Chennai without billboards

About 3 years ago, Chennai’s billboards disappeared. A government ban came into effect and erased every single vinyl from public view. Old, dilapidated and unfamiliar buildings appeared magically. Like dirt under the carpet, Chennai’s skyline was glamourous when it was unseen. Today, the only outdoor medium that survives in Chennai are the bus stops. Splashed with myriad colours, they provide a respite from the drab and mundane. The big brands try to sneak past the ban by painting outdoor surfaces like walls in public view, but ever so often, the government retaliates and strips the wall bare. Political posters and billboards, however, root themselves along pavements along with flags, and posters.

The malls are the direct beneficiaries of the ban. The space for events at malls is booked throughout the year, at inflated rates, since brands have very few opportunities for reminders in outdoor media. Walk through any mall on a weekend and food, car and personal care brands vie for attention. Much like the public grounds where 4-5 cricket matches go on at the same time and fielders watch out, not only for the ball from the game they are playing in but from others that could knock them down from behind.

Now, the city looks a lot better. The ban worked for the best, as it had grown to unmanageable proportions. On certain roads, it felt like driving through walls of vinyl, 70-80 feet tall. The support was at best, sketchy and these monstrosities came down regularly in a thunderstorm or merely with a forceful gust. And those old, dilapidated buildings? Oh, the facades have the new fangled plastic tiles now. Making them look like new age buildings. But don’t be fooled. Look at the sides and the ‘original’ manifests, peeling walls and all.


Designing for different screen sizes

Ever since getting an Android phone, I have started downloading a lot more applications, using it to check mail and updating to-do lists. It never happened with my earlier phones. There is a comfort that touch screens provide. Zooming in and out of web pages means that you can increase type sizes to legible levels and scroll. However, I would never be comfortable reading a book on the screen space of the phone. I also notice that scrolling horizontally across phones is easy but on the PC with a mouse, vertical is the only comfortable way.

That makes it a lot more difficult for designers who have to ensure consistency in design across media. It was easier when media was classified into clearly divided containers – press, TV, radio and so on. To assemble text, pictures, video, and audio on the same page poses considerable challenges. Television screens, especially the current flat ones have a movie aspect ratio. It looks bad when a web page is squeezed vertically. Pictures scrunch up, lines and columns look wayward.

However, there are people doing notable work in resolving the issues that come up. I found The Mag+ concept  from a design firm called Berg revealing. The insight of using a horizontal river of content as opposed to a stack in the case of a book underlines the fundamental difference between designing for the virtual space and the real one. Another post by Craig Mod on how ebooks and tablets will define the reading experience provides simple clarity.

This is what designers should be reading rather than putting the same elements together as they have been for years.


Paunchy Mannequins

Driving past an upmarket marriage clothes store for men – Manyavar, I did a double take. I’ve seen mannequins in all kinds of shapes and poses, but this one had a slight paunch! It is obviously deliberate. The brand managers have seen that their customers are not sculpted gods and are out to make them comfortable. I can imagine prospectives grooms squirming when they don the same sherwani in the trial room and don’t end up looking as smart as the clotheshorse. It may be a dealbreaker.

This leads to an interesting question. Should the image in the store be about what people are or what they want to be? The mannequins in Reebok and Adidas stores don’t have an ounce of fat. It’s six packs all the way because the brands are built on fitness aspirations. Show people the body they want to be in and sell more sneakers.

However, when it comes to marriages, Manyavar has tracked its customers and seen that they are generous around the middle. Then the question is whether to project an aspiration or accept that their major customers are not going to make the extra affort to cut down on the fat. Then match the image to the expectations. I haven’t seen fat mannequins yet, but I suspect they are  around the corner, given the way the next generation of Indians is shaping up.


Are superstars worth the money?

An article in the New York Times explains how superstars tend to dominate the markets they cater to. Starting with sports legends like Pele, who earned $150,000 when he was at his peak, there now athletes, actors, TV anchors and bankers who earn the lion’s share of the cake. While this works wonderfully for the persons getting it, it tends to squeeze all those down the line. Take the cost of a Tamil film – one in which a superstar or any top draw actor is involved. The economics of that film take on risk proportions far greater than those involving lesser actors. Look at the production costs as well. The greatest slice in that budget is the superstar’s pay, not any of the other aspects involved.

Take the IPL auction where the top 10 players get amounts far greater than any of the other. The other 80 players get a better deal but nothing close to what the ones on top command. Is the difference in ability substantial? Is original talent not valuable? That capitalism rewards inequalities is common knowledge. What is lesser known is the way it skews markets towards those who dominate it. So is communism any better? I hardly think so. One just has to look at China where communism fuses with capitalism. And those who dominate the system are those at the top. So there’s no point in blaming the political system

Anyone who controls a resource will set up the rules to benefit themselves. Whether it is political parties, game administrators or bankers. They hold the lifelines and the paths to power. Until someone creates a new resource. Or a new market. Then the new status quo will kick in and stay as long as it benefits the leader.


Tron – Wish it had remained a legacy

I saw Tron because I remember how it had exploded on the computer graphics scene in the 80s. The motorcycles streaking along beams of light, hurtling past sharp corners and the world that was far removed from the real one was eye candy. I wish it had stayed that way.

Tron Legacy picks a futile premise. The disinterested, prankster son going back to the world to rescue his long-lost Dad? Trapped in the whorls and computations of a chip? Give me a break. Everything is larger than life and without any real purpose. There is a long-winded sequence, a feast on a pig where the characters drink blue gel and mouth inane dialogue. How did all that food get cooked within this cyber world – or is it that people need to eat, even in that cyber state? No answers. The movie slips through the cracks between 2D and 3D and gets lost in a wire mesh of confusion over the motivations of its characters. Christoper Nolan this guy is not, by any stretch of the imagination.

While Inception flitted effortlessly between its dream and walking states without losing its audience, this one goes where hundreds of others have gone. There is a brilliant sequence in the first half where the cyber stadium is lit with fighters. There may be a reason why this world degenerated into such depravity, but you don’t want to find out. Some legacies, like the hardcovers on the shelves of Tron are best left to collect dust and nostalgia


A Cacophony of Signs

Signage in India is chaotic, with competing signs trying to outdo the other in size, colours or simply by being the most garish one on the facade. There is nothing subtle about itRead more


Cycling below the bar

In the sixties, the only way to learn to cycle was to plead for time on the weekends or when it wasn’t being used. Even if we managed to clamber on to the seat, by wheeling the bike next to the closest available platform, there was no way our short legs could reach the pedals and pump them to get ahead. Boys riding a girl’s bike, which did not have a central beam was considered sissy. So, it was the accepted practice for boys to ride with both legs split below the beam, arms stretched across the handlebars, body jutting out at a 45-degree angle, pedaling furiously and hoping that we would stay on course. A stream of instructions from friends accompanied every attempt “Don’t look down. Look straight. Pedal. Don’t stop” As if we could do everything at the same time. Miraculously, we could. Today, there are guard wheels, cycles built in staggered heights, constructed to match the size of little legs, but somehow, there was a lot more daredevilry in being able to ride the bike at this insane angle.
It took me a week to finally manage to do everything. Put my legs through the bar. Pedal at the crazy angle, with friends shouting encouragement. The first time it all came together, it was so exhilarating I forgot to look ahead. The technique also had an inherent side effect. It was always easier to ride in a circle. The moment I had to go straight, it took tons of effort. So, minutes after thinking that I had mastered the technique, I charged into a light pole. And ended up with a twisted, sprained ankle that ballooned black and kept me hobbling for weeks. I get funny looks from my kids when I tell them how I learned to ride the cycle. Why make such a big deal of it? And why on earth would you want to end up looking so stupid?


Chennai’s Weather

Chennai is a hot metropolis. In terms of the weather, that is. Otherwise, it is a straightjacketed, insular city that welcomes barely anyone. No offence, we are like that only. The weather moves to barely pleasant in November to Feb. The rest of the year, you deal with humongous humidity almost perennially at 90%. It’s enough to make an apple sweat. Or an egg, though I’ve never quite seen either of them (sweat, that is) There are sweat patterns on everyone’s clothes, from the maps of wetness underarms to the sticky maps that stretch across the entire chest. If you like looking cool, stay in your car or make a dash for the nearest air-conditioned space. Or come out only at night, when the weather is just as muggy, but no one scrutinises your clothes with disdain. If you want to get to smell the ultimate melting pot of body odour, just get on to a bus and you’ll get everything from day smells, to the cooking to many indecipherable ones. Chennai is good to anyone with a blocked nose. To everyone else, it’s an olfactory nightmare


Behind the New York Times 10th year in Ideas

The traditional album format for presenting an annual list has evolved. This year’s list ideas have given way to a format where an entire window of text headlines drops down to reveal the article below when a headline is clicked on. There are videos that depict practically each section, driving the notion that most people view rather than read.

It also tackles a tricky problem for designers. How do you get people to see the whole picture, especially when it has several elements? In most cases when it comes to showing log lists of ‘Best of’s’… the design has been linear, except that one could click anywhere on the line. Here, there is a concerted effort to engage, present the information as an overview and be able to quickly drill down to see what one is primarily interested in.

I have a feeling that a lot of designers are going to be using this for the presentation of information in a format that keeps people on the page longer rather than click to go to the next level. Helps your search engine scores and the amount of time spent on a page, especially when one doesn’t have to navigate away from it.


The Last Minute Syndrome

Why do agencies always get ideas at the last minute? Apparently, it is the only way that everything in the world gets done. The best ideas come when there is pressure to deliver. Othwerwise, agencies are in ‘thought’ rather than ‘action’ mode. We have tried to anticipate what our client needs and prime them for it. But each time, we found that clients have their own pressures and priorities. An advertisement campaign is only one item on their list of things to be done. It’s worse for service providers down the line from an agency. They have even less time to deliver. Take printers for example. The brochures are designed and approved with only days to spare. The printers usually have to burn midnight oil to catch the deadline. The printed brochures or any other material is delivered to the location required just on the day of the launch when the ad appears and customers start calling.

One day before is absolute chaos. Whether it is a stage show, a launch event or the inauguration of a sales outlet or an office. I have seen bare supermarkets open within hours of the shelves being stacked with the goods. Hotels where the furniture just comes in a day before the launch. Even Chennai’s legislative asembly inaugurated by the Prime Minister was more of a superstructure than an actual building. If you had driven by a few days earlier, it would have looked impossible. The Commonwealth Games is another shining example of the Last Minute Syndrome. The press went to town with the filth, the state of unpreparedness and the reputation of the nation was at stake. But then, everything miraculously fell into place and then, no one seems to remember. Until the next Last Minute Syndrome presents itself