How the necessary processes which accompany growth can stifle authenticity.
A few weeks ago, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen — the ex CEO of The Lego Group and the grandson of the original founder of the company — admitted that it was due to their size as a billion dollar corporation that the company automatically rejected a bulk order of the iconic plastic bricks from the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei for his exhibition in Australia last October. (source: The Guardian 28 April 2016)
Once the original order was placed by the controversial artist, it went through a systematised process rather than through any top-level individual decision makers. As Lego have a blanket rule not to “actively support or endorse specific agendas”, it seemed no one questioned the decision to decline the artist. This then backfired when it was deemed to be a political stance in itself and prompted worldwide condemnation as well as an impromptu public donation of the plastic blocks. What had added fuel to the fire was that Lego had announced at the time a new Legoland in Shanghai, China — Weiwei’s country of origin and a regular subject of protest within the majority of his work.
During the furore, Ai Weiwei commented; “as a commercial entity, Lego produces and sells toys, movies and amusement parks attracting children across the globe. As a powerful corporation, Lego is an influential cultural and political actor in the globalised economy with questionable values. Lego’s refusal to sell its product is an act of censorship and discrimination.”
Lego was such a vital part of my childhood, as well as countless others’ — no matter what their social or cultural background.
It became a signifier for all that was good about being a child. Imagination. Creativity. Freedom. The brand created “a universe where the only limit is your imagination”.
Yet, here now is the same brand acting against these values with a politicised conservatism. Some would argue this also mirrors the state of the Lego product today. What was once an assortment of standard-sized bricks in a box that encouraged abandoning the instructions to create new combinations, is now a much more defined asset that is often tied into a separate brand or film licence, with specially created custom-made bricks. These detailed models are so precise now that it is harder to diverge from the step-by-step instructions with the same freedom as when the bricks were of a more basic, modular structure, (a subject which was even touched upon in the company endorsed ‘The Lego Movie’ released in 2014).
What is of interest to me regarding this story is how the commercial action of growth can be at odds with the creative seed that inspires us to grow in the first place. By expanding, any entity (whether biological, commercial or conceptual) naturally becomes more unwieldy. You have to rely on structure rather than reflex in order to function. Decisions are formalised. Interactions are processed.
This systemisation has benefits. By implementing processes, you put powerful forces in place that make repetitive decision-making quick and automatic. However, when an unplanned event challenges this typical order of things, the automatic decision-making stalls while new systems have to be put into place — no matter how temporarily — to deal with the anomaly. During this realignment, connections break, wrong decisions can be made. “A typical example of what can go wrong in a big company”, was how the new Lego CEO Thomas Kristiansen, and Kjeld Kristiansen’s son, described the corporation’s actions.
Because emotional (re)actions within large systematic processes take too long to decipher and act on, they are then ironed out naturally. However, emotion is the true window to the human condition and how we connect with others. We cannot understand subtleties in interactive behaviours and communication through systematic processes alone. Consider, for example, the countless misinterpretations of simple email and text conversations that happen every day around the world. Attempting to squash human emotion into a standardised, electronic transcript loses all subtleties of sense and context. Hence the rise and rise of emojis attempting to give us a more tangible interpretation of the message.
I find the power of emotional connection within organisations pertinent, especially when looking at my own profession, working in one of the so-called ‘smaller’ agencies within the landscape of brand and identity design. As an industry, we pride ourselves on being close to the client and knowing inherently their wants and needs. We produce an emotional response to an unemotional business plan or strategy; that then becomes in itself, a systemised visual combination of elements. To be able to do this successfully, you have to listen and dissect information, be flexible to suggestions and subtleties. You cannot know it all, as every new brief is a new problem. You have to be empathetic to the experience ahead of you. That may involve a lot of work — or a little. This unknown cannot be determined by faceless process.
As Pentagram partner Michael Bierut said, “sometimes you’re lucky and you hit a good solution quickly. Sometimes it takes forever. Every once in a while it never happens at all… The biggest trap is to believe the brief you’re given is the whole story. It never is, and I repeat, never the whole story. Moreover, the part that no one has thought to tell you up front is often the most important thing you need to know. Don’t worry, it will come out eventually” (Designboom Feb 19 2014)
This is easier to implement when you are a smaller company as you don’t have as many rigid systems in place. You are able to be fluid and flexible. You hear things directly and are able to improvise strategies and timings based on a close interaction. Neither you nor the client is dealing with layers of hierarchical bureaucracy. A single direct voice is in place rather than a cacophony.
As you turn into a larger agency, there is a danger that natural unplanned interactions are removed from the client / agency experience through this systemisation. The client themselves are more often than not going through a traumatic experience of their own as they start the branding process. Ahead there is an onerous wave of the unknown, and like a patient with a doctor, the client needs to be heard and understood in order to be integral to the process. The more relaxed they are with the relationship the more they will indulge the listener with information that is pertinent to the project. They desire a connection with someone who wants to understand, not someone who is chained down by systematic idiosyncrasies or a large team of ever-changing consultants that are more interested in completing a project in order to move on to the next.
This aversion to systemised growth and desire for personal connection is natural to us as humans. We can’t, as social animals, prevent these feelings. As Edward T. Wall wrote in his book ‘Beyond Culture’ in 1976 “Research with business groups, athletic teams, and even armies around the world has revealed there is an ideal size for a working group…between eight and twelve individuals. This is natural, because man evolved as a primate while living in small groups… Eight to twelve persons can know each other well enough to maximise their talents. In groups beyond this size, the possible combinations of communication between individuals get too complex to handle; people are lumped into categories and begin the process of ceasing to exist as individuals … leadership doesn’t develop naturally but is manipulative and political.”
So, for me, to be small as an organisation is in the same breath to be more empathetic and adaptable to the environment. In our field of work, our desire to produce genuine solutions means we prefer to remove the clutter of extraneous and bureaucratic layering in order to be able to stride through and react quicker. To listen directly. I believe our clients are more appreciative of this process as well, as they in turn gain a more authentic experience and a better final product because of it. Creativity feeds off the idiosyncrasies of individual relationships and connections.
My own sensitivity to the creative process was fuelled by many happy hours of Lego building in a quiet little village in South Wales, creating the weird and the wonderful from my own imagination. Following instructions gave me initial understanding, but only by taking everything apart did I really let my mind create. By always following a rigid path we lose sight of why we want to create in the first place, and in the end we push the abstract to one side, and never realise the full potential of those small, brightly-coloured, bricks.