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‘More with less’: Cute, crazy and cruel

“In these challenging times, we must do more with less and demonstrate the true spirit of our corporation. We will continue to be guided by our core values of integrity, teamwork, leadership, community involvement and our commitment to the well-being of our staff…”

So might ring a familiar message from the top echelons of a corporation when the economy is in the doldrums and pink slips haunt the waking and sleeping hours of employees.

It is clichéd. It can be cut and pasted across corporations. It is self-contradictory.

As this article will attempt to demonstrate, a call to do more with less is inconsistent with the health and wellbeing of people. Simply placing two contradictory statements side by side in one message does not make them congruous.

This incantation serves a dual purpose – as a purported rationale for the people whose jobs have been terminated; and as a tacit warning to people who have escaped the axe (at least this time around) to work to the bone if they hope to remain with the organization in question.

When the economy is in a blue funk, jobs are difficult to come by. With mortgage and bill payments flying incessantly in their faces, people will make sacrifices to keep a source of income. Yet, how many executives actually comprehend the impact of their “do more with less” slogan on the average employee’s life?

Mothers yell at toddlers riddled with high fever because they are unable to concentrate on the work overload they have brought home and are tackling late into the night. Fathers miss maiden recitals and special moments in their children’s lives. Men forget birthdays and anniversaries (more than usual) and land into trouble with their partners. Women are overwrought with balancing personal lives, families and work. 

How can management put a price on such affliction?

 

Only so much

An individual can at any time only take on a load that his or her limits would permit. Forcing one to carry a heavier load will result in breakage of mental health, physical health, wellbeing and ultimately (of immense interest to corporations) productivity. But of course, in an economic recession, companies have a pool of ready and willing individuals to subject to the same dolour till they break. Human beings then truly become the detestable “human capital” – objects that are replaceable when broken.

The rule of breakage beyond maximum load is easy enough to understand in the case of inanimate machines. But for some inexplicable reason, many in corporate management cannot see — or refuse to see – this holds good for human beings as well.

You cannot make someone do the work normally handled by, say three people, without causing mental and physical damage to that person. 

 

Efficiency is laudable, duress is not

We are not against the idea of minimizing the effort to produce the same output. This is of course the definition of efficiency. And the principle may be worthily applied to processes that people have to handle – so that people can produce superior results with lesser effort. In the equation below, the effort is to enhance the process – perhaps by using technology, alleviating wastage, or reducing bureaucracy — toward this end.

Output/input = Efficiency

But in the case of the “do more with less” slogan, the motivation is hardly altruistic. It is trying to reduce the number of people doing the input to produce — not just the same level of output as was earlier done with a larger number of people but – a higher volume of output. Each employee (or producer of talent and effort) has to be squeezed harder to do the work that was handled by more people.

If this argument holds water, then the slogan in question represents gross inefficiency that is purposely engineered.

 

Needs must … sometimes

Of course, there are times in life, when any individual has to reach into one’s reserves and pull off a superhuman effort. Powered by adrenaline, this is possible … sporadically.

This happens in an organizational context as well. Startups and entrepreneurial ventures require much hard work day after day till the point of breakthrough is achieved. But even in startups (at least the intelligent ones), the chaos is organized and there is a recognition of the need to decompress and unwind. Besides they also have the strong motivation of working for themselves and for something they believe in.

But to expect this day after day – with no break in sight – is unhealthy and inhuman.

There is a trend in many corporations under pressure from a leaden economy. If an employee delivers a heavy task that normally would have been done by more than one person (and sometimes three or four), management sends an email of appreciation, and then promptly dumps more of the same on that person. Purportedly, the logic is that if an employee can do it once, clearly they can do it again, and therefore must be given a larger quantity of the same.

This is a path to a nervous breakdown or a meltdown – you might as well suffuse the background with The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it black”.

 

Affront to intelligence

Continuing to use (and abuse) the “more with less” concept communicates a blatant disrespect for employees’ intelligence (and the intelligence of any fellow human being because no one is so foolish as to buy into this balderdash).

On the one hand, a company declares that it only recruits the most capable and brilliant people. On the other, it is communicating with its words and actions that they think just the opposite of their employees – they are gullible nitwits who will believe any message put out by management.

One would do well to realize that people are not morons. They know what goes on behind the gloss and veneer. The truth has that uncomfortable quality of being present and of surfacing eventually.

“The truth has that uncomfortable quality of being present and of surfacing eventually.”

Trials reveal character

Tough economic phases are opportunities for an organization to show its true colours and sinew of character.

If a company has a choice, why not communicate a decent considerate image instead of that of a ruthless profit-lusting oppressor? If it honestly wishes the latter, then it might as well fire all its ethical communication and public relations professionals, because the company’s actions alone will be able to build that simulacrum.

 

The Verafluenti aperçu

We would like to offer some thoughts on how to get work done in a recession while being kind to employees. Some of these suggestions may require the consideration of pertinent legal implications – such as the minimum wage and corporate law.

Get enough people for the job

Hire or retain enough people at a lower rate. The organization would then have the requisite number of people to get the job done, without being pernicious to life, limb and wellbeing. From the financial angle, the cost outlay remains the same with a lower pay per person. If nothing else, the organization would be spreading a limited income across a greater number of people (and resultantly their dependents). 

Another possible route is to hire interns (paid or unpaid) and volunteers to help discharge some of the more routine and labour-intensive work. In many nations, a pool of highly-qualified and talented immigrants is ready to take on any work to break into the local job market. This may not be an ideal solution but is something that could be considered in the short term while riding out the recession. The organization would also be offering valuable work experience for interns, volunteers and new immigrants, while easing the load on existing employees.

 

Roll up your sleeves

A rough economic patch presents an ideal window for senior managers and executives to remove their fine threads and feathers and step into the frontlines to work shoulder-to-shoulder with junior employees. It would provide another mind and body for the task at hand. It would demonstrate to employees that senior managers are capable of working on the ground. Managers would then learn the real problems and issues people face while discharging their duties. They could also teach and share their experiences with junior employees.

 

Take a cut at the top

This is far more controversial: let the top executives each take a percentage cut to their income. This would allow the retention of a healthy number of people to perform the job at hand.

It would be a rare show of unequivocal commitment to share in the good and bad fortunes of the enterprise with the average employee. From a PR perspective, how much greater would the stature of such an organization be?

 

Settle for less

Settle for less profit in favour of human wellbeing. The company may show less net profit in its income statement, and offer lower dividends for its shareholders; but it will reap untold benefits in the long term by way of reputation, earned loyalty and less damage to homes, families and society.

Not to mention the reputation such a company would acquire when it decides to accept a smaller profit in order to keep more people in jobs.

Most merciless actions are justified by holding up the need to appease shareholders. As any business analyst and most laypersons know, the economy moves cyclically through highs, lows and highs again. If the investors have done their research and placed their money in a business they have long-term confidence in, then they will get their returns eventually – it is just a question of waiting for a bit in the interest of the welfare of their fellow human beings.

 

Help people re-establish

Terminations are sometimes necessary. Unexpected external factors can wreak havoc on a business enterprise to the extent that it is unable to make enough revenue to keep all its original staff. People understand this, particularly in volatile industries.

Once the axe has fallen, many companies outsource career advisory and placement services for terminated employees. This is legal. The companies then have no pending obligation to the terminated employee. But what is legal is not always ethical or human.

So what if…just what if…companies decided to do it (if not in whole at least in part) in-house? Could not senior management use their network of contacts to at least put in a good word to find full-time, part-time or contract work for at least some of their laid off employees. While the human nature of such an action is paramount, the organization may also consider the image that is being communicated to its own employees and its laid off employees, as well as to the community. People would recognize the existence of a company with real character and a true human face instead of a stuck-on smiley-face mask.

 

One must appreciate that where human beings (and by extension nature) are concerned, it is only possible to “do more with more”, or to “do less with less”. The former is palatable enough for management in boom periods. It is the latter which is a bitter pill to swallow and the reaction to which is turning a blind eye and pretending it is untrue. Trying to force the “do more with less” illogic on human beings is a recipe for pain and suffering.

Some of the genuine and human facets of life are being decimated with this campaign of fear and covert intimidation. In a sense, it has indeed done more with less: it has caused more harm while expending comparatively less effort.

So ye managers of the world,

Be compassionate,

Be human,

Be genuine,

Be worthy of the half a chromosome

That separates you (and us)

From being chimpanzees.

* * *

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at contact@verafluenti.com.

Print-ready versions of several blog posts are available in our store for a small fee.

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Is consumerist sustainability unsustainable?

It would seem impossible to visit a corporate website without seeing the perfunctory corporate sustainability report or one of its many variants.

Corporate citizenship, corporate social responsibility (often referred to by its acronym — CSR), sustainability, sustainable development, corporate sustainability – there is a horde of terms in use. Many have come, peaked and receded while others are enjoying their moment at the top of the corporate mind and lingo.

Today it is sustainability that holds the public’s interest. Soon this moniker may be dropped in favour of something new. The term itself may not be sustainable. But that, time alone will tell, for we are no soothsayers.

This article is not an exposition on the scientific facets of ecological sustainability. We are not environmental scientists and therefore are unqualified to remark on the science. Our interest is in an examination of what the world today is trying to sustain, and whether those choices are worthy of being sustained. We try to follow certain paths to their logical destinations and evaluate which of those destinations would be best for all life (including human). Any mention of right and wrong is not moralistic in nature, but is a logical viewing of action and consequence.

 

Square one: Sustainability

From several environmentally and socially conscious people, we have gleaned several definitions of sustainability. Most of them embrace three components – economic, social, and environment — visually characterized as pillars, legs of a stool, or as partly overlapping circles in a Venn diagram.

We also looked at pioneers in the field like Herman Daly whose 1990 definition of environmental sustainability has since been condensed as “the rates of renewable resource harvest, pollution creation, and non-renewable resource depletion that can be continued indefinitely; if they cannot be continued indefinitely then they are not sustainable.”

A layperson’s definition of sustainability, stripped of the environmental science livery, as in the Oxford dictionaries, is “the ability (of anything) to be maintained at a certain rate or level”.

So, in very simple terms (and at Verafluenti, we do like simplicity), sustainability may be thought of as the ability to continue a defined behaviour indefinitely.

 

Add development into the mix

Then came sustainable development.

As with most other concepts, this one too has a couple of hundred definitions floating about. It may have had some early seedlings in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring published in 1962, The Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits to Growth report which many believe had one of the first recorded uses of the term “sustainable” in the modern sense, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature‘s 1980 world conservation strategy.

Still, the most common definition was proposed by the Brundtland Commission in 1987:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Much of the corporate world’s standard definition of environmental sustainability has become equated with “sustainable development”. And development, as the profit-maximizing-motive would hold, is economic growth and the generation of wealth, which in turn is supposed to make people’s lives more comfortable, more leisurely, healthier and happier — except that history and the present state of the world hardly bear out this paradisiacal image.

Development itself is often unequal and unbalanced — with certain countries, certain areas, certain industries and certain people benefiting more than others.

According to the UN’s 2015 Human Development Report, heavy costs to society can accrue “in the form of forced labour, child labour and human trafficking.” Development work can then “violate human rights, threaten freedom and shatter dignity.”

 

What is being developed?

If it is development that is being held up as the entity worthy of worship and sustenance, then it is worth examining the forms that development takes.

Is it deforestation, disturbing the ecological balance, irritating (and sometimes eradicating) the resident flora and fauna, for the purpose of building delightfully-marketed (and flimsily constructed with a very large cookie cutter) houses for humans to live in, and erecting concrete high-rise labyrinths in which to conduct more development work?

At least in North America, the developers purposefully set residential communities at great distances from workplaces. Said humans then are encouraged to drive their gas-chugging but eminently prestigious SUVs (a marketing concoction that still does not make sense to us) between work and home. While toxic fume- and waste- spouting industries should of course be physically removed from residences to minimize injury to life, limb and health of humans; one wonders about the rationale of artificially creating this distance for service industries, which also bring with it stress, the constant race against time, road rage, more fuel consumption, traffic, gridlocks and other happy corollaries.

More often than not, it would seem development involves a large component of pillage, construction, installation, and bending nature – unnaturally — to serve human will and wants.

 

From reverence to decadence

It is only humans who believe everything on the planet – and in the universe – is human-centric. It is not so. Scientists have concluded that if something as relatively small as the bee were to go extinct, life on the planet would be threatened as a whole. In contrast, if human beings were to go extinct, planet earth would flourish. Humans are the only species unwilling to live in balance with nature. As it turns out, we’re more of an avoidable nuisance than an unavoidable essential.

From the perspective of everything that is not of the human race, the talking intelligent biped, with the ability to contrive and wield machines, must come across as marauding viruses — a viewpoint articulated dramatically and memorably by Agent Smith in The Matrix; and expressed by Steve Cutts in his animated short Man.

Wasn’t it Friedrich Nietzsche who opined that “the earth has a skin and that skin has diseases; one of its diseases is called man.”?

We venture to say that one of the illnesses of man is the desire to thoughtlessly ravage nature, produce and consume excessively and without control.

If everything superficial were expunged from the scenario, and only what truly matters remained, would any of the following truly matter?

  • The stock market (which is more or less a glorified and sanctioned global gambling den).
  • The price of oil and gas.
  • The greed for precious metals (purely for accumulation and for engendering envy).
  • Buying and showing off the latest smartphone (where the manufacturers incessantly churn out new models with alarming frequency).
  • The insatiable lust for mobile phone apps to do everything except wipe one’s hallowed bottom (soon perhaps, software developers will devise an app for this too).
  • Playing the idiot-creating and accident-provoking Pokemon Go games.
  • Wasting hours watching content fit for less-than-morons on cable TV (reality shows as detached from reality as possible, meaningless game and talent shows, and the endless cop and detective fare).
  • Living in the largest house on the block. Only humans claim far more space than is reasonably necessary for an individual or family. Goaded on by shows like MTV Cribs (which celebrates ridiculously humongous houses of celebrities, in which entire villages could live), people are persistently and quietly hypnotized into believing they “need” to emulate these huge homes to prop up their insecure egos. Such people soon realize that nothing is ever enough to satisfy their insecurities. Why, even Citizen Kane found his palatial mansion lonely and meaningless at the end of his very wealthy days. But the true leaders, whose billions come as a by-product of hard work and common sense, live in modest yet comfortable dwellings. Warren Buffett reportedly conducted his initial business out of his bedroom with a land line and phone directory, and continues to live in the same home he purchased in 1958.
  • Owning a fleet of cars (with models of unborn years marketed in the preceding year – an illogical yet unquestioned marketing practice; really, how can a 2017 model be up for sale in mid 2016?), private jets and yachts?
  • Amassing more money than is necessary for three generations to live in extravagance.

Even a lifetime (or more accurately a “lie” time) spent inconsequentially in a cubicle, breathing in and contributing to recycled air and regurgitated words and stale thoughts, would not really matter.

There was a simpler time when humans lived in harmony with nature. The First Nations of Canada and the Native Americans in present-day United States lived thus – in reverence and gratitude to nature. In such cultures, the concept of property rarely existed. There is an ancient First Nations proverb: “Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

They honoured the spirit of the trees, the forests and even the animals they had to slay for food, thanking them before consuming them.

Humans used only what they needed from nature. They lived true to their nature – enjoying the open skies; the mountains, plains and valleys; the seas, lakes and rills — engaged in an unintentional and continual meditation in oneness with the elements.

Being fewer in number, they also did not cause irreparable damage to the planet.

The current state of the world is far different from this idyllic past. Way past the milestone for reasonably comfortable living, today people wallow in gluttonous consumption; and are constantly encouraged and goaded to consume even more by marketers and advertisers.

With unprecedented consumption of necessary and mostly unnecessary products, there rises the spectre of waste. In bygone days, much of the waste was fully biodegradable, in that they returned to the earth and replenished it. These were the days when people carried their own jute bags for groceries (the modern call for people to recycle shopping bags is then strangely rendered outmoded by a practice that predated it); when leaves and twine would serve as wrapping (a practice that still survives to some extent in the English staple of fish-and-chips wrapped in past-prime newspaper, although some city councils are reportedly trying to illegalize it); when in many countries the backyard garden or pit served as natural compost maker.

But then commercial plastic was synthesized circa 1907 when Leo Baekland invented bakelite and also came up with the word “plastics”. We are neither experts nor even students of organic chemistry, but the generally-accepted view is that petroleum-based plastic bottles take several centuries to completely degrade and PET bottles apparently don’t do so at all.

Now waste — that is a byproduct of the consumption that is the engine for development — becomes a crippling problem.

People are consuming not what they need, but what they want and do not need – and increasingly what they are told they should want – and in humongous quantities. Today, even the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainable development is in peril, because it is no longer development that meets “the needs” that is being considered, but unrestrained selfish “wants”.

 

‘Bluewashing’ and ‘greenwashing’

Launched by Kofi Annan in 1999, the UN Global Compact, proposes ten principles for a sustainable global economy which it encourages corporations to voluntarily adhere to. It is often defined as the UN’s flagship initiative for “social and ecological corporate citizenship”. A fine idea in theory (if one were to ignore the fact that here too, economics dilutes and often restricts true environmentalism), but one which has been manipulated by corporations.

Many commit in letter but not in spirit or action. This is often negatively referred to as “bluewashing”.

In fact, at the Public Eye on the Global Compact in 2007, leading non-governmental organizations criticized the compact, and appealed to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, to fundamentally rethink the “accord” with big business.

They also raised concerns about the admittance of corporations with a record of adverse environmental, social and human consequences caused by their operations. Aftab Alam Khan, head of trade policies, at ActionAid, opined that as long as the Global Compact accepted members like a certain British mining giant, despite protests from civil society, “the accord is not worth the paper it is written on”.

And alongside bluewashing is “greenwashing”, which U.S.-based watchdog CorpWatch defines as “the phenomena of socially and environmentally destructive corporations, attempting to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the environment.”

It is a corporation falsely boosting its eco-credentials – in plain language, it is plain lying.

In many corporations, sustainability is – we won’t sugarcoat this — a lie. It resides ephemerally only in the annual CSR or sustainability or corporate citizenship reports – those affairs purportedly printed on 40 to 100 per cent recycled paper.

To use a crude mathematical analogy: If a corporation’s operations cause 100 units of damage, then hosting a rambunctious fanfare over putting back one unit in compensation hardly seems sufficient or ethical.

When one sees the grand commitment statements heralded, published and celebrated by companies that rip apart the earth, pollute the environment unconscionably, and distress employees in poisonous work cultures, the logical mind wonders about the tragic desecration of the term “sustainability”.

Bean counting firms, who point out tax havens and counsel larcenous techniques to already rich individuals and corporations, also publish annual sustainability and community involvement reports. Of course, few talk about or question why many such companies themselves never open their corporate moneybags; they simply “provide a platform” for underpaid overworked employees to empty their ever-so-light and nearly-empty wallets. This travesty of supporting the community is punctuated by messages from benevolent and beatific senior management “encouraging” employees to open “their hearts and wallets”. But for a select few organizations (with their hearts still beating), many don’t match employee donations. Such matching means that if the employees contribute $5000 to a cause, then the organization puts in another $5000 from the corporate coffers to cut a total cheque of $10,000 in donation. This is usually done to a set maximum value.  

There are billion-dollar-turnover companies that willingly reimburse employees for exorbitantly-priced prime downtown parking, but refuse to pay the relatively low price of a monthly transit pass, thereby blatantly encouraging gas-consumption, fuel emissions and pollution. They flagrantly put their money in favour of an environment-unfriendly practice. They too publish sustainability reports.  

At this rate, we can soon expect sustainability reports from drug cartels, crime syndicates, human traffickers, and warmongerers! Because after all, their trades are being continued at a certain rate.

For organizations and individuals with a social conscience, there is little need to trumpet the sustainability of their activities. Everything they do will have a social reason behind it.

 

The Verafluenti aperçu

It seems then that the question we really need to ask is not whether development is sustainable, but whether the development itself is right.

In other words, does the development being considered deserve to be sustained?

One tends to wonder whether even the so-called modernity is sustainable, and more significantly, whether it should be sustained.

Sustainable development is hardly what the world needs. It is right action to achieve the right goals for nature (of which humans are a part). Sustaining wrong action via unnatural and ill-contrived means ends in toxicity for people and the planet.

Why continue to do something wrong? Because it creates more money and fortifies balance sheets and widens board room smiles? This is the economic additive that weakens an unfettered commitment to the environment. These are crippled excuses (not to be dignified even as reasons) for having gone down the wrong fork in the road about a century ago.  Anything that is against nature cannot be continued indefinitely without consequence – to the physical, mental and emotional health of humans; the wellbeing of the environment and the planet that vessels human life. 

Much of the western world is erected on consumerism, with other adoringly-imitative nations following suit. When consumption becomes the foundation and philosophy for everything that branches forth, then every aspect of society is made to support that philosophy. This line of thinking has humanity heading in a perilous direction. Why should anyone’s existence or peace of mind be dependent on someone else’s desire to consume? As the highest form of evolution (at least on this planet allegedly), shouldn’t humans concern themselves about loftier ideals than consumption, excretion, propagation and cremation?

Perhaps the planet would benefit from an environmentalist model of society and resultant government. There are already many political parties founded on this idea — Sweden’s Miljöpartiet, the Green Environmental Party, even entered the Riksdag after a breakthrough in 1988; the L’Ecologie les Verts party in France; the Green Party in England, Wales, the Scottish Greens and Northern Ireland; the Green Party of Canada; Green Party US, etc.

Unfortunately most green parties do not win enough seats for a formidable presence in legislation and execution.

 

Warning signals from nature

The tsunamis, the tornadoes, the hurricanes (for which meteorologists are running out of names), and the earthquakes are nature’s rejoinder to the callous rape of the planet. And they are awe-inspiring reminders of the immense power of nature that renders humankind’s attempts to build the-tallest-this and the-largest-that and the-underwater-restaurant and the snowscape-in-the-desert miniscule and pathetic in comparison.

Hectoring nature is not only unsustainable, it is also fatally dangerous. No corporation can withstand nature’s blows.

Bears and cougars attack people because people have encroached on their natural habitat through expanding urbanization. Don’t humans do the same when their homes and countries are threatened with invasion? Apart from a few domesticated species, most of the flora and fauna kingdoms likely do not view human beings as trustworthy. Honestly, most humans haven’t earned it.

Now, there are monks who meditate in the thick of deep forests, and remain unharmed by the resident wildlife, because animals sense their intent of metta (loving kindness). This should demonstrate that animals are not evil bloodthirsty creatures waiting to pounce unprovoked on humans.

Children watch cartoons like FernGully: The Last Rainforest in early school years, while their parents work for the same type of deforesting-for-urbanization characters portrayed as villains. The parents can hardly be blamed when an entire generation has been brainwashed into believing that the current state of the world is the correct state of the world.

They have been conditioned to be happy so long as some company gives them a paycheck to foot their picket-fenced mortgages, credit card bills and other financial obligations; and dinner produced by environment-unfriendly practices is on the table; and senseless cable fare is beamed into their minds. The pace of modern consumerist life has left them too tired to think about the larger responsibility and the fate of humanity.

 

One planet not enough

Some scientists believe that if the seven billion people on earth consume at the same level as an average American, the world will need four and a half planets. And yet as spiritual master Jaggi Vasudev says “you only have half a planet left.”

Humans cannot sustain life on this planet. But instead of trying to fix problems they have created here, they are now scouring outer space for the next planet to plunder. Suddenly, the scenario painted in a movie like Avatar does not seem so far-fetched.

Is this truly behaviour that deserves to be sustained?

Instead of developing new models of exorbitantly-priced technology, why not explore the inner space of human consciousness to fix the misconceptions and ill-considered myopic ideas that have brought about this precipitous stage in human history?

What if the physical and material aspects were held reasonably constant, after all human beings have achieved a certain reasonable standard of life?

Why not move from wanton unbridled consumerism to a sensible and responsible use of nature’s resources which would also involve giving back to nature.

Instead of sustainable development, perhaps it is responsibility and sensibility that are more worthy principles for human life to be led by.

* * *

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at contact@verafluenti.com.

Print-ready versions of several blog posts are available in our store for a small fee.

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White space: An essential in communication and life

White-space-purple-dot-600px

Not an inch of space is to be left unused. Text and images should cover: the page, billboard, print canvas, web space, and all too often, a PowerPoint slide. Voices and sounds should constantly blare the corporate message during every second of radio messages. Graphics, animation and visual effects must occupy every second of TV and web communication.

This is the directive communication practitioners oftentimes receive. Of course, one cannot really blame the folk upstairs. Much like everyone else, they are making decisions using what they know.

Looking at it purely from a financial angle, it might appear logical to conclude that empty space has no return. After all, empty bank and investment accounts usually do not lead to better returns.

Fortunately and aesthetically, the rules of finance do not hold much sway in design.

Any studied practitioner will know – what experience will have corroborated – that PR and communication campaigns need white space and silence to be effective.

Some draw a distinction between “active” and “passive” white space — active being the white space created intentionally for balance, organization and emphasis; and passive the white space that occurs naturally such as the space left out at the borders or in between content. We acknowledge and embrace both.

May we also remark that white space is not always “white”. The term merely signifies absence of content in a space that may be infused with a single colour, or a concoction of colours.

 

Increasingly intrusive barrage

Many executives and managers may believe the way to get messages across is to inundate audiences or publics with them.

Eager to please them, the PR managers (who in such instances function more as technicians than as strategists) try to create new distribution vehicles.

Such a spiral has resulted in several unique (and admittedly creative) formats.

At one point, pre-recorded voicemail messages from senior executives would greet unsuspecting employees when they picked up the phone intending to reach a business client or quite simply do what they were hired to do.

The new-message-indicating red light would refuse to die till one had sat through the 60-120 seconds of artificial-sounding spiel. Few people (save the ones in their probationary period) listened to or even heard (there is a difference) these messages, making them a waste of effort and time for the executives, the PR practitioners and the intended audience.

When the notice board is covered in years’ worth of unmanaged layers of stapled-over posters, the practitioners invest in digital signage, applauding the corporation and themselves for adopting a more “sustainable” medium (more on this in another Verafluenti post, coming shortly).

Novelty can pique audience interest for a while. But soon attention wanes and the “new” medium also lands on par with other media that have come before.

Unless good content with good design is issued, addition of new formats will not go very far.

When executives complain that “people aren’t getting our message”, the distraught PR practitioners put up digital screens in the elevators, the pantries, the lunchrooms, the coffee machine (yes, even the dispenser of your hallowed daily Joe is not immune), and the washrooms.

The day may not be far when messages are beamed in virtual reality into the hitherto sacrosanct peace of one’s bathroom stall. Picture yourself being educated in the corporate core values while easing your bowels. Quite the unholy congress, n’est-ce pas?

The guiding idea is seemingly to not allow the poor audience a moment’s peace.

Unfortunately for management, this may elicit an undesirable response – of disgust and irritation – causing audiences to tune out, or worse, reject messages. This is similar to the “recall and reject” of annoyingly memorable commercials. Please read the Verafluenti aperçu in our post on “The 100 Ideas That Changed Advertising” for more.

People need their personal space, personal time and white space – which, in communication terms, would translate into relief from the relentless message blitz.

To manage the intensity of message dissemination, campaigns use techniques like pulsing and flighting. While this is significant and helpful in creating a white space relative to an organization’s presence in the larger message dissemination scape, it still does not constitute white space or silence within an individual communiqué.

 

Jarring overload within a frame

White space is required in communication and PR campaigns. It must also be present within each communication piece.

But as above, so below.

The mindset espoused by senior executives influences all aspects of organizational culture, including the design of each printed piece, electronic poster or digital screen.

A single digital screen can simultaneously contain scrolling news bars, weather information, popup sports scores, Flash animations, corporate news and more.

A critical look at the TV screen during a newscast will bear this out. In addition to the above-mentioned elements, most news programs also have a background in constant motion and animation, creating more visual confusion.

Communication and media appear to be propelled by a fear of stillness, white space and silence. It is almost as though they would lose their audiences (and, by the extension of financial motive, their grip on their wallets and purses) if they stopped clanking their pots and pans for even a second.

Attention is constantly diluted, and the eye persistently tired out by so much activity. It is conceivable that, in addition to the dismal quality of TV content and its disproportionately extortionist cost, the lack of a sane space may be pushing more people to cut the cable TV cord.

 

It’s the corporate template

Even seasoned graphic designers have been known to stomach poor design in the name of corporate templates (even though they may be ill-designed by people with no inkling of the discipline).

Well-intentioned practitioners who point out the violation of design principles are met with defeated smiles and an acceptance of “the way things are done here”.

Suggesting the implementation of good design and communication principles is sometimes seen as not toeing the company line and as not being a team player.

There is also no dearth of inexperienced, unqualified, yet supremely cocky, self-appointed brand police who will parrot “on brand” and “off brand” without stopping to examine whether the brand itself is founded on valid fundamentals. Such characters do more harm to the organization – knowingly or unknowingly.

Sadly, the specters of bill payment and mortgages can have a depressing effect on the advocacy of proven tenets.

 

The Verafluenti aperçu

White space and silence offer contrast for the eye and for the ear. They provide a point of reference, which allows the audience to concentrate on the message. In the absence of white space and silence, it becomes difficult to discern where one ends and another begins, in the endless tirade of corporate and commercial messaging.

This example of complete clutter demonstrates how the lack of white space can be jarring and straining to the eye, while also ensuring that no message is retained.

This website for car leasing in the United Kingdom, not content with visual clutter (and web design whose existence is unbelievable in this day and age), also adds syrupy songs on autoplay. Audio clutter on top of visual chaos for a supposedly authentic business!

As salve for your eyes, compare those to the clean layout of this retro VW ad or this Southwest Airlines ad. There is also a reason for Google’s minimalist design.

It works.

It is also a reason we keep our Verafluenti design clean and simple. It is why we don’t have auto-rotating picture galleries, Flash intros, fancily animated menus, or sticky scrollbars on our website.

White space helps to make visual messages clearer, more inviting and more accessible – which means more people will absorb and understand the message. There will then be real impact, not just dissemination and exposure.

Senior executives are the most powerful cultural influencers in an organization. As such, they can play a role in championing more effective communication practices – such as the use of white space for better design and for better campaigns.

For this, a degree of exposure to the relevant discipline would be helpful. This can be gained through personal study of leading publications in the field, by enrolling in an executive education course, retaining a consultant (such as Verafluenti) to conduct a seminar, or simply (and very cost-effectively) by asking their inhouse PR practitioners to run a session on design principles for senior managers.

 

The value of emptiness

White space is essential not just for effective and aesthetic graphic design, but also for other facets of life. The most beautiful musical compositions are the ones that contain silence within them.

Emptiness is not a vice to be weeded out.

More than the walls and the roof of a house, it is the empty space within that makes it livable.

It is the emptiness inside a vessel that makes it a useful container.

It is the emptiness that was mathematically captured as “zero” – by Aryabhatta circa the fifth century CE and formally by Brahmagupta in the seventh century CE — that adds value to a number.

Emptiness is openness — to springs of creativity, knowledge from unknown fountains, and virgin world-changing thoughts.   

It is also conjectured that the universe was conceived in silence.

The silence of the mind – or the state of no mind – is of course called meditation.

Medical studies and brain imaging sessions have shown that a quiet meditative state is more focused, clear, creative and taps into the brain’s massive unused potential.

If it can do so much for an individual human being, why can it not find its (very logical) way into design, the views of senior management, design of communiqués, and the practices of PR managers?

Too much to ask … or simply too commonsensical?

***

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

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