Who here is not an artist?”
My hand went up. It was a reflex response even before the words were out of the professor’s mouth.
"Who told you so?” he asked an instant later.
Guess I did. Marketer. Salesperson. Engineer, perhaps. The labels came easy. As they do for most marketers. We seldom think of ourselves as artists.
This was earlier this year, as I sat in the impossibly well designed Ideo office at Pier 28 in San Francisco. I was hungry for inspiration on how design could help build businesses.
What was design anyway? The many definitions seem to describe the proverbial elephant from different perspectives.
And then, there are the various kinds of designers - UX, Industrial, Product, Graphic, Sonic Identity and Experience - the list seems endless.
The practitioners, often in standard issue black-rimmed glasses, can be quite evangelical in their fervour and passion. However, it is a small elite community, not always given to explaining itself to the layperson. Cutting through the mystique can be hard.
That’s sometimes counter-productive. In the business world, disciplines that have a measurable impact on results are valued much higher than those that can’t explain themselves too well.
Design is how things look and feel. For all the talk of beauty being skin deep, humans are hardwired to appreciate aesthetics. We buy things because they look good. Steve Jobs might well be the most famous modern day beneficiary of this truth, but it has been the secret sauce in brand success forever. It reigns supreme in the more obvious categories like perfumes, wine bottles, fashion and cars. But, it sways purchase decisions even for the most serious product. This though, is just part of the story, although the more glamourous one.
Design is what things do. Function is often overshadowed by attention grabbing form. But good design makes our lives simpler, more productive and stress free. The Swiss Army knife frees you from packing and carrying many tools. The intuitive interface of an iPhone makes it so easy to operate that a child could use it. The clean white Google home page is calming and prevents information overload. At its best, good design makes the experience feel completely natural and intuitive.
Design is how things make you feel. When form and function come together to create an emotional connection, good design becomes great. At a recent workshop we ran, a young millennial consumer brandished her golden lipstick case and spoke about how it made her feel rich and extravagant when she used it. The quirky, fun packaging on the food served on Indigo underlines their unique personality and makes you forget that you are on a budget airline. The carefully engineered sound of the door closing in a BMW conveys the right message about quality to a potential customer.
Great design moves people and evokes an emotion for the brand.
The most powerful definition of design lay in wait in Prof Barry Katz's book.
"Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The natural sciences are concerned with how things are. Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be." Herbert Simon is credited with coming up with this in 1968.
That is such a big canvas to paint on, for not just objects but also systems and ways of working can be designed. And that makes design so much more than just putting lipstick on the pig. It liberates design from mere form and puts functionality at the centre of the discussion. It’s no longer just bells and whistles adding little consumer value. And in doing that, it gains immense value for marketers.
The "zero" was a great process redesign by Indian mathematicians of yore. It made things how they ought to be. So was the Jaipur Leg.
Design then, becomes much more strategic and far reaching. It could provide that winning edge in an age where marketers struggle to communicate authenticity and differentiation.
A way of thinking this powerful is not fully appreciated by marketers. We don't value design as much as, say digital marketing or making the new 30 sec TVC. It’s definitely not the shiny new object.
If you look around, few global design firms see enough demand to set up office in India. Indeed, some have recently shut shop. Most ad agencies do have design/packaging studios but they don't attract the best talent probably because marketers don't pay well for this set of services.
We're well known for our scientists, coders and call-centres but it's rare to hear appreciation of how great we are at design.
Could it be because we have a strong, unique Indian design voice which won't travel well? That could be true. If we look around for great contemporary examples across consumer products, there are some.
The Good Earth and Anokhi style of apparel.
Chumbak, one of the new favourites.
Forest Essentials, the Indian beauty brand which has designed a distinctive experience starting with products and going all the way to their online and retail presence.
Pulse candy, the disruptive product design that's made it an overnight success through word of mouth and online mentions. (Check the Quora answers on Pulse)
Finally, Paper Boat Drinks - a wonderful brand designed with much love and care across every single touch point.
And the trickle starts to run dry around here. The needle hasn't really moved much in recent times.
What's the best website/ app we've designed? Can the simplicity of a Google or the visual delight of a Pinterest be matched by something we've created? Not sure.
With higher disposable income and a maturing market, better designed products and services will be demanded by Indian consumers. And brands that understand and value design will have that winning edge.
French designers arouse devotion from fashion followers around the world. The Scandinavian aesthetic in furniture finds expression in strong brands like Ikea. The Japanese cultural value of minimalism found expression in a Muji. And brands in Silicon Valley decide how the rest of the world experiences technology.
We need to discover our design voice, based on our cultural values. Interestingly, Indian brands that have seen recent success seem to be designed along age old beliefs in yoga and ayurveda. Surely there are other ways to forge a unique connection and disrupt categories. What will it take?
Here’s a list of things needed to make it happen within organisations.
The designer must earn two things - access to the C Suite. And the marketing team’s respect.
The partnership of Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive was legendary. Closer to the FMCG world, Indira Nooyi appointed a chief design officer when she wanted to shake things up.
Design needs to be aligned to the organisation’s strategy. And single-mindedly solve a consumer problem. There is little chance of that happening if it has to pass through The Design Committee comprising various functions and levels. If design has to stand out, it needs to be different. And things that are different take courage and influence to back. Iterative approval processes will inevitably result in designs that are risk averse and not something that the consumer would lust after. If the designer is unable to influence key decision makers, the design battle is already lost.
The organisation must understand good design. And defend it.
In the words of Indira Nooyi, “We had a dreadful problem in the company: Our people didn't really understand what design was.”
Let’s face it; training the marketing team on design skills is still unheard of. Yet, they are the gatekeepers of what reaches the consumer. While most learning can still be on the job, it would help marketers if they knew how to tell good design from bad. Pepsi and some other companies have chosen to implant a design team in house to accelerate a culture change. Nooyi attended the Milan Design Week earlier this year to signal to her team back home how important she thought it was to her. While the training approaches may vary, anyone who approves design should be equipped to judge it and know how to measure its impact.
Link design thinking to innovation.
Given how powerful design can be, it makes sense to harness it for innovation. It isn’t just about making things prettier, but actually driving the top line and bottom line. So rope it in early, during product development, and allow it to guide the process all the way to the retail experience.
A word here about choosing the right design partners, for it is a very intimate relationship. Apart from skills and talent, look for personal qualities of empathy, optimism and high energy.
There might be the rare designer who believes design is a separate universe where business realities and measures of effectiveness don’t apply. Let them go their way, for it doesn’t work for long. Choose designers who truly see themselves as partners in your growth.
And when you do find such people, nurture and respect them. It’s a hard package to come by, and will unleash the magic as you build brands together.
Yes, like the rest of humanity, marketers are artists too. They just need help to bring this part of themselves to work.