Ep 19: Blending Strategy & Design with Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna

Ep 19: Blending Strategy & Design with Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna


Ep 19: Blending Strategy & Design with Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna

Lorilee is joined by fellow designer and VCFA graduate, Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna. Shruthi is an accomplished creative who draws from many different fields for inspiration in her design aesthetic. Her work is deeply influenced by her interest in anthropology, philosophy, and behavioral psychology, as she strives to create with a human-centric sensibility. In addition to her role as Design Director at Austin, Texas based firm, FÖDA, Shruthi is also an educator, speaker, and researcher, exploring the effects of design on human behavior through her position as a Doctor of Design scholar at North Carolina State University. Shruthi and Lorilee discuss the balancing points between strategy and creativity, the importance of using both sides of our brains, the intrinsic value of listening, and how data can be an essential resource for designers, just as creativity can be equally as valuable for strategic teams.


  • On Shruthi’s playlist: silence…and Bollywood music! 
  • How she got her start in advertising strategy
  • The importance of synthesizing art and science 
  • Bolstering efficiency and efficacy in design by maintaining inclusivity between creative and strategic teams
  • Internal/narcissistic listening vs. focused listening vs. 360 listening
  • How the psychology of consumption informs the psychology of design and vice versa
  • One tool for our G&G toolbox

Mentioned in this episode:

Sponsored by Her-Bank.com

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Episode 19 – Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna Transcript

[00:00:00] Lorilee Rager: Hey, I am Lorilee Rager, and this is Ground and Gratitude. It’s a podcast about designing the life you want; one that not only grows, but also gives. 

Before we start the show, I want to tell you about our sponsor, Her Bank. Her Bank by Legends Bank goes well beyond banking for me, they have filled in the gaps in areas like financial literacy and helped my own confidence when it comes to banking and business decisions. Trust and relationship really are first and foremost for Her Bank. Visit her-bank.com to learn more about banking from a woman’s perspective. Her Bank is a brand of Legends Bank and Legends Bank is member FDIC equal housing lender. Now onto the show.

My guest today is my incredible friend Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna. With more than 15 years of experience, she has been many things; a strategist, a brand manager, a student, an educator, an award-winning designer, and a creator of acclaimed projects for Google, eBay, University of Texas and Austin FC– just to name a few! 

Today, Shruthi has evolved into a creative who observes and listens, investigates and experiments all through design. And she has a deep love for behavioral psychology, philosophy, and anthropology. Shruthi is also a Doctor of Design scholar at North Carolina State University, where she is investigating the influence of design on consumption patterns using empirical evidence as it relates to the COVID 19 pandemic. I am so excited to have her on the show today to talk about how she combined her creative center all with her brilliant strategic mind.

Welcome Shruthi. Thank you so much for being here today. I am so happy that you made some time to be on the podcast. 

[00:02:24] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Thank you so much for having me. Um, I’m so excited to be here and I’m glad I’m able to see your face, although, um, nobody are actually looking at our faces. It’s helpful to just have this face to face interaction through our screens.

[00:02:38] Lorilee Rager: It really, really is. Well, okay. So my first kickoff question is one that I really enjoy hearing from every single person that I’ve talked to, because we know every- we know each other in different ways, but it’s always interesting for me to hear what song is on repeat on your playlist today? Um, and why? I’m gonna add that. And why? 

[00:03:03] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: That’s actually a tough one for me to answer. Um, as, as a first question too, because, um, I think I fall in the very unpopular category of people, um, especially considering, uh, my practice as a designer that I do not listen to music as often to have something play on repeat 

[00:03:25] Lorilee Rager: Uhhuh. 

[00:03:25] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Do you listen to music when you’re designing, Lorilee?. 

[00:03:28] Lorilee Rager: I do, but it has to be um, oh, the study beats, the lofi study beats 

[00:03:35] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. 

[00:03:35] Lorilee Rager: Or I have a custom playlist I made for writing that’s a lot of classical instrumental. 

[00:03:41] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Ah, gotcha. 

[00:03:41] Lorilee Rager: Um, almost movie themes. 

[00:03:44] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:03:44] Lorilee Rager: But not movies you know because that will distract me. Like if you start to play the Forrest Gump theme song, I’m going to be pulled out of- 

[00:03:51] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Uhhuh 

[00:03:51] Lorilee Rager: -creativity. So I do wanna hear something. 

[00:03:54] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:03:55] Lorilee Rager: But it can’t have words. It can’t be catchy. Can’t can’t be familiar. 

[00:03:59] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Gotcha. Yeah. It’s just fascinating. I, I think I’ve always just felt that I just lack multiple cognitive processing. 

[00:04:08] Lorilee Rager: Mm-hmm. 

[00:04:09] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Um, I, I, I feel like, uh, sometimes music impairs my focused attention, especially when I’m working.

[00:04:16] Lorilee Rager: Yes. Yes. I feel that. Really do. 

[00:04:19] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: And you know, sometimes you engage in like idle mind wandering, when you’re letting your brain incubate. Um, and there are these moments of “aha” that just surfaces, uh, from an unconscious level. I think it’s that perhaps, because I’ve always struggled um, to be that one person in the room, especially when you’re part of a team, um, who likes to play music as the day is going by.

And you’re like, “um, can we turn that down? Or can we not play music?” Um, kind of a thing. Um, however, but, uh, when I do listen to music, I’m a huge fan of Bollywood music, uh, I grew up listening to Bollywood music, although it’s not a pure genre of music and there is not perhaps one song that I can point at and be like, that’s I listen to something on loop. Um, it’s, it’s, it’s a cocktail of so many things, um, of classical tunes as well as, um, some based on folk or Western music, um, or even ghazals and qawwalis that come from various, um, um, um, portions of the world.

Um, I think it’s a rare fusion of like, music and poetry and screenplay and fiction. And you know, and when you watch Bollywood music and you add context to it, um, I do enjoy Bollywood music a lot. And when I do listen to music, 

[00:05:43] Lorilee Rager: Yeah. 

[00:05:43] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Um, that’s probably one kind of music I listen to. 

[00:05:47] Lorilee Rager: Yeah. Well, I could tell the way you lit up actually just talking about it. And it’s interesting, you said to watch it too, because I also came from the, the eighties MTV era. Where I very much enjoy watching music. Even to go to a YouTube channel and watch music videos. Like we still do that here in, in our house. And, it’s, it’s not a lot- a normal thing. I don’t think that people do with streaming radio and, and things like that.

But yeah, that’s really interesting. Well, you know, and I’ll listen to something different if I’m cleaning the kitchen, if I’m, you know, uh, taking whether it’s an afternoon shower to go out or do something… like there’s music based on the mood, um, or working out or yoga, but . Work music has to be those lofi study beats with, I can’t, like I said, if I identify whatever it is at all, it’s going to destroy any creativity or focus. And in my office, I’m a huge distraction. I’m that person in the team meeting, that’s playing fun music, because I’m not needing to focus. And everybody’s like, “uh, can you turn that down?” 

[00:06:55] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: “We’re actually doing some work here.” Just kidding. Just kidding. 

[00:06:58] Lorilee Rager: Yeah. Yeah, “we actually have to work,” but yeah. Yep, yeah. 

[00:07:02] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Gotcha. 

[00:07:03] Lorilee Rager: So, and I do I find it fascinating. That’s why I have it as the kickoff question, because everybody completely is different. And from a creative standpoint, I find it really interesting too, because I find more and more that are distracted in the same way. Um, so the, the way we hear music and process it while we’re trying to be productive, it’s definitely something that’s interesting.

[00:07:28] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Have you like come up with like a common category or an archetype where many people listen to a certain kind of music? Um, I’m just curious, is it like classical mostly? 

[00:07:39] Lorilee Rager: You know, you know, most of the time they say no words, it’s definitely that, um, we, I do, I’ve had one or two also say none. 

[00:07:49] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Gotcha. 

[00:07:49] Lorilee Rager: Like you started out with yeah. And, and say “I’m a rare person.” Just, you led it out the same way they did led with it. Um, but yeah, it’s definitely instrumental. They don’t necessarily say classical, but, and definitely instrumental. Um, that, or they’ll come right out of the gate with something that’s really popular in a big hit, like right now, like Lizzo or something. That’s just like their pump up song- 

[00:08:13] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yes. 

[00:08:13] Lorilee Rager: -to start their work day. You know? 

[00:08:15] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Gotcha. 

[00:08:17] Lorilee Rager: Yeah, but we’ll, that’s what, we’ll gather this data and reevaluate what people say in a year. Because that’s what we do. 

[00:08:25] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah, absolutely. I love the sound of that. It’s music to my ears. 

[00:08:31] Lorilee Rager: No pun intended. Oh, great. Okay. Well, so diving into our next, or first, topic. Even though music really became the first one. I wanted to talk about some things that interest me about what we do for a living and some things you are especially very, very good at is, um, strategy. And creativity, and they’re not, they’re not powers that everyone has. And I wanted to know, as you say, in your bio, that you are the “love child of strategy and creativity.” When did this first become, you know, something that you noticed about yourself, where did it originate from? 

[00:09:18] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: That’s an interesting one. Yeah. So I, I for, I don’t think I noticed it at any point. I think it was certainly built on and, um, developed, um, intentionally developed on that, um, aspect of wanting that balance of being a strategist, uh, that I was in my past life um, and then wanting to move over to the other side of the table. Um, the fun side that I would consider today to be a creative. 

[00:09:51] Lorilee Rager: Yes, it is fun. 

[00:09:53] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: I started my career in advertising, um, as a client servicing intern, uh, which is basically a project management intern as we would call on the Western, um, in the US, um, in India my title was client servicing intern. And from there on, I started participating, um, in the strategic aspects of the advertising business and I fell in love with it. Um, there was a lot of data to explore. Um, um, there was a lot of budgeting, a lot of client interactions, a lot of, um, asking the whys and, uh, arriving at a problem.

And I, it kind of felt like your job kind of stops there. And then you pass on the problem to the creative, to the creatives who come up with a solution. Um, I, I really wanted to become, to get to that side as well. Um, and I wanted to do both because I did really enjoy what I was doing as a strategist. Um, and throughout the process, I think storytelling remained a paramount and I did not want to lose either of the aspect of asking the why’s or coming up with hows and whats. Um, and so I wanted to combine creativity with data, um, of course, to explore experiences in its many forms and still understand, uh, strategy holistically. Um, and especially today, um, I kind of hold onto that very dearly, uh, because data plays, um, an ever more influential role, um, as, as, as you know, as human beings, we are very complex. We live in a very complex landscape, um, and both of these elements are important, uh, vital, critical. However, we wanna call that to unlock key insights, um, especially to put human experience at the very core. 

[00:11:50] Lorilee Rager: Yes. Yes. 

[00:11:51] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: And as creatives, I think we are almost always told that, you know, you think with your right brain, you know, and number, numbers, people think with the left sides of, of, of their brain. But I think in reality, we all need, and we do think with both sides of our brains, um, but in many organizations as well as in educational systems as well um, um, that I have been part of, um, I always felt like creativity and strategy sit in separate silos and it’s, it’s become a, like a, kind of like a natural divide.

And we are labeled from a very young age as um, creative or a quant or a quantitative person, quantitative/qualitative. 

[00:12:36] Lorilee Rager: Yes. 

[00:12:36] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Either we are art or we are science. Um, and, um, I think early on in my career, I did realize we needed to break down the silos or for me, it was important for me to break down the silo to kind of understand design the way I understand design and understand the problem, the way I understand problems. Um, and today I find myself, um, wanting to break down these silos even more to empower, um, my students, as well as, um, uh, my creative team that I’m a part of, um, to access and understand more strategy, uh, while data and strategy teams, um, begin to start thinking more creatively. 

[00:13:19] Lorilee Rager: Yes. Yes, that’s really, you said a lot there that’s really, really important. Even also as a teacher and in teaching, you know, the students to learn yes, the principles of design, but the “why,” which you mentioned, and, and I think going back to storytelling, I don’t, I don’t think we, we can’t design and create the story if we don’t have the strategy behind it. And I think it’s really, really an important piece. Um, looking- thinking of my own career of just starting out as a creative, “the fun side,” but I was never going to be successful. I didn’t, I didn’t think, if I didn’t force myself to appreciate and understand and explore strategy once I got into the career. 

[00:14:14] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. And I’m aware you function also function as a strategist in your firm, right? Is, is, is that something you kind of encourage your team to kind of, um, you know, strategic creativity or strategic thinking? Strategic, creative thinking? I forget all the, all the different terms that there are… 

[00:14:34] Lorilee Rager: The key terms. Yes. But yes, it has. It has to be, we used to, you know, I used to start out with what’s your favorite color?

[00:14:43] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Gotcha. 

[00:14:43] Lorilee Rager: And you can’t – you can get down the road and ask them that and, and see their opinion and see if there’s a why behind that. But again, we really need to start at the strategy of what are your goals? And what is your why before we ever think about colors and fonts and the fun side of the table.

[00:15:08] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Absolutely. 

[00:15:09] Lorilee Rager: And so, yes, you, you really have to start out with this pretty intense level of questioning this, digging deeper with a client and, and that’s something through the years that I think in my firm, we wouldn’t have been as successful if we just took the orders from- at the early days where you just took the orders from the client that came in and said, well, “I like green and I want it to look like this football team.”

[00:15:37] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Mm-hmm 

[00:15:37] Lorilee Rager: And I needed to go on this storefront by Friday. 

[00:15:41] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. Yeah. 

[00:15:43] Lorilee Rager: And those people never came back. Those businesses didn’t stay open and you know, and I really think they were lacking strategy. 

[00:15:51] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Gotcha. Yeah, absolutely. 

[00:15:54] Lorilee Rager: And I didn’t, I didn’t know it was even a strength. I didn’t even know it was “allowed,” as I do air quotes, for creatives to even do that. I was like, “oh, who’s gonna do that in your team?” Or, or in my world, there are a lot of small business owners that wear many hats. 

[00:16:11] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:16:12] Lorilee Rager: And that’s the last thing they actually have time to think of. So it, it becomes a level of consulting and trust that they build with us. 

[00:16:20] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah, absolutely. And especially, yeah, within, um, you know, of course the world of design and the way studios are structured, are evolving and changing. Um, I remember back in the day I say this literally back in the day, like 15 years ago, 10 years ago. And I’m sure agencies, especially advertising and marketing agencies are structured in a way where you have, um, um, a planning team, um, which is also the strategy team and then the media team and creative team and the production team where, um, um, business development managers or, um, officers bring in the business and the strategists, um, and the media planners kind of come up with a strategy ask the whys, um, basically develop the creative brief for you. And the creative brief is passed on to the creative team. Um, listing things out that needs to be solved. Um, and it, it, it it’s quite.

Cumbersome process, if you think about it, because of course, creatives do go around asking, you know, why are we doing this? And, you know, what’s the intent behind this. Um, but then you go through the whole process again, but, you know, opening up the room um, and, the creatives involving the strategist and vice versa from the beginning.

Um, I don’t know. I think maybe there is value in doing that and keeping it open and more inclusive from the very beginning. You might end up saving on the hours, saving on the redundancy of passing on information from one team to another. Um… 

[00:18:04] Lorilee Rager: You just nailed it on the reason why in my world that we changed that way. 

[00:18:09] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:18:09] Lorilee Rager: Because we, we started out in silos for numerous reasons. Maybe, maybe the designer was an introvert and scared to sit in front of a client. And I thought I needed to protect them. So I only met with them, but when we started bringing myself, the marketing strategy team, and a designer to the table to hear the same words from the client, we absolutely became more efficient. We actually got more creative ideas. Uh, the designer, you know, interpreted it a little bit different than I did, which was also a little bit different than the marketing manager. So we could explore all three ideas to solve the same problem. 

[00:18:50] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:18:52] Lorilee Rager: There wasn’t a lot of unknowns because right then if there was an “aha” or a question, the designer could ask it for clarification. Um, but we absolutely started out you know, many moons ago, 15, 20 years ago, where just me trying to listen to it all and gather it all. 

[00:19:12] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:19:13] Lorilee Rager: And, and read their body language to see if they were even telling the truth. Because it’s a really vulnerable place, I think, for a client- 

[00:19:22] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: yeah.

[00:19:22] Lorilee Rager: -um, to tell you everything about their business and they’re either there because they need to grow their business, because they’re new and excited or maybe their business numbers are bad and they’re failing and they have– it’s a lot of vulnerability there. So it’s really important to really have an honest conversation with everybody-

[00:19:40] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:19:41] Lorilee Rager: -with a seat at the table. 

[00:19:42] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: That is so true. I never thought of it like that. You know, that the client is actually at a very vulnerable position as they sit in front of you and actually share the problems that they’re facing. Um, and-

[00:19:55] Lorilee Rager: Yes.

[00:19:55] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: -uh, it requires, um, a lot of it requires them to be really vulnerable to actually get to the core of, you know, how can we best find value in conducting business with each other? And me actually, it’s like sitting in front of a therapist and saying what the problem is. 

[00:20:12] Lorilee Rager: It’s exactly what I was gonna say.

[00:20:13] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:20:14] Lorilee Rager: It’s like, you’re sitting in front of your, therapist and your lawyer. 

[00:20:18] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:20:19] Lorilee Rager: And maybe your accountant. And I think the strategist and designer, which actually could be the same person, as you are, um, all are there because yeah, they maybe also could be complaining about an employee personnel problem that’s really causing the low sales or, you know, there’s so much more to it. Again, than what’s your favorite color? 

[00:20:42] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. Yeah, totally. 

[00:20:44] Lorilee Rager: So I th- I think, I just think when, when I was, was thinking about, you know, this, this podcast with you about really, it just really stuck out to me how important these two simple things and thoughts are of strategy and creativity, and you saying you’re the love child of that. And I was like, yeah, yes, you are. So good. It’s so good. Um, well kind of merging off of that, the, the next thing I wanted to ask about was I do feel that you are very, very good at observing, listening, and investigating and that’s what I all know– I also know and feel that creatives that are successful and even happy in their own life do well. So I wanted to talk a little bit about your thoughts on the importance of really just listening. Because to me that’s observing, investigating all kind of wrapped in together, um, through design and, and maybe life too. 

[00:21:51] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah, that’s, that’s an intense one. Um, yeah, I, I do truly believe that, um, listening is a form of appreciation. Um, 

[00:22:05] Lorilee Rager: Yes.

[00:22:06] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: You know, when we appreciate others, we recognize them as a separate entity. And one way of doing that is like, truly um, listening to what the other person is saying. Um, and I think when it comes to just everyday listening, it’s just hard to survive in an environment where your opinions are not appreciated, and it’s not necessarily in a work situation. That could transpire within your personal relationships or you with yourself.

Right. Um, and, you know, and with, in a work situation, imagine working for somebody, whether, or if you are a CEO, well, you are a CEO, um, or a manager or a director, simply asking the question, what do you think? No matter who is sitting on the other side of the table. 

[00:23:01] Lorilee Rager: Yes.

[00:23:01] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Including your client, including your peers, including, um, team members, or maybe it’s just an observer. Um, who’s in the room, just simply asking the question, what do you think? Kind of opens up doors, windows, whatever it is into that conversation in, in, into that relationship. 

[00:23:19] Lorilee Rager: Gosh, that’s so simple, but just such a, brilliant phrase that should be on the agenda. 

[00:23:27] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Right? Like how many times we walked away, um, from a discussion where you’re like, you didn’t ask what I think or what I thought?

[00:23:34] Lorilee Rager: Yes. 

[00:23:35] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Um, I, and I, I had, I had something to contribute and not everybody is equipped in a way where you’re like, I have a thought that I would like to share by intervening-

[00:23:44] Lorilee Rager: Correct. 

[00:23:44] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: -this discussion. 

[00:23:45] Lorilee Rager: Correct. 

[00:23:46] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: That rarely happens. 

[00:23:48] Lorilee Rager: Yes. Or the ones that it, that, that do do that, do it too much. And no one wants to hear from them right now.

[00:23:56] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: And it’s a boon and a bane, right. When you’re a listener, you’re like, I had things to share, but we’ve, we’ve finished our 10 minute meeting. Looks like we’ve gotta wrap it up. 

[00:24:06] Lorilee Rager: Yes. 

[00:24:07] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Um, yeah. And it’s not an easy thing to master. And I don’t know if anyone really can master, um, the art of listening, as people call it. Um, because it’s, it’s natural. I think just as human beings, um, I was recently reading about this, um, for, um, um, um, one of my coursework where there are different kinds of listening, apparently, you know, I think one’s called the internal listening. I think Yoon Soo, if you, this was probably before your time at VCFA, called this as narcissistic listening, and I love that phrase and I try to um, uh, I, I try to, uh, uh, use that, um, term to explain things very often. Um, the concept of narcissistic listening is basically internal listening, where you are concentrating so much on your stress, your needs and your priorities when the other person is talking and you’re automatically, not automatically, you’re already thinking about your response of what can I, what, what, what do I say when it’s my turn to talk? And so you kind of stop listening, um, to what the other person is saying. It happens all the time. It’s not like an intentional thing. It takes a lot of work not to do that, but we are just wired perhaps like that as human beings. 

[00:25:33] Lorilee Rager: We have– but bringing it out to the forefront, making you aware instantly, already makes me-

[00:25:39] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:25:40] Lorilee Rager: -want to change or consider, my next conversation to be like, oh, let me stay present. Stop stop the narcissist in my head. 

[00:25:47] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. But it’s not always like a negative thing because it’s a natural thing. Right? Like I think that’s how we sometimes empathize with another person. Like I come to you telling, you know, “Lorilee, my dog has not been eating his food. He’s so picky.” And your way of connecting with me is perhaps with a response like, “oh, my dog does that all the time.” Without realizing you are suddenly, you know, making this whole problem that I’m bringing to the table by relating to it, you are relating to it by making it about you know, pulling an anecdote from your life and, and sometimes, yeah, I don’t know if that’s even a good example, but you get the point. 

[00:26:32] Lorilee Rager: And sometimes it’s, it is, but it’s just not appropriate sometimes. 

[00:26:35] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:26:35] Lorilee Rager: And if you were listening appropriately you would know to pause and, and not immediately, possibly negate what they just said. 

[00:26:45] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Totally. Yeah. Yeah. Which, which then there is the focused listening where, you know, you are sometimes just not able to fully connect with the other person. Um, um, even when you’re not doing anything else, it’s it’s, you know, just sometimes we are just not capable of just being 100% present for the other person. And, and so you sometimes, you know, like we say, you just hear what you want to hear. Um, you just walk away with just a selective, uh, listening is perhaps another way of putting that. Um, but then there is the 360 degree, not degree minus the degree, 360 listening, where you’re not only focusing on what the other person is saying, but, um, I think it also means where you’re noticing how they say it. And the things that they’re not saying, you know, because you are there you’re present. Something, what you were saying earlier. You know, when you’re sitting in front of the client, it’s not about what they say, but it’s the body language. It’s the tone. 

[00:27:49] Lorilee Rager: Yes. 

[00:27:50] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Oh, which is so important. And I think all of those things kind of come down to your connection, to the other person of how good a listener you are. ,And, and sometimes you might just have to, there are, we are certainly in situations, in full transparency where you’re making the other person feel that they are heard and that you’re being a good listener. And you’re like, maybe I didn’t, didn’t need to listen to the whole thing. Um, because it’s not adding any value either um, to the conversation, to the situation, or maybe it’s just a venting kind of a situation where you’re like, you know, you’re heard, I’m listening to everything you’re saying I have nothing to offer. Let’s move on from this. But sometimes, um, it’s important um, where we just really, really listen to the other um, individual’s, uh, needs. 

[00:28:40] Lorilee Rager: Yes, yes. Oh, Shruthi. This is fascinating. So it makes me come back again to what we first started talking about, about everyone at the table. 

[00:28:48] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:28:49] Lorilee Rager: And the roles and what we do in, in, in our agency is I, I’ve understood that my best strategist and analytical compliant thinker is very methodical at note taking and, and documenting what’s going on in the meeting. And the designer is sketching a few ideas and I’m doing the 360. And when we leave a meeting, we each have different responses and it’s one of those feelings where they laugh at me and ask what kind of gut feeling that I have, because I will say now I want you to go email the client now and confirm was that really the correct, uh, budget that they gave you and I want you to confirm, do they really want to kick off, you know, a $10,000 pay per click?

Because I read body language and, and tone, posture that meant they didn’t, but they agreed with the strategist that asked. Yeah. And they clearly said, yes, they did say yes to her. But I, but because I’m watching in 360, as you explain, I knew it’s really a no, but again, they’re vulnerable. They don’t wanna admit they don’t have that budget. They don’t admit possibly they just didn’t tell the truth or misled us, or, you know, like I said, there’s so much going on and we could really damage a whole campaign. You could take a whole business under, like, it’s why it’s so important to listen in all those different ways. 

[00:30:28] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah, absolutely. 

[00:30:30] Lorilee Rager: Yeah. So that’s really fascinating about listening and observing and then, and then that’s when you take it into design. And begin to experiment and play and create something. What that is that message that we just tried to listen and hear. 

[00:30:53] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah, totally. And you put in so much effort towards listening um, in our personal relationships. You know,, don’t we? I feel like we’re, we all get to a point at some point, um, where you’re like, you’re not listening to me. 

[00:31:08] Lorilee Rager: The successful ones, right. 

[00:31:11] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Where you’re like, or you’re, you are striving for that all the time. You’re like, you know, you are not listening to me, you know, or yes, I’m not, I’m hearing you, but I don’t really understand what you’re saying um, kind of a thing, but, um, it’s it, it’s so important. I, I feel like, um, since, I don’t know if they’re, we are really taught how to be good listeners. I don’t know if that’s like a teachable… 

[00:31:37] Lorilee Rager: I don’t know if they are as… 

[00:31:38] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:31:39] Lorilee Rager: I would say as a child we’re taught we must listen or else, you know, punishment. 

[00:31:45] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:31:45] Lorilee Rager: We’re just… but that’s more, do what you’re told. 

[00:31:49] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. That’s more obey. So like, not like — or we are asked to shut up and just listen. 

[00:31:55] Lorilee Rager: Yes. 

[00:31:55] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: That basically can mean, um, sure. I’m just gonna stop talking, 

[00:32:01] Lorilee Rager: I was told, uh, children are to be seen and not heard. And that’s terrible. 

[00:32:07] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. Yeah. 

[00:32:08] Lorilee Rager: I’ve apologized to my children for also saying that to them. I was like, you know, I should not have done that. So… 

[00:32:13] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: How did they take it? 

[00:32:14] Lorilee Rager: We’re not taught. 

[00:32:16] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: What did they say? Whatever mom. 

[00:32:17] Lorilee Rager: They have. Now, they– it’s funny. My youngest who likes to talk a lot has thanked me for saying, I’m sorry for saying that. He said, “yeah, mom, it used to really make me angry when you said that.” 

[00:32:30] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Oh, that’s so sweet that he acknowledged your apology and that’s so sweet you actually recognized that was something you were doing and apologized. 

[00:32:37] Lorilee Rager: I was like, why would I hush a child? Um, we should be teaching them to listen in a healthy relationship. Whether it’s mom and child or best friends or partners or clients or students. 

[00:32:51] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:32:52] Lorilee Rager: Listening really could be the key to it all possibly. 

[00:32:56] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. It’s a very, it’s, it’s a thing that you, you can even put on your resume at some, at some day. I’m a really good listener. Try me out. Call me in for an interview. You’ll know. 

[00:33:08] Lorilee Rager: That’s right. Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. Oh, that’s so beautiful. Really, really. Okay. Ooh. I, I really didn’t expect to get on such a, a soapbox on listening, but this is good stuff. And I think this still all ties in to the third thing, you know, in my, of course, thesis and grad school work and which has turned into life work and personal work and, and understanding the addicted artist. And I’ve learned a lot about similar behavioral styles in creatives. And so that brings me to the point of behavioral psychology. And I wanna hear your thoughts on, on that study and using it in design and life. 

[00:33:57] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Well, as you already know, uh, my thesis was also, um, around the psychology of consumption, psychology of design. And… 

[00:34:10] Lorilee Rager: Tell us about that. 

[00:34:10] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Um, how we consume design and I’m continuing my research around, um, the psychology of the effects of pandemic on how we consume things or how has our consumption changed um, since, since the pandemic, since COVID 19 and how has it affected our psychology, especially when it comes to consumption around design? Um, and I think as designers and I’ve, um, this is my belief that as, as designers, we can leverage psychology to build more intuitive human centered experiences, of course, as well as products. Um, and you know, because instead of forcing human beings to conform to any design, whether it’s an experience or a product, um, um, using some of the key principles of psychology, um, as a guide, um, to design, um, um, you’re just tapping into how people behave and think.

I think one thing that comes to my mind is probably, um, Hick’s Law, um, wherein you know, he talks about, um, um, the time it takes to make a decision increases, um, with the number and complexity of choices available and choice again was, um, one of the things that I deeply dived into, uh, um, uh, when I was working on my thesis and that kind of, uh, ties to, uh, the cognitive load, right?

Like, um, basically, um, Um, it, it, that the cognitive load refers to the mental processing power, um, um, being used by our working memory. Our brains are very similar to, let’s say our computer processors and we have limited processing power. And when the amount of information comes in, um, exceeds the space available the cognitive load happens. Um, so our performance suffers and the tasks that we are trying to, uh, uh, uh, finish, become more difficult and, um, you know, the results sometimes could be frustration. And when you apply, basically that law into design it’s pretty straightforward. 

Um, um, I think my favorite example pertaining to this law is how remote controls were designed back in the day. And as technology was, um, getting better and better and was evolving, the buttons on remote control kept increasing. It was obnoxious. We still have some of those laying around where you’re like, what? Like when you go to a hotel room probably at a Holiday Inn then you see a remote control and you’re like, “79 buttons and what do I do to just watch that one channel?” Or you just turn the TV on. There are like three power on and off buttons. And you’re like, they all look the same. 

[00:37:06] Lorilee Rager: Or there are four at the top. 

[00:37:07] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Exactly. 

[00:37:08] Lorilee Rager: In, in, uh, colors. 

[00:37:09] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Right? And you’re like what do we press? What do… 

[00:37:13] Lorilee Rager: Yes. 

[00:37:13] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: And I think at some point, um, um, I, I cannot recall if this was part of a research or if it was just an experiment. Um, there, there, there is this phenomenon called as grandparent friendly remote, where, and you basically duct tape all the buttons, um, that’s not required and you just leave the buttons that are essential to watch TV. 

[00:37:37] Lorilee Rager: Yes. Yes. 

[00:37:38] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Which improves the usability of remote control. Uh… 

[00:37:41] Lorilee Rager: 1000%. 

[00:37:42] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Right? And well, Apple picked up on it and, uh, today’s, uh, Apple TV basically has what, 5, 4, 5, 6 buttons on it? And you can do the everything that 79 buttons could do with just those four buttons. 

[00:37:58] Lorilee Rager: Completely simplification. Yes. 

[00:38:01] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: And I think that’s an, that’s really a good example of just understanding psychology and applying that to, um, um, consumer psychology and what human beings actually seek and want.

[00:38:14] Lorilee Rager: Fascinating. 

[00:38:15] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Um, it’s, it’s kind of, it’s, it’s fun. It it, or, you know, applying another piece of, uh, I forget what, what this is officially called in the textbooks, but how human beings’ memories kind of like to chunk things, um, and chunking, uh, is I think is, is actually a term. And it’s a incredibly valuable tool where we visually group, uh, related information into small distinct units of information like layout design, or, you know, it’s basically a chunking you’re bringing in hierarchy.

Um, uh, you are giving visual uh, notions, uh, of what’s important, what’s not, what could be passed. What’s just a disclaimer, things like that. Or how we write phone numbers today, because there are a string series of numbers, uh, a string of digits, which is difficult to read, memorize and understand. So we kind of chunk it. We break it down.

[00:39:14] Lorilee Rager: Yes. 

[00:39:14] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Um, when we design business cards, for example. 

[00:39:18] Lorilee Rager: Yes. 

[00:39:18] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Some of these ideas really fascinate me on how you design anything. 

[00:39:22] Lorilee Rager: Absolutely I mean, just mind blown. I mean, every example you gave, but I’m really currently immersed in the remote situation because I, I help and take care of my grandma who’s 91 and when we moved her to assisted living, everything was broken down to the most simplified version. I mean, from, yes, the remote to the call button that gets you anywhere to, you know, there was not a complex phone system. You know, it’s, it’s every single thing is as simple as possible to make it easiest for her.

Or I remember in the nineties helping some, growing up in a rural farming area, there were many, many landlords that we had that were widows. They were women whose husbands had passed. A lot of women alone and they were elderly and we would bring them, um, phones with just the very, very, very large keypads as their vision started to fail or bring them audio books on tape from the library, because they couldn’t read the, the novels that they loved and, and we helped them with brighter lights or all these different ways that we were trying to do to make their lives a little easier, because they had gotten older and they didn’t understand their new TV because the first TV I ever had, I remember, I mean, growing up had one square like, Pepto Bismol color button. 

[00:40:55] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yes. 

[00:40:55] Lorilee Rager: And you just hit it and it went dunk dunk and it just chunked chunk… it just turned really hard to channels two, four, and five.

[00:41:04] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Right. 

[00:41:06] Lorilee Rager: You know? 

[00:41:06] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: And you had three channels, so you watched anything and everything. 

[00:41:08] Lorilee Rager: Yeah. And one volume knob. So there were two buttons on that TV. And then when we got a VCR, it came with a wired remote that fit in the palm of your hand. 

[00:41:19] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Oh, wow. 

[00:41:20] Lorilee Rager: And it just had one button that just said pause and it was just a switch, a very hard click. And that stopped the whatever was playing and you ran that wired remote all the way to the couch. And if somebody needed to go pee… 

[00:41:36] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Oh, I love this so much. 

[00:41:40] Lorilee Rager: You clicked the pause. That was the, that was it. That’s my first remote experience. 

[00:41:42] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Oh, that’s amazing. I wish they’d come back sometime. 

[00:41:45] Lorilee Rager: Yes. Yeah. But then coming home from college at Christmas is when my parents handed me basically a mini iPad with a huge screen of a thousand buttons. And when I like, look, we’ve upgraded our TV in our whole surround sound system. And I was like, I just wanted to play “Jingle Bells” and I don’t even know how to get music going. 

[00:42:03] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Right. Oh gosh. 

[00:42:05] Lorilee Rager: So this is fascinating. Sorry, I’ve talked about that nonstop, but this human-centered design and tying it into psychology, which I love. Philosophy. This is fascinating work you’re doing my friend and understanding. 

[00:42:20] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Thank you. I appreciate that. Um, I mean, of course there is so much to learn and understand and, you know, even connect the dots. Um, I’m, I’m quite certain it’s, it’s gonna keep all of us on our toes as we continue to evolve um, as human beings. I think psychology evolves faster than designers because we are just wired that way. So I just do think that, um, design and psychology are intrinsically tied together. If not, it should be, or it should be taught- 

[00:42:56] Lorilee Rager: Yeah. 

[00:42:56] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: -that way and learned that way. Um, 

[00:42:59] Lorilee Rager: I agree completely. 

[00:43:01] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah, because that’s how we talk about typography or layout design or color, the basic competence of what makes a design good or bad is rooted in these things that you’re like, you know, why that color or why that typeface? It’s psychology of how somebody interprets something that they’re seeing. Um it’s such a sensorial thing. 

[00:43:24] Lorilee Rager: It absolutely is. And it, it, it kind of dances around everything we’ve talked about when you also said choice, which was a big, it’s a big word for me because it’s something in recovery that I learned. You forget, you have a choice to not take the same path you’ve always taken or eliminate the choices when you feel overwhelmed in order not to drink and things like that. So choice is important, but I think in the strategy, creativity, the storytelling, I think it’s really important to teach in design all of this. What is the psychology behind, uh, the humans that we’re making this for? What’s the message? What’s the strategy and how do we create creativity- creatively, creatively? That’s the word ,creatively? Um, produce it? Deep stuff. And I love it. 

[00:44:21] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Gosh. 

[00:44:21] Lorilee Rager: I could talk about it all day. 

[00:44:22] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: This is too deep for a weekday evening. 

[00:44:24] Lorilee Rager: I know. This is too deep for my brain today. Gosh. It was so good.

[00:44:30] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: I know. I thought this was the easiest thing that I’d be doing today. I’m like, I’m just gonna sit in front of my computer and chat with Lorilee. We’re going to have an amazing, well, it was amazing. But then now I’m like, I think I need a walk. 

[00:44:42] Lorilee Rager: My mind is blown. Yes. We need to just go look at some trees.

[00:44:45] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Exactly. 

[00:44:46] Lorilee Rager: Blowing in the wind and the clouds just float on by. We do need to do that after this.. 

[00:44:49] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: As a grounding activity. Totally. 

[00:44:52] Lorilee Rager: Yes. Agreed. Agreed. Well, speaking of grounding, you just brilliantly put me right into the final question. 

[00:45:00] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Okay. 

[00:45:01] Lorilee Rager: What, what tool would you leave in our ground and gratitude toolbox for others? After all this fascinating conversation. 

[00:45:13] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Oh my gosh. 

[00:45:13] Lorilee Rager: Or something that helps you. 

[00:45:14] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yes. I feel like every question you ask, um, it, it takes me like a solid second. I’m like, I think I knew what I needed to answer, what I should be answering. And then you kind of, you know, you go back to like, oh God, that’s a tough one. Um. 

[00:45:28] Lorilee Rager: Yeah, it is tough stuff.

[00:45:30] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Well, I think personally, things that ground me keeps changing very often, which I think is a normal thing. I think it happens to everyone. No? Yeah. Okay. I see your nods. 

[00:45:46] Lorilee Rager: I agree. 

[00:45:46] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:45:47] Lorilee Rager: Yes. I agree. I do agree because what used to work three years ago-

[00:45:50] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah, exactly. 

[00:45:51] Lorilee Rager: Doesn’t. 

[00:45:52] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Doesn’t anymore. 

[00:45:53] Lorilee Rager: Yeah, doesn’t soothe. 

[00:45:53] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah.

[00:45:54] Lorilee Rager: Right. 

[00:45:55] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Um, lately when I say lately, I think since the pandemic, um, I have found a lot of, um, peace and calm and grounding, um, in gardening. Um, and I also say this, if, if, if Akhil, my partner, was here or if my mom was here, me saying this out loud, they would’ve cracked up because I think the super, I have a super power of being able to kill a succulent or a cactus that has survived for years. 

[00:46:32] Lorilee Rager: I have the same one. 

[00:46:33] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:46:33] Lorilee Rager: If my mom says you can’t kill it, I’ll go just gimme a few weeks. 

[00:46:36] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Watch me. Exactly. It’s um, but then, so I have never, um, explored the idea of what does it mean to like grow something or nurture something? Um but I think uh, when we went on that amazing lockdown of a year, it kind of opened up- you had, you seek for things that kind of keeps you in touch with, you know, life, as you know it, and you’re finding activities to do. Uh, and gardening was the one thing that I could do within the vicinity that we were not allowed to cross.

And I’m gonna give this a try and, you know, perhaps see how it’s gonna work out. It’s a new thing. And it was like a leap of faith. And at that point I realized how much gardening is like, you know, nurturing a relationship. It’s not like a one and done acquirement. 

[00:47:31] Lorilee Rager: Yes. Yes. 

[00:47:33] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: But then you, you prep for it. You understand what you’re doing. You put in effort every single day. Um, it requires choices. Um, it requires knowing yourself and knowing the person you’re choosing to stand beside all of these things was such a philosophical connection for me with gardening. I’m terrible at it even to this day, I’ll- I- full transparency again, like, I, it would take me an entire summer to nurture, to do, to raise this little tomato plant and I’d get like one tomato, which is like… 

[00:48:05] Lorilee Rager: That’s exactly what I was -that’s what happened to me… 

[00:48:08] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: To save 50 cents. One tomato. And I’m like, what’s wrong with the plant? Like just biologically you, shouldn’t you produce at least three of these? Why is there one, like, how can I be so bad? 

[00:48:20] Lorilee Rager: Yes. I love it. I love it. But you know, the beauty of what we do for a living when we fight perfection and, and all of that as designers in our career, how fun is it to do something like gardening?

[00:48:34] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:48:34] Lorilee Rager: That you don’t, you get to let go and you don’t have to be perfect and give a presentation for it. It’s just you and that plant. 

[00:48:43] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah, absolutely. That’s actually beautifully said, um, wherein, you know, you’re just being there, you know, you’re not prepping. 

[00:48:50] Lorilee Rager: Yeah. 

[00:48:51] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: As in, you’re not, you are hoping you, you just do, you are gardening, always with such positive. Um, and it’s not the false positivity. You’re just hoping for good to happen. 

[00:49:02] Lorilee Rager: You’re just hoping no matter what the outcome. 

[00:49:04] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah, absolutely. 

[00:49:04] Lorilee Rager: You’re still nurturing. 

[00:49:06] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: While you’re completing completely aware that, you know, if you’re planting an annual, perhaps, you know, that’s just gonna last this year. Um, yeah. And you know, the winter is gonna be here and maybe that little thing, whatever you’re planting is not gonna be here. It’s a good realization that beauty is fleeting. And you’re not working towards that part. Um, it, but it’s… 

[00:49:27] Lorilee Rager: And that all this is temporary. 

[00:49:29] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Absolutely. You know, that you want to capture them or, uh, uh, um, just live in the moment and while you can and hold onto them, um, like, like how plants are, you know, they’re just resilient. They just hold onto things in the icy depths of winter. It’s just kind of motivating. No? 

[00:49:50] Lorilee Rager: Yes. 

[00:49:50] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: But yeah, having said all of that, um, I do really need, I feel like a lot of research is required just to understand, like, let’s cross the number one, go to two tomatos this year. 

[00:50:03] Lorilee Rager: The light, the location, the dirt, the watering, the, yeah.

[00:50:06] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah.

[00:50:07] Lorilee Rager: It is a lot of research, which is right down our wheelhouse- 

[00:50:09] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:50:10] Lorilee Rager: -as designers and strategists. 

[00:50:12] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yeah. 

[00:50:13] Lorilee Rager: So, beautiful. I will take gardening all day long as a wonderful tool for the toolbox. It’s perfect. This has been amazing. I don’t wanna take up more of your time, but I seriously could talk to you for the rest of the night and tomorrow..

[00:50:28] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Oh my gosh, likewise I know. I feel like, is it, is it, is it, is that it? Was that your last question? Please talk to me more. 

[00:50:35] Lorilee Rager: That is it. I’m so sorry. Oh my goodness. We could keep going and we will. We’re gonna do this again. 

[00:50:42] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Yes, we should. 

[00:50:43] Lorilee Rager: I’m gonna ask you. Okay, well for now we will have to end it there my dear friend Shruthi. Thank you so much for being here today. 

[00:50:51] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: And thank you so much for having me. This was pure pleasure, just talking to you about all the things that matters um, so much to the both of us. 

[00:51:01] Lorilee Rager: Yes. Yeah, it really does. It really does matter. And you matter to me too, so thank you so much, friend. I appreciate you. 

[00:51:08] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Appreciate you, what is it we say at VCFA? Right- right back atcha? 

[00:51:14] Lorilee Rager: Right back atcha. 

[00:51:14] Shruthi Manjula Balakrishna: Right back atcha. There you go. 

[00:51:18] Lorilee Rager: Good job.

Thank you again Shruthi for sharing such interesting insights with us today. Thank you for tuning in to Ground and Gratitude. If you’re enjoying the show, you can leave a review on Apple Podcasts and find us on Instagram. Our handle is @groundandgratitude. You can find more info about the show and our topics and blog posts all at groundandgratitude.com.

Be sure and join me next time for more honest conversations, exploring what it means to be a creative in this world and how to bring all the love, joy and laughter back to the process of design and to life too. I’ll be talking with Art Conn about his creative journey from childhood to now. 

[00:52:06] Art Conn: My mom was also an actress and I thought, what in the world are you doing? I had just gotten out of high school and I watched her rehearsing and I thought that looks like fun. So I tried it.

[00:52:19] Lorilee Rager:Ground and Gratitude is produced by the dream team, Kelly Drake and Anna McClain.