What is it that I do? I work as a catalyst to help people and organisations uncover or create their own “defining moments”, allowing them to look at themselves completely differently, in a re-invented way. This makes them behave differently, leading others to look at them anew. The combination of their own self-belief and the altered perception of others is transformational, it changes futures. This is the power of design. For me, design is about providing an interface between people and progress. I wandered into design serendipitously. In school I was a science student, and was thinking of continuing with it in college.
But I had also always been interested in art. Unfortunately, the Indian education system keeps art and science as far apart as possible.
Unsure of what to do, I simultaneously got admission to a medical college, a BSc programme in maths as well as the fine arts programme at the Baroda School of Art. But each appeared confining. What I was looking for was a field that merged both art and science. The closest I found to it was at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, which had a multi-disciplinary design programme. I knew then that this was it. This was what I wanted to do.
After six years of undergraduate studies at NID, I went to Yale for my Masters. I was extraordinarily lucky to have studied with brilliant designers—the legendary Paul Rand, pioneers like Bradbury Thompson, Armin Hofmann, Matthew Carter; teachers who raised the bar, took you to a different level and made you reach for a much higher set of goals.
NID gave me a great grounding, and taught me the fundamentals of design. It taught me that design isn’t just about making pretty patterns; that it provides the DNA from which the entire man-made world is conceived. At Yale, I understood how to set myself higher standards, to question myself, critique my own work. It made me much more confident about my own point of view.
When I came back to India, I wanted to work in graphic design. My only two options at the time were either in advertising or with newspapers and magazines. After doing a year of each, I was not convinced they were for me. Advertising was very restrictive while newspapers and magazines were just about layout without enough conceptual content.
So I decided to set up my own design firm that would offer professional high-quality design to Indian clients. Ram Ray (my ex-boss from ad agency JWT) and I set up Ray+Keshavan in 1989. Ram was very interested in design and was my financial investor. He backed me and my ideas fully.
The very first job I did was for an art gallery in Delhi called The Centre for Contemporary Art. The simple and inexpensive posters and catalogues I designed looked different from anything people had seen before. People looked at them and said “Oh my God! Who did that?”
But translating creativity into business was tougher because ad agencies had completely devalued the creative business model. Instead of charging fees, they charged what was called “agency commissions”. They would measure ad space in newspapers and send clients bills for ‘x’ sq cm worth of commission. Earnings were based on how many times a TV ad ran, not on how good it was. That made no sense to me, as ideas are the core of what we do.
I became the first person to say, “I will charge for my creative work for intellectual property, and not for how many square centimetres it takes.”
Our first major project was in 1990 with Escorts, part of the Rajan Nanda group, for whom I designed a brand identity system working across lots of interfaces. It was one of the first such concepts in the country. That led to quite a lot of other work.
Liberalisation was a huge turning point for us, as Indian companies were forced to start taking design more seriously. It allowed foreign products into India, and Indian companies to take their goods and services to other countries. Suddenly the playing field changed, and Indian products had to become brands.
The greatest thrill I have got is in working with Indian brands and making them as good as their Western counterparts. We redesigned Infosys’s identity in 1996 when they were poised to exponentially scale up. We had to lift them from looking like an Indian brand (which stood for ‘cheaper’) to a brand that stood for high quality, with equal status as IBM or Accenture.
One of the most far-reaching brand transformations we worked on was in 2000. The Himalaya Drug Company had been operating in India for 75 years with a huge portfolio of products. Liberalisation gave them the opportunity to enter markets outside India. Here they hit a road-block because, although they had great products, they were seen as dowdy and unappealing. So, we created the brand ‘Himalaya’, whose DNA was “researching nature, enriching life”. We reworked the brand architecture, created clear categories, and smartened up the look and feel across everything, from branding, packaging, website, collaterals, journals, campuses and stores.