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.
- · 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,
- · 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,
- · 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
- How to open the screen or webpage of sexually erotic pictures of models and couples (termed pornographic) for situation analysis during office hours
- 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)
- 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.