Here is all the philosophy and considerations I apply when I design, learnt over last 15 years – packaging, marketing communication, campaigns, objects or spaces. Use it at your own risk.
The word ‘design’ here encompasses graphic design, communication design, copy, structure, experience, retail design, spaces.
Design is not
A design is not decoration. Using design to make things attractive is like using a nuclear weapon to kill a rodent. It is not ‘let’s add a bit of colour here and there.’ It is not about using a shape or a font just because it is trendy.
To design is to create so as to achieve the intended purpose in the best way possible. Beauty has a role, for sure. But it is always secondary to purpose.
Design is a stimulus. We give a stimulus because we want a response - the desired response. This response is the purpose of design.
How do you want them to see you?
How do you want them to feel?
How do you want them to act?
How does one figure out what’s the ‘desired design response’?
Simple. It comes from the business objective à campaign/packaging objective.
You want your design to stand out. You want your campaign to be remembered. You want people to start eating healthy stuff. You want people to hum your brand name. There could be many responses, even multiple responses expected for each design stimulus. It’s important to get clarity here.
The design is only a tool for disseminating information to ensure action. But only the business / non-profit / client can define the actions that would bring about the business outcome worthy of their investment.
Sometimes we end up doing things because everyone else does it. Wait. Step back. When everyone does it, it is clutter. CLUTTER KILLS THE MEANING. It’s a waste of money and effort and earns no fruits.
Which is where ‘different’ comes in. But different does not mean gimmicky. Or superficial. Different needs to be meaningful.In many layers. It’s not just a new graphic on the ketchup bottle, but also how it reads, what it says, how it stands, how it stacks, how it fills, how it flows, how its priced, the sounds it makes, the weight, the coldness, the texture to how it’s discarded and gets recycled. Doing just one change makes it quick to forget. The curiosity of what’s new gets you to check it out. But the same curiosity is going to wean off if the beauty is just a new shiny skin.
Timeless design needs layers and layers of “differences”. What’s most important for ‘different’ is ‘relevant’. Relevance means the change you made, is useful. It’s worth a person’s time that s/he spends in learning the new stuff. If it's not relevant, don’t bother doing it.
But only the business can define what’s relevant. Typically a brand that is entering a market, wants to look like the market leader and steal some of the users by oversight. But No similar looking Mevicol has lasted when Fevicol is around – even at about 20% lower price point. To save 20% money, no carpenter is willing to compromise (even in perception) his reputation. Will the equation change at 50% savings? No. Because Adhesive's share doesn't amount to more than 10% of the cost of furniture.
A different design, with different benefits, makes one reevaluate ones, mental models.
If you know that Fevicol is weak at pasting thermocol – a you have a solution, pack it in a tube with motifs, call it 100% Festivcol | The thermocol specialist – be present in all the outlets during the season, make sure there is in shop branding with a heavy element hanging - made from thermocol, pasted using Festivcol. Price it 10% higher than Fevicol, and yet, it will sell like hot cakes, and dent the market leader too.
The designer needs to understand the desired design response as clearly as you – hence the best way to brief is to prepare> watch in the market > brainstorm > take-away.
The response is the yardstick for the quality of design, even on a singular exposure.
Selection of a designer should happen basis his/her ability to create designs that evoke the desired response, not just beauty of the output.
Whose response are we talking about? Not mine. Not yours. But of the buyer.
We need to understand it totally.
1. WHO is the buyer of the design?
The buyer is the end consumer who is exposed to the design stimulus (media task) and has the capacity and ability to generate the desired response. For Johnson’s Baby soap carton design – it is the mother, not the baby. For chocolates, it’s the kid and not the mother. For an HIV campaign – it might be the truck drivers and prostitutes separately. For Swatch Bharat, it could every person who shits in the open. And each has one's own driver.
The WHO also tells you about the price WHO is willing to pay. Good design can give you 15% premium over the competition, in most cases. Or, if you let go of that 15%, it can give you a 100% jump over the nearest competition.
What is it that we are trying to do here, with this particular design? Is it that the viewer should consider the brand differently? What will make the user feel that he has encountered a more effective product? It’s important to watch which sensory stimuli are critical to assure them of the quality and which can be used to show that you are better.
This is where the context of consumption comes in.The thicker the crème, it is perceived to be better (if we are taking nourishment). But if we are talking daily use face and body cream, thick crème means oily looking skin. Nobody wants that. A designer needs to completely ‘GET’ the context – otherwise, the design either fails or goes unnoticed. Once you define the context, you know what kind of container it needs, where it will get placed, how it will get used. Have you ever used a bottle of oil with one hand? It slips. Can a designer do something? Grip / finish / easy open lid / less weight? Options will follow if the context is understood perfectly. Time and motion researchers, not the ones that agencies conduct but the ones that you do yourself, give you an insight into the struggle leading to a fantastic competitive advantage through design.
When you design a poster, think of the gumming. Think of the environment it will be put. If it’s a good piece of communication, striking and delivering the message – if the retailer believes that it’s able to pull customers to his outlet, he will keep it till it fades and he will clean it for you regularly.
Good Design can cut your media spends directly. If your ad spot, is contextual, memorable and one that connects – you don’t need to spend much above the threshold – as long as you spend consistently. Amul hoardings are a great example.
Designers place a lot of emphasis on the materials and processes which get exact results. In real life, commercial considerations are important. If I were to choose between impeccable whiteness and finish of a poster and saving Rs 3 per Rs 6 poster, I will go with the latter because I get to do a double number of posters / put them up for two cycles.
When one designs, it's important to put non-negotiables up on a pedestal. But everything cannot be non-negotiable. In fact, personally, I design with all non-negotiables and then I production them – I scale them up.
I let go, what I can.
As a designer, I play a role in this choice, because only I know which element says what. If I say no to everything, the client won’t be able to afford. But the client would still be in love with the design, and end up cutting it in places I may not agree. Better than I am involved. In fact, I generate alternatives that cut costs, I make right design changes to retain the essence while I cut costs. It makes my design survive better, longer.
5/ Convince them
Clients are never on the same page as you. Here comes the most painful part of a design. Communicating with the clients. Go through the drill. Ask for time. Switch off your mobile phones and theirs. Explain contexts, sensory stimuli, with examples – ‘with’ and ‘without’. Say no, where required, with an explanation. Because only when the client will internalize your design, the design will stay protected, and it will grow in his/her organization. Slap on design solutions are fads, and they die.
Phew. That’s the background. Now let’s get to design.
My design philosophy
It’s personal, it may not be liked by everyone. My designs are all about space. Large expanses of space.
Mono-colored, white, black.
I am averse to filling the space.
When space is large, it makes one feel large. (not small, for sure.)
When one stands at the seashore and sees the expanse of the sea, the sky and the horizon, one doesn’t feel small. One feels elated. It’s the space that changes our perception of ourselves. It makes us give more time.
See the way the colours appear in the sky. They are many, but not jerkily pasted. See the clouds, they are in contrast with the sky, but they are never off. Sea has waves, but it doesn’t disturb the vision of the sea. See a jungle, so many types of trees, but there is a singular rhythm to them.
See a sheath of concrete. Or a large expanse of white marble. Or a beautiful piece from Bach. It has all the details and the texture, but it has a certain seamlessness to it.This seamlessness, changes the rhythm of the viewers breathing. It makes one calmer, happier, wanting to be there.
I want my products, my interfaces, my art, to help people unfragment themselves. A tall order, but it's my most important design principle. The design needs to directly converse with the subconscious. Only such design is timeless.
You want the design to stand out on retail shelves? Use colours. Colours that have never been there. (Do check the sunlight stability, and cultural implications of the colours if your design is oriented to people). The tone, intensity of colour is primary.Even if the client wants to switch vendors, make sure that you help him /her match it.
If you have to use contrasts, don’t use them in equal proportions. Put them up, take a print. Pin it on your machine. Keep seeing. Your initial awe will go off – and soon it will start irritating you. That’s when you make changes. The design that keeps feeling fresh day after day, has a high chance to last in the market. And let me tell you a secret here: your competition won’t be able to figure what you are doing right. Because good design just makes you feel good, without revealing individual elements.Individual elements are all one in a good design.
LINES / GRAPHICS
Fat, thin, all alike. Lesser the better. Lines need to work in tandem with the fonts.Think thoroughly about fitment of the graphic with the font. It’s not formulaic – for floral graphics, it's not necessary that you use cursive, you could use blocks - as long as you make sure that it all comes together. Try to get rid of the lines as much as possible – try to avoid frames. Frames enclose the expanse. They keep one from making a true connection. Frames convert a design from a feeling to an object. Frames that allow freedom take a lifetime of practice.
The legal and metrology department will ask you to add stuff on the pack. It’s fine print, and its critical but useless. No consumer reads it until your product has a problem. Well, arrange it nicely. Give as little space as possible, without cramming it. Align it possibly. Mostly the legal texts are an eyesore – make them look ‘in order’.
A lot of designers ignore Price/packaging date / Expiry. These, are important. I would say let them have a significant size – so that the consumer doesn’t need to look for them. If you like something and find it worthy of ownership, you first look for the price. It’s human behavior. Help them find it easily. Help them see the grammage easily. If the contents matter to them, make the contents clear and visible.
Only those who cheat, hide their contents.
People will still buy your pack, but they will notice it and won’t fully trust you. Make it easy for them to make an informed decision. That would earn you a customer for a lifetime. (= about a couple of years, let’s not get too dreamy here.)
Same thing in advertising communication. Price can make the viewer feel “wow, what a deal” or “wow, what a brand”. Don’t be shy about high price or low price, and don’t be shy to say it.
The sale happens when Value beats the price.
1/ Have you shown them enough and relevant value?
2/ Is your price slightly below the value?
The value of Audi, Mercedez and BMW is that they are out of reach. In such cases, price and value travel in the same direction. A packet of refined cleaned sugar has a lot of competition. Whiteness, non-stickiness, flow, size of granule, name, colours of a pack, the presence of a window in the pack: all of these constitute value. Price needs to be in sync.
Please understand, that competition is the name of the game. When you are making money, there will be competition. When you aren’t there won’t be. (Well, start-ups, you can scratch the last line.) You need to stand out, communicate, and shout, without being too loud.
Usage instructions are read only once in a lifetime by a user. However, usage instructions decide repeat purchase. Make usage simple. Make instructions simple.
Use pictures/drawings, graphics. Check to know if dumpsters understand what you’ve illustrated. Visuals are the only universal language. Make sure that the sequence of visuals is intuitive (instead of 1-2 and 3-4: can all be in one line?) Watch it when you make packaging for Arab countries.
Companies try to keep dosages vague, saying people will figure out. Yes, people do figure out – after all, they have invested in your product. But to start with be precise.
This builds trust. Make sure that the dosages are easy to read. And understand. Countries that follow miles, must not get values in kilometers. (I know they can figure out with Google, but that’s just a lame excuse to cover the designer's laziness.)
This is my favorite part. A font is not fashion. Font is as much text as it is designed.There are millions of fonts, but don’t get too excited. Very few are worthy of use – on anything. Most impose a personality: so be very careful while using them.
Font needs to not just communicate or read clearly, font adds to the piece, calm and volume on the pack. Make sure that the whole name is visible without turning the bottle around. It needs to be visible, printable, striking / or not depending on the need.
NOT ALL TEXT AND GRAPHICS SHOULD SHOUT. Ever seen the flex printing shop’s sign. It’s terrible. Always maintain a pecking order of things on the pack/website /press ad/presentation. Say what will matter. Give rest to the rest. If you are using a picture, avoid words. Cut cut cut. Cut most of it. Don’t listen to the client for your first design. Be super stingy. Then add one more element at max, after a lot of threats from your client. There is nothing more important in a design that the priority of placements. Clients want everything there – if you listen to them, you get a cushiony place in design hell (and this most definitely hurts the sale).
You can’t make a good design with a bad copy. You can’t say the copy guy sucks.You get it, so you write it. Nobody is a born designer or a born copy guy. But if you find a good copy guy, hold onto him/her. They make a design work ten times better.
Word of caution here: Beware of all the Wrens and Martins. These fellows studied well in school and got good grades, but don’t know shit about human behaviour. They just know how to spell things correctly. Correctness is not inspiring. If they pretend to be your copy persons, they will kill your design effectiveness.
Quit them. Be wrong. It works.
Your design is useless with bad or wrong media. In fact, you need to understand the media it will be used in. You need to understand the clutter you are going to be in –to ensure that your design still has a voice. There is no point of any of the above rules if your design isn’t seen. Help media people. Help the retail people. Make visibility windows, hangers, festoons, posters, tent-cards, pack support, outer carton -whatever it takes to make sure your design stands out. And sell. And make business sense.
It’s your design. If you don’t care, who will?
Finally, your design must be seamless and singular. While it must communicate effectively and blah blah blah, it needs to feel good. Such design won’t need change, will always get you noticed – and will be extremely viral. It’s worth your time spent.
Designing is a science and an art. It is a lot more work than most people understand. But most of this work is intuitive. And you won't even be able to defend most of this work.
But when you put it out, even without asking anyone, people will say, “Ah, I like it.”They will have a broad smile on their faces. They will say I don’t know why, but I really like it. They will want to be in the vicinity of your design. Your retailer will miss your bottles on your shelf.
You will never get to hear it. They won’t ever know you made it. But that’s the true victory.
A true labour of love.