Design is an investment : Elephant's Ashwini Deshpande

Ashwini Deshpande is the founder, director, and principal architect  of  Elephant Strategy + Design . Its India’s one of the largest independent pioneering  design consultancy in India.  They have been  one of the key forces instrumental  in establishing the business of design in India since 1989. Ashwini is an  alumni of  National Institute of Design, India. As a trained Graphic Designer from National Institute of Design, Ashwini embarked upon the unexplored sector of design entrepreneurship in 1989. As India’s largest independent design consultancy, Elephant Design has played a pivotal role in establishing the business for over 21 years. Elephant' Design's work has been recognized by several international bodies  including ReBrand International, Asiastar Packaging Excellence, International Spark, Global Green Gadgets etc. Ashwini has lead experiential branding, packaging & retail projects for some of the leading brands ranging from Britannia, P&G, Unilever, Titan and Nirlep.

Since Ashwini is one of  the initial few who have champioined  the domain of design  hence she is very much sought  after  in the Indian and Internatioinal circuit to speak on the same. Ashwini’s speaking engagements include National Conference of AIGA at Boston, Icograda Design Week in Istanbul and The India Innovation Summit at Bangalore, CII-NID Design Summits at Bangalore & Delhi. She has been a guest lecturer at premier Indian institutes including IIM, NIFT, MICA, American University in Lebanon and the Duke University USA. She has visited more than 20 countries as a guest speaker, jury or workshop leader.

HP features her as their brand ambassador for colour printers in India. She is also  on the Asian Paints Style Leaders ColourNext Panel.

Ashwini divides her time between teaching, pro bono work and professional consultancy to help products & services become relevant in the emerging markets.

At Elephant Strategy + Design they believe  in creating brand experiences that engage and transform people. Their work is intended towards envisioning an innovative , relevant and differentiated future for their clients.

Adgully caught up with the multifaceted lady ,Ashwini Deshpande to talk about  Elephant Design her labour of love, challenges , aspirations, her views on being a professional  and her stature in the industry. Her answers are very inspiring. This is what she had to say:

Adgully (AG): According to you while setting up a media/creative agency entrepreneurs face tremendous challenges. What according to you are those challenges?

Ashwini Deshpande (AD): When I co-founded Elephant in 1989, design as a profession was very nascent. There were some boutique design studios, but there was no multi-disciplinary, professionally run design company in India. Neither industry at large nor the creative industry had much experience and (therefore) faith in how design thinking could make a positive difference. “Design” was a highly misunderstood word. No client had faced an item called “design fees” in their budgets or expenses. So the challenge was that of “concept selling” the practice of design consultancy. We have spent much of our 23 years in propagating value of design thinking & design led solutions to clients, associates and users of design.

Getting the best talent that comes out of premier design institutes is a challenge as the brightest minds either become entrepreneurs themselves or go overseas for education & exposure. But with years of consistent good work & good practices, Elephant is a brand that clearly attracts very talented people from design as well as management backgrounds.

AG: How according to you is it possible to strike a balance between business and creativity?

AD: I never see business interests coming in the way of a creative solution because both their goals are essentially the same. Design answers a need, solves a challenge or a problem for the user. There is no place for self-expression or abstract creativity unless it actually adds value to the solution.  Design thinking is a fair balance of right & left brain. While the insights, inferences & strategy have to be analytical, the solution needs to be a synthesis of unique, relevant and creative.

AG: Your company believes in creating brand experiences that engage and transform people. What are your views on this?

AD: At Elephant, we believe good design is about creating positive experiences for people. Whether it is a product, brand or a space, we believe it needs to make a positive difference to the user.

So one of the most critical factors is to understand the user & get rich insights that lead to innovative ideas. We use tools & processes that ensure that the idea goes through all the filters necessary for making it a winning idea.  

AG: How much competition and what kind of challenges do you face in your field of work?

AD: Surprisingly, there is no other independent strategic design consultancy of the scale & experience in India. There are many small & mid-sized design companies as well as some well known ones from global alliances that operate in variety of competencies. We do face competition from them occasionally. The bigger challenge is in getting the industry to look at design as a capital investment and not a marketing expense.

AG: What is the growth foreseen in this industry and how is international exposure helping to expand the business?

AD: Early on, we were clear that our learning could be sharpened only through international exposure and alliances since there was no benchmark to look up to inIndia. We have consciously been giving international exposure to our teams. We represent India at the Design Alliance Asia, a network of design companies from 13 Asian countries. We were the first Indian company to sign MoU with npk, a Dutch design company and also got to partner with Continuum Innovation consultancy from USA.

We have seen benefits on two fronts. You can grow far & wide only when your roots are firmly in place.  With the Design Alliance, we are able to reflect cultural empathy in our work as we learnt to appreciate tremendous value in being rooted.

With our international exposure & access, we have developed the ability to convert global values into something that is valued by Indians.

As a result, when multinational companies like Daimler, Nissan, P&G, Bausch+Lomb, Heinz, Dulux etc decide to create something very specific for India, they recognize our expertise in understanding the user, market ethos & believe in our appropriacy of strategy for India.

Now with Elephant Delhi firmly established and Elephant Singapore taking wings, we also have the advantage of richer strategic offerings and reach.

AG: What factors have contributed towards the success that you see today in your journey since the inception of the company?

AD: I think we are very earnest about adding value by design. We work on projects where we can add genuine value. Recently I heard a Chairman of a large company saying he never pats anyone on the back for getting their first project from a client. But he hugely appreciates the team when they get their second project from that same client.

I am happy & proud that many of our client associations are well over 10 years and some like Symphony & Nirlep go as far back as 20 years!

AG: Many of the global giants have been developing products for India. The latest in line is IKEA. What are your views regarding their strategy plans for India?

AD: There was a time when an international brand could come to India and get it right if the pricing was right. But we are not in that phase anymore. It is not just about affordability. We want objects & services that suit our lifestyle. We have become a country of demanding consumers. We have a voice, we tweet, blog & socialize with growing fervor. We talk about what we like or dislike.

So IKEA may have to localize or even develop specific products for India; something I believe they do not do in any other country.

AG: In your leisure time what are the hobbies you indulge in and any particular genre of books that you like to read?

AD: I really love what I do. I like to travel. I have travelled to more than 20 countries for work or for speaking/ jury invitations. I have been the face of Indian design at some of the biggest platforms including Rockefeller Foundation, Danish Design Foundation, ICOGRADA & AIGA.

When I see the entire Elephant team at our Monday Morning Meeting, I get all the positive energy I need. Honestly, I don’t need another hobby as work does not stress me out.

I just finished reading Bossypants by Tina Fey (Liz Lemon of 30 Rock) and realized how much I identify with satire and I am looking forward to more of such reading…

AG: The women of today especially metros and big cities have evolved rapidly and they are seen as key decision makers. What would you attribute this change to?

AD: Nuclear families, high cost of living in metros leading to working couples, growing up having a working mother, growing up as single child or with just one sibling getting equal opportunities in education & exposure…  

AG: As for women professionals in media would you say they have some inherent characteristics that make them excel in business?

AD: There is really nothing to prove in the domain of design as women lead most of the top design companies in India. Also, I am not in favor of such comparisons as it makes women sound wannabe which is not the case at all. I am an equalist.

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