Sreekant Khandekar
PlainSpeak with Sreekant

Ashwini Deshpande and a journey of design in India

The story of the design firm Elephant is to track how an esoteric discipline gradually became a part of the mainstream in marketing communication.

The Pune-based design firm Elephant turned 34 last month. 

To survive, adapt and flourish over such a long span of time would be an achievement for any firm – and even more so for one set up by five recently graduated NID design students who innocently believed that Indian industry needed their services in the India of 1989. 

The India of the time was a closed economy with little international competition. Why would comfortably-placed companies value good design? Even today, design means utterly different things to different people: it’s hard to imagine what it stood for in those pre-liberalisation days.

After Ashwini Deshpande and her cofounders had graduated from the renowned National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, friends and family would ask, “So what will you do now?” Being a ‘designer’ didn’t suggest employability; it seemed akin to that vague, slightly disreputable creature, the ‘artist’.

Around 1990, being a ‘designer’ didn’t suggest employability; it seemed akin to that vague, slightly disreputable creature, the ‘artist’.

Also, in that India, students from middle-class homes didn’t start companies. They took up respectable jobs. Young women like Ashwini certainly didn’t start a ‘business’ (‘startups’ came much later).

“I remember the time when, in 1993-94, we were asked to pitch and create what we thought was the visual identity for the National Games being held in Pune,” says Ashwini. But when they began presenting, politico Suresh Kalmadi, who headed the sports committee, was befuddled. “What is all this?” he asked. When he had wanted a designer he had meant someone who would make cloth banners (buntings) to be strung across roads. Still, Kalmadi was intrigued with Elephant’s presentation and awarded the studio one of its first major contracts.

Today, the work of Elephant which employs 70 designers, touches Indian consumers in myriad ways. Over the years, it has worked with brands from India’s biggest corporates, from Unilever to ITC, and Mahindra to Asian Paints, providing them with a host of services ranging from branding and packaging to environmental design. Still, this is more than the story of only Ashwini Deshpande or even Elephant: in some ways, it reflects the coming of age for design in modern India. Apart from Ashwini, the other two partners are Ashish Deshpande (also Ashwini’s husband) and Partho Guha, both from the same NID batch.

The Elephant team on its 34th birthday
The Elephant team on its 34th birthday

The daughter of a food scientist, Ashwini was brought up in a liberal household in Aurangabad, a town in Maharashtra best known for its proximity to Ajanta-Ellora caves. Though an excellent student, she knew that engineering and medicine – the popular paths – were not for her. Architecture seemed interesting until she bumped into a student who was studying at NID. Ashwini looked at his work and was captivated. She wanted to learn design.

Ashwini managed to gain entry, one of only 24 students that year. For a typical small-town middle-class girl, NID (set up in 1961) was a cultural shock. Most of the students were from big cities and spoke largely English. There were no textbooks or tests. NID believed in ‘learning by doing’.

On the very first day, a professor set the newcomers’ perspective right: They were not here to study art and self-expression. Design was not just the skin. The purpose of design was to solve other people’s problems, he said.

Still, as the years passed, the ‘artist’ thing stuck with friends and family. Though she’d chosen to specialise in visual communication and some of her seniors from NID had gone the advertising way, an internship at ad agency Lintas persuaded Ashwini that this was not for her. “Design is something fundamental and long term; advertising is only a vehicle to communicate the core of that creation. I found advertising superficial,” shrugs Ashwini.

Another internship, this time with an exhibition designer in Mumbai, sent Ashwini closer to the course she would finally take. It was run by Jyoti Bedi Shah. “If I can run a business, so can you,” she drummed into Ashwini. In any case, it wasn’t as if firms were lining up to hire fresh designers. Adding to this, a course in the last year at NID on ‘Design Management’ gave students a peek into what it would take to run a design firm. It looked doable.

Five of the classmates decided to get together and form a design firm. But where? Mumbai was too expensive; work in Delhi required government contacts which they didn’t have; and the design scene in Bangalore seemed too Bohemian for their taste. Since one of them was from Pune, that’s where they decided to strike root. The year was 1989. (Curiously, Elephant doesn’t currently have any clients from Pune.)

And that’s when fate played the fledgling studio a fabulous hand. In the final year at NID, Ashwini had done a project for Doctor Beck, a manufacturer of industrial resins and a subsidiary of the German multinational, BASF. A top German company boss who was visiting India liked her work and said he had a new project with a ‘limited budget’: 100,000 Deutschmark (this was the pre-Euro era). Ashwini, only 21, with no exposure to either business or foreign currency, easily agreed. She still had to finish her course at NID; he agreed to wait. It took her time to realise that this translated into a fabulous amount, Rs 13 lakh (equivalent to more than Rs 1.3 crore today). This became the studio’s first big assignment.

To get business in the pre-internet ‘90s, Elephant took to cold-calling. They’d write to CEOs offering design services. “Getting a client, big or small, who was willing to pay for design was a cause for celebration,” grins Ashwini.

Foreign exchange transactions in those days took forever – luckily for Elephant. By the time the money came through, the rupee had been devalued sharply so that Elephant ended up receiving Rs 17 lakh. The windfall of Rs 4 lakh was used to buy the firm’s first powerful computer. All these years later, Ashwini still recalls this happy incident with amusement and amazement.

Though Elephant got off to a flying start, reality bit soon after. How could a bunch of 20-somethings sell design to Indian business? Remember, this was many years before the internet or mobile phones or social media. Communication was via the landline and snail mail.

So, Elephant took to cold calling. The founders would make a list of companies they found in India’s most popular business magazine of the time, Business India, locate their addresses and write letters to their CEOs offering design services. That’s how it landed the product design business for Symphony, the Ahmedabad-based marketer of air coolers, now the world’s largest in that business (Revenue: Rs 1,079 crore). The founder, Achal Bakeri, was trained as an architect which is why he appreciated good design. Elephant still works with Symphony and Ashish Deshpande is now an independent director on the company’s board.

Still, bagging new assignments was hard. “Getting a client, big or small, who was willing to pay for design was a cause for celebration,” grins Ashwini. The fact that they looked like college students didn’t help. So, the founders took to dressing up, trying to look more corporate. “When we walked in to present, clients would often want to know where our boss was,” recalls Ashwini.

Elephant took on board an enthusiastic senior who had just quit the air force, Wing Commander Ramesh Jog. His presence and designation inspired confidence among prospects.

Around the time, the Pune-based Bajaj Auto was in the process of shifting its focus from scooters to motorcycles. Rajiv Bajaj, now the CEO but then in his 20s and leading that big shift, got in Elephant to relook the design of its showrooms. The Elephant team went around the country capturing the ‘horror show’. No two dealerships looked the same. Used to a market where scooters were in short supply and customers queued up, the dealers saw no reason to spruce up their showrooms.

The Elephant team told Bajaj that scooters were targeted at the family man but mobikes would be bought by younger, single males. Even if these were small-capacity machines, they were aspirational and the showrooms would have to be made attractive. Besides, they’d have to be standardised.

Over its lifetime the firm has created brands, packaging and products that touch Indians in myriad ways.
Over its lifetime the firm has created brands, packaging and products that touch Indians in myriad ways.

Elephant also advised Bajaj to relook its logo which had been hastily created after the company broke off its relationship with the Italian manufacturer, Piaggio. Bajaj had retained Piaggio’s hexagon but stuffed a ‘B’ into it.

“How naïve we were!” exclaims Ashwini. It never struck the designers that such a change would mean spending crores of rupees in retooling for Bajaj because the company logo appears on each of the many parts that go into two wheelers. The logo change did get approved, though, and the current ‘flying B’ is an Elephant creation. The showrooms were also totally redone.

Apart from the National Games and Bajaj, the third project that won the studio nationwide attention was the branding for ICICI Bank in the late ‘90s. The retail bank had still not been launched and the company was formally known as the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India. It lent money for large industrial projects and had been set up in 1955. 

KV Kamath, the legendary banker and the father of ICICI as we know it, was readying to launch a retail bank. The company was looking for a firm that would help create a retail identity for the bank which still had to be launched. Kamath told the young designers, “You will have to hold our hands on this because retailing is new to us.” Kamath wanted ICICI to wear Indian colours: hence the saffron-red combination in the logo. Rolling out the fascia overnight across the country presented enormous challenges because the technology to print it did not exist in India. Today this Elephant creation swathes more than 5,000 branches and over 15,000 ATMs.

Apart from creating the visual identity for the National Games (1994) and redesigning the Bajaj logo and showrooms, the third project that won the studio nationwide attention was the branding for soon-to-be-launched ICICI Bank in the late ‘90s.

The founders were young with virtually no experience. Did they go through financial crises as the firm grew? Not really, responds Ashwini. Her husband Ashish’s father was a banker and thanks to that, Elephant learnt financial discipline early in its life. 

All entrepreneurs go through moments of self-doubt. Survival is the first concern. Once that is settled, thoughts move on to whether they are achieving their potential, or some such. Ashwini recalls such a moment in 1994, five years after starting the studio. She’d just had a baby and, while there was no specific problem, “I realised that our circle of impact was limited.” She was not enjoying herself.

That’s when she came across a book, ‘The Path’ by Laurie Beth Jones. “It was about creating a mission statement for work and life,” says Ashwini. “Today, some of that seems obvious but at that stage it helped me realise that the mission in both personal and professional life should be the same: adding positive value. If that wasn’t happening, one should reconsider one’s path.”

How did she apply it at work?

It helped the team determine what business they should do and what they shouldn’t. For example, Elephant was doing a lot of work for an IT major around designing and printing brochures. While the printing made the topline look good, it was empty success, they figured, and resigned that business.

Similarly, setting up exhibition stalls was a fat-margin but stressful line because time was always short. When someone they knew in another firm died following heart failure brought on by stress, Elephant decided to exit the vertical. “It just wasn’t worth it,” says Ashwini. Any new project must fulfill at least two of the following three criteria: earning, learning or excitement.

For many years, the competition wasn’t with other design firms but with ad agencies. They were the ones that owned the client relationships. When a business had a design need, it invariably turned to its agency.

 Things began to change only in the ‘90s as more multinationals entered India and international managers specifically asked their local counterparts for design firms they could work with. Ad agencies wouldn’t do.

For all the change that has taken place in attitudes, “many businesses still don’t fully appreciate how design can be used as a differentiator in a competitive environment,” thinks Ashwini. 

It depends on whether they operate in the digital world or the real one, or both, says Ashwini. If it’s a mobile app, design is critical to the consumer experience – but as a digital product, it can easily be improved with every iteration. If the product is physical, however, getting the design right in the first go is essential because the cost of fixing the product later is high if not prohibitive.

For many years, the competition wasn’t with other design firms but with ad agencies. They were the ones that owned the client relationships. Things began to change only in the ‘90s as more multinationals entered India and managers sought out design firms.

One of her favourite stories about startups involves the work Elephant did with Paper Boat (launched: 2012), the traditional Indian drinks brand from Hector Beverages (Revenue: Rs 330 crore). In fact, smiles Ashwini, she was inspired by an old Chitra Singh-Jagjit Singh song to suggest Paper Boat as the brand name: ‘Wo kagaz ki kashti wo barish ka pani’ was about childhood innocence.

She uses Paper Boat as an example to emphasise that it is possible to reduce the impact of packaging on the environment in many ways. Once the drink has been consumed, Paper Boat’s pack collapses so that transporting it is far less impactful than traditional PET or Tetrapak. Similarly, using smaller packs, printing smaller labels and saving on ink can make a big difference.

Ashwini is disappointed that barring a couple of all-digital design firms, few studios even today make it past the boutique stage. “Indian designers get obsessed with controlling the commas and the spaces as if that is the height of their achievement as designers. They don’t institutionalise processes and therefore they remain small.”

On the other hand, she has seen design turn mainstream. When she went to college, there were only two design institutions: NID and the IDC School of Design at IIT Bombay: “Today, there are 10 design institutes in Pune alone and about 200 nationwide.”

Witnessing the mainstreaming of design in her lifetime must certainly be a cause of satisfaction.

Have news to share? Write to us