Growing up in Aurangabad, Ashwini Deshpande hadn’t ever seen design as a natural career choice. It was her aunt, a corporate communications specialist for an MNC, who believed she should look at a wider canvas. “My aunt had worked with a few designers and thought NID was the place for me to grow,” she says. Deshpande applied and recalling that time almost 27 years later, still seems amazed that she got through at the prestigious institute. “Amazingly, I got admission after a nationwide entrance and interview in 1983,” she recalls.
Elephant Strategy + Design was launched as a multi-disciplinary design consultancy in 1989 by a bunch of fresh faced NID graduates which included Deshpande, her (soon- to- be husband) Ashish Deshpande, Partho Guha, Sudhir Sharma, Gargi Sharma and Vineet Limaye. She explains, “When we started Elephant, each one of us brought our own specialisation and our own perspectives. We were like blind people touching the elephant and discovering it to be a wall, a rope, a fan, a snake, a tree trunk, a spear… It’s only when we pieced our individual perspectives together that we would see the big picture.”
She recalls, “We used to read about Frog Design and Pentagram. Those were inspiring stories of collaborative interdisciplinary work. We had a collective belief that design is teamwork and that sum total of working together would be much more than adding up individual work. I continue to believe that all of us matured as designers because we worked in a collaborative, co-creative atmosphere.” Deshpande’s first big break came while she was doing her graduation project with a German company in Pune. She says, “I designed a whole lot of collateral for them. The global corporate communications head of this company saw the work and offered me a project to design their global corporate brochure and audio-visual that would be used across 13 countries. As for compensation, he was apologetic that his budget was just a hundred thousand Deutsche Marks.”
That first big break was worth a tidy amount to start Elephant, recalls Deshpande. It also gave them the confidence to hold out for interesting projects. “The money from our first project gave us the confidence to refuse work that did not seem worthwhile,” she says. They did quite a few international scale exhibitions, some product design and a trade magazine at the start. They also “got wiser with a few bounced cheques.” Real growth, according to Deshpande, really started in the mid-nineties after the Indian economy opened out. “This was a time when Indian companies started to compete with global ones on parity of products, technology, service and differentiation,” she says. It’s also when India got its first retail bank in the form of ICICI Bank. Elephant designed the user experience for the brand. “We designed India’s first automobile retail standardisation programme for Bajaj Auto. We designed India’s first user-friendly all plastic geyser for Symphony. We also designed a lot of medical devices that became import substitutes for India,” she adds. Elephant set up its second agency Brand Planet Elephant two years ago. Deshpande says the recent global downturn was an opportunity for the Indian design landscape with global brands finally taking the potential of the Indian consumer base seriously.
She explains, “They started thinking about developing products and brands specifically for India.This benefitted us as we are the homegrown team that brings real Indian insights. We gained more than ten new clients last year including Akzonobel-Dulux, Allied Breweries and Distilleries, CEAT, Colgate Palmolive, Mahindra Powerol, Sakal Media Group, Abbott, MVW among others.” A common view on Indian design from foreign designers abroad is that Indian design tends to be derivative, borrowing from Western design sensibilities. Deshpande has strong views on the subject. She says, “I don’t see why we need to design in a manner that convinces designers from the west about our roots. India has been the most flexible, welcoming and all-encompassing culture for centuries. I am an Indian, I studied design in India and I have practised it for 21 years. Can I do anything that is not Indian inside? I don’t see the need to overtly place a paisley on the wall or use hot pink in the logo to make overt statements about being Indian.”
What does she have to say about competing with advertising agencies, which also offer design capabilities? “I think it is important to draw a line between specialisations. Evolved clients understand the difference between advertising agencies that ‘also’ do design and design agencies that ‘only’ do design. We just need to become as visible and accessible,” she contends. “Today, it is acknowledged that design thinking can be used to identify newer opportunities in business to strengthen and increase brand value. We did a corporate identity programme for Venky’s last year, helped streamline the business verticals and arrived at newer business opportunities.” As for recent work from Elephant that Deshpande is particularly proud of, she says it would be their work for Piramal’s Lacto Calamine and Britannia’s ‘Zindagi mein Life’ and packaging work for Dulux Velvet Touch, Britannia TimePass and Britannia NutriChoice Diabetic Essentials and retail design for Titan Eye+.
On staying relevant, she says, “Everyone at Elephant is encouraged to go out and observe users or shadow customers at retail. We are constantly searching for the next insight, next technology, next material or next software that would help us achieve user delight in design.”
1989 to Present Founder director and Principal designer, Elephant Strategy + Design