Shreyas Kulkarni
Design Digest

"A restaurant with glass boxes with people sitting inside is good design": Bhupal Ramnathkar, Umbrella Design

In our series 'Design Digest', we explore what the world looks like from the desk of brands' design heads, as they face new challenges.

Here's what Bhupal Ramnathkar, founder, Umbrella Design has to say.

You said 'Lifestyle is on hold. Life goes on' in the context of design and what we're going through as an industry. What does that mean?

If you go out to buy a fancy pair of sunglasses, this might not be the ideal time. Just wait for a while before buying one.

"Creating a foot-operated sanitizer dispenser is a good application of design."

Now, if somebody tells you there's a soap which is a 100 per cent 'germ killer', you will surely buy it, even if it means paying an additional Rs 10.

The former is 'lifestyle', while the latter is 'life'.

In your head, you segregate products into 'life' and 'lifestyle'. The 'life' clients will do well because the society needs them, while the 'lifestyle' clients may not do so well because people don't need them now. This segregation of 'life' and 'lifestyle' makes everything clear.

In the last 15-20 years, I've observed a change in space design across the world, including India. Offices are becoming friendlier spaces. People are making offices more casual and homely with snooker tables, carrom boards, couches, and bean bags.

"I remember, some 30 years ago, when I was working at Enterprise, our boss Mohammed Khan used to say that if you can’t crack a campaign, go out, go to the movies, go to the beach."

The offices have brighter colours and wallpapers. People have even started designing special wallpaper for their offices. The acceleration of colourful, informal offices has been intense, especially in the last five years.

We have tried to make workspaces as close to home as possible. Now that we are working from home, we have finally achieved that goal.

I always say that design is everything, and everything is design. If your design can solve the problem, there’s nothing like it.

I remember, some 30 years ago, when I was working at Enterprise, our boss and advertising legend Mohammed Khan used to say that if you can’t crack a campaign, go out, go to the movies, go to the beach. A change of perspective and environment can change the way you look at your problem. You have to go out of the box, to crack an out of the box idea.

Now, it's becoming even more important to think out of the box. I saw a restaurant with glass boxes with people sitting inside them. That is an 'out of the box' solution. That is good design.

1. How has the ongoing (COVID) crisis changed the challenges facing design teams? What is the biggest change?

As individuals, we have learnt to work away from each other, while still being collaborative. For years, we have encouraged people in our offices to personalise their workspaces, so they feel more at home.

Advertising and design agencies put pool tables and bean bags in their offices, among other things, to make the work environment more comfortable. Now, home is where we create our workspaces, and the thinking is reversed.

We are beginning to appreciate the parts of our lives that we had (earlier) ignored. The air we breathe is clearer. We spend less time travelling, and more time with our family. We spend less money on travelling, eating out, and maintaining a wardrobe that is built to impress. If this is the ‘new normal’, it would be nice to adapt to it.

2. How has the client brief changed? We're sure it's more complicated than putting virtual masks on brand logos.

The tone of communication has changed over the decades, in any case. From straight ‘buy me’ messages to closer empathy with the customer.

Now, we are seeing brands understand that their message of togetherness is a comfort for customers in a difficult time. The tone with a lot of brands has changed to, ‘We’re all in this together. Let’s help each other make the best of it.’

The communication task has been as complex as the path of the virus itself. The messaging emphasis moved from hygiene to sheltering at home, to making the most of the lockdown almost within weeks. The dynamism of digital marketing, with its quick turnaround times, has become vital.

3. Everyone is dividing time and reality into pre and post COVID. For a design executive and leader, what does the post COVID world look like, in terms of work, skill sets and related demands?

Design is required in all things, and therefore, design is everything. In its elemental sense, design is used to create practical solutions. Using our hands is what makes us different from animals, and we are suddenly asked not to even touch anything.

This presents not just a design challenge, it’s a whole new design evolution. Creating a foot-operated sanitiser dispenser is a good application of design. A bundle of toothpicks in a lift to help people push the buttons is another example.

"I see the old Industrial Revolution thinking finally dying."

Today, we're seeing work from home (WFH), which is fantastic. You don't have to worry about the commute, eating street food, or the traffic. Not everybody can work from home. So, only those who need to go to their workplaces, are on the street and can reach faster.

This pandemic has brought the entire world together, unlike any other event in recorded history. In the same way that the advertising and design industries developed after the turbulence and chaos of World War II. The world faces another turning point.

I see the old Industrial Revolution thinking finally dying. We replaced machines in factories with people working them to people in offices using machines. Perhaps, it’s time to rethink the concept of a workplace altogether. As always, new skill sets will evolve, and adapt to this new paradigm.