My initiation into "art/design" was a painful
process that lasted nearly two years. Design school
was unlike anything I had ever known before - the fashionably
casual/western dress style, anglicized lingo where nicknames
&/or abbreviations were instantly awarded, a nearly
1:1 male-to-female ratio [reflected in the prolific
pairing-up], first-name address for distinguished-looking
professors, and the far higher standards of disposable
income, brands & lifestyle than my own - all these
formed a challenge to my [comparatively] provincial,
conservative and sexually-repressed middle-class background.
No wonder then that my first reaction was of extreme
I struggled to come to terms with this
elite bohemian culture, tempted by its seductive sensuality
and glamour, repulsed by its hedonism and disconnect
from the local culture. Eventually, what helped was
just good work. I was fortunate in having the right
mix of skills & aptitude - earning me the respect
of my peers, who gradually began accepting me the way
I was. I drew well, I was strong on theory as well as
creativity, I dressed to reflect my middle-class roots,
I was outspoken and political, I offered blunt but fair
critiques. I had arrived.
Working freelance was my first experience of professional
isolation - brought about in part by sheer physical
distance from one's peers, in part by the new element
of competitiveness [and hence confidentiality] into
our relationship. At that time, however, it did not
feel repressive - I remember the thrill at being able
to buy my chums dinner, and I regularly visited the
local British Library to keep abreast of changes &
developments around the world, since there was no Indian
publication on design then [there still isn't!].
I walked into a design-saturated ambience with my first
job. There were bookshelves loaded with design books
& magazines, posters of design classics, the workspace
was customized for a designer, there were ample supplies
of expensive and high-quality design materials-there
was even a computer loaded with AutoCAD. However, the
internet and e-mail weren't around yet.
The "image drives reality"
axiom really worked, and being high on design appeared
to persuade potential clients of our abilities and passion.
I was to work on more than a dozen successful industrial
design assignments in this job, many of which are still
in production and continue to earn significant profits
for our clients.
For the first time, I was initiated
into client service/ socializing, and I found out that
I simply hated it. I also undertook my first air travel
and 5-star hotel stay on work - the delightful perks
that come with high-end consulting - and learnt to appear
However, this job resulted in a significant
decrease in communing with peers, since there was virtually
no time for it, and the competitive pressure was far
more real. This was partially compensated by increased
access to international design books & magazines
- in a sense, connecting with the global design practice.
My response was to begin teaching occasionally at my
institute - and thereby maintain contact with my local
Shift of focus & client-set
When I shifted from industrial design to illustration
and communication design - and from profit making corporate
clients to non-government community organisations, I
discovered an almost spiritual fit with my middle-class
values and ethics as well as lifestyle choices. I turned
anti-"design" with a vengeance - to exemplify
the social and political value of design and challenge
its popular perception as an elite and glamourous profession.
I pushed thrift to the limit, dressing down and using
the most basic tools I could find. ["a good idea
is independent of the resources available"]
I found while I earned a lot of respect
from my peers for my career shift, there were very few
who were "peers" in the true sense. I found
a new community amongst social entrepreneurs who founded
and ran community organisations, and who were highly
resourceful and creative in their own ways. My concept
of "creativity" enlarged from being pegged
to "design" to something much larger and open-ended.
I found life amongst the NGO-set too rigourous, so I
repositioned myself midway between social work and hothouse
design. I must assert here that academia continued to
provide a strong bridge across these almost contradictory
My second avatar in for-profit design
was as creative director with an internationally-renown
advertising company's specialist design/branding division.
This provided me and my co-founders with the opportunity
to fashion an entire organisation in our own vision,
and the first thing we did was to reposition it as a
strategic consultancy in an attempt to establish our
intellectual & conceptual capabilities. We tried
to reflect this in our corporate brochure, the orientation
given to fresh recruits, and the system of internal
critiques and debates.
I broke ground by giving young designers
independent charge of projects - with the rest of the
team including myself on standby as resources. I played
father figure, devil's advocate/ provocateur, troubleshooter
& assistant, lobbyist & negotiator, guide, teacher
and mentor. I insured against creative blocks &/or
inadequacies by initiating collective brainstorming
& ideation at the outset of every project - thus
rescuing individuals from the threat of having to produce
miracles at impossibly short notice. It worked, and
we achieved a very high degree of staff-to-profit ratio
within the first year.
However, I maintained a distinct divide
between my professional and personal life, and refused
to let the two mingle - probably driven by my general
lack of personal respect for and/or identification with
my professional peers!
I was now a senior, and in a powerful
and influential position. I attempted to engage with
my institute in this capacity but got little response
- bringing in a greater communication focus and strategic
perspective did not appeal to them; they were quite
satisfied with classical design education, thank you.
However, the other institutes that I was teaching at
were far more enthusiastic.
I helped refocus a course on Environmental
Education from its distinctly Graphic Design dominance
towards effective communication. I was able to introduce
a module on copy writing in a course on digital portfolio
design at a fashion school. And I was able to elevate
the module on design offered at a communication/ media
planning course to strategic branding & identity,
with graphic design posited as the craft that helped
achieved the end. Most significantly,
I helped a new design school flesh out and offer a year-long
course on "Social Communication" - a new and
valuable evolution in the teaching of design in India.
The receptiveness of these institutes reflects their
eagerness to keep abreast of latest trends & practices-
and the competitiveness in design education.
My third avatar as independent professional was far
more assured than the earlier two. I was now on confident
ground - from within and without. I configured my workplace
to be minimal, yet drawing upon the latest technologies
[by now I was almost entirely working on computers,
and communicating over the internet and e-mail].
Owing to the difference in perceptions
between my alma mater and me on my capacity to contribute,
I minimized interactions with it. However, I made up
for it by teaching frequently at other institutes, building
a modest but rich library, and commissioning a number
of design students and young professionals - thereby
encouraging a mini-community of my own. Being professionally
self-assured, I was able to dismantle many secrecy/
confidentiality barriers and hence enhance the quality
of our interaction.
I found my opinions being sought and
valued by diverse businesses in areas beyond "design,"
and I knew that I had turned into a "consultant."
On the other hand, I was feeling the lack of serious
intellectual & creative challenge - and dealt with
it by farming out many discrete design tasks to students
or fresh designers, making friends with them and keeping
in touch with their worlds.
My shift to full time academia was in response to the
plateauing I felt in my professional life. I consider
myself extremely fortunate to find a position with a
design school located in the pleasant environs of Bangalore.
Being a small school, they were totally open and flexible
about the curriculum - which is a good as well as not-so-good
thing for the students. However, this was just what
I needed - and I joined the process of reinventing the
academy as a place that generates valuable knowledge.
This school was special in that its
leadership was entirely female, and this seemed to influence
the work culture inside-out. Instead of a competitive
or even aggressive performance focus, the focus was
more on emotional nurturing and enabling. This took
me a while to figure out [having never been in such
a work ethos], but once I did, I 'flowed' with it. Of
course, I have my differences over issues of standards
and quality ["appreciative criticism is fine, but
does it produce outstanding creativity?"], but
I do concede that this way of working has far too many
advantages over the conventional.
I intended to keep one foot each in
professional and academic design but ended up spending
my entire time in teaching or working on my research
interests - which includes exploring and defining what
my research interests are in the first place. I have
rediscovered challenge in the form of research, and
I feel excited after a long time about taking it on
- in fact, I am looking for a suitable Ph.D. program
to help me get there. Simultaneously, I work in a group
that is spearheading research in a dedicated and rigourous
Looking back, I realize that I've moved along the classic
trajectory - from student to a successful professional,
to a teacher and academic, and could well move into
areas of policy. Not that I harbour any such ambitions,
but my passion for design could well draw me into helping
shape and define policy - if the opportunity arose.
At the same time, I am deeply aware that my roots lie
in my craft, and cutting off from them could leave me
directionless, purposeless and meaningless.