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India’s First Design Agency Was Born Out of the Resolve of Three College Kids in ’89

On 1 May, India’s first design agency, the Pune-based Elephant Design, celebrates its 32nd year in business. It has seen them give life to household products and brands like Britannia Marie Gold, Tata Salt, Gillette Guard, Kurkure, ICICI Bank, Paper Boat, Viacom18, Uber, amongst others.

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When National Institute of Design (NID) batchmates Ashwini Deshpande, Partho Guha and Ashish Deshpande visited a Chartered Accountant (CA) in 1989 to understand the process of registering their company, Elephant Design, they were in for a shock.

The CA advised them to start a partnership company instead of a private limited one because the latter was “very difficult to dissolve”. In other words, the CA was sure as daylight that the company would close shop in no time. On 1 May, this pioneering design agency celebrates its 32nd year in the business which has seen them give life to household products and brands like Britannia Marie Gold, Tata Salt, Gillette Guard, Kurkure, ICICI Bank, Paper Boat, Viacom18, Uber, Amazon Easy and Indian Super League (ISL), amongst others.

“We have designed every single product for Symphony, the world’s largest air cooler brand for over 30 years. Ashish was invited to be on the Board of this listed company last year. There could not be a better testimony to the value added by design,” says co-founder Ashwini Deshpande, in an exclusive conversation with The Better India.

The company describes itself as a “design-led strategic consultancy that collaborates with organisations to develop meaningful and sustainable brands”. Currently, they have a multi-disciplinary and highly collaborative team of more than 70 designers and strategists, who have successfully completed over 2,500 projects across diverse domains and regions. From their headquarters in Pune, the company has expanded their base to Singapore.

“It is true that our work, or for that matter design as an act itself, is rarely acknowledged. Design of everyday brands and objects and services is not meant to be overt. We have worked with every industry sector. Suffice to say that you would not pass even a remote village without coming across at least one brand touched by Elephant. And you will have at least one brand designed by Elephant in your regular grocery list,” claims Ashwini.

The Pune-based company’s stellar work has been recognised at several national and international platforms for design work such as Rebrand International (USA), Spark Awards (USA), ‘A’ Design Awards (Italy), Asiastar Packaging (Singapore), Design for Asia (Hong Kong), Brand Equity Rankings (India) and many more.

Starting Out of Their Hostel Trunks

“It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when we came up with the idea of starting a design consultancy. Perhaps it was in early 1988 when we were undergoing a module on Design Management and Professional Practice. As part of the group exercise, we were preparing a project report on starting a design practice. It was complete with fixed costs, recurring costs, licenses and registration fees, etc. It was also the time to start thinking about life after NID,” recalls Ashwini.

She adds, “Design education was limited to NID Ahmedabad and IDC at IIT Mumbai. Less than 50 design students graduating annually was not enough to make a difference in the ever-growing world of the Indian industry. There were no large-scale design consultancies and design was not considered a scalable or sustainable business. It all came together into an idea of starting our own design practice and building it to scale.”

She admits to spending endless nights on top of the giant campus water tank discussing what they would call their practice.

“We spent more time thinking about the name than wondering what work we would get or how. We were quite sure about design being a team game. That is when the parable of blind men and the elephant suddenly flashed before us and made perfect sense. Each of us was holding our shiny piece of the jigsaw puzzle. As a result, we were looking for our graduation projects at that time. Each of us chose our projects consciously, knowing we would combine our experiences when we got together after graduation in 1989,” she recalls.

After their convocation in mid-April, Elephant got their first project with the BASF Group, a German multinational chemical company and the largest chemical producer in the world.

Design
Elephant Design Co-Founder, Ashwini Deshpande

But where would they set up shop? The answer wasn’t too hard.

“We thought we would do that project and then move on to someplace cool, like Bangalore or Delhi, but Pune was kind to us. It was unpretentious, no-nonsense, in proximity of Mumbai and had great weather. Our first office was set up in a spare room of my family’s ancestral property. My aunts made sure we had a comfortable stay and warm food. A neighbouring business allowed us to use his phone as it would take years to get a landline back then. Interestingly, in the early years, a lot of support came from business partners like print experts, structural execution experts, desktop publishing and computer suppliers. They completed our education and got us ready for the world of zero tolerances, transactions and deliveries and payment recoveries,” she recalls.

‘Borderline foolish optimism’

Setting up a design practice on day one didn’t require too much money as desktop computers were another year away. Additionally, their middle-class parents were apprehensive about their children doing ‘business’, but came around rather quickly. Ashish’s father, a banker, explained basic accounting practices to him. The next challenge was about opening a current account in a nationalised bank.

“The manager was amused to see the young lot in their jeans marching up to him. When he understood what ‘business’ we would be in, he dismissed our request for a current account. He said a joint savings account would suffice as he does not foresee many transactions or large amounts in any case. I do not know how we convinced the bank manager. It must have been our borderline foolish optimism,” recalls Ashwini.

But there was something more than just ‘borderline foolish optimism’. Ashwini had already prepared the ground for their first project after graduation. A year before graduating, she worked with the BASF Group to develop their corporate communication. Working at their office in Pune, she designed brochures, annual reports, calendars and expositions.

In November 1988, there was an exhibition at Nehru Centre in Mumbai where she had designed their booth. As luck may have it, their Global Corporate Communications head happened to be in India and saw the exhibition.

He offered Ashwini a project of working on their global brochure and audio-visual film. As she was yet to complete her graduation project, Ashwini asked whether she could commence the project in April 1989 through her company that would start by then. Surprisingly, he agreed to wait and even invited her to visit Ludwigshafen in April for a briefing.

Landing the company’s first project with a giant like BASF was a breeze, she claims. While discussing the project, the communications head had conveyed that the budget was limited.

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“He hoped we could manage it in 100,000 Deutsche Marks, which was equivalent to Rs 13 lakh then. For us, however, it was a huge fee by any standards. But foreign exchange money transfers used to take months to reflect in the account in those days. By the time we got the final fee transferred in our bank, after nearly a year, the Rupee had fallen drastically and we landed up getting a lot more money. We invested that into our first 386 computer. And yes, it was the same bank that had refused us a current account earlier,” recalls Ashwini.

A large global project at the start of their journey gave the founders of Elephant Design a lot of confidence to only take up work that would add value. It helped them stay afloat and on course in the tough initial years. Since then, they have seen the design profession evolve.

Design
Co-Founder Ashish Deshpande

Evolution and Technology

“When we began our practice, designers would be called in for improving the skin or the topmost layer. This meant we had limited opportunities to make a difference. However, as first movers, we saw the growing need of design intervention across every sector, be it automobile, banking, IT or FMCG. We could apply our insights from one sector to another to see surprising results. This increased our confidence to take up previously underserved challenges. As our understanding of the business landscape improved, it started reflecting in our comprehension of business needs that could be solved using design principles. Slowly, but steadily, we saw ourselves in bigger meeting rooms and then the boardrooms of progress-seeking companies. From a peripheral resource, we have seen design progressing to intervention at the inception stage. That is a huge shift,” she notes.

It’s imperative to also note that Elephant Design emerged at the right time—on the cusp of economic liberalisation of 1991. Prior to liberalisation, Indian companies had very little original product development. Brands too were quite secure as the competition was as complacent as the other. Post liberalisation, Indian products, brands, and services got exposed to global standards and had to compete with them directly.

Since manufacturing technology or market access was at par, there was an acute need to differentiate to be able to succeed. This is where the role of design started gaining attention in India. By that time, Elephant was stable and ready to take on the challenge of developing original thinking to differentiate for local needs and aspirations.

By the turn of the last century, Indians had evolved and had begun to refuse international brands or products if they were not customised for Indian preferences. This was another cornerstone where global conglomerates started looking for competent Indian design consultancies to design for India. As first movers, who had seen the business of design evolve from close quarters, they were equipped to take on this challenge too.

“Every few years we have looked back and shed some of our services if they did not fulfil the matrix of efforts and expertise against value addition. We stopped taking up odd brochure assignments as we could see ourselves utilising the same effort in adding more value elsewhere. This was right after a year of achieving maximum billing through brochures. Our highest fortunes were coming from design and execution of exhibitions for many years. We enjoyed them to a point, but then decided to use the same expertise in building more permanent solutions like retail design. There is an adrenaline rush when we land a project that has never been done before. This is what keeps us relevant,” says Ashwini.

Also, after a few initial years, we realised that the key to success was an insight-led strategy behind it. “And we were not even charging our clients for it. We decided to change our positioning. We renamed ourselves as Elephant Strategy + Design. This was a positive move as our strategy practice got its due legitimacy (and soon fees too). After a decade, we liberated ourselves from the confines of design and strategy about ten years ago. While we are very much a design-led consultancy, our intent is beyond design or innovation. Intent is to add positive business value, to catalyse a magical transformation. Research, insights, strategy, or design are tools to achieve the intent. This leaves us open to adding more tools to achieve higher pursuits,” she adds.

Of course, it would be criminal to not talk about the evolution in technological innovation that has also driven the business of design forward. Elephant has seen it all—from handcrafted ‘cut & paste’ artworks to desktop publishing, and now to tabletop 3D printing. They have also gone from the 35 mm slide in carousels to PowerPoint decks, from floppy disks to hard drives to cloud, from telex and fax to instant messages, from dial-up connections to 5G and from overnight train journeys for a meeting to to bedroom zoom calls.

Asked about the ubiquity of Elephant’s work, Ashish says, “The power of design is to bring a change to life’s needs, make necessities accessible and affordable, tie relatable memories and bloom small business opportunities. This is the backbone of our design.”

Meanwhile, Ashwini has also sought to foster an evolution in the Indian design ecosystem from writing fortnightly columns in Marathi about the value and various facets of design, which have been translated to other regional languages to becoming a founding member of the ‘The Collective’ which seeks to create safer working spaces for women in the creative industry.

Elephant has played an instrumental role in bringing the design fraternity together to establish the Association of Designers of India that now has eight professional chapters across India. “We represent India at The Design Alliance Asia, a collaborative knowledge-sharing network of designers across 13 Asian countries,” she says.

Design
Co-Founder Partho Guha

Overcoming Obstacles

COVID-19 has been brutal to the global economy. With India going through a devastating second wave, many businesses have shut down or let employees go. Elephant, however, has managed better than most because they’ve been working remotely with all their clients for all 32 years of its existence.

Right from the first client located at Ludwigshafen, Germany to the most recent one at Bengaluru, they have stayed with the risk of not being in the same city as the client team. Remote work needs honesty and discipline, both of which are not new for them. But as most creative businesses, Elephant too has taken a hit the past year.

“Most clients are busy managing their challenges of logistics and manufacturing. So, they are not investing in something that requires newer investments and development time. But we believe with 32 years behind us, we should be able to tide over an odd low year without having to reduce the team or their salaries. Our work relationship with older clients seems to have improved as we are getting more face time with their leadership,” says Ashwini.

As fellow co-founder Partho Guha says, “As designers, we are conditioned to investigate the future. Every time we have been pushed into something unexpectedly, we have discovered an opportunity in disguise. Ultimately, change and deviation are here to stay. That seems more evident this year than ever.”

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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