The story of a girl and her friends just out of design school who went on to form the top design house in the country
Design is a celebration of beauty, either creating beauty or appreciating it, sometimes even accentuating it to make it better. Everything from a pencil to a car needs design to appreciate the product’s functionality, and sometimes the lack of performance is even overshadowed by a successful design. Life is better with design. Imagine if John Dunlop wouldn’t have designed the inflatable rubber tyre in 1887, we’d still be using stone or wooden wheels. I could list a thousand examples to prove my point in different walks of life but closer to home, let me give you one more. You may all be familiar with Paper Boat, the juice brand that’s stocked practically everywhere you go all across the country. Now there are so many juice and refreshment brands around the world that it’s a tough place to stand out in and make a mark. But what if I told you that Paper Boat didn’t have any initial advertising spends? It just had a unique packaging design as its selling point. Back in 2012, the company silently placed Paper Boat pouches across retail outlets, and they got so popular that they had to recalculate the production capacity. That unique pouch was designed by Elephant Design. “They did not advertise for the first 2-3 years. It was only digital media and packaging. We created an iconic shape, cap and name and it made the whole thing work,” says Ashwini Deshpande – Cofounder and director of Elephant Design.
Ashwini elaborates, “Paper Boat is a brand that is so rooted in culture yet so contemporary and accessible. As we always say, design is directly the result of how great the brief is. In Paper Boat’s case, they were a start-up and they said they don’t have the budget. But they were so passionate about their product. They weren’t there to kill the competition nor were benchmarking anybody. They said that we will create our own space and that is what was exciting about them. Paper Boat was about simplicity, goodness, and the nostalgia of drinks that our grandmothers and aunts used to make.” Paper Boat wanted to evoke childhood memories among grown-ups. Paper Boat was about the emotion, not the taste, because emotion is long term and taste is not. Goodness, simplicity and delight were three strong words thrown around a lot during ideation as it is a nature you can relate to as children. Ashwini came up with the name Paper Boat from the ghazal, “Who kagaz ki kashti, woh baarish ka paani.” Paper Boat is one of the fruits of Elephant Design’s success over the years and as we discuss more in a conference room of their sprawling office in Pune, Ashwini takes us back to where it all started. “The year was 1989 when we graduated from National Institute of Design. There were no design companies back then, nor was the landscape such that designers could apply elsewhere in the industry.
There were no design firms that were large, multi-disciplinary and could employ designers.” Most students moved on to find careers in advertising, filmmaking, and if they joined manufacturing companies as designers, they ended up designing small parts of a large product for a number of years.“We felt that this is not what we were trained for. We were trained to do multidisciplinary integrated design thinking, which would create a far greater impact than getting into these niche spaces.” One of their assignments in a professional practice course at NID was to create their own design office. What started out as an exercise in college extended to a career path for Ashwini and her colleagues.
“The name Elephant Design came from the Indian fable – six blind men and an elephant. We were each holding a piece of the jigsaw in our hand and had to bring it together to see the big picture. That was the perfect story for us as each of us were specialized in a different field of design and we had this understanding that design is a team game and it isn’t just a team of designers but many other specialists.” Back then, there was a company called Frog Design that had a back page advertisement on a design magazine called ID. They had started designing the first Apple computers. Frog Design was a very inspirational company for us so it didn’t seem odd to name our company after an animal.
We also thought that we were building India’s large design picture. Eventually it did happen, but you have to start thinking big, otherwise big things don’t happen.” For a graduation project, Ashwini worked with a German company in Pune. She created a lot of collateral – brochures, annual reports, calendars, exhibitions, etc. “There was a trade fair happening in Mumbai which I had designed for their company and fortunately their global corporate communications head happened to visit India that time. He visited the fair and saw the stuff I had designed for them. He was quite impressed and he told me that he was looking for someone to create our global brochure and AV for 13 countries.
Would I be interested in that?” This company back then was part of the BASF group. Ashwini was yet to graduate and she had bagged her first client. Now just before that, the client told her that they had a limited budget. “I asked them what their budget was without looking thrilled to get a project. The thought of money hadn’t even crossed my mind. He said that it was 1,00,000 Deutsche mark. That’s like getting your first order in 2018 for about `78 lakh considering inflation and value of the currency relative to the dollar back in 1989. I said, ‘we will manage’, very graciously. In those days, it was a `13 lakh project. Even now if you get a project of that value, it isn’t small at all.”
It was gold for a start-up, and that helped Elephant Design to say no to projects that most start-ups would never pass up on because the question of survival was never asked after that first German project. “It took a really long time to get the money for that project though. Banks were slow and we had to wait after the completion of the project for a while for the money to come. But by then, the rupee had fallen even more so we ended up getting excess money.” Elephant Design bought their first computer with that money. In those days, it used to cost over `1.5 lakh to buy a computer along with a printer. “We were the first creative company to buy a computer and work on legal software in those days. We always wanted to be ahead of the curve.” Elephant Design also started adding more branches to its business – better engineering design, strategy for brands, and design research. Everyone back then was focusing on market research but it was oriented towards sales. “But design research is about the user, the conditions of the user, what is his or her first experience of usage of a product or a service and what is their unmet need or desire.”
The company grew through referrals and word of mouth through the Nineties. “Design cannot be advertised. We believe design is like thirst. Unless you are thirsty you will have no value of water. I cannot just go to someone and say that I am providing this design service so please use it.” Design isn’t quantifiable so how does ED justify the costs to be spent on it? “That’s a problem as it’s difficult to quantify how design has impacted a business. There are no measurable tools but you can see the effect over time. Over the years, Apple has happened and the only differentiation Apple has admitted to is better design.
It is one of the richest companies in the world.” One of Elephant Design’s huge success stories is Symphony, the air cooler brand that was at one point almost bankrupt and now has almost `10,000 crore in market capitalization. Each and every product of Symphony for the past 27 years has been designed by Elephant Design. “Symphony is known for better product design, so there is of course recognition of what design can do.” She adds, “So design is not something that’s the burst of a campaign to show you quick results. But it is a long term belief, a way of building your own business. If it is design thinking led, which means you are focused on a user then you are bound to see success.”
Mid-nineties onwards, Ashwini thinks that design started to gain importance and at least the progressive companies felt that design could give them the edge. In the past 15 years after the dot-com bubble and the 2007-08 depression, many foreign companies have realised the potential of an emerging market like India and have wanted to set up shop here. Many design firms too have come to India and while that’s more competition for Elephant Design, Ashwini believes that it is good for the business of design. “We didn’t realise our rooted cultural connect till then. Around 2002, a Malaysian designer by the name of William Harald-Wong visited us. He handpicked a few Asian designers, and set up a consortium called The Design Alliance with the primary aim to share insights across Asia.
He said that all of us have to look inwards to create that differentiation between Asian and other design firms. He made us aware that we were using a lot of our cultural roots in our design, and that was our edge.” Elephant Design realised that that was a tool they had and they needed to sharpen it. “We started getting conscious of hiring more diversity. People who speak more languages, people who come from different states and backgrounds.” The Design Alliance started to give a lot of insight on what was happening on the design front all across Asia. You may have bought a Symphony cooler or had a Paper Boat drink but you never would have thought of why you picked that brand when you so easily could have chosen any other product. The design most likely wooed you. Next time around, keep an eye for Epigamia, the Greek flavoured yogurt or Fingerlix, a ready to cook food start-up or Granola bars to name a few.
These brands indicate their need to replicate Paper Boat’s success with Elephant Design in a way. Besides FMCGs, Elephant Design is working with a software start-up called Plezmo. Plezmo is a platform of intelligent wireless devices and coding apps for kids to help them develop coding and logical thinking skills. Another client she is excited about is Healthcubed, an app based primary health checkup device. The underlying theme through the conversation was simple – you won’t be able to define the benefits of design but you can’t do without good design either. It’s beyond just the brands she and her team has worked with, it’s about valuing design and using it to help support a product or service and that we believe is why Elephant Design is a top design company.