With our Design Around the World series we aim to meet new designers and explore design communities outside our own. Now we're excited to share add India to the series, featuring the lovely team at Animal.
Animal is an independent creative agency with offices in New Delhi and New York. They create beautiful work for clients like Adidas, National Geographic, One Plus and lots more. They're also champions of the Indian design community. Take Indianama, the platform they started to highlight and create dialogue around contemporary Indian design.
I talked with Kunel and Sharon, co-founders at Animal, all about life as a designer in India today, the change they see happening now and where Indian design will go in the future.
First, tell us a bit about your studio. Who is the team behind Animal and why did you decide to open a creative agency in India?
Kunel grew up in New Delhi, India. Sharon studied here and later joined advertising. Having seen the industry change over the years, we naturally felt the need to create alternatives for things that were working and avenues for those that weren’t. India is a robust, developing market that is changing at the speed of light, and the opportunity to do amazing things is vast.
There’s just so much raw material to play with.
A traditional structure (at the time we started) would have slowed us down and so we experimented by working with a new style of structure, where people with different talents could work under one roof, as opposed to the traditional agency model that is limited to art, copy, planning and management. This new kind of structure gave way to a freer approach of thinking on briefs and concepts, as well as a chance to collaborate with a wider set of talent, from India and abroad.
There seems to be a growing voice for design in India, for example projects like “India Design Platform” and your work with Indianama. Do you see the creative landscape shifting or evolving in a significant way – and what sparked this dialogue?
Oh, it has come of age. And yes, it’s evolving in a beautiful way.
This thing we call "the underground" has fast taken the centre-stage and at the risk of sounding like a prophet, we’d say it’s our great reckoning. We transitioned into what some pedants are calling the post-text era, smoothly. There's still a long way to go but we’re on our way, and that’s all that matters at the moment.
Part of Animal's Adidas Originals EQT project
I read you started Indianama because as a brand, India lacked a modern visual presence. It seems like design and art is very much a part of India’s history, though. Do you feel Indian design has a dated or inaccurate reputation? Why has India lacked a modern design identity to this point?
All the way up until this moment, design in India was deeply inspired by historic references to architecture and textiles from different parts of the country, truck art, matchbox art, Bollywood films and other such clichés. While they are special in their own way, we believe we’re done exploiting them for commercial application in design and somehow they are being bundled under one category that is purely kitsch.
We wanted India to surface gracefully onto the international design scene. One way of ensuring that was Indianama — retain the India you know and love, reimagine the India that you’d like to see.
There’s no word which, on its own, can define the Indian culture. One predominant aspect of the country’s identity is that of being a mix, a melting pot, of ideas and systems. That sure makes the terrain of design here a little difficult to maneuver, but that’s also what keeps us from getting comfortable.
Dated, we’ll say yes. The accuracy is what we’re here to seek.
How would you describe India’s evolving design style? Does your heritage and culture still fit into it, just in a different way?
On the timeline of where we’re coming from and where we’re headed, we’d call it the post re-interpretation phase. We’re contemporizing our heritage and culture — giving birth to new vantage points that show different sides of India to everyone looking over — as opposed to one universal definition of India as a heritage state.
At the cusp of being exploited and enriched, some of the notable examples would include Old-Delhi based Painter Kafeel whose rich brush strokes and meticulous typography originating from the 1950s appear, with a dose of nostalgia, in advertising campaigns for the likes of Google.
Also Mira Malhotra, who has delved into the cultural significance of the saree. Her "How to Unfold a Saree" is a unique piece of graphic design. It’s a one-off mini-zine that celebrates this iconic fashion garment at the intersection of design and culture.
Hoshiyar Singh, who once started as a billboard painter 45 years ago, has been collaborating on fashion shoots and set designs with the likes of world-renowned fashion designer, Manish Arora.
Calligraphy seems to play a big role in India’s graphic design history. Is calligraphy still a common practice among modern graphic designers there?
Calligraphy in India has become a two-sided coin. If we were to see it on small town walls or sign boards of local shops, we’d nonchalantly term it as bourgeois, a style that conforms with the kitsch aesthetic of old Bollywood. As we move onto bigger brands and high-end spaces, the style is labelled artisanal.
Our languages are just as complex as they are numerous. As an ode to them, we’d love to experiment with them in a setting that’s both contemporary and functional. That’s also something we’re enthusiastically working toward.
In 2012 Kamal Nath, former Minister of Urban Development in India said, "India has already unleashed its entrepreneurial ability, now it needs to unleash its creative ability. We need design." Has the government helped advance design in the country in any tangible way? I know in the past it invested in fashion to support the textile industry, but what about graphic design?
Governments change every five years, so do the initiatives. Which is why it is becoming more and more important for the design community to look at initiatives with long-term goals. With Indianama, that is what we have envisioned.
We have the National Initiative for Design Innovation and such, so surely the government understands the need of the hour. The tangibility can, however, only be commented on after a few years of gauging the impact.
I’ve heard new design schools and courses are opening up in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Pune. What is the quality of design education like in India? Did most designers at your agency study at a university or were they self-taught?
Yes, there are some great design schools in the country. But we’re in a fix because of two things: while design education is still fairly new and mainstream in terms of taste inspired from the West, the global shift in that same taste with technology has fast seeped into our Instagram feeds, creating a dichotomy of opinions — a war of sensibilities within the industry.
We get a mix of people, from those who studied at design schools like JJ School, Srishti, NIFT and NID to those who are self-taught. Some don’t even know the full spectrum of design software, but they have a great taste. Now who wouldn’t love that.
“On one hand we have the Internet that travels and progresses at the speed of light. And on the other, we have the labyrinth called India.”
Recent reports predict India will continue as the world’s fastest growing internet market. It seems like India’s design community is still catching up to this growth – is that an accurate perception? For example I read that India’s many complex scripts are being adapted into typefaces for consistency online.
On one hand we have the Internet that travels and progresses at the speed of light. And on the other, we have the labyrinth called India.
They are two disparate mammoths. It will take more than genius to get the two on the same page through design. So for now, the wise thing would be to go one step at a time.
Our traditional typefaces, keeping in mind the uniqueness they hold, are worthy of digital preservation and commemoration. The job might sound tedious, but who’s to say that the result won’t be exquisite?
Animal's work for Google Allo
Why do you think good design is important, and what does good design mean for you at Animal?
Good design works against the psychological violence of banality. It also transcends medium, message and time.
The beautification that design offers is obviously the cherry on top of the cake that’s communication. Good design then becomes the foundation of good communication. The aesthetics you play with should first serve the purpose at hand, be it advertising or branding.
As we’ve talked about earlier, the land we’re out to explore offers a terrain that’s not easy for a conformist to steer through. Our people are varied, so are their sensibilities. Good design, for us, is design that can educate the people en masse about its importance in everyday life.
Adidas Originals NMD, conceptualizing the never-ending journey of the urban nomad
In your opinion, does design have the power to create social or systematic change in your country, for example propelling the economy forward and/or decreasing poverty?
Design in an economy like India is also treated as a medium of marketing, a way of presentation that’s bound to get your attention. It gives us, the designers, the power to steer change through visual communication. The simplest way of doing the same is coming up with simple and effective systems of information absorption, making our people understand the values that would drive us forward.
While this helps corporations and startups that work with creative agencies like us, empowering them with great design systems, there’s a whole other side of it that is completely ignored.
At least until now.
In this year’s edition of Indianama, our focus lies on improving the design landscape at a grassroot level. We’re going to the streets, working with the really small businesses and local shops and providing them access to quality design through collaboration with 71 designers around the world. Once adapted on a larger scale, it could definitely help certain sectors of the economy grow.
That is the bigger picture we’re working toward, and undoubtedly the most ambitious one.
Is good design valued in India as a whole? Do your clients understand its potential and are they willing to pay for what it takes?
The ideal comparison would be that of one project with the other, rather than of clients. Largely, how receptive and appreciative they are of good design depends on what they’re offering and who they are offering it to. Many a time, we’ve worked on projects based on experimental design with brands you’d perceive as traditional. Other times, the up and the coming companies are the ones on the lookout for conventional, tried-and-tested methods. Overall, the standards that underline design in India are definitely on the rise.
I’ve read that India excels in system design, creating incredibly efficient and streamlined processes. Is that reflected in the design industry or the clients you work with?
Great system design is sometimes an effect of dire need. Our land is beautifully chaotic, which makes us work continuously toward systems and processes that are efficient, effective and sustainable.
The Dabbawalas of Mumbai are the perfect example here. That kind of functioning at that scale has been achieved, we feel, because it’s a community working toward a common good without the meddlesome bureaucracy of MNCs.
More from Animal's work for Google
In your opinion, what are the top 5-10 creative agencies / design studios from India that everyone should know?
And now to our last question: How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Indian design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
There’s a lot of dialogue amongst designers and like-minded communities from around the world on platforms like Instagram and Behance. Curating some great content from an Indian perspective and relevance to culture would be websites likePlatform Magazine andHomegrown. For a deep dive into the upcoming and often untold stories from the Indian sub-culture, there’sMotherland Magazine. And for a fairly new, but edgy source of the latest dialogue on the design industry in India, we’d recommend Design Fabric. To those wishing to visit some of the local design events, we say don’t miss out onKyoorius Designyatra, an annual design conference and festival that in Goa every year.
Kunel and Sharon, thanks so much for taking the time and giving us a peek into your world. It's truly exciting to see the work you're doing at Animal and Indianama, and I'll definitely be following these other studios and publications you shared as I learn more about the Indian design community.
Friends, be sure to follow Animal on Instagram to keep up with their work. And if you're just now jumping into the series, catch up with our other Design Around the World interviews right here. Until next time!