How did you get started in design and learn the skills necessary to your practice? Everything started in design school. I studied graphic design at the National Institute of Design, India, where I was surrounded by designers in various other disciplines. Even though we were divided by departments, being in the same environment and collaborating with my peers enabled me to approach design comprehensively. In terms of expertise, I attribute my teachers and everyone I worked with through my education and career as I tried to expand my skillset.
For my thesis project, I started working as a type designer with Ahmedabad, India–based Indian Type Foundry, where I developed Akhand Devanagari. It’s a typeface that has now been expanded to support India’s eleven writing systems. A version of it called Khand is on Google Fonts. I quickly realized that I loved type design and lettering, but ultimately communication design was what I was really interested in as a broader discipline.
I worked at Itu Chaudhuri Design in New Delhi and then later Codesign in Gurgaon, where I worked on everything from information architecture to environmental branding. I started a studio shortly after that called Struckby, where I partnered with Prateek Upreti, a product designer whom I studied with in design school. We worked on a variety of projects that touched upon branding, type design, motion and product design. After Struckby, I joined Sagmeister and Walsh—which became &Walsh, led by Jessica Walsh—in 2020. It was then that I decided to move to New York.
What have been some challenges and opportunities you found in developing your multidisciplinary approach? It can be really rewarding to be a specialist. You can be the go-to person for that one thing you’re really good at. It becomes a part of your brand, and you get to build a stronger recurring clientele.
You’ve also had an incredibly diverse output, working on everything from identities with design firm &Walsh to illustrating for the New York Times. What have been some of your favorite projects to work on, and what did you learn from them? One project that comes to mind is Plenty, a rebranding project by &Walsh for a vertical farming company. I worked as design lead, and our brief was to communicate how Plenty’s way of vertical farming makes organic produce more flavorful. We made a conscious decision to not dress the brand up in a clinical, scientific way but instead to focus on the taste of the produce and create a brand that speaks about flavor first. We took a lot of cues from junk food packaging and color psychology while creating the palette for Plenty. The final brand had a vivid visual language that used a custom nouveau typeface and saturated colors as a contrasting backdrop for the colors of the actual produce.
I also recently created an illustration for the New York Times’s article “Both of the one of us,” written by Geetanjail Shree and Daisy Rockwell, a writer and a translator respectively, reflecting on their win of the 2022 Booker International Prize for the book Tomb of Sand. It tries to capture the meaning of a quote in Hindi and Urdu that translates to: “Translation is a tricky business—Tedhi Kheer—trickier and twistier than our little jalebis can handle.” I felt like this quote summed up the article and touched upon relevant cultural references.
The idiom “Tedhi Kheer”, which refers to things that are difficult to understand or do, has an old tale behind it: There were two friends, best friends since childhood. One of them was born blind. The other used to help him with his sight, telling him how things looked. Time passed, and they became old. The sighted person invited his blind friend to a dinner in his house. At dinner, there was the dish “kheer.” His friend liked it very much and asked him what the dish was.
His friend said, “This is kheer. It is made of milk, rice, sugar and other ingredients.”
He asked, “What does it look like?”
His friend said, “It is white in color, like a bagula (‘heron’).”
He asked, “What is a bagula?”
His friend said, “A bagula is a bird.”
And then he tried to tell him what a bagula looks like through hand gestures, telling his blind friend to touch his hands to give him an idea of how it looks. The blind man touched his friend’s hands, which he’d made in the shape of a bagula’s neck. He couldn’t understand what his friend was trying to tell him, and he said, “Oh god, this kheer is such a curved thing.”
My illustration intertwined the English and Hindi words for “translation” into the form of a heron to reference the expression.
Tell us about your experiments with NVIDIA’s procedural generation program GauGAN. Since we’ve seen a huge increase in AI-generated art, what are your thoughts on AI as a creative tool? GauGAN was still in its beta stage when I discovered it. It really fascinated me in terms of how it creates images with the help of machine learning. GauGAN works with two neural networks: one is a generator that creates outputs, and the second is a discriminator that compares the output with actual images from the dataset. The final image is created when the discriminator can’t tell which one is real and which is generated.
GauGAN has datasets specifically of landscapes and buildings. I tried creating landscapes with it, and it was like magic: they looked very realistic. GauGAN requires you to draw or paint with colors, and then you can change that color block to be read as textures like grass, sea, sky, houses or rock, among many others. After spending some time with it, I tried drawing shapes that wouldn’t exist in nature and then playing with the color coding. This led to some unexpectedly beautiful results. It was a way of breaking the discriminator neural network to a point where there is no point of comparison from a real image. Ultimately, I started drawing type with it and got images that resemble nature but with letters embedded in them.
The involvement between the artist and the machine is equally distributed in GauGAN. I chalk out parts in the image, making a composition and even hand lettering. In that way, it sits somewhere in between recent AI tools and a completely manual tool. So, in a way, GauGAN was equal parts control and equal parts serendipity.
My relationship with AI art oscillates between extremes. Sometimes, I find myself really overwhelmed by the sheer speed and volume possible with generative imagery. Sometimes, I find myself integrating AI in my workflow seamlessly as if it had always existed. These are my thoughts. Opinions haven’t formed in my mind yet where I can take a stance.
What is the biggest challenge currently facing designers? One challenge I faced after graduating design school was the stark difference between the classroom and how design is practiced in a professional environment. I saw case studies and projects that were truly transformative in how they aimed to benefit society through sustainability, communication, systems and products. In the industry, the opportunity to do those kinds of projects is rare. And I felt uncomfortable by this, a discomfort I’m sure all students feel, because we have to apply our knowledge in a real world scenario that has consequences.
As I have spent most of my career in branding, it was exciting to work with brands and products that we know and use. But I steadily realized that I needed to keep doing projects that were experimental or that I cared about. I also felt like design school focused on the work, but just being able to do great work didn’t guarantee success in the industry. So many more skills had to be learned on the job. Managing group dynamics, client servicing, communication and maintaining relationships with your peers and clients—there is no course that covers those, but they are important parts of working in the industry.
I also struggle with my echo chamber of design or interests in general. When people can heavily control what they interact with and what they can or not experience, novelty is hard to find. I’ve always found inspiration when my mind is empty and has space to conceive of new ideas.
What music or practice gets you into your creative zone? For me, the creative zone is unexpected. It happens when I least expect it, so I have to be ready to commit when it arrives. I do listen to music when I’m doing craft-intensive work, like lettering or type design. Otherwise, I just get distracted and lost in the music. When I’m ideating, I like being silent.
Do you have any advice for designers starting out today? I often think about what helped me be stable and grow in my career when students ask me for advice. Most questions fall into a broad category regarding professional opportunities and landing jobs. I find that question hard to answer, because nobody answered it for me well enough when I was fresh out of school. So, my advice to students is to be true to your interests in a way that you give more importance to what you like rather than someone else defining what you should be doing. While doing so, you must also be objectively self-aware. I found that a lot of my questions were answered in analysis as I discovered areas that I was good at and areas I could improve upon. Being objective in this process is key to avoiding finding yourself in a rat race. ca