By: K. G. SREENIVAS Dated: September 01, 2014
Can design reenergise a community, its institutions, or a nation? In a conversation with Creative Brands, Anthony Lopez, Founder, Lopez Design, says how city environment graphics design can go a long way in “defining culture, ethos, and behaviour” of a community…
With reference to your work with Headstrong, you say that your brief was to "reinterpret the brand and make it relatable, engage the users and bring a smile on their faces. The challenge lay in revitalizing the existing visual vocabulary, while communicating the corporate values". Your posters stand out — 'Excellence', 'Openness', 'meet talk elevate' (with abstract imagery). My question is two-fold:
What were the cultural semiotics you uncovered while "redesigning" Headstrong's environment?
The strongest phenomenon that came through was the creation of universal symbols that generate playfulness. Headstrong is a global company owned by Indians and it has offices in North America, Europe, Philippines, other parts of Asia Pacific, and India. The environment graphics we designed were executed in Noida, Bangalore, London, Washington, New York, Sunnyvale, and Chicago. Exploring semiotics in this global environment was very fresh! The TG was an average age of 25 and it was important that they related to the visuals: humour, along with universal symbols, was deliberately used in communication — for example, a sumo wrestler image makes an appearance at the boardroom. Superman was used for project managers, who normally have tight deadlines and high standards. We had the ‘great Indian rope trick’ for the MD, who had impossible targets. The idea was to keep the charged atmosphere relaxed. This, in turn, brought out the confidence in the brand being Headstrong.
We were, in a sense, also bridging cultures with this vocabulary. The abstract visuals that came out of our search have western and eastern elements. The man sitting cross-legged and levitating is eastern in source, but then it is an idea that is broadly understood all over the world. You find that a lot of symbols once peculiar to a place now have a bigger and broader reach. But semiotics is also much deeper. What makes up each symbol? What kind of strokes, dots or lines? Even if a form originates in the West, its attitude could be from the East. It is in this kind of detailing where a conscious approach towards universal recognition has to be instilled.
The story on your website is headlined: ‘Headstrong creates an empire of the mind’. Did the exercise have purely cerebral connotations/consequences? What if we said ‘Headstrong creates an empire of the heart’?
Headstrong is an IT company with domain expertise in the financial sector. Definitely, Headstrong, by its very name and definition, aims to bring knowledge, analytics, finance, and resources to a navigable platform. These are not matters of the heart, and if I were a client I would want to be assured that rational and informed decisions would be taken if I hired this organisation. I want that security. Yet, every human being, beyond his logical side, reaches out intuitively. The very word “human” appeals to that quality and more than heart, it is just about being human at the end of the day. The requirement for us was to establish this strong foundation of intellect, yet reach out through the imagery to make this unspoken connection.
If visual vocabulary can potentially lead to reenergising an organisation, can it be applied on a larger scale to a community, its institutions, or a nation? Why is our public design so bereft of design? Of course it has a policy dimension or the lack of it despite the National Design Policy.
There is considerable design in everything man-made and the difference in output is tied to three parameters — detailing, quality, and context. When the commissioner has a clear vision and will, everything follows. We are of the strong belief that city environment graphics can go a long way in defining culture, ethos, and behaviour.
One of the important aspects of environment graphics/design in today’s context is that it gives the city a soul. Unfortunately, the architecture of the modern Indian landscape has failed to do so. There are no guidelines or laws, which govern how the cultural context (Indianness) gets woven into all aspects of the city. The content of an image is both visual and verbal. How does this come through? What are the images we are making? And how do we make these images? For a space to look coherent, visual coding is also to be defined. Are there such city and town planning schemes that employ designers to look at development in a holistic way? On my recent visit to Bhutan, it was wonderful to see all buildings, even the new ones, having a strong graphic and architectural ethos built in. Local people follow the Bhutanese dress code with a sense of pride and comfort.
Second, how is policy implemented? The reason the BJP election was so successful this time was not just because it was organised, but also because it was so well-delivered. The visual message resonated with the verbal. Unless the set policy is carried out in a holistic manner, we cannot have totality in design. Third, who are the people who are on board? Are they qualified creative personnel? Are teams of engineers, planners, and surveyors linked within departments to the designer concerned to deliver a final outcome? The designer has to be given recognition as a major team player.
What are, to your mind, therefore, the fundamental underpinnings of design?
Design stems from our value system. It stems from need and the capacity of the designer to appropriately translate that need. One problem can have many solutions. So how does the right design turn up? We look at a client brief and then create our brief in response. We believe at Lopez Design that our primary job is to bring out the real identity of the client. Not to shy away from that essence. It is all about getting to the core and grappling with that, with full force, creating many dialogues and debates leading to appropriate solutions. We dig deeper and wider where necessary — all this leads to the final design. We have managed to do this by bridging branding across many disciplines — identity design, communication collaterals, web, mobile, environment, and interior design. Brand identity is no longer at a single visual plane, but reaching out through many interfaces.
In a world that is constantly bombarded by visual stimuli, it becomes that much harder to make a brand powerful. Yet, it is also about simplicity. If you look at a crow, it registers... a peacock, it registers. Each bird means something, right? So this ascribing value to a thing, person, place, being — it is very deep in the human system. And therefore, at some level, good design is about honesty. Every human being connects with that deepest sense within himself.
This question is a corollary: Is aesthetics a function of culture or training?
Culture influencing aesthetics largely depends on our placing confidence in “who we are”. Can most businesses showcase this as their core strength? When does a business of Japanese or German origin take pride in its culture? It is about being sure of oneself.
That said, we do note that the world is coming together as one because of economy and commerce. The third dimension is the universal acceptance of what is perfect and beautiful — it all stems down to nature. All visual interpretations first begin by borrowing from nature, so fundamentally the roots are the same, only the embellishment varies. Context becomes another good cause for making this a differentiator.
As for aesthetic sensibility, to some degree, it is inborn. It can be nurtured and honed. But we find most of us who gravitate towards the creative field have a sense of aesthetics built into our framework. Now, if that is good or bad is a lifelong question! Training, like in every field, sharpens skills and makes us attentive to every action. It is an informed approach that allows us to consider many aspects, apply varied processes, acquire skills, and uncover new insights. All this inevitably shapes aesthetics.
You talk with great pride about the building and design of the Montra identity. And, as you say, the eagle has been around… How did you distil identity? How did you infuse Montra with that unique mantra?
Identities are about creating faces for brands or organisations — every designer goes through this struggle of producing something unique and distinct. The difference really materialises depending on the extent we are willing to push, and how far we are willing to go to achieve that fine balance. In the case of Montra, we had a special challenge — to create an identity that did not resemble any other. A previous design had been rejected during copyright. There were actual physical constraints. The symbol had to fit in different spaces of the bike — the crossbar, the front shield, and the helmet — and yet be noticed.
If you want to stand out, be different, what do you do? You could imitate someone who is popular but how far does that get you? If you really want to succeed, you will build best on what you do have and nurture those qualities you believe are imperative for your progress. There may be a hundred symbols based on the eagle, on qualities such as power, mobility, and flight. The parameters and guides are just part of the process that helps you distil understanding, leading to finer aspects of creating a character, which is capable of having a unique identity. And this is what we try to do in the translation of a brand. We let it grow into that form. We give it that freedom within constraints. And then, it is ready to take on the world.
ANTHONY LOPEZ, FOUNDER, LOPEZ DESIGN