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15 October 2018

What my ex-bosses taught me about looking ahead

RECENTLY, a former colleague surprised me with a short message. "You were the best (boss), and always will be best," this person wrote. I’m fortunate to have been in several positions of leadership, and even more fortunate to have been led by really awesome bosses. My ex-colleague's wonderful compliment gave me a chance to reflect on what I've learned from being a boss and standing out as a leader.

As team leaders, we plan courses of action, give directions, and follow through on execution. We organize the resources. We approve and disapprove changes. Eventually, nothing moves without our consent. We’re at the helm of control. We convince ourselves that we are indispensable.

I had three bosses who taught me exactly the opposite. We are never indispensable. When we leave, the organization continues to sail. Yet, how beautifully it sails depends in great measure on how we looked ahead before we left the ship.

As design heads, we're usually interested in the immediate effect of our work. Mina Escaño taught me the value of foresight at Triumph International. She always dared me to think big, but to never overlook the indirect effects of thinking out of the box. As I grew into roles of increasing responsibility, I learned how to prevent future nightmares for my team by forecasting potential shortcomings and creating plans to overcome them.

Jean Wilkey told me to always understand the long-term consequences of my work at the Baha'i World Centre. I learned that we aren't done with our jobs unless and until the future is secure for the team, for the people who will keep the systems running when we leave. Many years after I quit my role as visual merchandising (VM) head of Shoppers Stop, a former teammate delighted me with the fact that the file management system that I had devised for the department remained in full use.

Samar Singh Sheikhawat encouraged me to build a team that could grow together in Spencer's Retail. He and I rejected several promising candidates for the VM team, not because they were expensive or culturally unfit, but because they weren’t willing to commit to collective change. The young men and women who eventually formed the VM department worked and grew with me in Spencer’s through the next four years, a long tenure by Indian standards. One of them, Haimanti Upadhyaya, took over the team when I left.

Mina, Jean, and Samar led me by focusing on the future. Consequentially, I led my teams by not losing sight of tomorrow. We become better bosses and standout leaders for this.

14 October 2018

FOCAL POINT : Barbra Streisand, "Imagine/What a Wonderful World"

THE SECOND release from Barbra Streisand's upcoming album Walls is a medley of John Lennon's "Imagine" and Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World". This is vintage Streisand—or at least the Streisand we all knew way back with recognizable singing traits. The impeccable breathing. The much-copied full-octave glissando. The grammarian's phrasing.

Above all, the story-telling. Ms. Streisand has always sang songs as if they are three-act-plays—a peaceful beginning, a soaring conflict, a dramatic resolution. She's done it again on this medley. Merging the two songs actually works. The context becomes meaningful.

Imagine all the people living life in peace
with skies of blue and clouds of white,
the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night,
and I think to myself, "What a wonderful world!"

To paraphrase two other Lennon and Armstrong songs, "Woman, it's so nice to have you back where you belong."

05 October 2018

FOCAL POINT : Kokila's logo

PENGUIN BOOKS' new imprint, Kokila, focuses on diverse books for children and young adults. According to Penguin, the imprint's mission is to “add depth and nuance to the way children and young adults see the world and their place in it.”

Kokila's brand identity has one of the prettiest logos that I've seen this year. When I first look at it, I immediately understand the idea: a bird whose wide-open eye is an invitation to read. I like the simplicity of the circular form, a shape that children immediately relate to. Uncomplicated, with nothing in it but the pupil. An excellent focal point.

Indeed, graphic designer Jasmin Rubero explains in Adobe Create Magazine that the provenance of the word "kokila"—Sanskrit for the koel bird, a large cuckoo—is her source of inspiration. I can already imagine how beautifully this logo will be adapted to media other than book spines and covers.

Memorability and simplicity are two characteristics of a really great logo. Kokila is flying beautifully with both..

03 October 2018

The mockup and how it makes stores look better

I ALWAYS mock up show windows and in-store displays before rolling them out. Not because I need a pre-approval, but because mockups reveal the essence of an abstract idea and enable other stakeholders to understand and accept it . . . and eventually learn it.

These stakeholders include the brand head, fashion designers, buyers, merchants, and sales operations leads. They're as responsible as I am in getting the product experienced and sold in the stores. Partnering with cross-functional teams allows me to get all the information I need to advance my designs and keep them cohesive and implementable. When I show them the mockup, I always explain this isn't the finished product, but rather an overall rendition of the product within the branding context. Being the "shepherd" ensures that we all look at the bigger picture so that it’s almost impossible not to see the blocks in execution. It forces me to make the right decisions before I dive into details. Most importantly, it brings everyone together in common consensus, enhancing a culture of collaboration and customer-centricity.

Because mockups can be done quickly, they can immediately tell me if I’m on the right track. For Biba's Autumn-Winter 2018 range launch, the "Everyday Specials" sample window took four days to set up. One round of stakeholder inspections, and the concept was rectified and immediately executed in all stores.

Like most engineering prototypes, the first samples usually give a 90% estimation of the way forward. If the first try doesn't give a good approximation, I give it a second and final shot. Stakeholders will say that there's always room for improvement; I say that there's never room for time and money spent on repeated trials and errors. Two rounds of sample displays, with a lot of buffing up, is enough.

When I assisted in launching the “Taste the World” campaign for Spencer’s hypermarkets in 2009, we fixated on using a skeletal globe as the main display prop inside the stores. After a few weeks of testing and improving on the skeletal globe, we realized that the model wasn't scalable. We quickly abandoned it and pursued a different and final approach, one that was easier to understand by everyone else. The final approach was a 2D, solid-colored version of the skeletal globe. A lot easier to execute, a lot prettier to experience. And it became the centerpiece of a VM program that won merit as one of India’s best at the 2009 Retail Design Awards.

02 October 2018

The seductiveness of Ray-Bans

WHEN FORM and function are wrapped in usability and seduction, you get a well-designed product. I can think of one: the Ray-Ban.

In 1937, the American medical equipment manufacturer Bausch + Lomb developed optical glasses for the US Army Air Corps to address vision and glare concerns suffered by their pilots. The eyeglasses blocked 85% of glare and high altitude light. Eventually, Bausch + Lomb created similar glasses for the general public, introducing what eventually became the Aviator model of metal sunglasses and giving birth to the Ray-Ban brand of eyewear. It was an instant runaway success. It stayed on the runway since then.

Eighty years later, Ray-Ban has become the most iconic brand of eyewear in history. From its military roots, the product has now evolved into a fashion must-have. It instantly transforms a user’s style statement, either by adding an edge to the user's overall look or by channeling a celebrity image, thanks mainly to its heavily favored use in film (think Reservoir Dogs, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Michael Jackson).

The Aviator model kicked off a series of lines, each created to address the ever-evolving sociocultural tastes and needs of subsequent generations. In all its style manifestations, the Ray-Ban design aesthetic remain consistent: it entices users and meets their desires with the advantage of owning such a chic and classic pair of frames and light-shielding lenses.

That’s form and function wrapped in usability and seduction. To date, no other eyewear brand has ever managed to do so with a limited range of styles, yet in such massive scale of user engagement.

My eldest sister Kathleen bestowed on me my first pair of Ray-Bans when I entered college. It was a brown-tinted photochromic Ambermatic model that I used for a long time until I got a new pair way after college. I was skinny then; the sunglasses' thin frame matched my overall physical structure. Its light-sensitive lenses were perfect for adapting to sunlight and shade when coming in and out of campus buildings in the sprawling University of the Philippines. When I began my work in visual merchandising, it served the same purpose as I zipped in and out of stores and streets. I was known as the tall thin guy with layers of clothing and Ambermatics.

Since then, I’ve kept and worn several other Ray-Ban models. This product has always made it so much easier for me to project myself. Today, I occasionally use my Wayfarers over my prescription glasses--an extra shield for my aging eyes, and no one really notices (except a younger sister!).

An iconic frame, an industry-marked optical lens, and an enticing usability all make Ray-Ban such a desirable and worthwhile piece of product design.