Defining Greatness

India’s greatest architect, Charles Correa left us on June 16, 2015. He left behind a legacy. Charles helped define contemporary architecture in India, and his astounding body of work will continue to inspire generations of architects.

12 days ago (on June 4), I woke up to the news that legendary type designer Hermann Zapf had passed away. His typeface, Optima, continues to adorn countless skincare and cosmetic products. Zapf Dingbats is still the default font that many designers use when they need a checkbox, an arrow or a little heart icon.

Whenever a great designer passes away, I pause to reflect on his/her career, and I wonder how one measures the success of one’s career.

June also happens to be the month when many friends and colleagues are tucked at Cannes Lions Festival; some are judging and debating over fellow colleagues’ works while others eagerly await the results that will determine how many metals they will bring home. Fame, fortune and greatness await…

But really?

Let’s try this. Who created the Cadbury Gorilla? Who created those Evian Babies? Who created the Volvo Split? Some might be able to name the agency behind it, but most will fumble when asked who the creator is.

A close friend (in advertising) once remarked that whatever he does is of no significance. It may trend, and it may go viral. It may bring in Lions and Pencils, and some degree of fame. But once the campaign period pans out, and the awards and festivals get over, the work fades into the greatest-hits-obscurity.

Whereas, when one casts a jealous glance across the fence of advertising and marketing communications, good design seems to last forever, even if it would have never been awarded.

“If you do it right, it will last forever.” Vignelli said.

Walk into an Apple Store; Dieter Rams is winking at you. Play a movie, and most likely, the first 5 minutes of the titles are inspired by Saul Bass. Walk around New York City; Vignelli’s Subway graphic system greets you at every corner. Attend a business meeting, and whenever that young MBA across the conference table starts talking about corporate identity and branding, I am certain Wally Olins and Michael Wolff are secretly smiling at each other.

New York City Subway Poster – A Kickstarter Project

Meanwhile, year after year, people gather at all kinds of award shows to sift through case videos and display boards, to spot and nominate the greatest ideas for that year. More depressingly, the industry acknowledges that sometimes the award-winning works are created specifically for awards, period. Acts of self-gratification that otherwise do not change a single thing in the marketplace.

“Great” is captured by the output. A campaign, an identity scheme, a groundbreaking website, a beautiful book, a jaw-dropping poster, a category-defying product, or a big idea. Greatness is the Holy Grail – it is defined by the outcome that will last for a while (or forever). Shifting the goal post from output to outcome changes the value of design. It becomes a purposeful act to seek impact and influence, more than focussing on what the output could achieve now.

The creator’s trap is to be absolutely happy about the daily grind of producing great output that fulfils the clients’ brief, without realising the potential of elevating great into true greatness – the Kanchanjunga, instead of another beautiful building; iPhone, instead of another great phone; Colors Magazine, instead of just another award-winning fashion magazine.

Here’s a good reminder passed on to me.

Try imagining the epitaph for your own tombstone:

“Beneath here lies a designer who…”
“… did great work?”

I certainly want more than that.