"Designers must let go of the idea of being 'boutique'": Ashwini Deshpande, Elephant Design

By Ashwini Gangal, afaqs!, Mumbai | July 12, 2018
Ashwini Deshpande - along with partners Ashish Deshpande and Partho Guha- runs Elephant Design, a 30-year-old design agency that helped create brands like Symphony in the '90s to Paper Boat few years back. Where's the design function headed in India? Over to the artistic trio.
Ashwini Deshpande, Ashish Deshpande and Partho Guha

Ashwini Deshpande, Ashish Deshpande and Partho Guha

Co-founders and directors, Elephant Design

If the design discipline is a person, is she still a toddler in India? An adolescent perhaps? Or an old lady who is about to be re-born in a new avatar? We tried to answer this question by spending a couple of hours with Ashwini Deshpande, Ashish Deshpande and Partho Guha, co-founders and directors of Elephant Design, a Pune-based design agency that was established in May 1989, making this the trio's 30th year in business. They started-up right after graduating from National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, that year.

Elephant, still proudly independent, currently employs over 70 people - with an equal gender ratio, by the way - and has worked on brands like Axis Bank, Britannia, PepsiCo, P&G, Tata Group, Godrej, Unilever, Paper Boat, Bharat Benz and ICICI Bank, to name a few. The firm offers services like product design, packaging design, retail design and brand strategy, among others.

When Elephant Design was launched, there were no computers. Even when computers did enter the scene, they were looked at with some aversion because they were deemed 'extensions of typewriters and calculators'. A turning point was when Apple decided to turn the PC into a tool for designers in the mid-90s. Another big tech milestone for designers was large format printing, which changed the process of image-making; parallelly, the ad and film industries started making big hoardings and film banners, respectively. Today, technology is the fuel that's driving the discipline, with virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) impacting the way designers work.

Even so, when it comes to matters of size and scale, design as a function still seems to struggle. The disparity between a large design agency and a large ad agency is huge. And this seems to be the case globally. Turns out, this is because designers, as a breed, operate within an insular world and feel very protective and guarded about their craft, much like artistes across the creative spectrum might. Somehow, that hinders scale.

Of the three mahouts we interviewed, Ashwini was the chatty one. Her husband Ashish added to a lot of her points. Partho was economical with his words.

Edited Excerpts


Firstly, let's draw a then-and-now picture. From a support function to now a marketer-recognised discipline - has the sense of perpetually catching up finally gone?

Ashwini: When we started out, saying design was even a support function was an over-statement; it was not a business. We've heard things like 'We understand all the other items on the bill but what is this?' and 'Why should we pay you design fees?' Design was something agencies used to throw in as a free-bee.

Even today, design is much larger than what advertising looks at as design. The advertising agency's perspective of it is includes just branding, a little bit of visual communication, packaging, retail communication, and now social media - that's it. But design is so much more. For example, we do product design. Agencies are not even aware that there's a whole discipline called product design, an intense exercise. There's space design, also something communication agencies aren't aware of. It's not just about a small lounge or cafe; it's about creating an experience within a larger area like a campus.

We approach design from the user's perspective. Most communication agencies begin from what the marketer wants to see.

In the past, the design part of the work came to firms like yours through the advertising agency. When did you get your own direct hotline to the marketer?

Ashwini: Because we've been in this town (Pune), our entry into any corporate has not been through 'the agency'. We've never worked through an agency. But yes, it is true that design specialists had their 'entry' through agencies. In the initial years, when we approached people (clients), we never approached the agencies... but in hindsight, that would have helped us accelerate much faster.

Ashish: We didn't go through the agency route, which should have been the normal way of doing things, because they had the business, the clients.

We began our initial years talking to people about what we can do for them and they'd ask us 'Who are you? Who is a designer?' So we had to build it up: 'I'm like an engineer, but I'm not an engineer, I'm like an architect but I'm not an architect, yes I can make a film but I'm not a film-maker...' In the initial days, it was hard sell. Then somewhere down the line, post-liberalisation, around the mid-1990s, industries started looking at markets, internal and external, competitively. That's when they realised that the quality of what they're trying to communicate -their image- needs to be 'up there', in line with global standards. That's where the word 'design' started filtering in, into the lexicon of the business community.

When we started working on Symphony (Ahmedabad-based air cooler brand) around 1991-92, they needed design because they wanted to differentiate, but design was not really understood. We started by trying to improve their products, from the point of view of aesthetics, but today we are value-adding in terms of innovations. I began working for Symphony as a consultant (to design their products, packaging, strategy - everything but advertising)... and few days back I got appointed on their board of directors (as an independent director). So design has moved from the drawing board, as a service, to the boardroom.

You're technically a lot more sound than your clients. You probably need to decode, translate and almost 'dumb up' your design briefs. Is that frustrating?

Ashwini: Absolutely right. In design, the brief is the biggest challenge. A correct brief is half the problem solved. We've always tried to figure out the best way to get them to write the best brief!

But from the beginning, we've had to tell people what design does. So advocacy and teaching is part and parcel of our business. Even today, we hear things like 'Oh but design is very expensive'... to that we say 'Good design is never expensive; good design is profit'.

Ashish: One of the things designers do once a brief is given is go back and talk to the client. That's difficult for people to swallow, because the young marketing professionals and brand managers would have already done a bit of homework believing that is correct. There will be a thick file of research done by an agency which says something like 'blue colour works'. But the designer is trying hard to go back and re-define the brief. There are times we've gone to the client and challenged the brief... and told them 'Go ahead and do it but it's not a great idea', at the risk of missing a project!

But of late, the briefs have become better.

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Tell me about the most frustrating briefs. Ones that made you haggle with the brand team...

Ashwini: One example is when we started work in 2005, 1,000 days before the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games. For us, it was like working on the Olympics. But there was no brief...

Partho: We were called into this big meeting and were told to 'do very good, international-looking signage'. We worked on the design for the precinct, the stadium, the city... but each time we went back to them with the work, they said 'Good, but where are the signages?'

Ashish: This happened many times. We thought perhaps they wanted more signages. So when we went back with more, they said, 'You're only showing us signages. Show us... signages'. Finally, we realised they wanted us to put up their pictures and promote them! We dis-owned that bit and told them to get that executed by the ad agencies on their roster or local hoarding agencies.

So you're used to working without a brief per se...

Ashish: In the early 1990s, when working on Nirlep (cookware brand), we were doing pots and pans. That's nice, but also a frustrating experience, because a saucepan is a saucepan; you can't change the shape, because it has a high degree of functionality. And people won't buy it if it looks too odd. But then we created a 'split handle' - we split the knob on the lid of the cooking pan into two components to provide a 'parking space' for the spoon. Now this is something the brand team never told us to do. They didn't say 'Please solve the problem of the spatula' or 'Give us a new, interesting lid'. All they wanted was a good-looking pot. We did it because we thought the user deserved it. And we 'sold' it to the client saying it's a good-looking design, not as a product feature. Soon rival brands picked it up and it became the category standard.

...and changing the brief completely...

Ashish: We were called in to design the brand experience and brand character inside the Suzlon (energy solutions brand) campus around 2009-11. The brief was to put the brand's soul into the campus. We re-defined the brief to - how do you define the culture within the campus? For example, the brand is about sustainable energy, but when you enter the campus there's a big gate with a moustachioed security guard who asks you why you're there! That cannot be the first 'brand experience' for people who visit. So we got a Welcome Centre put in, something that wasn't in the architect's original plan.

You mentioned briefs today are a lot tighter. What led to the change?

Ashwini: Clients have far more exposure today. Also, there are many case studies about how good packaging design or retail design can actually made a different to the bottomline. Previously, briefs were prescriptive, but today there's far more education around what a brief is supposed to do. A big shift is - marketers have now started telling us about numbers. Earlier no one thought designers needed to know about numbers; they thought we just made things 'look better'.

Ashish: It's not just from the brand side that design briefs have improved. Design firms have also improved the way they handle projects. Things are more scientific; each time we re-define the brief, we set certain matrices, like a shift in the bottomline.

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But with being involved with the numbers part comes the responsibility of proving ROI...

Ashwini: It's very difficult. I don't think there's a solution. There are no tools to measure ROI on design work. It's still a lot of guess work and shared credit between various agencies that work on a brand...

Okay. Now give me an example of a good brief.

Ashwini: Paper Boat was a dream of a brief. It was open and, at the same time, focused. At the time Shripad Nadkarni (investor in Hector Beverages, parent company of Paperboat; Elephant also worked on energy drink Tzinga) was working on the brand strategy and helped form the brief, which was - We want to make ethnic drinks that our mothers and grandmothers made, that we don't have the time/recipes/ingredients to make today, but the taste of which have left a 'limbic print' on our minds.

This could have gone the 'paisley-pink' way that reflects the way India is seen by the West or the 'Indian kitsch' way or the 'kiddie brand' way because it's about childhood, but we rejected all those. We wanted a contemporary take-out of that.

Ashish: Initially, Paper Boat was launched with a very thin cap. But they changed it later, a tough decision. Paper Boat is based on the memory concept, a very comforting one. So the grip also had to be comforting; you can't have a cap you struggle with or a toothpaste tube-type cap.


You also named the brand Paper Boat...

Ashwini: Yes. The client was not hung up on giving it a taste-related name. Paper Boat is not a 'beverage category' name. It's more in the emotional, 'story' space. It came from the ghazal 'Kagaz ki kashti...' Also, if the name tells you everything, you won't be curious about the brand.

What did you almost name it?

Ashwini: Good Old.

India gets bashed for its poor design performance at global awards, as compared to categories like film or print that agencies seem to have 'cracked'. You've judged design entries across the globe. Is the flak unwarranted - or are we really lacking?

Ashwini: The Western concept of good design is minimalism. That's not the case in Asia or the East. In India, 'minimalism' makes it look like you've not worked enough on it! We're a 'maximalist' country. That's why Indians are always in conflict when we send work for global awards. We should resolve it, hopefully by becoming confident in our own ways. Then all the awards will be ours.

Ashish: The way we see design will also find its way in the world.

How has your dynamic with the creative agency evolved and where do you see it going?

Ashwini: In the '90s I remember going to Lintas to chat with Balki and Pops when they were setting up a design shop dCell, a revolutionary thing at the time. That was my earliest interaction with the mainline creative side of things. For the longest time agencies didn't acknowledge the business of design, but as we started working on national brands like Bajaj, ICICI, Idea, we started coming into contact with agencies, during larger briefing meetings.

There were initial attempts by agencies to get us out. There's always that insecurity... they thought 'Oh, the client is now paying to get a logo done. We'll do it. Pay us.' So during the initial 10-15 years, there was no learning from each other.

But what helped was - many of the services that we were giving, agencies were giving to clients for free! So somewhere, agencies were relieved.

And after a point, when MNCs were firmly in India, especially FMCG companies, design services were given to design companies. For example, Procter & Gamble and Daimler-Benz would not give design services to a communication agency, because globally they were used to working with design companies. So a norm got established - design projects would go to design agencies. That's when the comfort (with creative agencies) started.

Ashish: When we started working for Axis Bank, the objective was to change the overall customer experience at the branch. That's not the area communication agencies usually step into. However, there can be a little overlap - like the poster of Deepika Padukone outside, which is part of the campaign. Then you start dictating what the culture of communication should be - on a poster or a leaflet, etc. Then you find you're treading on the toes of the communication agency. They don't like it. It took us a while. Over time, even they started understanding that our work doesn't affect their campaign, so they let it go too.

That's interesting...

Ashwini: Also, the role of a communication agency has shrunk, in recent times. A whole lot of things they used to take decisions on have been taken away from them and have gone to specialist agencies. I don't know what exactly they do besides ad films. Now there's talk of consulting agencies doing their work. So it's natural for them to feel like they're being bitten from all sides.

The moment of truth for a logo or a package is no longer at the retail level. E-commerce has changed that. How has that changed your world?

Ashwini: Absolutely, it's all about the app icon now. Traditionally, when we designed a corporate identity, we'd first show it on stationery, like a visiting card. Today, it's mobile first - first we see how the mobile icon and favicon (tiny icon in a website url) will look. We have to think of fonts, colour palettes keeping all kinds of screens, even low-res smartphones, in mind. Earlier, for packaging, we'd think 'Who sits next to the product on the shelf?'. Today, I also have to think, 'What are the other app icons around this one likely to be?' That's my shelf too.


Even for a packet, the first interaction is a website, not necessarily the shelf...

Ashwini: Yes, now it's BigBasket and Amazon. You have to see how your pack looks, next to competition, in that little size, (on a website or app).

What's the biggest challenge for design firms today?

Partho: There's a need for the design business to scale up. It's still like a cottage industry. Also, the industry is taking notice of design but is still cautious about it, because the mindset is built with the 'communication way' of looking at brands, which is very TVC-oriented. But all real things are design focused.

Ashwini: Even designers have to let go of this thing of being a 'boutique' company. They want to control every little dot and every little font. Unless you let go of that degree of the 'art' inside you, you won't become a business...

Ashish: ...a design project is always a compromise; it's not a piece of art... there's a business, technical, production, logistics, and marketing input.


What among the recent crop is, to you, good design?

Partho: I think Vodafone's vocabulary of colour works well in our cluttered market.

Ashwini: The visual language of Jio is simple, dumb-proof and can be applied anywhere.

Ashish: I like the work done by Philips. It's simple and clean.

Tell me about your most challenging project in recent times.

Ashwini: Kurkure. It was challenging for many reasons. It's a really large, country-wide brand, including markets where people can't read, and take cues from packet colours. They were facing tough competition and needed to do something that was worth noticing and made them more likable than they were. They had to reiterate that it didn't have any 'bad' things in it, and that it is made from kitchen ingredients. But how do you say that and still stay fun? It was a collaborative effort between us, the Indian marketing team, and their global design team, most of who had never been to India or had never seen this 'ladi' concept of Rs.5 packs that hang at the paan and cigarette shops; they had no clue what atmosphere the packs were going into. And Kurkure already has certain local 'cues' that we couldn't break completely. And there were many products, variants and SKUs. All this made the whole thing quite complex. But we were happy with what came out of it, finally.

Ashish: Another complex project was the re-branding of Future Group's Easyday chain of shops. At the end of the exercise, they came to us saying they want us to design the retail formats also! So from a branding exercise, it became a retail design exercise. We're used to doing retail design in a traditional, process-oriented way - we go to the space, understand the flow of people, make a prototype, do some mystery shopping, etc. - but Future Group is phenomenal in their speed; as soon as the layouts are ready, it's executed across 30 shops the next day! Sure, design needs time, but we learnt the importance of speed from them.

Partho: When Cairn (oil and gas company) shifted to a new office, we worked on re-doing the building, the experience, the culture... but Cairn operates in a vague space; everything they do is underground... and it's oil! What is the visual of what they do? They're scientists who do seismic studies to decide where to do dig. We conducted a pitch for architects and defined the brief for them. Architects have their own sensibilities about aesthetics, they are not clued into the needs of the user who is going to experience the space. So that was a hard project.

A Note From the Editor

For decades, only advertising agencies spoke to marketers. All other disciplines were routed through this conduit. Today, things are very different; marketers deal with many specialists outside of the lead creative agency - media, digital, research, data, technology, publicity, consultants, comedians, what have you. One such brand custodian that has quietly come into its own over the decades is design.

How did the design discipline come into being? Did advertising agencies welcome them... or were they threatened by them? When did these strange, artistic creatures get their own direct hotline to the marketer? What challenges do they face and how are their problems different from those of traditional ad agencies? Most importantly, where is the design function headed in India?

Product categories that will help grow the discipline, I gather, are F&B, FMCG - especially personal care - and consumer durables. Even the younger, 'packet-less categories', like websites and tech-facing brands (like Uber, Paytm, Zomato and Amazon, for instance) will help grow the field. These segments belong to what is known as the "service design" industry, one that's fairly neglected at the moment.

While at the individual level, designers, like most artistes, tend to jealously guard their craft, at the industry level, the future of the discipline is bright only if designers collaborate and co-ideate with the other brand custodians in the communications ecosystem. And this is something only marketers can facilitate. Globally, companies like P&G, Colgate and Unilever practice this already.

To better understand the mysterious world of design, I spoke to the three founders of Elephant Design, a 30-year-old design firm, tucked away in Pune, far from the "advertising buzz" of Mumbai and Delhi. Pune is home to several other design firms and design colleges. I wonder if we can call it a design hub just yet.

This is our first design-focused cover story in recent times. We hope to do a lot more of these, here on.

ASHWINI GANGAL

(This article was first published in our magazine afaqs!Reporter on July 1, 2018)

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