Advice Needed: When No One Else Cares About Design

How do you communicate the importance of maintaining a consistent brand identity across all extensions of the brand? How do you do this when the marketing team submits POP elements (packaging/hangtags/social media content) that utilize a totally different design language than the products they are supposed to support - which are also the products you designed? How do you convey that there is no unified vision of the brand identity from product development to marketing? How do you convince the executives that this is a problem when you’re the only employee with a design degree (implication being that they don’t “get” design, they only understand numbers)? Most importantly, how do you communicate these issues without sounding like an egotistical jerk?

It’s very difficult to impress the importance of design and brand consistency to those that don’t see it of value. You’d think that by education, showing competitive examples and such would work, but in my experience, it’s can be an uphill battle especially at a company that has had little or no experience with design and thinks “everything is just fine as is”.

The only solution in my experience is less than ideal, but one that might get you the opportunity to lead and add value to your design.

What I’ve done successfully, is take matters into my own hands. Offer to design some of the POP or packaging. If it makes someone’s life easier and saves money you just might get the opportunity. Not that your design time is not of value or they shouldn’t be paying for it, but in this context (I’m also assuming you are a relatively junior designer if they only have one designer in house), I can’t see that they would take your advice to hire an expensive consultant or hire a new Marketing Director that “gets it”.

I did this exact same thing in my first corporate gig. I felt my product designs would benefit from better marketing and packaging and knew there was no budget or resources for it. I designed new tech logos. I designed new packaging. I designed new POS. I designed product catalogs. Nobody asked me to, but the value I added not only helped sell the product (numbers do talk), but allowed me to gain experience in a more holistic design/brand approach I still use to this day and added context and content to my portfolio and career trajectory to move up next to a Director and Brand Management level position from a few years at Junior/Senior Designer.

Take advantage of the fact you are the only designer. Take advantage of what sounds like a lack of vision by crafting a new one. Working in an environment where design is NOT used can be better than an environment where design is used but poorly or there is a design vision, but it’s a broken one.

Hope this helps.

R

I agree with rk. Offer to design it, or just go ahead and do it and try to get it in front of decision makers. Unfortunately its more work but you asked for it right?
There are other people on the forum who have had more experience doing just this, but you should preface your solutions with a more keenly-worded statement, analogous to your OP, espousing the benefits of a unified design language, how it makes customer touchpoints consistent, instills pride in and out of the company, gives designers clear targets, etc. You have to remind people of this every chance you get. Put it at the start, middle, and end of your presentations. If you can somehow align your work or effort with top-level corporate strategic goals you will have a much better chance of succeeding.
Aaannnd…over time I’ve learned when to ‘stay in my swim lane’ too, and that sometimes its better to not get involved.

Also…

Sometimes, no matter what you do, you have to realize that not every manager or brand will “get it”.

I’ve often looked at the opportunity of brands with bad or non-unified design in terms of “I can only make it better”, but it’s not always true. You can put in all the effort, build your experience, do great work and make a great example and still not move the dial or be happy end of the day. Especially if you aren’y in a position of power to change things from the top. Even if you are it can be an uphill battle unless you own ALL decisions (ie. it’s your company or you are CEO).

Truth of the matter is, not every company will be a champion for design. An alternate viewpoint to consider that if they are “Ok” with a less than cohesive design and brand approach, maybe you should find a better brand to work for and put your efforts into finding a better fit for your own growth.

R

Important to point out that the OP didn’t say it was ‘bad’, just that it was ‘different’ and ‘not unified’, which - yes - to a designer intimately attached to his or her product design work, may feel ‘bad’. But it could also be incredibly effective at flying off the shelves with its current ‘un-unified’ state. If marketing has data to say that their customer is looking for information displayed in a familiar way, that would be good to know when trying to enact a redesign.

I agree with Richard. I’ve done this too, packaging and catlogues (never had the chance to do POP). Only do it if you want to, because it will likely be thankless.

In addition, I would try build bridges with the people in marketing. Why did they make those decisions? Can you create a new brand vision that both departments are happy with. I remember reading that Black and Decker designers who were located globally did this in the '80s with no management assistance. I’ve done it too. I love design and I love professionals who are passionate, so I can’t help myself.

What size is the company? I’m curious to know if you have access to top management.

Perhaps pitching the issues as an opportunity to increase sales through improved brand consistency and strength would be more effective, and would also get you some influence in marketing’s decisions. I imagine you would need to present a case and numbers to back it up. If the product is selling well with a mismatched identity it will be difficult to convince the executives that a problem exists without tangible evidence that it can be improved.

Though as Richard said, not every manager or brand ‘gets it’, and they might not care about improvements.

This is entirely a business decision, so make the case. Show that brand is worth the return on investment. I don’t care how much you pound your fist on the table, if brand is not a problem, no one will ever spend money to fix something that is not a problem.

You first have to show there is a problem before anyone will accept a solution to that problem. You have to quantify the problem first, then offer design solutions second. Then a reasonable person can calculate the ROI. “Trust me design works” is not a business case.

It is also a very fair point to consider who you are working with. In my experience, I reported directly to the Brand Manager/CEO so was able to get the go ahead and support from the top to do additional work. If you don’t have that, it can be difficult.

Company ethos can also make a big difference. Are the marketing, sales and design (you) departments siloed? Work together? Competitive with each other? You need to be aware of how it could be perceived questioning the status quo. Have you been there a long time, or are you a new addition to the team?

100% it helps to get support from the others you are working with. End of the day, you should still all be on the same team with the same goal (corporate success). In my example it worked as I was doing something nobody else was doing so wasn’t stepping on anyone’s toes and the CEO still had final yay/nay to take my extra contributions and execute responsibly against larger financial and strategic targets.

R

Much thanks to all the replies. It’s encouraging to read all the suggestions from your collective experiences.

To answer some of the questions: I’ve been with the company for 6 1/2 years (first job out of college). Also, to be fair, while I am the only designer with a design degree (Industrial Design), I have a coworker (also a designer) who worked for Nike in the '90’s under Tinker Hatfield and taught ID at Brigham Young (sorry for being misleading in my original post - I should have clarified that none of the “decision makers” have a design background). My coworker mentioned above is in 100% agreement with my views and we’ve had many conversations about how we might influence change or how we might best deal with the circumstances we work in. The product development team works in a different office (and state) than marketing does. So part of the disconnect between departments is one of physical proximity, but I would also attribute it to a lack of brand vision across the company. The development process within the company is a bit backwards: product development designs largely in isolation from marketing, then when the product line is finalized it gets sent to marketing where that team then designs any supporting elements like logos, and assigns a name/theme to the collection, designs the catalog, etc. (I know, my teeth are grating with you).

On multiple projects I have taken it upon myself to spend extra time designing the POP, logos, catalogs, etc. To slippyfish’s point: I decided to start doing this because the designs coming from marketing were not only out of line aesthetically with the products, but they were objectively unsatisfactory. The quality of work that comes from that department is consistently sub-par and looks like a project from a high school ‘Intro to Commercial Arts’ class. I say that with no ill intent. I’ve tried working ahead to get this done so that a finalized package, complete with supporting graphic design, is presented to the whole extended team (sales, marketing, executives).

A few times I have been successful in implementing a new logo/POP item that was favored over what marketing proposed. However, most of the time my proposals are submitted and I hear nothing back. When the new year’s catalog comes out I learn which design was selected.

I have had private conversations with the executives expressing my concern with the aforementioned issues. I have tried expressing my concerns directly to the individuals in marketing and offered to involve them more in the development process so that we could be more unified (that backfired).

I think the hardest pill to swallow is just what rkuchinsky said: that you can explain the merits of cohesive brand identity, show examples of competing brands, offer an improved design, justify its relevance to the target audience…and the reaction is still a shrug. In the words of my supervisor, “At the end of the day, we make shoes, not boxes.”

That Intro to Commercial Arts bit is funny. And sad. Its not THAT hard, people!

Your last point was also sadly familiar to me - we are silo’d into physical and software product development and coordination between the two departments is up to the initiative of the designers working within those groups. My boss (hardware VP) drew an air-rectangle with his fingers and said, “they do the stuff that is inside of this rectangle. Your responsibility is what is outside of this rectangle.” Zero-sum way to look at things but I get it, sort of.

The stinger is when the company goes and hires a big-name strategic design agency who tells them that the way to succeed is to break down all these silos! Borrow your watch to tell you the time.

It sounds reasonably common that everybody knows what needs to be done, but had to spend enough money on an big-name opinion that the leaders would listen. A matrix structure works much better than a silo structure.

In my experience all gains are temporary unless there is a design leader at the very top of the org with all creative reporting to them or the CEO really embraces design.

The org chart of a company goes a long way to determining how decisions are made. In slippyfish’s example his org is split into hardware and software so they will make decisions in that manner. (Actually teaching a module on org charts in my business and design course coming up).

Even in instances where I’ve been able to help make an empirical business case and the leaders of the org intellectually understand, if they don’t get it on a deeper level and structurally set the org up to execute, it hasn’t had a lasting impact. The org eventually reverts to old habits. I try to be up front about these experiences when I’m consulting. I don’t pretend to be a silver bullet.

Not doom and glooming here, just being honest from my experience with it so you can make a frank assessment. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. If you want to take it on, then go for it. Just know you will be doing it for yourself and not to teach a grand lesson. If that is going to give you a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment then it is worth it in my opinion.

Hi,

Please understand, your and theirs motivations might just be entirely different. As a designer you may be interested in creating good aesthetics and winning the Red Dot and such, while they might just be wanting to create business and sell product. Would you be willing to design an ugly product if that one sold better? I mean, WordArt equivalent in product design type ugly. That’s the real world - sometimes you have to seek the middle way. For example, Luigi Colani sometimes had to allow himself to ‘rape’ his own style just to sell and keep projects running in the pipeline. Creating these dumb caricatures of his design philosophy that made no sense. For the business, it’s all about the numbers, not the pride of having an award-winning design family, that’s a secondary objective.

So design arguments would not speak to them. And ‘objectively unsatisfactory’ does not exist - that’s not an argument. You’re going to have to get in their heads and develop arguments from their perspective, to try to sell your designs to them. Learn not to criticize and divide camps, even if it’s just bad what they’re doing design-wise, but if the product sells (and keeps selling), who cares? Set that designer’s ego somewhere else for a minute.

I know that’s hard. My first product design was great - the right tension in the surfaces, good lofts etc. Then marketing made it into a pancake because contents had to be bigger (it was a bottle). It’s actually quite funny and they knew it. Then you have to not be a grump but instead show the value of your design regardless of too little content - make a good argument to negotiate, for example, it fits the hand better in the original size which will make people realize it’s a well-designed product, improving brand loyalty - just to mention an example.

Design is normally a few jumps away from sales data, so it’s hard to keep business people’s attention. Another thing is that getting experimental data is not always possible.

However…food for thought. I designed products that were in a warehouse store. We delivered a display on top of the pallet with the merch. As it happened, out of 100 stores, 10 threw the display away. This particular warehouse store shared store-by-store sales data with us and we saw that the stores without the display had 1/3 the sales of the stores with the display. We sent people out to put a display in those stores and sales popped up to our projections.

Now…unfortunately, this was just a screw up and it shouldn’t be repeated. However, it would be interesting if companies tested POP more regularly. That would be a cheap test. Testing an entire brand image is obviously harder, but one could probably break the idea down into testable chunks.

Everyone has given great examples and this the sentiment carries across all companies from small to enterprise. You’ll have plenty to choose from. My empirical experience is this -

The larger the team, the tougher the sell. I will second/third the notion of embedding a design leader at the c-level of any organization (reasons already given). Your leadership should be driving to fund design research activities. That’s their job to make sure you spend time designing and given the tools to succeed.

In terms of demonstrating impact - journey maps, experience maps, ethnography and a GOOD design strategy has always laid the groundwork for driving the right conversations and aligning with cross functional teams. Assure that you propagate, evangelize and purpose it for the right audience. Remove subjectivity as much as possible. If you cannot do it as a designer, hire/resource out to the those who are capable. Also, having an embedded team make the difference in promoting the message. Build partnerships to carry your message.

All this takes time, incubation and consistent language to drive the point home. Lastly, and like many have already said, your craft deserves the respect to be upheld to a high standard. If you’re not getting the response you desire, it’s okay to move on and to organizations that value your sentiment.

Also, cautionary tale, set some boundaries.

I had a young designer working for me a few years back who also wanted to jump in to improve marketing creative. I was all for it as I thought it would help him better understand other aspects of the business. I allowed him to carve out some time for it but also told him that as an industrial designer he was responsible for ID first. I didn’t want him to get sucked into marketing which will sensing a free resource will ask for more and more and I didn’t want him to feel taken advantage of. Get in, learn a few things, show them a higher level and get out. It went well for a few months and then I noticed his concept work slipping off, then I started getting complaints from engineering that he was slipping on deliverables, or things were not done correctly. I sat him down and explained that the ID work has to come first and he complained that he felt like marketing was giving him too much and it was thankless… exactly what I warned him about. So I told him to stop working on the marketing tasks… he didn’t, he kept working with marketing and his ID work kept slipping resulting in him getting a bad review and smaller raise than everyone else.

Long story short, be careful. Know what you want to get out of it. I understand you want to help, but make sure you don’t get burned out from doing multiple jobs. What happened to the young designer? Well I helped him get a job working for a friend at a startup where the lines between ID and marketing creative were completely blurred and he could work on ID, packaging, trade show booths, etc. I think it was a better fit.

Also, on the flip side, know that now that you are getting in their and critiquing another departments work, be ready for them to do the same.

Its worthwhile to ask if the juice is worth the squeeze. In our industry, the customer doesn’t buy the product based on packaging artwork. I handed off the artwork to people better suited to do it, even though our ID group could do it just fine. I’d rather have us working on 3D stuff and product development projects. We do try to get involved in OOBE-type projects involving how easy it is to pack, ship, remove product, dispose of packaging materials…so more the operational side than the shelf impression. Those are challenging tasks that pay off when done well.

Having worked corporate at the same place for 12 years, I was burned most of the ways brought up here. 2 anecdotes:

As a junior designer I helped create a POP-concept as a sideproject with the marketing manager. I took his loose verbal idea and sketched, did a mockup, made some renders, made another mockup… the concept went to an ad agency to create the production version, which is totally fine. Then that POP went on to win some sort of marketing award on which were listed 7 ADs, 6CDs, 5 copywriters, 4 designers, 3 photographers, 2 external managers, and our internal marketing manager. No internal junior designer. Even worse, noone (significant) besides the marketing manager knew my contribution.

As the Head of Design at the same place I was working intensely on a big product line. The packaging was clogging the TimeToMarket pipes and I had to resolve it personally, which took up a lot of my time. Meanwhile, a new prestige project just kicked off and it was decided that ID was to be done outside because we lacked internal resources at the time… I quit not long after that.

On the flipside though, I learned a ton about other sides of The Business, got to dine out with people way higher up the food chain as a junior, got to travel to way more exotic and fun conferences than the Engineering Manager did etc… I’m just happy I put in that extra time before I had a wife, a kid, a dog, a house…

engio: both of things happened to me too. Serenity now…