Not just Make in India, have Design in India to enable creators, says Ashwini Deshpande of Elephant Design
Success Quotient is a weekly feature that appears every Friday on Firstpost, which looks at the pains and joys en route to success for a head honcho - whether a CEO, MD or an entrepreneur. The column looks at the ideas that helped launch a company, its highs and lows.
Starting out in 1989, Elephant Strategy+Design was co-founded by Ashwini Deshpande, Ashish Deshpande and Partho Gupta in Pune. In a short span the company rose to the top with a distinct identity of its own and now represents India at the Design Alliance Asia, a consortium of design consulting companies across 13 Asian countries. Ashwini Deshpande, Co-Founder and Director, shares her continuing passion for work.
Excerpts from the interview:
What did you want to take up as a career?
I grew up in Aurangabad, a small town. I was highly inclined towards art, creativity, advertisingand visual story telling in school. I was also good at academics. Towards the end of high school, I realized I was not interested in walking down the conventional career path of engineering or medicine. My parents were very supportive. So we explored options like commercial art, architecture and then we came across some information on NID, the premier design institute in Ahmedabad. Though I wasn’t fully aware of what a designer does as a career and there was nobody to find out from, the prospect of going through the professional design education seemed very exciting. In 1983, NID selected 24 students to join the undergraduate batch. Being one of them felt rather special.
How were your NID days? What are your memories of the place?
For many reasons, NID was a cultural surprise, even a shock. There was freedom, learning and exposure to global thought. There was a degree of social commitment. At NID, a student was only compared to his or her own benchmark or capability and never with anyone else. Years spent at NID taught me to think as an individual on a broader level and to be purposeful. It opened my mind, broadened my horizons. I also came out with a conviction that design is a team game.
Did your views towards design change after going to NID?
Honestly, I did not have enough understanding of design to form a view before I went to NID. But there, the first thing I learnt was the difference between art and design. I understood that design always has a purpose, a parameter, and a problem to solve.
Who is your inspiration?
Companies like Frog Design influenced us in the 80s. There were some great professors, but they were not in the business. There were some peers and seniors who ran boutique design studios. But there was nobody ahead of us in the field with a dream of large scale, sustainable multi-disciplinary design consulting company. So the excitement was to carve a path, create a benchmark and keep raising the bar of design impact. The Elephant team is my inspiration. My teams are my heroes.
What was the genesis of the name of your company – Elephant Design?
Our name is inspired by the story of the blind men and the elephant. We believe design is a team game. We are always interested in adding another dimension to the process to form a richer, bigger picture. The name has worked well. It has had an excellent recall. It also becomes the icebreaker with most new teams that we meet.
What was the first assignment that the company got?
Our first assignment was a big break. I was in Pune working on my graduation project with the India office of a German multi-national company. As luck may have it, the global head of corporate communications happened to visit India during the time, saw some of the work and offered me a project to work on their international collateral. I took it up saying we will do it as Elephant. That project got us a 100,000 Deutsche Marks that roughly equaled Rs 13 lakh in 1989. In the initial days, a consultancy needs to pick up whatever work that may come its way. That money gave us the confidence to focus on meaningful work where we could bring about a positive impact with design intervention.
We saw decent double digit growth last year. Hopefully the trend will grow.
What are the changes in your sector that you welcome? What do you think needs to be done?
Design being a nascent profession, awareness about the impact of design intervention is very low. There are no measurable tools or any documented case studies that explain how design helped increase profits for a business. Now that there are many design schools in India, we should be able to have better talent and awareness. When the Indian government promotes Make in India, it needs to start with ‘Design in India’. Otherwise we will become a nation of ‘makers’ and not ‘creators’.
I would like to see Indian products and brands becoming globally relevant and successful. I feel Indian design needs to focus on staying relevant to its audience and not get side-tracked by trying to showcase an outsider’s version of ‘Indian’ design.
What are your dreams for Elephant Design and how far have you come to fulfilling it?
We have always worked towards building an institution that transforms lives. The dream was to stay purposeful, make a large and positive impact and lead the way for establishing business of design in India. It took time, but we are quite there. The next dream is to put Indian design on the mainstream global map of design, to make design intervention meaningful to the masses and to use design as a tool for social impact.
How do you nurture your creativity?
The best virtue of a designer is to stay curious and to not be judgmental. I try my best.
You love travelling. Does travel for work give you Me-Time or it is only work?
There is a idiom in Marathi that I grew up with: Kelyane deshatan pandit maitree, sabhet sanchar, manuja chaturya yetase far. It loosely translates to: If you travel the world, meet experts, interact with others, you may become clever yourself!
I never see work as something I need to get away from. I love everything that comes with the profession. Who can complain about getting invited to Cannes for seeing the best work in one’s field and get to also have an opinion on it?
What is on your bucket list? How many have you finished on that so far?
I have travelled across more than 20 odd countries. And maybe 20 more are waiting. I edited a book called Colours of Asia last year, but now want to write one myself. I feel Elephant is an inspirational story that needs to be told. So I am hoping to complete that book soon. Other things from the bucket list will emerge as I go along.