Unlikely Inspiration with Christine Mau

A few weeks ago, about 100 designers gathered at the InterContinental Milwaukee to hear Christine Mau of Kimberly-Clark deliver a dynamic and powerful presentation that really opened the eyes of creatives to the world of package design. If you missed it, you definitely need to read on!

Christine Mau started off her career with a degree from UW-Green Bay, and later on, Harvard. She opened her own design studio called Mauhaus in Milwaukee, and ran it for 6 years. It was in the late 1980’s that her obsession for designing print annuals left her thinking, “I never get to do any sexy branding assignments.” That thought changed her entire way of thinking, and from that point on, she fully believed “You create your own opportunities.”

The Sea of Sameness
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Set out on a mission : End the sea of sameness to reflect your personal style

Christine showed this great video that really makes you realize that design is all about the way you perceive it.

Christine then went through her journey of how she started to think about different ways to transform everyday commodities that everyone takes for granted into unique accessories. Here are some of the key points she made to break out of the “sea of sameness.”

  • Design is a business tool: Use it to sell more, to more people, for more money, more often.
  • Design on an emotional level.
  • Design for him or her, not everyone.
  • Have a different point of view (it takes bravery).
  • Discover patterns where others see complexity and confusion.
  • Ask yourself: Did I question authority?


Break Your Expectation of “The Rules.”
During her presentation, Christine gave many great examples of everyday objects that have been revolutionized by design. Most of these items, no one even gives a second thought… until you see it done differently, and done right.

Take the vacuum cleaner for example. We’d been using vacuum cleaner bags for about a hundred years when James Dyson asked himself, “why do we need bags?” After about 5000 prototypes the first bagless vacuum cleaner was invented, and it became the #1 vacuum brand in the UK in 22 months. All because someone looked at it differently.

Some other great examples that she shared include things like clothespins, fans, cleaning sprays, prescription bottles, paint cans, Kleenex boxes, fire extinguishers, and the list goes on and on… It’s all about how you look at it. What other kinds of things haven’t been changed in years?


How Are You Communicating?
Christine addressed the topic of communication and how you can better communicate with the world around you through design. She highlighted these points:

  • 90% of communication is nonverbal
  • 50% is body language
  • 30% is tone
  • 10% is verbal words
  • Do more with less – make it a more telegraphic visceral experience
  • Are you solving the obvious problems?

An example that Christine gave as a brand that creates a great visual experience is Starbucks. They recently underwent a logo re-design, and dropped the type on their logo. They narrowed the logo down to it’s key elements, and have created a brand that is universally recognizable without even needing any “verbal” communication.

Christine’s Journey at Kimberly Clark
A really exciting part of Christine’s presentation was when she spoke about her own work at Kimberly Clark, and how she got where she is now. As most of you know, she has changed the face of package design for personal products such as bath tissue, facial tissue, feminine products, and many others. She invented the wedge shaped Kleenex box that we all love, as well as the brightly colored Kotex U design. As she talked about her experiences, she walked us through her brainstorming process, and highlighted a few key elements:

  • Get customers who are used to the trusted/familiar/traditional products to buy the innovative/contemporary/relevant products.
  • People like products that are personalized and express their style.
  • Set your sight on a specific market.
  • Use design to convince people to pay more for a higher-end package.
  • Think outside the box. What would you want in your house/kitchen/bathroom?


Creating the Culture
Part of Christine’s focus was expressing how important it is to create a design culture that is built on mutual trust and respect. When you brainstorm as a team to come up with a design, include everyone who will be involved. That true collaboration can give a completely different experience. As a team, when you think about change, remember that:

  • Small Change = No Game Change
  • Big Risk = Big Reward
  • “You have to zig when everyone else is zagging.”


Calculating Risk
Christine left us with this one great analogy about bravery…

“It’s like standing on one side of the street dying for a latte from Starbucks on the other side. It’s safe to walk down to the crosswalk, but with your experience you can calculate the speed of traffic and dart across the street to get your latte.”

Calculated risk = bravery = innovation

Think about this: How would you feel if your competitor launched your idea tomorrow?


Overall, Christine delivered a very powerful presentation that not only left the audience inspired, but also sparked a desire to look at everyday objects and designs in a totally different way. Her years of experience have made her a recognized design figure, and she is truly a great inspiration to the design community!

You can connect with Christine on Twitter at @mauhaus, and also view more event photos here.

If you have any other questions or comments about her excellent presentation, feel free to share!

Photography by Troy Freund (@MidwestPhoto)

By AIGA Wisconsin
Published February 16, 2012
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