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Sujata Keshavan: We believe the Taj Mahal is beautiful because we are taught so

Sujata Keshavan says the lack of space for anything intangible in our education system has led to a country of aesthetic illiterates

Published: Jun 12, 2013 06:30:50 AM IST
Updated: Jun 17, 2013 05:08:16 PM IST
Sujata Keshavan: We believe the Taj Mahal is beautiful because we are taught so
Image: Mallikarjun Katkol for Forbes India
Sujata Keshavan (52) is the founder and CEO of Ray + Keshavan, one of India’s leading brand design firms. In 2006, the WPP Group acquired the firm

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.

From 1998 onwards, I received several acquisition offers from international design companies seeking to gain an entry into India. I did evaluate them, but did not see enough merit in going ahead. But by 2005, liberalisation had taken hold and we increasingly encountered situations where our clients looked to us for market and consumer insights of a new market that they sought to be present in.

It occurred to me that by tying up with a truly global network, we could provide the best possible offering to our clients. So in 2006, I thought it would be in our best interest to sell to WPP. After the acquisition, we function as the India office of The Brand Union, a global brand agency present in 21 countries.

What has been my biggest challenge? Having to continually educate people about what design really is, and how powerful it can be to change the fortunes of businesses. Unfortunately, in India media coverage reduces design to a glamorous but essentially lightweight decorative activity.

Moreover, in our education system that values only empirical data and facts, there’s no space for anything that is based on intangibles. Linear paths are understood, but meandering paths discouraged. As a result, we have stifled innovation, which is often a result of meandering paths. And our society today is, sadly, aesthetically illiterate. The last two-three generations of Indians are unable to evaluate things based on seeing, or feeling, or using their instincts. We believe the Taj Mahal is beautiful because we are taught so. Very few people know how to respond to architecture, art, poetry or literature.

To get around this, companies use market research as a crutch to justify decisions that involve evaluating intangibles. This has been the bane of my life. I detest focus groups! Focus groups cannot remotely simulate the real world: They are the most artificial and superficial ways of evaluating how people will respond to things yet unpublished. If focus groups were reliable, then no product would ever fail.

Today, at my office, design goes way beyond brand identity and logos. Our focus is brand experience. What do internal and external audiences actually experience when they interact with the brand? How can you configure, monitor and measure this experience? To answer these questions, we drill deep into an organisation’s culture and operations to determine what to keep and what to change.  

Let me give you an example. We recently carried out an exercise for a Fortune 500 energy company that wanted to understand why their globally successful brand was unable to garner market share in India despite significant advertising spends.

We analysed the brand’s relationship with different employee segments and external stakeholders like distributors, retailers and end-customers. The interventions we recommended covered areas like recruitment, sales-force structures and channel relationships.  

Interestingly, 90 percent of our work is invisible to the public. Since elements like the logo have high visibility, they tend to get more attention. When we first worked on Airtel’s branding in 2001, we carried out many interventions that included rationalising retail formats and creating a better brand experience through smarter customer flows. These are things people can’t “see” but will experience over time.

A typical project starts with a client seeking us out for a solution to a business problem—the inability to engage with employees or customer segments, dwindling sales, mergers and acquisitions that create a complex web of brands. We get to the root of the problem and recommend changes that could help address the challenge. This always involves redesigning the brand experience, and may or may not involve re-designing the logo.

A good designer has the ability to get through to the crux of a problem, challenge its fundamental assumptions, and question accepted practice. When I changed the industry paradigm to start charging for ideas, that’s exactly what I did.

 (As told to Rohin Dharmakumar)

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(This story appears in the 14 June, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Bobby

    I agree with Ms Keshavan on the way Ad agencies have ruined this industry by accepting commission and not charging a fees for creative duties. Actually the Ad agencies run by unprofessional people are doing a great harm as they look it from the point of business rather than the creative. So they succumb to the pressures of clients and end up cultivating many bad practices that ruin the whole industry.

    on Aug 28, 2014
  • Vijay

    i also want to be graphic designer but i love to design... it\'s made me positive way....

    on Jun 13, 2013