global pandemic creativity

2020 has brought a few unsavoury “c” words into our lexicon: Coronavirus, COVID-19, circuit breaker, to name a few. While everyone and their isolated neighbours brandish these words with whispered sighs and audible frustration, we should be wary about letting that other “c” word go down the proverbial toilet in 2020: Creativity. Just because the world is in lockdown doesn’t mean creativity should be. While we all adjust to a pandemic world, it’s even more important to prepare for a post-pandemic one.

Besides adding a few choice words into our cultural lingo, COVID-19 has certainly brought on tidal effects on industries and lives over the past few months. Certainly, this global pandemic has spread far and wide, impacting businesses, lifestyles and livelihoods on a global scale. And the world of advertising and marketing is not spared. Brands are gun-shy about spending, as companies collectively take a wait-and-see attitude in response to consumer confidence. And for months, there has been no telling which way the market will go, and when the market will show an uptick. And at time of this writing, that end is still not in sight.

 

Crisis: A liability or an opportunity?

Many creative and production agencies out there—digital, video, print, marketing, advertising—are feeling the hurt; not to mention freelancers who are also floating around looking for work, knocking on every door. Some agencies are quick to introduce response toolkits and marketing counsel for their clients. Others are forced to shift gears and finally embrace agile to cope with new processes and even newer ways of working. Yet others are forced to pivot work-in-progress advertising campaigns to more market-sensitive ones in record time.

However, some may not be so lucky, as work slows and teams scale back. For some Creatives, this may be the time to take a well deserved break. But after that initial wave of woohoos! and day drinking, catching up on past seasons of Black Mirror in your boxers, or virtual yogas and flicking through mindless TikTok videos… indeed, once the novelty of #WFH wears off, and you’ve finished all 5 seasons of Better Call Saul, we are starting to see a new creative class emerge from their man and woman caves, rubbing their once again puffy eyes, and asking themselves the question, “What next?”.

 

Creativity never takes a break, not even in lockdown

While work may take a break, creativity never takes a break. Not for the true Creatives anyway. This is where different types of Creatives emerge: Those who are creative by trade, or by life. In other words, Is creativity a job to you? A career? Or is it part of your DNA? For career and lifelong Creatives, this is not the time to slack. Because there’s never a downtime. They see inspiration everywhere, and simply have a need to express and produce. And to these folks, chink! chink! (yes, count me in on the day drinking).

So if you’re a Creative under lockdown and have nowhere to channel your energies, here are 5 things you can do to keep yourself juiced up, even when the market is down. Because the last thing you want is to circuit break your own creativity. The beauty in what we do is that our minds are never locked down or locked in. They are free to roam and wander. So if you take advantage of the downturn to double down and adopt the following tips, the better shape you will emerge when we come out of this on the other side.

 

1. Learn a new skill to increase your market value

Downtime is the best time to pick up a new skill.

The good news is, Creatives are more prized than ever before because we live in a creative economy. We have won a seat at the table, as they are so fond of saying. But with this privilege also comes expectation that we are simply in charge of (and need to do) much much more. We are involved in more aspects of communication. And many are struggling to cope with this new reality. But the real reality is, the more you know and the broader your skillset, the better you will cope.

Besides, picking up a new skill can help increase your market value. It will make you much more employable, and much less fire-able. Skill development after all, is a cornerstone to career progression. Companies are looking for serif-t Creatives these days. Are you that serif-t?

So…to designers who have yet to make that leap into digital...What are you waiting for!? If I can reach out and shake you, I would. No more excuses! Take the opportunity now during lockdown to tap the heck out of your Adobe CC subscription (which you’ve already paid for). Poke around Adobe XD, learn Adobe Dimension, take a crack at video editing, or tinker with After Effects. We live in the age of information. You can learn anything online. And there’s no time like today. For when the new “old normal” resumes, you likely won’t have the time again.

 

 

2. Be a master of your craft so you can do it better and faster

I know. Agency life can make us feel like we are running in a hamster wheel, with barely an opportunity to hit pause and level up on what we do. Nevertheless, it is important to keep your skills sharp and elevated. If your job requires you to, say, work with planners and developers on designing a website, you’ll want to think about what kind of knowledge you can plug into that’ll make that collaboration faster and easier—not just for yourself but for others. You’ll want to be thinking during this time about how else you can contribute to the thinking and solutioning, how you can lubricate the workflow, and how to position yourself as that MVP everyone wants to work with.

Not sure what is user experience? Find out! It can make your next web design project smoother and more successful. Heard about this thing called designing thinking process but not sure how it can improve your work? Well, learn! Curious about the art of brand storytelling? It can definitely elevate your creative solutioning and help you be more effective at selling in those world-class ideas later on. Always wanted to try chatbot writing, but never had the time? Now’s that time.

Hacks are part of mastering your craft too. Learn shortcuts and tools. And pick up apps that can make your life easier, and the workflow faster. All it takes is a bit of poking around the web, perhaps watch a few of those online tutorials, sit in on some Adobe webinars (they have evangelists whose job is just to work on and then show you shortcuts and hacks). Watch a few during lockdown, change your life forever. And that’s the real impact you should be making during this global pandemic. Because when the market picks up, you’ll want to be the first one out the gate.

 

3. Reflect on yourself to unleash your inner Kraken

Have a few moments more to spare? Why not spend it to reflect on what else is holding your creativity back? In other words, explore what may be preventing you from unleashing your inner Kraken. Might you have artistic or psychological biases that are putting you on repeat mode? Check them! Do you consider yourself a good designer but yearn to be more badass? Now’s a good time to find out how to be that great designer everyone wants to work with, and recalibrate. There are also tons of TED talks that are perfect for this occasion.

Not sure what those biases are, or feel you’re too close to get an accurate assessment? Simple. Ask a colleague, or your mentor, or your CD. Your house door may be closed, but your mind needs to be open. Invite others in. You’ll be surprised how much others are willing to help.

 

4. Contribute your gift to feel good about your gifts

Interestingly, COVID-19 has also brought out a different side of Creatives everywhere; if there’s an uptick to this global pandemic, it is the impact it has had on brands and designers. (Well, besides loss of income.) More than ever, we’re seeing designers, artists and brands showing solidarity, creating ads and posters that inform, educate and entertain. They are showing their human side. Besides PSAs, they are also creating things of cultural value, designing free swag and distributing them for free (looking at you, &walsh and that handsome new set of emojis). Everyone’s helping everyone express themselves during this time of crisis, and contributing their talents to mitigate our collective miseries as well as to elevate the human experience.

Such pursuits are not paid. Not financially anyway. But it will pay off in other meaningful ways. You earn goodwill, you get to feel great about adding to society in a time when everyone only knew subtractions, and it’s a great chance to practise what you do while waiting for other jobs to roll in. And when else can you create with complete freedom away from the remits of a client brief and budget?

So what will be your legacy from COVID-19? What will you create?

 

5. Play…play like there is a tomorrow

Another way to keep your creativity high is to simply play. Play opens up neural networks and stimulates creativity. Studies show that when we fully immerse ourselves in just doing what we enjoy—in other words, getting out of our own heads—it stimulates outside-the-box thinking and silences our inner critic.

So how do you play during lockdown? How about trying a new exercise routine? Or build something? Maybe start a new dance challenge online? I know of some designers who are doing virtual karaoke sessions together. Others are playing virtual mad libs. Perhaps pick up guitar. Or try your hand at baking. So go on, be a beginner in life all over again. Act like a kid! Approach your daily life with new eyes and curiosity. It’s one way to maintain our sanity, and rebalance our scales of creativity.

 

Come back swinging

Because that’s what you want to do when all this ends. Remember: The next time you’re thinking of making like a slug, don’t. Creativity, like your brain, is a muscle. The more your flex it, the more it will grow. Keep the engines greased. The time will come when you’ll be swinging back into action. And you’ll want to be swinging in full force, for the fences.

The global pandemic may have negative affect and impact on businesses and lifestyles, but let’s do what we can to make sure it doesn’t also impact our creativity, the industry and our collective ability to dream. That’s what makes us resilient. And we will just all have to be, well, creative about it.

Coke and Brand Storytelling

Storytelling is innate in all of us. Stories tell us our histories and of the world we live in. From early cave paintings to the oral and written traditions underpinning much of human civilisations and world religions. From Gilgamesh to Gutenberg, Shakespeare to Spielberg, stories are how we understand where we come from and figure our place in the world. And they are everywhere: Film, television, theatre, stand-up, books, news, the sermon you heard last Sunday, the dream you had last night, and the gossip you shared yesterday. We tell stories all the time. And if brands were to behave like a person, shouldn’t brands be in the business of storytelling too?

Why brands need to tell stories

It used to be that brands are about logos, advertising and visual identity. Now it’s so much more. It’s about purpose and meaning, experience and—yes—stories. From brand name and corporate videos to, well, every platform of communication, brands tell stories. It’s in their customer experience design (or CX) and every social media post they publish.

Coca-Cola does this especially well. From the iconic Hilltop to Small World Machines and Share a Coke, from California to India, from the 1970s to the 2010s, the brand has told a consistent story of sharing happiness and building connections. They’re successful at it because they are committed to using storytelling as a key marketing strategy. And they share timeless stories—about how we are more alike than different—that are timely and human. Just look at their ads. The focus isn’t on products and benefits, but on emotions couched in scenarios that are familiar to us, desired by us.

Not a gifted storyteller? Your brand needs you to be

Stefan Sagmeister famously said designers (or more accurately, rollercoaster designers) are not storytellers. There’s much I love about Sagmeister but I will have to disagree with him on this one. Not everyone is a gifted storyteller, but everyone tells stories. It’s like when people ask if I can sing. Of course I can. But you didn’t ask if I can sing well.

So yes, while not all designers are gifted at storytelling, all creatives do tell stories. (And yes, there is a distinction between designers and creatives.) And indeed you must engage in brand storytelling today, where audiences are demanding authenticity, purpose and connection, and nobody wants to be sold to. Stories provide a good pull strategy to attract customers into the fold, draw them into the conversation and, ultimately, into the universe that you will share with them. So can we all get better at brand storytelling? That too, indeed, we must.

So what makes stories so effective? Here are 5 reasons.

1. Storytelling communicates your brand’s view of reality to others

If you think about it, communication is about transmission of information. Information that customers don’t already have. And oftentimes, in the world of marketing, that information is designed to alter behaviour. It could be to change perception of a category (e.g., why go vegan), to sway preference between brands (e.g., why Coke and not Dr Pepper), to recognise a need (e.g., Alexa), or to act in some way (e.g., ask your doctor about hemorrhoid cream). And when we’re asking someone to change their perception or behaviour, story provides the context to aid understanding in a way that no other medium can. What makes this context so effective? One word: Emotions.

In coming out with stories to move people to action, don’t immediately look to your history, vision and aspirations to convey your worldview to others. Research shows that it is only when a story mirrors the emotions of the audience, when it becomes a shared experience, that a powerful connection is formed. Only when you’ve established that connection, can you be in a good position to influence and convince others of your worldview.

Mariah Carey got it:

So how do we account for this phenomena? This brings us to…

2. Storytelling has been scientifically proven to work

According to a New York Times article, stories stimulate the brain and have the power to change the way we act. There are numerous scientific research, and essays including this one, that show how the human brain is wired and “rewired” when listening to stories.

When we listen to stories, we engage in what is called neural coupling and mirroring. This allows us to see and experience those stories the way the speaker or message relayer did. (I suspect it’s because most people are empathetic creatures at the core.) When we listen to stories, our brain also releases dopamine into the system. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that helps us regulate movement, attention, learning and emotional responses; it is also responsible for our pleasure principles and can help us remember things up to 22 times better. This perhaps is also due to the fact that more areas of our brains are engaged when we listen to a story. As summarised in this infographic, stories help forge emotional connection and make information memorable.

Need more convincing? Consider the last time you went to the movies. They are all about the art of storytelling. For 2 hours or so, the story consumes us: We tear up when the music swells, cringe when the door creaks, and feel relieved when it turns out to be just that darned cat. Film school teaches directors, editors, scriptwriters the art of storytelling and emotional manipulation. Feel cheated? You shouldn’t be. After all, we pay money to get scared, to have a good laugh, to cry and be transported. We crave stories.

3. Storytelling humanises your brand

If you think about it, this is the basic requirement of how brands need to behave on social media too, because people want to relate to brands as people and not as faceless corporations. People want to know what the brand stands for, what its values are, and how it behaves in the world. They will then decide if these sync up with their personal values and desires. And brand storytelling can help you do that.

We see this play out often in advertising today. Take Tiger beer, for example. From the 1930s when they started through to the 1940s, they were—as with most adverts then—promoting health benefits (from increasing virility to improving fertility). From thereon, they focused their messages on award-winning formula (“gold medal”) and postwar exotica. And the message of winning has pervaded its ads through to the naughts (remember that Jessica Alba commercial?). Still very much about features and benefits (I mean, c’mon, Jessica Alba.). But in recent years, Tiger shifted its approach to a much more storytelling, emotionally-driven one.

According to Tiger, its Uncaged campaign is based on the brand’s story—its rise from a hawker centre beverage to a global brand, how it pushed against what is deemed impossible. That no matter where you start from, having courage, challenging conventions and defying expectations empowers you to achieve what you thought wasn’t possible before. It’s a story about pursuing your passion and making an impact. And they told this story through the lens of artists, technologists, chefs, designers and entrepreneurs. And these stories unfolded across multiple platforms: TVC, packaging, outdoor advertising, product packaging, events and activations. What these stories amount to was to humanise a brand. As this TVC showed, Tiger is just like you and me. 

They can no longer promise you children but at least they can promise you understanding and a shared value system. And isn’t that what we all want from our favourite brands?

4. Storytelling helps your brand stand out

In the age of Internet, this becomes even more difficult and necessary. Because today, it’s not enough to have a quality product or service, you need to know how to talk about it in a way that differentiates you from the crowd. Brand storytelling done well can help you win the battle for attention.

Consider “Generation Lockdown” from March For Our Lives. This public service announcement was released upon the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. And tragically, it feels like not a lot has changed when it comes to gun violence in the US and around the world. The shootings have continued.

It’s difficult to not think about Kayleigh (and the reactions of the employees) long after the video’s chilling final frame. 22 million views in 1 week. US$15 million in earned media. A winner of this year’s Cannes Lions. This video certainly has achieved the cut-through it needed by shooting an arrow right through our hearts. And it does so in the form of a girl schooling a bunch of adults what to do in the event of an active shooter, when it should be the other way around. It was timely, human, and emotionally resonant. What a story.

5. Storytelling helps you build brand communities

One of the most fundamental human needs is the need for belonging. We all want to belong—to our families, our societies, our teams. Wise brands tap into that universal desire by inviting people to participate in a larger story and giving them a shared identity. This marketing strategy underpins what you come to now know as KOLs, micro influencers and brand ambassadors. By watching the story of someone we admire and whose lifestyle and values we want to emulate, we feel a rush of aspiration and desire. And when we get to wear that badge on our sleeves, we identify.

Sports brands do this particularly well. Sports marketing is rife with brand ambassadorship. It’s aspirational and motivational. There’s nothing quite like having your heroes asking you to be part of their journey and community. But did you know that what we’ve all come to admire are not the athletes themselves but the stories of their struggles and triumphs? Consider this brand manifesto video by The North Face. They used it to build community, loyalty, pride and tribe among fans. As a viewer, you go, “That speaks to me” “That’s who I wanna be”. It’s certainly one way to build brand affinity with customers—and brand storytelling can help you achieve that. By making the brand real and resonant.

How will you tell your brand story?

Because they convey your personality and values, because they hit the emotional quotient, make your brand human and memorable, and because they help you build connection, community and loyalty, you must tell stories. Whether you are creating a brand, building a brand or reinventing one, you must consider the merits brand storytelling can bring to your marketing strategy.

What’s wonderful about the world of marketing now is we are dealing with integrated marketing communication (multichannel and omnichannel), where everyone’s focused on building relationships and not a sale. This means you no longer have to cram your storytelling into a print ad or a 30sec TVC. Digital and social give us all the capability to tell micro stories or chapters that pipe in to a larger story. Media buying technology even allows you to track customers and serve them the next episode of your story. You have the benefit of letting your story unfurl across time and platform: From TVC to social media, to activation to website, etc. The question isn’t whether you’re going to use brand storytelling but how you’re going to use it.

So what story will you tell?

The most important designer traits to survive change

How difficult is it to stay creatively energised after 10 years? For branding, design and advertising agencies…very. It used to be that we defined design by their eras: Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Modernism, Futurism, and so on. And each movement lasted a good several decades. But we now live in accelerated times. In the last decade alone, we’ve witnessed the ebb and flow of design trends like flat design, material design, skeuomorphism, 3D, liquid, brutalism, open compositions…and that’s just scratching the surface. Buzzwords like “Insta-worthy”, “Spotify” and “tumblr aesthetics” are even loosely referenced as design styles now. And then throw into this tornado terms like programmatic, design thinking, CX, UX, UI, AI, AR, VR, MR, hamburger menu, sausage links…and you’re truly headed for a tailspin.

You may then be wondering:

How do branding, advertising and PR agencies keep up if everyone is scrambling to level up: When everything we’ve learned in a year quickly turns archaic by the next; when there are avalanches of new design trends to master, new creative platforms to understand, new tools to pick up, new services to offer, and new generational quirks to decipher; or when timelines and margins are constantly squeezed as clients become more demanding? Indeed, when the enchantment with open beer taps and office plans wears thin, what’s left?

Agency burnout is a very real problem. And agencies are increasingly pulling back the Oz curtains to see that foosball tables and vending machines are but limp panacea to deeper problems that remain unsolved. In these times of accelerated change, increased pressure and demands, how can we not go crazy?

In commemorating 10 years of antics@play, I was asked to write about what we’ve accomplished, in terms of growing the team, evolving workflow, improving productivity and exporting culture. But rather than looking back, I thought I’d look forward, and instead share with you tips to navigate this mercurial industry without losing sanity and your creativity. Because through this decade of change, I’ve come to learn that not all designer traits are made equal. Some traits will help you succeed and thrive and stay creatively energised, even when vending machines fail and beers run dry.

Ready? Let’s go:

 

Creative pro-tip #1: Treat each day like it’s a new day

The key to being #10yearsunwiser is to be a shark: Always swimming forward, never back. The appetite to take risks, the gumption to try out new strategies, fearlessly mixing up tactics, convincing stakeholders, negotiating timelines, motivating ourselves, throwing 100% of ourselves out there for all to judge. It’s frickin tiring. What we do is mentally and emotionally exhausting. So not attending to your state of mental and emotional well-being is a sure-fire recipe for creative burnout. And no amount of mountaintop meditation can help (sorry, Draper).

Make your next masterpiece

But when you treat every project like it’s new, that’s 1 way of keeping your motivation high and you moving like a shark: Forward, engaged and ever-curious…always sniffing around for your next tasty morsel (or meal). When you approach each project like a clean slate – with the knowledge that your next big masterpiece is right around the bend – your day becomes filled with possibilities. I often say we are so lucky to be Creatives: We are blessed with the opportunity and power to make something out of nothing. What then do we do with this power? Every project is a chance for us to make a difference. Don’t let yesterday’s setback or disappointment rob your project of its – and your – potential. Instead, be fuelled by the challenge that each day brings. Be vitalised by the possibility that your new creative peak might happen today.

And really, do you want to be the 1 person to disagree with Oprah?

 

Creative pro-tip #2: Repeat after me – “A Designer designs, a Creative creates”

Designers should always think of themselves not as designers, but as Creatives. The term designer is particularly troubling. When designers think of themselves in those terms – graphic designer, web designer, product designer, interior designer – they immediately sell themselves short. Because clients don’t actually buy designs or products. They buy solutions that solve their communications problems. So – designers – when you think of your work as just “design”, you limit your worth and the value you bring. But when you think of yourselves as a Creative who creates, something magical happens. The horizon widens.

Be a creative not a designer

When you think of yourself as a Creative, you become tool-, knowledge- and scope-agnostic. You are not just pushing pixels at the butt end of a brief; but you are actively conjuring ideas, breathing life into them and shepherding them to fruition. You no longer are a cog in a wheel, but you are the wheel. You make the wheel. You rise above knowledge and theory and workflow. You birth something. And that – for Creatives – is worth everything.

Besides opening neural pathways to communications problem solving, having this mental identity shift also opens up opportunities for personal growth and career development. It’s why our Creative team at antics@play don’t just stop at graphic design, but get into areas like digital marketing, website analytics, video production, brand storytelling, etc. We don’t design for print, or packaging, or ads, or digital…but we create experiences and engineer encounters. Tools, platforms, designs…they are all means to an end. If you gun toward the end, and know that you are not a pitstop but the destination, it gives you ownership. And having this ownership and influence over the outcome of whatever you’re creating is incredibly empowering.

And with that empowerment comes resourcefulness. When you are destination-oriented, you hustle to make things happen. You will do whatever you need to get there. And when you hustle to make things happen, you necessarily become resourceful. You find new ways of doing things, new tools to exploit; whether Adobe Dimension or Character Animator or Cinema 4D…whatever you need to create that experience and tell that story. And that – for many – is what keeps interest up and inspiration high. You are not just responding to a brief – that’s not the end point. You are moving forward in your career.

 

Creative pro-tip #3: Aim for radical inclusion in your creative process

Not everyone has the chops to be a Creative (though they can be, given the right impetus, inspiration, environment, opportunities and interest…but that’s a lot of ifs). But everyone is a consumer, and that is a fact. Ideas can come from anyone and anywhere. Why is this important? Because when we tackle a communications challenge, it’s useful to not be territorial or egotistical about who comes up with the idea.

Radical inclusion in creative process

We’ve had planners come up with terrific headlines that went straight to market. Not because they uncovered the key insight or have a way with words but because they happen to be the target audience and can tell us what they need as a customer. After all, aren’t customers whom we design brands and advertising for? I’ve seen Creatives who are so precious about their ideas and process that they don’t let anyone in. And that’s just doing themselves a huge disservice. They walk away from reviews with a bruise on their ego and a chip on their shoulder. And who has time for that?

It’s no coincidence that the best Creatives in the world are also the most open. I’ve been lucky enough to meet many world-class practitioners at the top of their game, from Aaron Draplin to Debbie Millman. They’ve been at it for decades. They also happen to be some of the most humble and down-to-earth people you will ever meet. If you spend most of your time nursing your wounds, putting your fences up, swatting away feedback and telling yourself why your ideas are the best and why other’s aren’t, you are not spending your time expanding your horizons and generating solutions that customers need but churning out work that only you want.

But when you let other voices in, they can teach you things. You don’t have to agree with all of them. And they may not all be right. And that’s okay. Because, you see, the ideas – in and of themselves – are not the linchpin here. Ideas come and go, the real linchpin is you. And you’re here to stay. When you embrace inclusion, you give yourself the opportunity to become more open and empathetic. And empathy, as you know, is one of the most necessary traits you will need to thrive in design and survive the agency experience, not to mention deliver astonishing work. Which let’s face it, can be extremely motivating too.

So #10yearsunwiser? Let’s make it #20yearsevenmorefoolisher. And I hope everyone at antics@play past, present and future continue to embrace the spirit of innocence, humility, intelligent naivete, and wonder that characterise our daily work, that allows us to approach each day like it’s a playground full of possibilities and treat every job as a potential masterpiece. The market and the world will change. And us along with it. It’s how we manage our attitudes toward those change that keeps us invested for the long haul. And that is the real capital that drives us and our industry forward.

It’s no surprise that 2017 pitches us marketers and designers further deeper into the digital conundrum, or as I like to call it, the digital black hole. Cuz you never know how far it goes. And just when you think you’ve got it pinned, a new wormhole opens to make you feel like Alice. But this much is true: Businesses and enterprises are all getting hitched to the digital bandwagon, and getting pitched by technologists and vendors to adopt digital across functions and processes. The market certainly has no lack of automation tools that promise productivity and analytics subscriptions that tease data nirvana and precision marketing. And increasingly, we’re all sold. Or convince ourselves that to, keep up, we have to be sold.

We’re a quarter into 2017, and have already seen these digital trends bubble and, well, trend. And safe to say, there will be more to come. So what does this mean for the modern-day creative? At a time where digital marketing has become nearly synonymous with marketing, what does it bode for offline designers tasked with developing better online shopping experiences, or to drive traffic and higher conversion rates for websites; or for CDs who have to underpin and sell effective brand building strategies to clients who expect the first words rolling off their tongue to be “digital”?

Creativity used to be about imagination, made sexy by the spectre of the unknown and the mysterious…romanticised by writers, painters and rockers whose accelerators are drugs, alcohol, muses and demons. Who draws inspiration from nature, music, hallucinations, stories, experience, innocence. Whose ability to access the unknown and tap into our collective ids make them revered and admired, perhaps even feared. Does this still ring true for the modern-day creative? Have muses been replaced by Google Analytics, and paintbrushes by pixels? Have daydreamers been supplanted by Dreamweaver? More alarmingly to our profession, can anybody with access to a well-designed machine/device/software do our jobs now? Already we’re seeing photography being co-opted by (insert name of any random person you know here), thanks to mobile cameras and photo editing apps; and that has sent the photography profession into a tizzy. And for wannabe writers, with access to tools like EMV Headline Analyser, Keyword Researcher or Grammarly, they can churn out reasonably effective copy for their blogs. So where does all this leave photographers, writers and designers who do these for a living? It’s not only machines and automation we have to deal with now, but we also have to contend with people with access to softwares and machines that are increasingly co-opting our livelihoods.

Among the industry, we have been seeing 2 camps: Those who embrace the future of how people design will find themselves more employable, and those who continue to romanticise the past and hope to find that niche of employability (or pray for another Y2K, whichever comes first) will struggle more and find their market value erode. And boy, you don’t want to be in the 2nd camp.

For those who are still in it to win it, here are 4 pieces of advice that will make you a relevant and vital creative today, and to find new joy in what you do:

 

1. Go multi

Digital and data underpin the engine behind omnichannel marketing or multi-channel branding, which are dominating the design practice these days. It pools together multiple data points across a customer’s purchase funnel to give you a more complete picture of who your customer is, and how you should be speaking to this customer at each point of the journey, from awareness to consideration to decision (and beyond).

This means that as a creative, you can no longer design in silos. Offline designers cannot just design for offline channels but must think about how offline complements online, and what visual information needs to be served on which platform, when and how. But don’t stop there. Instead, go one step further and co-op online designs. The more adept you are at designing across platforms (including website, email, social, app, etc.), the more control you will have over your design, rather than pass it off to another designer or agency to complete your vision.

Another positive to being a multi-channel designer is that you will have a wider spectrum of platforms to communicate your campaign idea and brand message. Information can be more spread out yet more focused (cuz we all know how you hate those ridiculous briefs that require you to squeeze everything into your design…and still make the logo 30% bigger). This way, information can be more relaxed across channels, and more targeted at each stage of the customer journey.

But worried that you know nuts about digital design? Just flashback to the days when you first learned design or print production, or editing, whatever…. When all you had was curiosity and a desire to learn. It’s the same thing.

 

2. Embrace digital tools

Digital allows us to churn out real-time insights. And data moves quickly. You probably already know that social and search platforms like Facebook and Google algorithms and advertising units change all the time. And customers expect content on demand. But we all recognise that time is finite. There will always be deadlines and nobody likes working overtime. Good thing too, there is help in the form of softwares and digital tools, that can help us meet deadlines and colleagues for happy hour.

For creatives making the transition to digital, there are many softwares that make web and mobile design a snap. No coding needed. But for those with an appetite to pick up programming, you should definitely go for it. Knowing programming certainly opens up a whole new world of digital technical wizardry and arms you – again – with more control over your design vision and go beyond bootstrapped sites to achieve more unique solutions. But for those whose eyes instantly glaze when encountering code and go into a panic attack in the face of words like “UX” and “programmatic”, you needn’t worry. There are many very good web design softwares and prototyping tools like Adobe Muse and Wix that allow you to design very beautiful and high performing sites without knowing a lick of code. Start there.

Beyond website creation, learn to adopt digital tools and softwares as part of your workflow too. These can let you work remotely (where you can network and access real-world inspiration), reduce design time by collapsing repetitive steps through automation, publish social content more quickly through dynamic templates, and so on. Digital and mobile have made these very possible. The days of the deskbound designer creating everything from scratch have gone the way of the dinosaur. Tedium has given way to technical shortcuts and agility. But does this mean you can no longer achieve differentiated designs, since everything seems templated and “lazy”? Of course not. Which brings us to…

 

3. Spend more time thinking, less time designing

Yes, it sounds counter-intuitive, but designers really need to spend more time thinking and ideating, and less time designing. Even more so in this era of machine learning and creative democracy, where the true value of creativity – and what clients will pay for – lies in the ideas and the thinking. It’s how you stand out.

It becomes necessary then for you to be the conduit between reams of data (input) and creative outcomes (output). That’s where magic can still happen. Make that magic happen! Embrace data, and harness your skills to think more closely and mindfully about who you’re designing for, and the purpose and objective of each communications platform. The more successful creative workers are the ones who insert themselves into the top of the creative funnel, who drive the thinking and back up their designs with responsible research and data, and who connect the dots to better speak to the customers. And of course, the right amount of inspiration (or for some, vodka) will certainly move things very nicely along.

 

4. Keep an open mind

Digital can be confusing, scary, intimidating. I love robots and sci-fi so the thought of machine learning and AI don’t scare me as much. But numbers…I quake at numbers. But as much as I hate numbers and learning new tools, I love my happy hours. And to protect my happy hours, it becomes necessary for me to embrace numbers and make digital my weapon and analytics my b****.

As creatives grappling with this new world order, there is a lot to learn and understand and be curious about. But the heart of this digital black hole strikes at the core of why we are creatives in the 1st place. We are excited by wonder, we have a hunger to make new stuff and charter new grounds, we hope to get others excited about the things we create, and to make them think a little bit differently about their reality. Once you overcome your fear of the unknown (or at least face it head-on) and plunge into the rabbit hole, it’s probably terrifying and exciting. And if you’re lucky, you will enjoy them both in equal measures. And it will pay off.

I hear there is a Matrix reboot afoot at Warner Bros. I love the original film, which gave me whiplash (in a good way). Those who watched it inevitably had the red pill/blue pill conversation afterwards. Personally, I’ve always found the red pill sexier. I would pop that in a heartbeat. Not only because it allows me to then do all kinds of kung fu badassery, but also because it takes me on a crazy adventure, and gives me the weapon and information needed to effect change on the world by working the system and by creating my own rules. The message spoke to my creative heart, and I’m sure, did the same to many other creatives too. Today, I can’t help but think how prescient that movie was and continues to be. I am eager to see the reboot and what the makers make of this digital conundrum.

So you’ve decided to rebrand. Terrific! Where do you begin? Let us give you an insider’s guide to help you along. There are enough articles out there that tell you what you must do; so we thought we’d take a different stance…by pointing out pitfalls that can potentially derail your project. Ready? Great, let’s go!

 

DON’T: Assume you know it all

You’re the business owner. You’ve probably been steering its growth for the past 20 years to some (or great) success. You probably think no one knows your customers better than you do, or that you have a deeper understanding of your industry than a brand consultant. This is likely very true, but also the wrong attitude to take. Most successful business owners I’ve worked with take a humble approach to their business. Their secret sauce: Being open and always questioning. They don’t assume they know it all. Regardless where their business life cycle is at, they recognise the benefit of having an impartial 3rd-party come in and be the alternate voice to give it a jumpstart or shake things up. The business owners we work with are almost always surprised by new insights our research yields, or when we challenge and provoke them to think of their business and customers differently. Their world to a new reality opens up. So the lesson is this: Regardless how well you think you know your business, there’s always merit in investing in research and in having an objective voice to bust previously held myths, question what you hold dear, and explore new opportunities that have become blindspots. This objective voice provides the needed impartiality and outsider perspective unencumbered by baggage or sentimentality. You want change? That’s the best place to start.

 

DON’T: Make it personal

This is a challenge for SME owners especially. Particularly when it comes to brand identity. We have come across entrepreneurs whose 1st instruction to us is: You can change everything but please don’t touch the logo. This goes back to what I touched on earlier: Sentimentality. Their reasons: “I designed this myself when I started the company…it holds a very special place in my heart”, “Our staff and customers have gotten used to it”, “My friend designed it for free 3 years ago…I don’t want to appear ungrateful”, etc. We’ve also heard things like “You can change the logo but please keep the colour…I really like the colour”; or clients who say they are “open” but will always steer the choices back to where they started (“I still like my original colour better”).

Branding deals a lot with sentiments, but not sentimentality. The thing to remember is that you’re designing a brand for your customers, not for yourself. What works for you may not work for the customer. It’s imperative to make a distinction between the 2; take yourself and your personal preferences out of the equation. The question to ask is this: Who are you trying to seduce? Your customers…or yourself?

That said, we always encourage business owners to not accept a logo they cannot stand to look at daily. But we also ask them to assume the persona of their customers and judge the logo through those lenses instead. Will it resonate and create better engagement? Sometimes having a “cooling off” period helps too. Some clients come back with a fresh perspective once they’ve slept on it, talked to a few people about it (e.g., business partners or long-time customers), rather than having a knee-jerk reaction at the point of presentation and commit to a direction clouded by personal temperament.

 

DON’T: Do it all by yourself

Building a brand is a massive undertaking. Even if you’re doing it with an agency. There are information the agency needs; they may require access to your sales, marketing, HR and finance teams; they might want to have conversations with your customers and staff; they could find it useful to conduct an audit of your past marketing and sales materials; and so on. As a business owner, your attention is likely split and you’re running a mile a minute; and the agency simply can’t do a good job when their level of access is limited, or if they’re busy spending time chasing you down for an audience than doing actual work.

Instead, you may want to assemble a project team, and appoint trusted PICs with whom the agency can liaise or run some decisions by, so the project doesn’t come to a screeching halt when you’re indisposed. Once this is in place, you just then need to set aside periodic pockets of time and avail yourself for crucial checkpoint meetings with both your agency and your PICs.

Besides these very sensible reasons, there are benefits to involving staff in your rebranding exercise for softer HR reasons too. Building a brand is exciting and fun; and it is a journey. Done correctly, it can be a rallying point to improve staff morale and engagement as well. When you bring staff along for the ride, you not only fold in their functional concerns along the way, but you also draw them closer to the brand you will eventually build by giving them a sense of ownership and participation in the process. In so doing, you build not only a brand but also community, stewardship and staff loyalty.

 

DON’T: Stop at identity

This is a mistake many branding rookies make. When they think branding, they think “logo”. Some may understand that it’s also about colours; maybe some will extend their branding reality to include also typography and how the logo relates to the whole identity system. (Or more specifically, a visual identity system.) So you may be thinking, They understand the importance of brand identity…what’s wrong here?

What many business owners need to understand is that a brand goes way, way, way further than a logo or brand identity guidelines. It’s about so much more: Product strategy, pricing strategy, distribution strategy, people development, HR policy, marketing strategy, communications. You need to approach branding as a whole package. Branding is a way of conduct, a way of being (not just seeing)

So when you’re thinking about rebranding, don’t commission just a logo or identity system. That’s just cosmetics and can only get you so far. Rather, you want to think more strategically: What the brand means to your business, your customers, your industry; and what’s the impact it can make. You want put in place a brand strategy to bring the brand to life. Which brings us to…

 

 

DON’T: Let nature take its course

Brand building is long term, and takes effort. Launching a brand is but the tipping point. Whether the brand is successful or makes an impact to your bottomline will depend on what you do after you’ve launched the brand.

So what do you do? First, recognise that a brand cannot grow organically. It needs constant steering and guardianship against brand guidelines and set strategy. Just as you wouldn’t stop tending to your baby once it’s birthed, or deny her an education and healthcare, you cannot abandon your brand once it’s launched. You need to continually nurture it, feed it, give it the right stimulation, environment and guidance to ensure healthy growth. And providing the right conditions for growth demands you to be ruthlessly strategic.

What does this mean? It means that you must be prepared to take a long, hard look at your business and make the necessary adjustments in line with strategy. This could include reevaluating the kinds of products and services you offer, reexamining your pricing and distribution structures, investing in new production techniques (maybe), educating and motivating your staff to live the brand values, working out an annual marketing budget and then putting it into play, putting an agency on retainer to deliver on-brand communications (if you’re not confident of doing it yourself), etc. It means not making excuses not to do certain things, or putting off marketing and brand building efforts until you have time. (Your baby would’ve starved to death!) So, be a responsible brand parent!

 

A rock solid brand can do many things: Let you stand for something in the market, establish an emotional connection with your customers, give you a price advantage…you can even use brand to shape product strategy (as it should) and define a formula for growth (as it should also). That being said, you must be prepared to stick to that formula and put whatever you can to ensure its success. Successful branding doesn’t happen overnight. It takes patience, and the necessary investments to make it work.

At this point, you may think rebranding sounds like a lot of work. Well, it is. But as a hoary saying goes, It’s not work when you’re enjoying it. And branding and marketing work is a lot of fun! The golden rule is not to think of it as work, but as a commitment to making it work.

Whether you manage creativity in-house or through an agency, or if you manage any form of creativity at all – from product design to branding to PR to events or marketing – you simply need to be more creative. We are living in a creative economy and people are paying for game-changing ideas that disrupt, disprove and improve.

So how can you make your company more effective by being more creative? Splurge and hire rock star creative overlords? Subscribe and pore through design annuals from Tokyo to Istanbul? Hobnob with those bright, beautifully warped minds at Cannes parties? Attend design bootcamps? There are so many avenues to stretch creativity, and none of them necessarily better than the last. But most of them can be cost and time intensive. If you, like us, like to keep things light, casual and simple, we’ve got a tip for you.

At antics@play, we conduct creative brown bag sessions. A brown bag session is a casual meeting of like-minded people for co-curricular learning that happens at the school or workplace. It typically isn’t very long and happens over lunch. Participants are expected to bring their own lunch (hence, the brown bags and its informal nature). Besides packed food, participants would commune over a subject of mutual interest. It’s an opportunity for them to learn about a certain topic, share passions, get to know each other better, or to create stuff. Topics and activities are limited only by the imagination.

I was introduced to my 1st brown bag session in college as an English department assistant (or DAs…think District Attorneys, but much less moneyed and much more nerdy). That’s when a few DAs would gather frequently over lunch on campus, and we’d share. Sometimes we’d share stuff that we’d written, sometimes we’d evangelise about favourite authors, sometimes we’d debate literary criticism taught that semester. And then sometimes we’d write…individually and as a team. We had made up funny obituaries for our professors based on their personalities, and dreamt up alternate dissertation titles they should’ve gone with to really earn our respect. It was all in good fun, and the professors had a good laugh, and sometimes they’d join our brown bags, and we’d get to know them just that little bit better and our knowledge would stretch just that little bit further.

That tradition now lives at antics@play. As a brand and PR agency, our currency is creativity. We have art directors, designers, writers, project managers, planners and suits. Not everyone here designs, but we expect all staff to be creative. We don’t run an art institution here, but we try and expose everyone to different creative disciplines, influences and techniques. Studies suggest that having activities that cultivate creative minds can help you gain confidence and cope with performance anxiety, better spot opportunities, develop right-brain thinking, and empower you to be proactive and solution-oriented.

We’ve run 9 brown bag sessions so far this year – once a month, every last Friday of the month. It’s the best time for staff to decompress after a long week. And a 1-hour commitment from everyone isn’t much of an imposition on client work. Most times we do it in our office, sometimes we go on a field trip, sometimes we’d cut staff loose on an inspiration hunt and have them come back with their spoils to share. Topics run the gamut. We’ve learned about the scientific applications of origami, California skate culture and its impact on street art, the craft of the Chinese lantern, how designers use typography to tell a story, how creatives create. We draw, we write, we tell stories, we problem solve. Some sessions are wholly educational, some purely inspirational. Some have games and prizes, while others…well, the game itself is the prize. We learn as we play, and the benefits of doing so are well documented.

Besides knowledge expansion, our creative brown bags have provided excellent opportunities to learn about each other too. For instance, when we got staff to design their own skateboards, we discovered a few of our suits can draw really well. Or when we made like typographer Gemma O’Brien and had a go at designing our own airsick bag (see #spewbagchallenge, where you have to come up with puke puns and use type and illustration to tell your story), that really brought out our corny. We know who’s nifty with their fingers from our speed origami challenge (which resulted in quite a number of paper cranes that took second life as table decor for a client’s Japanese-themed event). We know who’s the sappiest when we shared our favourite lantern design during the Mid-Autumn Festival edition. Or more recently, when everyone got to tell ridiculous stories starring Pokemon Go characters, we know who can think really quickly on their feet and who’s really got a gutter brain.

Besides team bonding, which has real productivity benefits in the workplace (beyond just knowing each other’s guilty pleasures and collecting blackmail material), our brown bag sessions have often resulted in stuff that became fodder for social media content. Just check out our Facebook and LinkedIn pages. So, if you’ve ever been stuck for ideas or time to generate content quickly for your company’s content marketing efforts, this is an excellent way to get others to do it for you!

So if you feel your company or team can use some creative juicing up, or you need to quickly create content for your social or blog pages, brown bag it. It need not be time or cost and labour intensive. Just an hour a month can really get you places. To help make brown bag sessions a part of your company’s creative culture, here are some tips to get you started.

 

Tips for running successful brown bag sessions

  • Consider your audience and their needs. Think about why they’d want to attend, and structure your syllabus accordingly. It’s their lunch hour, so make the time about them, not about you.
  • Mix it up. Not all sessions need to be educational, or about technical learning. Sometimes, just spending time with your co-workers over a shared activity or bonding over a common current topic can teach you something really valuable: About the people you work with, and how you can work better with them.
  • Appoint a few organisers, and rotate the organisation of each session among them. Task the organiser to come up with the topic. This keeps things interesting and surprising for everyone, including yourself. It can also widen the syllabus, and everyone learns so much more than what the Creative Director or you are interested in.
  • Bring in a guest every now and then. This helps stimulate the conversation and makes for interesting dynamic and perspective shifts.
  • Keep it light by introducing fun and games. Cuz nobody wants to take a break from work to do more work. When you make it about play, it no longer feels like work.
  • Location, location, location. Meeting rooms are great if you need the infrastructure. But we’ve found that a field trip, or just a couch and some throw pillows work just as well. The idea is to get people’s mind off work (emails, phones, computers). Take them out of the environment of stress, and have them relax…we’ve found that this is often when you get most creative.
  • Send out calendar invites and make it a standing appointment. This way, staff know to set aside that time for this and it becomes habitual.
  • Surprise them every now and then. Throw in a challenge, or pizza and prizes… Cuz, c’mon, who doesn’t like pizza and prizes.

Happy brown bagging!

I attended a sobering session several weeks ago by futurist Amy Webb about the future of design. In no uncertain terms, she said that I will be out of a job soon. In a few years, there will be no need for Creative Directors, or Art Directors and Designers. With increasing feats of automation and data intelligence permeating our practice, and marketing veering more toward science than art, creatives today can still take minor comfort in that someone will still be needed to make sense of the reams of data and transmute them into some sort of creative work that touches people. That’s where the creative magic happens. But not for long.

For this year’s Met Gala, Marchesa teamed up with IBM Watson to create a so-called “cognitive dress“. What happened was Marchesa fed into Watson (an AI that can understand emotions based on images, texts, videos and other data points) hundreds of images of past Marchesa dresses, and Watson was able to cognitively design the dress through an algorithm. The output is pretty stunning, actually. It looks like a dress borne of Marchesa’s brand DNA and it fits the Manus X Machina gala theme perfectly. What’s not to love about such cognitive intelligence? At the end of the day, someone still needs to be there to “approve” the dress (ergo, a job). And someone (in this case, Karolina Kurkova) still needs to wear the dress. No harm, no foul…. Right?

But will the time come when even design approvals are automated by artificial neural networks? We already know that the Japanese had successfully (and literally) manufactured popstar Eguchi Aimi, who for a time became the most popular member of girl band AKB 48. Until of course when she was outed as a digital creation based on an algorithm of what Japanese teens considered beautiful. This understandably led to a major public hue and cry. (Guess who had the last laugh.) That’s how good machines are these days. And they’re getting better.

Creativity is quickly becoming a science, not an art.

Where then do we fit within this world of cognitive intelligence and predictive design? Data is great. It’s an essential part of the marketing funnel and creative process. And we always advise clients on the importance of using marketing research for branding and campaign work from advertising to PR to CRM. It defines the parameters, focuses your resources, finetunes your message and increases your chances of branding success. Keyword here being “increases”.

Will the day come when research and predictive design can laser in to the heart of every piece of communication and lob everything at X number of customers with 100% accuracy, resulting in 0 advertising wastage? When all brand identities subsequently designed are so perfectly developed that it makes all its target audience automatically open their wallets and cream their pants? Probably. It all feels a bit Minority Report to me. But it could happen. And clients everywhere will celebrate.

However. That sort of design to me, while effective, will be just that little bit less beautiful. I still find beauty in unpredictability. It could be the Japanese in me (for the record, I have no Japanese in me…except maybe sushi or dorayaki on occasion). The Japanese has a concept of wabi-sabi, which celebrates the beauty of impermanence or imperfection in life and in art.

So here’s the pickle: In looking at the future of design and creativity, will we appreciate beauty just as much if beauty never fades, or if everything around us is equally beautiful? Is anything still creative when everything is creative? Or will successes be celebrated when everything becomes just as successful? Sophia Loren is beautiful not because we expect her to be beautiful but because she has struck the gene pool lottery, and we become awestruck. We appreciate freshness because there is staleness. If everything is predictably beautiful, my algorithm tells me that while we can still recognise things as being beautiful, we may not appreciate them as being so. We’ll be surrounded by beauty, but not with awe.

So let’s hold onto our awe, for however long we have.

And that to me, is quite beautiful.

qualities_creative_designer

In my line of work, I meet creative talents from all walks of life and disciplines of choice. From fresh grads to seasoned vets, spanning print and digital to experience and product… Meet enough of them and patterns start to emerge. You can intuit who’s in it for the money, and who’s in it for the passion. You can tell who’s going to give you a 110% and who’s just phoning it in. So what are the telltale signs? What separates good designers from great designers? If you’re a designer, which one are you or aspire to become? Are you a member of the strategic team, or a mere hired hand? If you’re a client, which kind of designer is your creative agency or brand agency giving you? Here’s a checklist of the 7 qualities that separate the pros from the pretenders.

 

1. Great designers are curious

My 1st instinct is to say, the number 1 thing a great designer must be is “human” (eyebrows and a pulse will help too), but I’ve learned from futurist Amy Webb that machines are increasingly taking over design functions, so there goes that. So, the number 1 thing designers must be is curious. Even machines are by nature curious and crave information (without which there’s no algorithm).

So often clients tell us what they want. A bigger logo, a smaller fee… or a campaign that looks like that other campaign that made people cry or put on their trousers and run out to buy (or better yet, do both). When asked to design around such a brief, my immediate response is always, “Why”. Not because it buys me more time (though that’s that too), but mostly because so many briefs are about the What and not about the Why. A good designer would know instinctively what the client is looking for, deliver beautiful artwork, and then bag a swift approval and move on to the next job. Billings in, champagnes all around.

No.

The great designer goes beyond the brief. The great designer isn’t afraid to challenge the brief and ask the tough questions. The great designer gives not what the client wants but what the client needs. A good designer do, a great designer thinks before they do. So when faced with a brief, do you read? Or do you read critically? Do you immediately put pen to paper, and like ghostwriting let the answer eke itself out? Or do you begin by questioning if we’re asking the right questions and solving the right problem, before you even begin to hazard a solution?

In branding work, design and business are closely linked. If you’re not taking the time to understand the client’s business and advertising choices and advantages, you’re just making pretty things and not things of significance.

 

2. Great designers are empathetic

It’s been said that designers are some of the nicest, most generous, humble, giving and peace-loving people in the world. That’s because designers are by nature empathetic creatures. Good designers are skilled at what they do. Great designers bring to the table that much more: Empathy.

Everyone’s talking about user-centric design and advertising these days… understanding customers, designing around the customer, or designing with users in mind. It’s the root of all the latest technobabble and marketing buzzwords, like UX, omnichannel, customisation and content marketing. And all these need to come from a place of empathy. As a designer, you need to be able to understand the customer for whom you’re designing things for. This is even more relevant when it comes to branding. Branding is all about establishing an emotional connection and growing that relationship with an audience. If you’re not investing a significant part of your creative process to researching and understanding the audience, and absorbing that into your thinking, and then using that to guide your every design decision, then you would’ve proven yourself the weakest link. Goodbye.

 

3. Great designers do not design for themselves

Whu-what? Many designers – particularly younger ones – find it difficult to wrap their heads around this. They’ve graduated with a design degree, are influenced by certain design heroes, and have their own design preferences and style. This could be due to a lack of exposure or worse, ego. I’ve spoken to designers who subconsciously shoehorn different brands into their design style, particularly 1 or a range of which they’re comfortable with or find aesthetically pleasing and personally edifying, so it sits pretty in their portfolio.

While there are many grey zones in the world of creativity and how one approaches the creative process, there are actually “right” and “wrong” ways of designing for a brand. Emphasis being on “designing for a brand”. You cannot be designing for yourself. If you’re curious, and are empathetic, you would then be designing the brand around what the business needs to become, and what its customers can resonate with.

Key lesson is: If you want to design for yourself, be an artist. If you’re a designer at a creative or brand agency, let go of your ego…and come to grips that you’re designing for others.

 

4. Great designers do different things

In HR, there’s lots of talk about hiring for T-shaped people. This basically means hiring people who have broad knowledge of everything but with specialisation in 1 thing. Personally, I like to hire at least Pi-shaped designers, or better, jellyfish-shaped ones. Sometimes I’d hire T-shaped designers and try and coax an extra leg or 2 out of them. This is absolutely essential.

Today’s design economy is all about content velocity, and platforms are melding and strategies are blending. In this economy, speed is currency. Agencies simply need to be nimbler and work faster. Everyone needs to get into everybody else’s business. A designer needs to understand how print can interact with digital, or how each medium works synergistically with everything else. A PR manager needs to know digital marketing. A programmer needs to know SEO. Traditional web designers need to learn code and cinematic UX. Film directors are designing. Designers are film directing. It’s an orgy and we’re all invited. So you can either jump in, or turn your noses up and stay on the sidelines. But if you opt to stay on the sidelines, that’s the quickest ticket to creative extinction. You’ll either have to wander around 1 of those decaying Walking Dead towns to find that special T-shaped someone with a complementary skill to pick up on your slack and lumber into the sunset together, or you can be a jellyfish.

My advice is, be a jellyfish. They seem to have all the fun.

 

5. Great designers never switch off…except when they switch off, but then again, not really

Design. It’s all around us. It’s on every Starbucks cup, every bus that chugs along, every leaf on the ground, every stitch on your clothes, every ray of sunshine… I’ve had more creative inspirations running through a nature reserve on a Saturday morning than thumbing through design annuals in the office. Creativity is not a 9-to-5 job. It’s 24/7. You’re always thinking and observing. Even your dreams are a fount of possibilities. Inspiration can strike anytime, anywhere. On your long runs, during your naps, on the shirt on the back of some stranger…. Your client’s brand doesn’t live in a bubble. Neither should your solution. The world doesn’t stop, your brain doesn’t stop. You – like Miley – just can’t stop.

At the HOW Design Live 2016 conference, the message was loud. Designers really embraced the message of “Unplugging”, courtesy of Tiffany Shlain, who advocated the concept of taking a technology shabbat, both at a keynote and on an episode of her web series “The Future Starts Here”. This basically means no screens for 1 day every week. No TV, no mobiles, no social media, no laptops, no tablets. Crap, what’s left? Well, what’s left is quality time to reconnect – with your family, yourself and your inner creativity. Read, rake, draw, converse, cook, crochet, play basketball, or simply daydream…whatever allows you to cut out the social chatter and compulsive need to be “liked” or “loved” or posture or “followed”. Instead, let your mind and creativity breathe and flourish. So if you are going to switch off at all, do so literally.

 

6. Great designers like being weird

‘Nuff said.

 

7. Great designers know how to sell

Not enough, however, can be said about designers who do not know how to sell. Guys, a picture doesn’t speak a thousand words. Words speak a thousand words. And your work doesn’t speak for itself. It’s frickin inanimate. Your design doesn’t sell itself. You do. If things sell themselves, there would be no need for marketing and advertising. Think about it.

Great designers explain their design choices and rationale. If you have done responsible design, such as conducting the necessary research, filtering your choices through what makes sense for the brand and the audience, you will have no trouble at all explaining and backing up your design. It comes from a place of credibility, expertise and authenticity. Work in a branding agency long enough and you’ll understand that seldom do clients approve a design just because you like it. So don’t just learn to design, learn to also hustle and sell.

By now the Tattoine dust has settled and in case you’ve been living under a rock in Dagobah but somehow reading this, yes, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a mammoth success. Defying all conventions that you can’t wait too long for a sequel to work (sorry, Zoolander 2), Star Wars is a force unto itself. There’s really no awakening when it hardly ever went to sleep.

Sitting pretty as the No. 2 worldwide box office champ of all time (and expected to break video sales in just a couple of weeks), it has successfully reinvigorated a 40-year-old franchise and introduced an old brand to a new generation of Padawans across gender, age and culture. What’s the secret sauce? Pent-up demand? Savvy marketing? Try branding. (And no, we’re not talking about Yoda grapes and BB-8 oranges….) Here are 3 key lessons we can learn from The Force Awakens about branding done right.

1. Commit to your brand narrative

Brands tell stories. They’re how humans are hardwired to understand the world around them. If you want people to understand your brand, yep, tell a story. It’s the best way to establish an emotional connection with your audience, and keep them invested and piqued to see what the next chapter brings. As to what constitutes a brand story, well, some brands focus on their backstory, some brands create stories around their beliefs and philosophies, other brands create a narrative around a promise. And every piece of brand communication produced should then extend and reinforce that narrative. When you tell your story, it is important that the tales you tell are not standalone chapters but are part of a broader story arc. And this arc needs to be consistent with your brand image and promise. Because there’s comfort in familiarity, and people want payoff. There is a great article in Forbes about the science and power of storytelling, in which the writer posits that storytelling has measurable utility; that attention is the reward that listeners bestow on the storyteller. So you want your audience’s attention? Tell a great story.

In The Force Awakens, J. J. Abrams does this excellently. Sure, there are many who complain that The Force Awakens is basically retelling the story of A New Hope…. And that’s okay. When all is said and done, the Star Wars universe (and arc) that Lucas has created is a great mythological one, that of a hero’s journey. Film students will know that Lucas was inspired by mythologist Joseph Campbell’s influential The Hero With a Thousand Faces when writing Star Wars in 1975. In his book, Campbell purports that underlying all stories is a classical narrative structure and theme; in other words, that all mythic narratives are variations of a single great story. This in popular literary tradition is now known as the Hero’s Journey. And the Hero’s Journey myth has certain rules, beats and arcs that has to be followed. Lucas followed it faithfully, as did Abrams. At heart, Star Wars is a story about an everyman (Luke) who discovers his (or in the case of Rey in The Force Awakens, her) potential and fulfills his/her destiny. Along the way, they encounter mentors (Obi Wan/Maz Kanata) and aides (Han Solo/Finn), antagonists (Darth Vader/Kylo Ren) and defeat, discovery, purpose, promise and flight. Abrams understood the efficacy of committing to a narrative. He extended the story authentically and without losing sight of the original arc. And that’s what your brand should do too.

 

2. Build your brand on archetypes

Psychologist Carl Jung believed that some story characters are instantly familiar to us because they are primal and instinctive, part of a universal collective unconscious we all share. Campbell’s book itself was based on the German philosophy that myths from all over the world are built from the same “elementary ideas”, which Jung called archetypes. Jung believed that everyone in the world is born with the same basic subconscious model of what a hero, a mentor or a quest is, and that’s why people can enjoy the same stories across cultures, gender and time. I remember watching Star Wars as a kid in the late 70s in Singapore; speaking to my college mates in California 20 years later, we all understood exactly what Star Wars meant…our take-out was the same: What made Luke heroic, why Han couldn’t have shot first, why Vader was the not the real villain, and what a douche the Emperor really was. Different continents, different eras, same story, same understanding. This is why archetypes work. They are universally familiar characters or situations that transcend time, place, culture, gender and age. Archetypes represent an eternal truth.

Undeniably, part of the reason the Star Wars universe is rock solid is that it’s built around archetypal characters that people can understand and relate to. This is no stroke of luck but a masterstroke of genius. We know to root for Luke and Rey (the Hero), feel sympathy for Vader/Anakin and Kylo (the tragic hero or the Fallen), cheer the gumption of Han and Finn (the Adventurer/Rebel), seethe at the manipulativeness of Palpatine and Snoke (the Villain), admire the bravery of R2-D2 and BB-8 (the Loyal sidekick) and listen to the wisdom of Yoda and Maz (the Spiritual guide). Across the Star Wars films, there are undeniable parallels. The filmmakers know what people can relate to, and this helps inform how they write the characters and shape the way audiences approach and understand the story and its universe.

That’s why strong and successful brands are built on archetypes. Building your brand on an archetype helps you define your brand’s values, personality and behaviours. Brands with strong identifiable archetypes find an easier time guiding internal decisions and build lasting relationships with customers. It’s a way for brands to align what it says it is, what it does, and how it is perceived and known. People understand them better, and again, there is comfort in that. It appeals to human’s innate desire for truth and certainty.

3. Apply your brand identity with near-ruthless consistency

Die-hard Star Wars fans will tell you they feel goosebumps every time they encounter the familiar electro glow of “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” followed by the sudden rousing swell of John Williams’s signature score and the iconic title crawl, and the inimitable hum of a lightsaber, and so on. In The Force Awakens, Abrams has taken this to a different level. Besides those iconic brand elements and archetypes that made Star Wars Star Wars, The Force Awakens brings back also much of the original trilogy’s talents and on-screen eye candy; from Harrison Ford and R2-D2 to Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon (all of which elicited cheers when they appeared on screen at the screenings I attended). He plays to the tune of familiarity and fan favourites.

 

And he didn’t stop there. Those familiar with the film’s marketing campaign will recognise throwbacks to the original trilogy in other ways. Retro-styled teaser poster? Check. Drew Struzan-styled campaign art? Check. And don’t even get me started on the landslide of marketing tie-ins and merchandising juggernaut. Prevalent in the 70s, 80s and 90s, almost omnipresent now.

So yes, in branding, consistency is king. Confusion is the no. 1 killer. What is signature about your brand is what brands you as you. Just as archetypes don’t act out of character and therefore build an ironclad relationship with the audience, brand identity assets cannot be applied out of character either. Pay attention to your brand guide and all the rules of application. This goes beyond basic visual symbols like logos, colours and fonts, but also to the context within which your brand appears and the experience you’re giving customers. When running brand and marketing campaigns, be mindful of where and how customers see and interface with your brand. Some brands go so far as to advertise only in specific spots within a magazine, or secure only a certain kind of shop unit with a very specific floorplan. It’s ruthlessly consistent. And it’s such shrewd consistency that builds strong and recognisable brands.

So can a brand grow and evolve, or must it rehash the same old tune over and over again? Of course a brand can grow (and it must grow with the times). Identity can be updated and stories can take on new chapters to remain relevant…but brands must grow in a way that still remains authentic to the original arc and not wander from their core archetypes.

And The Force Awakens has gotten this right. Abrams has managed to produce a film that is as good as the original ones, and that continues a tradition, while being “new” in its own way. Female roles are more prominent now, Stormtroopers have sicker equipments, and the emotional stakes are higher too. But through careful calculation, creative alchemy and an unwavering commitment to the Star Wars brand, he’s managed to retain loyalty of its original fans (hooking them back in) while growing awareness and affinity with new ones…across generations and cultures, and with the same currency: Brand.

Circuses are the tofu of branding and advertising. It takes on the personality of whatever you marinate it in. So iconic, yet so flexible. It is little surprise that everyone from Britney Spears to Rob Zombie have co-opted the circus theme to hawk their own brand of showmanship, from wholesome pop to fearsome goth rock. And I love them all.

As a proud Gen X-er, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience the circus in the most classic sense of the word. We’re talking Ringling Bros-style extravaganzas. While parents got down with their disco rump-shaking and Bacardi-swigging antics back in the days, we 70s kids had mustachioed ringmasters, phenomenal fire eaters, high-wire trapeze artists, larger-than-life exotic animals, pranking clowns, hot roasted peanuts, candied popcorn and soda (or more likely, artificial bird’s nest drinks)…all under 1 colourful big top at the neighbourhood fairground. To an impressionable child growing up in the 70s, it was the most enthralling, fantastical experience you could ask for. It was our disco and drug of choice. The circus was where we got hypnotised by people in crazy, skimpy get-ups; entranced by frenzied parcan lights that searched the audience and showcased headlining acts; got our minds blown by feats of human derring-do; and be transported to a different dimension. It was an explosion of music and lights and imagination, a chance for us ordinary people to crawl out of our daily lives and enjoy extraordinary spectacles and illusions that made our jaws drop. The circus appealed to our sense of wonder, amusement, and showed us a bigger world than the one we knew. It was an event.

For better or worse, animal rights activism and shifting standards in entertainment over the years (thank you Playstation, thank you cable TV!) have contributed to the demise of the old-school, Ringling Bros-styled circuses. Seeing elephants stacked atop each other like dominoes is no longer wondrous but a tortured sight of animal abuse; seeing an animal wrangler stick his head into the mighty jaws of a ferocious Bengal tiger no longer provoke gasps of admiration but screams of horror; and the sight of monkeys pedalling a bike no longer induce giggles but snarly comments like, “Don’t they have better things to do…like type?” I kid. But you get the idea.

The closest thing we get to the modern circus are Cirque du Soleil spectacles that dispense with animal acts but focus squarely on human acrobatics with a multi-million-dollar storyline and carefully choreographed light shows. Circuses today no longer resemble a carnival, but a high-art cultural performance unfolding under the comforts of an air-conditioned tent and overpriced Chardonnays.

At the risk of offending Cirque fans (and they are legion), the art of circus branding has, to me, lost its shine. Ironic, considering their ads are extremely polished feats of digital imaging and art direction. The advertising for circus extravaganzas in the past were resplendent works of showmanship. Illustrated works of art with big, bold and confident typographies that evoked a carnival-esque sense of wonder and appealed to our sense of adventure and fun; inescapable splashes of bright orange, yellow and red that made your lungs burst with excitement; and improbable headlining acts (human and animal) with over-the-top headlines that made you want to believe. They had pizzazz!

The designs of Cirque ads today, in contrast, brand the experience as sensual, mystical, alchemistic. They are beautiful, for sure, but are also tinged with a slightly dark, overwhelmingly surreal sensibility. Do they work? Well, the artwork is beautiful, and the brand works. There’s creativity in full glorious display here. But seldom do they make my heart pound, or work as effectively as a prelude, to the main event that’s about to come. Their branding and ads are representational to a theme and not for a mood. They appeal to the minds, rather than baser instincts like wonderment and fun. Or perhaps what I need is a swig of chardonnay and a hit of Rick James to appreciate the nuances.

Which is why I’m grateful for Chinese New Year. Chinese New year celebrations are often loud, brash, convivial and colourful affairs that are not set up to appeal to the rational mind but to the emotions and heart. The icons of Chinese New Year festivities feature very much the same elements as circuses of yore: Bold, confident lettering; an unapologetic overdose of reds and yellows; pun-ny in-your-face copy and overclaims; and music cues that instantly conjure a carnival-esque mood that can be both anticipatory and numbingly grating. When CNY rolls into town, the country is transformed into a carnival, an explosion of sights, sounds, smells and colours; resplendent with candies, peanuts and sodas; where kids continue to be tickled (or terrorised) by strange people they have never seen before in gaudy get-ups. It’s the closest thing we have today to the 70s circus, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.

Today, in many countries outside Europe and China (where circuses are preserved for their artistic and cultural merits), the old school circuses have become something of an antiquated guilty pleasure…as is – I’m sure to many adults in Singapore – Chinese New Year. I mean, look at it, it has all the ingredients! And so I speak for many at antics@play, we love the lost art of circus branding, and can therefore think of no better opportunity than CNY, to bring that particular brand of gaudy back. Circus branding can survive just about anything…perhaps just not Cirque du Soleil.

Thanks for reading, and Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Are you a Cirque fan? Or a PT Barnum/Ringling Bros fan? Sound off below!