Over the last three decades graphic designer Gargi Sharma has experienced the design field both as an enterprising risk taker and a more settled corporate professional. As Principal Designer/ Proprietor of Changing Sky, she’s back in entrepreneur mode, and quite enjoying the challenges of being her own boss!
What drew you to design?
My early years (the formative seven) were spent with my grandparents. My grandfather, who did his graduation from the IISc, Bangalore under none other than C.V. Raman, instilled in me his love for Physics and Maths; while my grandmother inspired me with her oil paintings and exquisite embroidery. I did not realize till much later that together they had sown in me the seeds of design and brought me to the juncture of Science and Art. And finally it was my Art teacher at Welham Girls School in Dehradun who gave it a name – Design – and showed me the road to National Institute of Design.
I was fortunate to be at National Institute of Design (where I pursued an integrated Master’s program, majoring in Visual Communications) during its golden era and have all the Design Gurus teach us – Kumar Vyas, Mahendra Patel, Vikas Satwalekar, Mohan Bhandari, I S Mathur, Ashoke Chatterjee, Nina Sabnani, S M Shah, Mookesh Patel, Jayanti Naik, Nilam Iyer, Subrata Bhowmick, Jan Baker, M P Ranjan, Manu Gajjar, Narendra Bhai, Jadliwala and so many others. Clearly, without the guidance of such illustrious teachers I would not even have imagined a career in design! I owe it to them.
Tell us about setting up Elephant Design. What were the challenges you encountered?
Elephant Design was started in 1989 by six fresh graduates of National Institute of Design. All of us had worked in Mumbai, and chose Pune to give shape to our dreams and ‘jumbo’ ideas,as it was close enough to service Mumbai customers but allowed us better lifestyles than living in the financial capital could.
We were like the five blind men around the elephant, exploring, interpreting and putting it together into one whole animal. We gave all of ourselves towards one goal – establishing India’s premier design practice.
When we founded Elephant Design, the understanding of the design profession in our country was limited to ‘fashion design’. So the greatest challenge was to establish ‘our world’ of design. We had to educate all our prospects about how Graphic Design differed from Advertising, and what it could do for them. It was rather frustrating at the start. We aspired to deliver Integrated Communications solutions and mostly ended doing annual reports or calendars that adorned desks and walls! Another big challenge was that after five and a half years at National Institute of Design, we had no understanding of finance and business, of making proposals and quotations, or of ensuring timely recoveries. In fact, we celebrated our first cheque, only to learn the next day that it had bounced! But on the flip side, we all did our Exec MBAs on the job and built some memorable case-studies as we went along.
How would you compare entrepreneurship versus working in industry?
After 15 years at Elephant, I held corporate roles in the IT industry – headed Design Services at TCS; and was VP – Corporate Marketing and Communications at Geometric (now part of HCL Technologies).
I was fortunate to have had the best of bosses in both places – they believed in empowerment, and trusted me with my own decisions. Which brings me to the greatest positive of being an entrepreneur – you are your own boss! However, this is a double- edged sword in disguise, as the accountability of the organization lies fully on you. All difficult situations end with you, and you need to be the master planner at all times. Secondly, entrepreneurship requires exceptionally high levels of self-motivation and endurance, especially if you are on your own. Having partners can sometimes make the journey easier, but then it requires additional inter-personal skills to keep it going, just like a marriage.
Entrepreneurial ventures can demand of you – anytime and anywhere, whereas in an industry job, you can work the stipulated hours and go back home, feeling content with what you delivered during the day. My most peaceful holidays have in fact been when I was in industry and was able to completely go off the grid! But then you can enjoy work and time flexibility of a very different kind in an entrepreneurship, which a job can never provide.
Lastly, an industry job has the concept of ‘given’; you are provided with all that you need – a team, infrastructure, systems and processes, support functional needs, and work which you have to deliver. In an entrepreneurship, you have to build it all for yourself and look for work too, and may find yourself firefighting and troubleshooting even for trivial matters like the internet being down, let alone bigger concerns about cash flows for timely salaries! Each is exciting, in its own way!
How did Changing Sky come about?
At a recent book launch for which we had designed the cover, a friend called me a ‘serial entrepreneur’. It made me think… once an entrepreneur, always one! Changing Sky, my third entrepreneurial venture, took birth in a part of my home. When I started it, the one primary imperative was to improve my work-life balance and be available for my growing children. Besides resonating with my personal life at that time, the name ’Changing Sky’ aptly described what we do for our customers by way of expanding their markets. It was somewhat scary to be starting out after having enjoyed the comfort cushions of corporate jobs, but I believe my optimism showed me the way.
Which projects have brought you the most satisfaction?
As part of Elephant Design, I started an enterprise called Virtual Elephant Pvt. Ltd. way back in 2000, with active participation of my dear friend and National Institute of Design batch mate, Shibani. The company was focused on new media and did everything from HMI, UX and UI (in those days it was called GUIs) to websites, CMS portals, multi-media, animation, and e-learning for both domestic and international customers. It was way ahead of its time with an amazing potential of growth – and the team was absolutely brilliant. We designed the first touch-screen kiosk in the Indian retail environment for Bajaj Auto, which won us some accolades and awards. Unfortunately the enterprise shut down prematurely after I left Elephant.
Another project was the design of the coffee- table book – Pune, Queen of the Deccan – as part of Elephant’s 10th year celebration. It became Pune’s official souvenir and was a huge sense of pride in terms of giving back to the city that had given us so much! TCS was another big feel good, as despite
the organization being engaged with Wally Olins and Siegel+Gale, my team designed the first set of brand guidelines for TCS that were implemented all across the globe. Geometric was an even bigger deal, as my team rebranded the company after successful integration of multiple acquisitions across the globe.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity of working on many Indian food packaging brands, some very local and traditional, while others have grown global. I have thoroughly enjoyed satiating Indian palates with the vibrancy of Indian color palettes. In terms of products, we have worked on water, milk, oil, atta, a wide range of packaged food and drinks and even health supplements! It’s wonderful to see these products on the shelves, but there’s a huge sense of pride to see them at international fairs and stores. Some of the visible brands in the Indian marketplace are Suhana spices and food mixes, Mapro’s fruit based products, Falero Candy, Mazaana Chocolates, Dinshaw’s Ice Cream, Guruji Thandai, Chitale Bandhu Mithai, Nilon’s Pickles,Wagh Bakri tea, and Parachute coconut oil. The Mapro rebranding and packaging won the 2012 Rebrand award and was a cool feather in our caps.
Last year, we did the branding and graphics for the WTA 125K Challenger Series Tournament in Mumbai. It felt good to be contributing towards putting India on the global map.
Closest to my heart is our work for the social and health sectors, including Nasofilters, Accessability, Ekansh, and NCPEDP (for Helen Keller and Universal Design Awards).
What, in your opinion, is the role of design in building a brand?
In today’s times brands are all about ‘experiences’, and design is probably the most significant means of creating a differentiated and memorable experience.
How would you define a successful designer?
That is a difficult generalization to make! Being a successful designer means different things to different people. My design education taught me to observe and appreciate without judging. But having said that, I would say that a successful designer is a ‘successful professional’ who has demonstrated empathy towards fellow beings, the environment, and the world at large.
What does it take to lead a team of designers?
Most times, I give complete creative freedom to ensure fresh thought, but continue to steer the overall thought process, so that the output doesn’t go too far from the customer expectation, and we can meet the deadline! This can be tough with new team members, who are constantly trying to prove themselves and looking for ways to be heard. On my part, this takes a little more patience and some more articulation of the world-view, till we reach common ground. Sometimes, this may not happen and then my seniority comes in handy. Working certainly gets easier over time, as comfort and respect builds for each other’s way of working. At times, the fact that I teach young people helps me in accepting radical views. My mantra is to instill self confidence in the team-members, to let them explore, and they will almost always out-perform.
How do you balance teaching with your professional pursuits?
Teaching sojourns are a luxury that I allow myself, as they are my means to recharge. The exuberant energy of the young students rubs off on me and teaching turns into a truly symbiotic experience. Pedagogy has evolved over time, and I get to learn a lot with the millennials who have phenomenal digital tools and devices, and to top everything – the know all, Google, whereas we just about touched the Macintosh SE in our student days, and spent most of our time with the books in the Resource Centre. The academic environment gives me an opportunity to reflect and reinvent, and come back to my work refreshed! This is also the reason why I particularly enjoy working with startups. The energy is truly infectious and congenial to a fertile imagination!
What would you advise youngsters pursuing a career in design today?
The competition has increased hugely in current times. The talent out there
is completely mind-boggling, but the opportunities for designers have also expanded exponentially as design has not only come of age, but also found its way into every nook and corner of our lives. Young designers today are used to seeing instant results due to the digital invasion, and hence my advice to them would be to approach their careers like a sportsman/woman would – and just keep at it! There is no alternative to discipline, hard work and perseverance for reaching the top. Additionally, if they can hone their skills of sensitivity, integrity and empathy, they will have all it takes to
This story was originally published in POOL 96.
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