Thoughts of a design head of a corporate giant on the need to dress like a creative
On a wintry November morning last year, the IMC team* was called in to the office of its director, an otherwise agreeable man, who that day looked worryingly grim.
With rising impatience he waited till the last of us trooped in before launching into a rather remarkable harangue that went something like this: “I’ve had enough of being pointed out, virtually at every senior management gathering, that my team is quite likely the most disgracefully-dressed bunch in the entire building. Just because the lot of you could only manage agency jobs before they hired you here gives you no license to turn up for work with scraggly hair and week-old stubble, wearing floaters and torn jeans”
Any suspicion that the whole thing was a charade went away when he ended by laying out grooming rules. In depressing detail. “Starting from tomorrow all of you will come to work the way the company expects you to: trimmed, shaved, and combed”. He looked around at faces, seemed satisfied with the effect he was producing, and continued: “and sober shirts tucked in to trousers that match; and shoes, either black or brown!”
And so the next day, to the amusement of the rest of the company, a rather transformed IMC team walked in to work, swagger noticeably diminished.
By the time he was done, that speech was already a showcase for shock and awe. Between the entire team, the most eloquence we could manage was a long, awkward silence.
When coherence came back, the responses were typically mature, and articulated in the measured tones one would expect from a group of its nature: thundering threats of walkouts, followed by proposals of elaborately ironic adherence (‘let’s all turn up in MIB outfits’), and a phase of wildly hopeful creative workarounds (“black sneakers count as black shoes, right?”).
But then, as it happens with these things, the reality of rentals and EMIs kicked in.
Now that that’s behind us, why is it that creative people need to look creative anyway?
And so the next day, to the amusement of the rest of the company, a rather transformed IMC team walked in to work, swagger noticeably diminished. The more practical ones came to terms with the sartorial fait accompli sooner, while others with vestigial notions of rebellion made weak, ultimately short-lived attempts at lampooning the diktat. In just a few days the team couldn’t be distinguished from the boys in finance.
Creatives as rebels? Seriously now…
Now that that’s behind us, why is it that creative people need to look creative anyway? Is it from a belief that the freedom to dress as they choose mirrors the unfettered sweep of their creativity? Or is it, to look at it from the point of a ‘non-creative’, yet another affectation by a hopelessly frivolous bunch? The reality is probably a bit of both.
Let’s instead assume that there is such a thing as a ‘creative look’. Which in turn is best described in its contrast to the wider code of professional dressing across other disciplines.
For a moment let’s leave aside that the caricature of longhaired boys in torn jeans is just a bit outdated — what a lot of people in creative professions really cherish is the freedom to maintain a sense of expressiveness and personal style. Let’s instead assume that there is such a thing as a ‘creative look’. Which in turn is best described in its contrast to the wider code of professional dressing across other disciplines.
It may sound idealized, but refusing to conform often signals refusal to be subservient to an establishment. It is a badge of independence; an inversion of how uniforms conventionally serve as markers of allegiance. Stretching that logic, the creative professional’s non-uniform curiously becomes his uniform.
Making creativity central to how they work is of life and death importance to organizations these days.
However what happens in a changed world where such an adversarial approach seems simplistic and out of place?
Making creativity central to how they work is of life and death importance to organizations these days. It is an unfamiliar game, and they’re guessing that professionals like writers and designers (et al.), the traditional purveyors of creativity, may know something about winning it for them. And so, even if not handed the keys to the kingdom, we are for the first time given a place at court really close to where the decisions are made. To deal with that calls for revisiting assumptions on both sides.
The great armies of the past used uniforms as a way of subsuming disparate tribal and provincial identities to shape larger loyalties to empires. Modern day corporations are structured a lot like them. Corporate-wear, while a far cry from military uniforms, serves essentially similar objectives.
Putting on a uniform is a signal to people around you to look at you in a certain way. It sets expectations.
In the 2008 Will Smith starrer ‘Hancock’, the wayward superhero is reasoned to start donning a uniform to redeem his wrecked public image: “Hancock… a uniform represents purpose; doctors, policemen, firemen… (wear uniforms)”.
Putting on a uniform is a signal to people around you to look at you in a certain way. It sets expectations. Equally it’s a subtle hint to oneself; to act and behave in a way that befits the calling (of which the uniform is a marker). By that logic, asking a creative person to put on the garb of the corporate world acts as a cue for him to behave ‘corporate’ (essentially conformist), and not ‘creative’.
Corporate offices are places of reassuring soberness, where change can be unsettling. But then creativity needs to be disruptive in how it challenges the way things are.
That said the creative professional in a contemporary organization is barely a genius functioning in isolated glory. Most projects these days call for collaborations across functions. There it wouldn’t help to be thought of as a sort of exotic outsider. This evolving role makes the question of what one should wear to work an important design challenge.
Corporate offices are places of reassuring soberness, where change can be unsettling. But then creativity needs to be disruptive in how it challenges the way things are. The dashes of color and flair that creative people bring in mirror just the kind of vibrancy and energy organizations need to embrace to thrive in a new creative economy where one size doesn’t fits all.
The one I work for has, over 127 years, honed almost a sixth sense of ‘getting it’ each time there’s a big change. Even in this new game it is likely to lead. As that happens, some of us are biding our time camouflaged in ‘corporate’.
* The Integrated Marketing Communications team works on the Coca-Cola Company’s evolving approach to creativity. It is made up of professionals with backgrounds in design, content excellence, connections, digital and experiential marketing.
Arun crossed over from an agency to the other side of the briefing table led by a long-held belief that design has most impact when shaped from within enterprises. He was the head of design at the Coca-Cola Company in India.
This article was first published in Kyoorius Magazine issue 16 under a different heading.
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