logic of the designer who was a user.

Once the project was over I realized that the problems in our head were typical to some product categories. However, during the course of the project I did not find any designer (user or non user) being embarrassed or uncomfortable being present in the meeting room for briefing, discussions, development and reviews. I had my fears of course but they were all vanquished once we set the ball rolling and kept a single point focus – DESIGN Management.

I think the credit goes to DESIGN MANAGEMENT THINKING rather than individual notions, stance or linkages, approach or attempt. During the entire project we were always thinking of ‘what difference are we going to bring about in the lives of the millions of customers and how they are going to benefit from what we did for them’. Everybody had put on the attitude of doing it for someone, and ignoring their own dilemmas.   

Recently we were commissioned a project on brand design for a male contraceptive (condoms) brand. Having felt the discomfort in my team on earlier occasions, I was wondering how my team (uesers and non users) would handle this more overt category where brand design is driven by erotic and provocative visuals (especially in India).
Three major discomforts were noticed in my team
  1. How to open the screen or webpage of sexually erotic pictures of models and couples (termed pornographic) for situation analysis during office hours 
  2. How to brief and discuss with the team on the existing trends and design vocabulary used by several brands having direct competition (internationally the design vocabulary is very different, almost perpendicular)
  3. How to review the new design that was developed and explaining why someone had used a particular style/pose/gesture/body/ body language or something like that

My team dealt with the situation very boldly and did not let the nature of the project disturb the rhythm of the job. Everyone took the task at hand in a very mature way and again something was like déjà vu – we are doing it for someone outside our space hoping that the end customer will like it and accept the brand design. The spirit in the design wing was more upbeat and humorous rather than embarrassing and one of guilt. The team was so indifferent yet involved that for few moments porn had become a perspective of life, a way of good life, performance oriented and not taboo. Many a times it was difficult to say when a person was watching porn literally or doing homework for brand design. Hilarious isn’t it.

One lesson I learnt from these few experiences is that DESIGN has the power to overcome all inhibitions or can lend the power to mitigate all inhibitions. It is not always about good looks in design; it is about what is behind the DESIGN, the motive, the essence and the spirit of the creator and the user thereafter.    

DESIGN makes you forget who you are and why are you there. It only makes you feel, Oh God what wonder have I done.       

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Desk Top Manager

The Desk – Top Manager

Who is a manager? Hmm…someone who has studied management, someone who has gathered enough experience in the same organization to be escalated as a manager, someone who looks after managing work of an organization, someone who manages many things even though they are not his direct functions…Phew! And there could be more, I am sure.

My subject (manager) or this blog is not on finding the right definition of a manager. So don’t jump to answer the question.

I am trying to find what ‘makes a manager’. How can I say that he/she is a good manager?

I was recently at a board meeting (monthly review of one of our client) and was shocked to see something on the big projection screen just before the meeting commenced. The manager who was leading the presentation opened his laptop and I was taken aback to see the number of files and folders on his desktop (screen). For a moment I was short of breath while he was panting heavily as he could not locate his presentation which he had saved on the desktop for the meeting. “Nothing to worry…it will take 2 mins please, I have it here saved”, he remarked.
I sat back and took a sip of my Masala tea (indulgence in board meetings) trying to focus on something other than the big screen in front of us.

But, What was this that I just saw? I wonder what to call it. Maybe I will try to figure out later, but at that moment I partially made up my perception about the manager who was leading the show. How could he be so unorganized? How does he find what he is looking for in such a mess? What if his laptop crashes or something, how will he or any IT geek retrieve what was not stored in d drive/ c drive etc (I am the least tech savvy person and I have very strict instructions where to save, how to be safe).

Later that day on my way back I thought I will test this on my managers in office. I will purposely go to their desk and ask them to close the screens and have a glance of their desktop (screen). I know what you are thinking…J But no, I was almost going to get a heart attack. My project manager’s desktop was a look alike of what I had seen earlier in the day.

I was completely lost for words and came back to my designated seat scratching my head in disbelief. Who are these people? And why are they the way they are? Why do they do something like that and live with it organically? I was not worried of losing important data from my managers laptop but I was more worried about what kind of a manager is he. And he was right there in front of me, in my office, under my nose.

Should I take away his business cards that say Project Manager and reprint them as ….I don’t know what?

This one incident has disturbed me so much that every time I go for a meeting, I am very anxious to see the desktop of the presenter (if something is being projected).

A day later, I spoke to my project manager in my designated area, about his work, work pressures, deadlines and how is he feeling on the job. He seemed to be very sure of his tasks at hand and satisfied. I finally had to ask him, “why do you keep your files on the desktop, why can’t you save them in respective folders in d drive /c drive so that it is better organized”. Naturally, he did not have an answer as he was least expecting this question. He was hoping that I would ask him for some project data, billing figures, collections etc. I did leave him with this question only to return and tell me the answer.

A day later he came back to me and said that he had learnt a very important lesson and that he would not save files on the desktop.

Was that all? Was the problem solved? Was this going to end my hopelessness?
I comforted him and replied that cleaning up his desktop and saving files inside was not my intent. I was trying to make him realize the importance of organizing work, planning work and performing better as a result. But some other day maybe..

I am sure there are many such managers in our corporate world. While they may be unchallenged in the work they do, but this is something which speaks a lot about them as persons.  I asked my project manager’s colleagues and peers about his work and from what I came to know, I was proven right.

There were instances he had mailed wrong presentations to clients, he had chewed on the IT department executive to fix his slow performing laptop, he had not been able to open a presentation saved properly on his desktop during a client meeting as it was heavy and his system was not responding and many more.

I have a sense that this is a serious personality problem which cannot be taught or rectified by anyone other than the person himself. Personality because it shows how careless a person can be with important work, which goes to reflect how that person would be handling life’s important decisions and circumstances (outside office). Is he a stereotype who when fails blames others for his own mistakes? Did my project manager blame the admin department for issuing a low cost laptop, or the IT executive for not increasing his RAM or installing a better anti-virus? What excuse he would have made in the meeting when the presentation didn't open?

It is also a reflection of how one treats their own valuables (in this case work). If, what we do to earn a living & have a better life is treated so disrespectfully, I doubt how these people value intangibles. What about their relationships, their family, their friends? Do they keep them at lose end too? Don’t they feel for them when they go away or blame something to get excused?   

I will crash if I sit down to answer this myself.

The other interesting aspect to this whole episode was Microsoft Office. What has Bill Gates to do with this, you will ask. Have I seen his desktop also? No my friend.
Like I said earlier I am probably the least tech savvy in my office, only knowing what needs to be done when handling computers.

Microsoft office for me is not software or an operating system (see how naive I am in defining one of the world’s largest computer companies). It is a lifeline. It is what makes me do things the way I wish to see them happening, save things the way in which they can be protected and many more such miracles. 

Wikipedia defines Microsoft office as “office suite of desktop applications, servers and services for the Microsoft Windows and OS X operating systems”. Once in the Microsoft OS you are blessed by a suite of magical applications that are designed meticulously by geniuses and master minds over months and years of hard work so that we organize date, share data, use tools to synchronize data and overall improve our performance or for an organization as a whole.

So even after installing this OS in every computer of my company I have people who are completely disrespectful of the wonder in their hands.

And I thought I was the least savvy person of all when handling computers.

All those who read this, please minimize all your screens for a second and come back.
You will find the answer to what makes a manager!

Good Day & Happy working.