Aishwarya Ramesh
Design Digest

"Brands' desire to look familiar and reassuring is back": Prasanna Sankhe, Hyphen

In our series 'Design Digest', we explore what the world looks like from the desk of brands' design heads, as they face new challenges.

Here's what Prasanna Sankhé, co-founder and CCO, Hyphen, has to say.

How has the ongoing crisis changed the challenges facing design teams? What is the biggest change?

Needless to say, this crisis has been habit altering, if not life altering, for everybody. When the crisis was blowing up in our face, we were fortunate that the management partners of our firm were unanimous in our first priority, during the pandemic: Our employees. Second came the business.

This pandemic has brought the focus back sharply to people management, considering we are a talent and people driven business first...

We were a bit cautious. We had already shifted our work computers to individual homes and migrated to the WFH model 10 days before the national lockdown was announced. The 10-day head start ensured that all our teething troubles with this new way of working were quickly ironed out.

Our daily job status stayed exactly at the same time to ensure continuity, (but) from a physical meeting to a Google Meet. (@Google - Meet, Docs, Drive - has been a life saviour, mark my words, one day they will rule the world!)

This pandemic has, therefore, got us back to the most important aspect of our service industry: Relationships. Shifting relationships and people interactions from physical to the digital space has been the single most important challenge of this pandemic.

Prasanna Sankhe
Prasanna Sankhe

How has the client brief changed? How are they looking to leverage design to gain customer trust - especially at a time when overall consumer sentiment is quite low? What role does design have in helping a consumer trust a brand?

Design is now the de facto representation of the brand to the consumer. Be it the brand identity, packaging design, or the user experience design on their ecommerce portals, or online. The clients have quickly understood this. And their expectations from brand design have changed...

This is a great opportunity for design to demonstrate that it not only works at a visual and communication level but, more importantly, it works at a psychological/subliminal level.

Clients have been smart enough to change with the times and have started relooking at their entire approach. The frivolous is being kicked out. Brand values and its demonstration in design is at the fore.

The briefs coming in now, have been in equal measure of refresh in brand identities, repackaging existing brands with a more sincere, honest core as well as new product packaging. I believe this honesty will form a long-lasting bond between the brands and the consumer.

How has the visual tone of communication changed since the pandemic started? Are brands turning to a new set of colours/visual markers of hygiene (such as foamy hands)?

More than the subtle cues and details, the approach of brands has changed to that of reassurance and trust. If you look around to the brands design or retail communication, everybody is now trying to fit into a category.

Trying to belong rather than stick out. This brings about a familiar, safe feeling in the consumer... The trend of looking boutiquey, or like an eccentric designer brand, is out and the desire to look familiar and reassuring is back.

The pandemic has accelerated habit formation in a few sectors - especially personal hygiene. How can product design and the visual language of communication help accelerate habit adoption in consumers?

Personal and household hygiene is now the leader in getting the economy back on track. Because consumers have now got their priorities right. Life, health, necessities and then luxuries.

We were fortunate enough to work on the launch of a hygiene product from a large consumer care company during this pandemic. The first thing we noticed was that because the habit formation was accelerated in the consumers life because of the pandemic, so was the launch of this new brand. Normally what would have taken an average period of 6-8 months to finetune and launch, took us precisely 2.5 months. From naming to design to production.

All the second guessing and need to be doubly sure was gone. Instead, the marketing client relied on their judgement and experience as a fellow consumer in the pandemic to accelerate the process. That's a great step forward.

And like I said, trust and reassurance was the first and subliminal agenda on the packaging. Of course, the cues of protection and hygiene were deployed. But if you see the packaging, you would think that this brand has been around for years.

Consumers have changed their habits and are aware of their malpractices, particularly towards the ecosystem. My guess is 20 per cent will follow this pursuit and stay with this trend. But 40 per cent will swing towards the other scale of overindulgence once a vaccine is available. Brands can play a greater role in retaining a higher percentage in pursuit of a better, more aware world.

Everyone is dividing time and reality into pre and post COVID. For a design executive and leader, what does the post COVID world look like, in terms of work, skill sets, and related demands?

In the POCO (POst COronavirus) era, as we like to call it internally, all the right things are getting highlighted. If you are a pessimist, you will wallow on the negatives. But as a realist/optimist, like me, lets list down some things that are huge positives.

  • Collaborations are on the rise, as physical boundaries have disappeared.

  • Relying on one's own emotional response to design has become key. This is critical as a skill set now.

  • Because of pure digital presentations, the work quality is the only thing that gets the project approved. No relying on presentation techniques, or smooth talking, to get mediocre work through.

  • Employees have more time to spend with their families because there's no commute time. Albeit there is a rising need to maintain fixed WFH hours because that is setting in fatigue, if not monitored.

  • Clients are now relying on their first hand experience of the pandemic as a consumer to analyse and decide the way forward, which is always a good process since it's more decisive and less ‘making everybody happy’.

  • Last, personally for me, it took away the need for spending 50 per cent of my time from commuting between one client meeting to another. It means more time to get some designing done with my own hands. This is the best side effect of this pandemic for me.