How to Transform Everyday Products Into Beloved Brands (Hint: Design)

An interview with designer and brand-expert Christine Mau

Even if you haven’t heard her name, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Christine Mau’s design work before.

As the former Senior Director of Global Brand Design at Kimberly-Clark – the company behind well-known brands like Kleenex – Christine knows how to build a personal connection around everyday objects using design. We interviewed her for our design/shine interview series, a chain-reaction series highlighting women in design-related fields.

What do you do for work, and why do you do it?

Christine: I transform everyday products into beloved brands, through design.

I work with the transdisciplinary teams to re-image iconic brands like Kotex or Kleenex, and transform them from everyday commodities into thoughtful expressions of a brand that make people smile.

I find problem-solving, through design, personally rewarding. Maybe because it’s a bit unexpected as some people still think design is a “nice to have finishing touch” rather than a core tenant to building a business.

Where did you get your start in the field of design?

My career really started when working with my mentor Eric Bartelt on the Krueger International (KI) account out of my studio in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Eric would brief me on everything from corporate identity standards, invitations for events to print advertising projects and I remember coming back to him with pages of carefully drawn layouts that I was really excited about and he would ask “why”. I learned very quickly that without a strategy or sound rationale, design, no matter how visually arresting, would fall flat.

As much as I enjoyed the work on KI, I was also a passionate illustrator with big dreams of doing children’s books and Kleenex® boxes.

All photos courtesy of Christine Mau.

Some people laugh at that, but if you think about it, facial tissue cartons are like little pieces of artwork, scattered around the house in an never-ending exhibit. To have designs on display in literally millions of people’s homes on any given day is a real honor. This fascination and obsession with Kleenex started when I was a child. I would save panels that I would cut from the cartons along with scraps of fabric and other patterns in paper bags and spend countless hours analyzing the designs, the step-and-repeat structures and the colorways. So when I was recruited to join the team responsible for designing the Kleenex brand, it was truly a dream come true for me.

Tell me about something you’re most proud of in your career so far.

No More! I had the incredible opportunity to work with Debbie Millman on the creation of a symbol that would unify and magnify the voices of all the organizations working together to eradicate domestic violence and sexual assault. This powerful symbol was launched with advocate and actress Mariska Hargitay and Vice President Joe Biden on Capitol Hill March 13, 2013. Since then the organization has generated hundreds of local and student chapters across the United States, the UK and most recently, Ecuador as No Mas.

What’s the value of design? Why do you think it’s important?

Design has so many definitions and inherent values. The way I think about design is that it telegraphs meaning and when done well, helps us more intuitively navigate the world around us and create experiences that feed our souls. The inherent value for us as humans is a more empathetic world in which to live and for businesses that understand that and leverage design as a growth driver, there is a financial reward.

You’ve worked in design for companies around the world. Do you think design concepts and ideas are universal, or do they vary more across cultures?

I’ve had the gift of being welcomed into consumers homes around the world to see and hear how they live, to understand their family routines, learn about their personal hygiene habits and listen to their dreams and aspirations. What I’ve found is that the things that drive us like the quest for education, the things that are important to us like family, the things we do as a family like cooking a meal together or how we show somebody that we care for them are all shockingly similar.

I can recall with vivid detail being in a home made of two rooms with rodents running through the interview and water stains from massive leaking through the rusted metal sheeting roof and no bathroom or plumbing, but they had a bigger flat screen TV than I had. We were in the Alexandra Township of South Africa and I asked the woman about her morning routine. She described getting up before her toddler so she could enjoy a little quiet time, a cup of tea and take a bath… in the common area of the home, she would fill a small plastic basin with water and that was her bath.

I asked what she did to relax on a Saturday evening, and she described getting a bottle of red wine, some dark chocolate and sitting in bed watching the Kardashian’s on the TV. Really? I’m pretty sure I’ve heard women in Chicago describe the exact same evening. That’s a long description to back-up my point of view that concepts are universally appealing, while the execution may be nuanced for by local culture.

If you had to give an aspiring designer one piece of advice, what would it be?

Find the intersection of professionally challenging and personally rewarding work, show up every day designing with passion, purpose and empathy and the rest will take care of itself.

Continue to do personal creative work that brings you joy, whether that’s design, painting, or pottery so you have an outlet that is yours and yours alone.

Design/shine is an interview series about women in design-related fields. It’s based on the concept of shine theory: the idea that women can raise each other up by highlighting each other’s accomplishments. Special thanks to Debbie Millman for telling us about Christine’s work. 

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Brittany Jezouit

About the Author Brittany Jezouit

Brittany is a Contributor to the Envato blog. She helped launch the publication and was its founding Editor. You can follow her on Twitter @brittanyjezouit.