You previously worked at Grandmother India and Pentagram. What lessons did you absorb during your time at these two firms? I went to design school with the idea of becoming an animator—animation is taught at design schools in India. Soon enough, I became more interested in graphic design, but I didn’t understand how the industry worked. Grandmother was my first professional experience, so when I started there, it was all new for me. I didn’t know what big branding was, what client meetings were like, how pricing works... none of the “real world” business stuff. Kurnal Rawat, the director of Grandmother, was instrumental in my career. He trusted me to handle an entire project by myself, and he was the first person to tell me how buying and licensing fonts works.
Pentagram was a different ball game altogether. I worked for Abbott Miller, one of my heroes and one of the reasons why I applied to the Maryland Institute College of Art for my MFA in the first place. I was a small cog in a very large machine. But his office had an archive of all the projects his team has been involved in since the beginning—all the issues of Twice and Dance Ink and all kinds of documentation, sketches and process notes for books, identities and exhibitions his team has made. After office hours, I was allowed to sit there and devour it all. It was a dream come true.
You’ve said that you think it is a great time to be a designer in India. Why? Indian graphic design of the ’60s through the ’80s was wholly original, drawing from modern Indian art movements and cinema, unfazed by the predominant modernism of the rest of the world. But the advent of the computer changed all that. The coming of the computer was a great boon to graphic design everywhere—but in India, it was quite the opposite. Design suddenly became easy, and the rise of desktop publishing operators greatly diminished the overall graphic landscape of our cities. Globalization came with extreme westernization, and slowly, the “Indian-ness” got lost. Now, in recent years, there has been a visible unease among young Indian designers and students in following westernized ideas and aesthetics.
Although we have to acknowledge that the world is now more of a melting pot than ever before, with disparate cultures borrowing from each other, it has become even more imperative for us to bring something original to the table. Illustrators like Sameer Kulavoor and Orijit Sen; Dekho, the brilliant book about contemporary Indian design, by Gurgaon, India–based design firm Codesign; and the films of director Anurag Kashyap have all inspired this quest to look for our Indian-ness again—not only a visual style, but also as a fundamental school of thought.
This is an exciting time for us, and I’m glad I am a part of it.
You’re a fan of cinema. Which films have most impacted your work and style? If I didn’t become a designer, I think I would’ve tried to make films. As a graphic designer, I work with pacing, narrative, visual style, and the relationship between form and content, just as a filmmaker would. Films also inspired me to question my own style of working, to define where my personality and voice comes through in my work. In this regard, I find I am most interested by filmmakers who have stronger ideologies and personal styles than more mainstream directors.
David Lynch’s obsession with a past aesthetic—specifically suburban 1950s America—speaks to my own obsession with past subcultures. I’m very interested in the graphic design of predigital India—especially regional arts magazines—as well as punk, old-school hip-hop, the Bengali renaissance, people’s movements, and the No Wave 1970s movement, just to name a few. Lynch’s work and referencing of times past is not nostalgic or revivalist. It is more like repositioning and recontextualizing.
Govind Nihalani and Anurag Kashyap both fight against the established mainstream system to find an original voice. I find a higher purpose in their work, which looks not only at personal success/growth and commercial gain, but also at the overall influence of their choices on the future of Indian cinema. This makes their work more explicitly political than that of their contemporaries. Their visual style and aesthetic is also very rooted in Indian-ness in a way that most filmmakers’ works aren’t. Graphic designers of my generation in India are constantly looking to find our own Indian-ness after decades of westernized work. Nihalani’s and Kashyap’s films push me further in that quest.
Michael Mann’s films are lessons in cool. There is a sense of absolute control in his films; every decision seems like the result of obsessive perfection. Since commercial graphic design and typeface design can’t be purely conceptual, execution of ideas is as important as the ideas themselves. Mann’s films are great examples of where the execution inspires as much study as the ideas.
What excites you most about working in the field of design right now? The fact that personal expression in commercial design is getting more pronounced. Modernism was about removing the designer from the design and the propagation of the problem/solution formula. The postmodernists rebelled against this ideology and found new ways to express personal ideas and ideologies through their work, leading to things like grunge typography. Then the late ’90s and the advent of the web brought back an interest in modernist principles. Now once again, designers have started exerting experimental, more subjective visual styles. It is important for designers to ask, “Where am I in my work?” It is important to break away from the banal problem/solution model and create work that is free and meaningful rather than “functional” and devoid of emotion.
What advice do you have for a type designer who is just starting out? Draw the letterforms you want to see exist, and do not try to imitate another typeface’s success. This happens all the time. When Gotham became enormously successful, there were suddenly a slew of Gotham-like typefaces. This is only natural, but there’s no bigger waste of someone’s time than trying to imitate another typeface’s commercial success. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t explore genres that have been explored already—the beauty of type design is in exploring existing genres and finding new expression in them. I’m talking about mindlessly following trends. Seek out the reason for your typeface’s existence: What does it do aesthetically, functionally and conceptually? The intention and earnestness behind a typeface’s creation is most important.