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Holiday Greetings

A few days ago, I received my annual holiday greeting card from my friend and colleague, Diane Gargiulo. Diane owns Gargiulo + Parners, a strategic communications company in New York. As usual, the card was very cleverly designed. This year’s graphic was understated and clean, the colors neutral with a splash of red to herald the season and the font (I think), the same one that is used in the company’s marketing materials. Most significant, however, was the message, which was consistent with and reinforced the business’s mission and brand while being fun and festive at the same time. Finally, it was signed by each member of the staff and Diane added a personal note to me.

When I say that I can’t wait to receive Diane’s holiday cards, I am not kidding. In fact, this year, it seemed the card arrived a little later than usual which had me drumming my fingers wondering what was taking so long. Every year the card is a delight. Although I certainly enjoy receiving cards from the many others who send them to me, there is nowhere near the level of anticipation and excitement I feel when Diane’s card arrives in the mail.

So I thought it would be a good idea to think more deeply about this skillful use of aesthetics and design in business communication and how it can be applied to add tremendous value.

One common definition of aesthetics is “the study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty.” ( Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 20 Dec. 2006. )

Regarding its value, the author Virginia Postrel states:

“[Aesthetics has value in and of itself and the value comes from] pleasure and meaning–our biological response as visual, tactile creatures and our cultural memories and associations. In between is our desire for novelty. As biological creatures, we notice and appreciate changes in sensory stimuli.”

In my last entry, I discussed face-to-face communication as a way to gain an advantage. Getting out there, however, is not enough. You must be adept at interacting with others to get the full payoff. This skill enables us to make use of the sensory stimuli inherent in communication and connect emotionally with others, which gives us a tremendous boost as we seek ways to stand out in a brutally competitive marketplace.

The problem is that through the ages, good interpersonal style–let’s call it the aesthetics of communication–has been dismissed as considerably less important than substance. Clients who come to me for help frequently worry about coming across as inauthentic, not genuine, phony and too “salesy.” Such attitudes deprive them of a fantastic opportunity to differentiate themselves aesthetically, which, in many cases, may be one of the only differentiators left.

One of the best recent examples of a product in which aesthetics plays a major role is the iPod, a music player that does the same, exact thing as several other, significantly less expensive competitors but consistently outsells them by a large margin. I will never forget the first time I took one out of its box. The pure white front and polished metal back made me feel like I was handling a piece of jewelry. In the case of the iPod, form doesn’t follow function; form (or aesthetics or design) goes hand-in-hand with function to make the product almost irresistible. Millions of buyers can’t be wrong.

So why are we so resistant when it comes to applying principles of aesthetics or design to the ways in which we communicate? Why do we give it such short shrift? Is it really due to all those smart people constantly telling us that this stuff shouldn’t count–that, in the end, substance is the only thing that really matters?

The problem is that for all their intelligence, the dismissive ones have not yet found a good, neat way to measure the value of aesthetics or design or form. This is nothing new. Such intangibles have always been notoriously difficult to quantify and in our bottom-line, business plan obsessed world, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. But as the former Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart famously said when trying to define obscenity in a case that was before the Court, “I know it when I see it.”

We know good or great design when we see it, too, and we also know well-executed business communication. Which is exactly what Diane Gargiulo’s holiday card is. The takeaways are numerous. Understated, clean design and neutral colors translate to images of class and lack of ostentation. Use of the color red translates to recognition of the season. The carefully constructed message translates to business know-how. The signatures translate to individual outreach and caring and let’s not forget the personal note. While they are probably not on every card that goes out, I suspect Diane writes notes to most. Translation: “Our relationship is important to me.” Whew, talk about sensory stimuli! There is one more thing. It is clear to me that much thought goes into producing just the right card. Getting it out with all those signatures and personal notes is very time-consuming. I imagine that Diane has an annual holiday card signing party with really good food. Translation: “We’ll work hard for you, too, and we’ll have some fun doing it.”

This is an awfully powerful message in such a small package. After being on the receiving end for so long, this year I hired a graphic designer to design my own unique card. The reactions are slowly trickling in, which is encouraging because in the past, I heard nothing. I’m guessing that I’ll hear more after the holidays and I’ll keep you posted on that.

Next year, I plan to get an earlier start designing my card. I’m already looking forward to Diane’s.

Have a great holiday.

Copyright 2006 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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