Designer at NGO. Brand development & Sales Area design for AVAL

Working as a designer at NGO abroad, and developing a brand for a social enterprise has its own difficulties. Especially when two completely different ways of thinking and cultures collide.

That is why I was elated about the news that our design was very well-received. The organization sold products worth 37,000 Indian Rupees in the first 5 days. A whole month’s turnover, that they could not make at the last store. With this money, they could balance all the renovation costs and everything else went to the women from the program. Poor women who are from the villages surrounding Auroville. The main goal for me as a designer at NGO AVAG was to develop the brand and to create a sales area that was able to win the competition against leading fashion labels like ONLY or Tom Tailor. A little task with big hopes to create a sustainable income for AVAL.

„AVAL“, a fashion brand for women empowerment, in a collaborative effort with NGOs against cultural difficulties.

Aval’ is the Tamil word for ‘she’ or ‘her’ and also the name of the fashion brand of the social enterprise. An enterprise, which offers training programs in tailoring skills for women from these rural villages surrounding Auroville, located in Tamil Nadu, India. The women themselves founded AVAL in 2013 with the help of the Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG). The main motive was to educate and improve the lives of the women, that they can have a better tomorrow. 57 women from different villages received an education until June 2019. The primary focus of this program is sustainable livelihoods. The products the women sew must generate a sustainable income for this program to have a lasting and meaningful impact. The enterprise (AVAL) has to stay afloat. This sustainability was the primary issue when I joined the team in August 2018.

Problems faced by many NGOs

For many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), it is beneficial and of paramount importance to have volunteers. Resources are usually scarce and much of their work is based on volunteering. But volunteers also come with varying skillsets or lack thereof, which you can and cannot always put to use. This is exactly the reason why AVAL was lacking design qualities and marketing skills. They had no physical retail stores and with that no sales opportunities, at the time I arrived in Auroville. A proper brand image to distinguish themselves was missing as well. At that time the brand consisted only of a basic colored logo. Which means that there was a lot of room for improvement.
Fortunately, the famous Casablanca shop in Pondicherry offered us a small sales corner. Hoping for better sales figures in a better store the main goal was to develop the image of their fashion brand in order to compete against other competitors and to get back into the business.

Process, people, problems

Anbu (the leader of AVAG) presented all the projects of the Auroville Village action group to me and told me I could pick any one of my likings. I chose to work as a designer at NGO AVAG for AVAL because the project resonated with my personality and my skills. Fashion and beauty go hand in hand with design. So I took this as an opportunity to contribute my knowledge in this field.

At first, AVAL seemed chaotic. There was no consistency when I got a first overview. The brand logo was made up of a basic illustration that consisted of a picture, a word, and a color. This was pretty much it. But I did not consider the graphic mark as a logo but rather an illustration because it doesn’t meet the criteria of a good logo. I put together a quick style guide to structurize the branding, and added some colors, fonts, and developed my own icon language. I added one of my photographs later as an example of the imagery.

When I saw the overview of the progress flickering on my screen, I suggested that we work on the branding first and later take a look at the quality of the products. But this suggestion was rejected because of the pressure of reality. But in my opinion, there was also a lack of understanding of the significance of design in the fashion industry.

Pressure of the reality

The project leaders were constantly worried about finances. I think that’s one of the reasons, why my concerns about the design and product quality were rejected and why they urged me to concentrate on the sales area. They hoped to open the shop by Diwali. Taking this time limit into account, Madhu and I worked with the existing branding and started designing the sales area. We visited the Casablanca Store, to get an overview, and to take some measurements. The goal was to get the products on sale as quickly and cheaply as possible.

The next day, I took the photograph for the right advertising sign in the AVAL sewing room. Madhu translated for me. After editing this picture I created the layout for the sign and added two of my icons to it. The Icons serve as an advantage in the sales competition. They show the underlying vision of aval. Meanwhile, Madhu created a mockup of the shop area, which we presented together with my designs to the leaders. As soon as our plans were approved Madhu took over the printing with the local printing company and the coordination with the Tamil craftsmen. Angela and Anbu placed the selected products on the shop floor.

The result

Working as a designer at NGO AVAG and AVAL as my first intercultural project had a very steep learning curve. Especially, when it comes to intercultural competence and designing. 5 days after the opening, Angela told me that everything had gone well and that a lot of items were already sold out. I felt released and happy about this news. She even mentioned that we should prepare the restocking of the products.

What I learned

Regrettably, I was not able to fully implement my design potential for AVAL. I am also unsatisfied with the design and concept of AVAL because I see vast potential in it with a better design or another business model. But the lessons learned from working with these wonderful people there are valuable to me. I realized that I cannot expect the same standard of quality as we have in Europe and the local culture influences design in many more aspects than my presumptions led me to believe.

This project also taught me that it is important to identify the intentions and values of the people you work for. For me, the representation and the concept of the company were the main focus. For Anbu, it was always centered around the women. I realized that I am probably more of a competitive person who values quality. This is not necessarily bad, just different. The women were very nice and friendly, and the cooperation with Madhu was fantastic. The cooperation even turned into a friendship I don’t want to miss anymore. 😉

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