Though currently based in San Francisco, communication designer and illustrator Tanya Bhandari is looking forward to returning to India to contribute to the evolving social design scene
When were you drawn to illustration?
I have been drawing ever since I can remember. School notebooks, walls, cupboards, shoes, unsuspecting friends, and even my brother’s face – everything had a little drawing on it. In high school, the highlight of my short-lived science career was to make the most beautiful and detailed diagrams for Biology class. I went on to pursue a Graduate Diploma in Graphic Design from MIT Institute of Design, Pune. Design school continued to encourage an active practice of drawing and illustration, whether it was to hone the skill or the outcome of a project. Currently, I’m experimenting with two extremes – digital illustrations on an iPad and illustrations for lino printing.
What role has formal design education played in your career?
MIT Institute of Design was really helpful in developing a skill and sense for the basics of Graphic Design – that strong primer enabled me to develop ideas and design work easily as I went through internships, graduate school and finally to UNICEF. When I was applying for graduate school, I was looking for something that would help me apply my design skills for some good in the world. I found the Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts, New York and I knew this is what I wanted to do. In retrospect, it was a big risk since it was the first year of the program, but it really ended up being worth it. I learnt how to use design for good – how to understand people, how to design for people, how to be empathetic. I learnt about systemic problems and data visualization and game theory and ethical design. A lot of what we studied had seemed irrelevant at the time, but I realized that I was applying it often later in my work. I got to meet and work with people from all over the world, something that really changed the way I thought about collaboration and openness.
How did you start working with UNICEF?
I know that design is not the thing that’s going to change the world, but there are people in the world who are doing small bits of good and if design can help further that agenda, that’s where I want to be. At the end of graduate school, I made a list of things I wanted to do, and a list of things I never wanted to do again as a designer. That really helped me narrow down the types of places I wanted to work at.
I met a designer who worked at UNICEF, but at the time I didn’t quite understand what role design could play at a place like that. I didn’t think about it too much till I was graduating. I saw a tweet from UNICEF Innovation asking for design applicants for a short project, and even though I knew I wanted to move back to India, I thought there was no harm in applying. Turns out, my friend from graduate school was the one hiring for the position and she asked if I would be okay with doing a short internship. That internship turned into a permanent role and I ended up staying with that incredible team for four and a half years. Through that time, I progressed from being an intern, to senior designer, to design lead.
What was the most challenging part of your time as Design Lead at UNICEF?
I was made Design Lead a lot earlier in my career than I had anticipated. It had to do with the fact that our team was very small, and I had been a part of it when it was being built. I knew how the team and UNICEF worked, how to hire good designers for this space, how to design for an audience that is not used to design – all of this worked in my favor. My biggest challenge with this role came when I had to balance the ‘making’ bit with the ‘managing’ bit. Turned out, there was a lot more administrative work than I had bargained for and my creative output side started to suffer. I spent more time in meetings, reviewing more applications, managing the design team’s time, while trying to figure out what it meant to be a good Design Lead. I was learning a lot of new things, but that also meant not having time to scope myself onto actual design projects. That balance is hard to achieve, especially with a small team where everyone’s roles and time need to be focused on where it is needed.
Which of your projects have made the most impact so far?
My favorite project at UNICEF was the one that took me out of my comfort zone in terms of research, and tested my design boundaries with information overload. ‘Tech Bets for an Urban World’ is a body of work that identifies digital technologies that deliver positive social impact for children and their families in cities, and that also grow markets and deliver financial returns for tech companies and investors. We combined traditional market analysis with a human-centered design approach to our research.
Another project that is close to my heart was in collaboration with the Center for Urban Pedagogy in New York City. I applied for the Public Access Design fellowship, which pairs a designer with a non-profit in order to produce a piece of design work. Working with UnLocal, an organization that seeks to re-imagine the way legal services are delivered to immigrants, we created an information booklet that explains the legal steps of the U.S. immigration process. ‘Rumbo a sutarjetaverde’ is a Spanish-language guide that breaks down the legal steps to becoming a US permanent resident and citizen based on a family relationship.
For the past three years, I have been taking part in the Instagram project – 36 Days of Type. Once a year for a fixed period of time you are challenged to design a letter or number each day. In 2018, I did hand drawn illustrations of plants superimposed on alphabets and numbers – some of the most intense, focused, and satisfying illustration work I have ever done.
What are you looking forward to doing now that you’ve opted for a freelance career?
There’s a lot of stuff that is really exciting and also pretty scary as you start an independent practice. The scary part comes from being used to an office structure, a reporting hierarchy and a pretty good safety net. While those things are rarely there as an independent designer, I feel it’s going to help me really get out of my comfort zone. With that in mind, I have been thinking a lot about what I would really like to do. I would love to spend a large part of my time working as a contractor on multi-discipline projects with social innovation design firms. This would not only fulfill my design brain but also give me some freedom to work on personal projects. I’m also looking forward to doing more traditional publication and illustration design work for non-profits. Other than this, if time permits it would be great to finally get to my laundry list of personal projects.
Is there more scope for the type of design you want to do in India?
I do plan on returning and working in India. I found myself working for a lot of our country offices at UNICEF and it always ended up with our teams having to learn a lot about the culture and people before even thinking about problem solving. While this is true of any big design project, I felt like it was never enough to be able to design for a place that I had very little understanding of. I firmly believe that social design is very much rooted in big problems that need a lot of context in order to design for. The scope for this multi-disciplinary design work is immense in India. As more and more companies realize this and start to build in-house design teams, the next ten years of design in India are going to be really explosive and interesting. And I would love to be a part of this rapidly growing industry.
What are your immediate aspirations?
When I think about the next ten years I see myself traveling to different places in the world to be a part of social design projects. I would love to work on one long design project in India, something in affiliation with the government that I know will be implemented and will create change. Besides this, I also see myself making a lot of things with my hands – illustrations, prints, ceramics, etc. I want to make and do work that is not just satisfying, but also useful in the grand scheme of things.
This article was originally published in POOL 103.
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