Back in March, we spoke to Sanket Avlani, founder of Mumbai’s Design Fabric Festival (DFF), about the need for Indian designers to stop looking just to the West and to the internet for inspiration. “When the only access you have to other work is online, you realize how important it is to make work that people [locally] can understand,” he told us. On his move back to Mumbai after time spent in London, Avlani decided it was about time he created a festival that’s affordable for emerging Indian creatives, yet just as galvanizing as similar events in the west.
The inaugural festival ran during the last week of March, bringing together a diverse and thoroughly engaging raft of creative talents from India and beyond. It addressed ideas like representation and the need to look to your own traditions. There was thankfully little of the design festival cliches we’re rather used to—all that talk about failing fast, innovation, and disruption. Instead, there was a lot of chatter about the almost overwhelming visual and cultural threads of India itself as inspiration for designers.
“You can’t not be inspired by the colors, events, and even the traffic in India,” Bangalore-based illustrator Alicia Souza said as part of a panel on graphic storytelling in India. Her fellow Bangalore-based panelist Priya Kuriyan, an animator and illustrator, was refreshingly sanguine about the realities of making money as a creative. “It’s ok to do a job and use your spare time,” she said. “Don’t try and be the starving artist…. This is India, art is not everyone’s priority.”
Here’s just a tiny snippet of the sound advice and words of wisdom we heard in brilliant and bonkers Mumbai.
- Personal Work Can (and Should!) Actually Be Personal
The charming, hilarious Adam J Kurtz makes work that never shies away from being “personal” in the truest sense of the word (rather than being a euphemism for work that’s unpaid).
In fact, the illustrator/artist/author’s entire career has been built on just making work scrawled directly from his brain. In doing so, he has addressed issues including mental health, LGBTQ rights, and representation. His ongoing planner series, which began as a photocopied creation he made on the sly while working at a printer, was funded on Kickstarter to an overwhelming response. Recently it was picked up by Penguin Random House and published in 17 languages.
On stage, Kurtz noted that it took him a while to realize that heartfelt was ok in world of ironies. “Personal work helps us identify what matters, it lets us speak our minds and leaves a paper trail; it says ‘I was here, I made this, I did this thing’,” he said. Even with his projects that led to commercial success, the personal is always present. “Value is not about money—even in commerce I’m thinking about the emotional value,” he said. “People can feel on some level when you’re faking. Don’t be a fake bitch, ok?”
- Making Creative Work Carries Responsibility
At a brilliant panel of all-women illustrators, Aarthi Parthasarathy, Alicia Souza, Priya Kuriyan, and moderator Mira Malhotra of Studio Kohl made clear that putting creative work out into the world carries a certain level of responsibility in both message and representation. Even in her children’s books, Kuriyan subtly imbues her image-making with certain strands about how we view society and our place within it. “I use children’s books and comics as a medium to talk about race, caste, and culture,” she said. “It’s about how much you choose to tell and not tell; you can communicate a lot by saying nothing.”
Christoph Niemann acknowledged that while white middle aged men appear to be the central character in “about 95% of my work,” in the images any designer puts out in to the world it’s vital that designers “present diversity” in their work. “You decide on the visual culture of this world, and a lot of small decisions can have a big impact,” he said.
However, whatever utopian soundbites designers throw around on such platforms he’s speaking from, Neimann was also astute about the potential for change: “Graphic design is great to give people a voice about the causes we believe in, but it’s impossible to always change someone’s mind [for example with gun law reforms] with a smart idea,” he said. “It takes political discourse and a conversation, too; but that doesn’t mean what we do doesn’t have gigantic power for change.”
- Celebrate Your Own Roots + Heritage in Your Work….
“We need to create our own images. It’s high time we go back to our roots and celebrate them,” was the rallying call from photographer Ashish Shah, who was speaking with Sanjay Garg, founder of Raw Mango about how India is presented through fashion imagery. Whatever discipline—be it fashion, editorial, graphic design, illustration, or anything else—the conclusion was that it’s vital for India to make its own imagery for the present, rather than looking to the west or solely to tradition. “We wear different clothes we eat different food… it’s my right to create what’s right for my country,” said Garg.
The pair are united by a drive to create “something that’s ours, something that belongs to us.” In Garg’s case, that means driving the resurgence of the saree as a “fashionable garment” in a country where, for a long time, it’s been deemed by many to be far from modish. As an audience member stated, “It’s about time we create new traditions.”
Graphics-wise, that change seems to be happening slowly but surely. Shrenik Ganatra and Ninad Kale, who created the identity designs for the festival itself, looked immediately to Mumbai for inspiration. “We thought about the chaos, cacophony, people, and plenty of other things you associate with the city, but nothing came close to the trains,” they said. Working overseas, over Slack, and over the course of just 16 weeks, the pair took the purple and red color palette and the dynamic diagonal stripes seen on the iconic trains in Mumbai as the graphic element.
- …But Don’t Use Heritage As An Excuse
“We have a very lazy definition of what it means to be local or Indian…we tag anything with bamboo as local,” said Ayaz Basrai of The Busride Design Studio while moderating a discussion on Indian heritage in design. He points out that relying too heavily on what’s been done before can be damaging. For example, tradition can be used as an excuse for ambivalence towards things like sustainability.
However, Basrai still deemed now to be a pivotal and very exciting time for Indian design: “We are standing at the end of a very long legacy of craft… but we’re at the front of a huge revolution of 3D printing [and other new technologies].”
- Don’t Just Be a Graphic Designer
It’s a cliche for a reason: interested people are interesting people, and all work and no play can make graphic designers, well, dull. It’s vital in any creative discipline to take the blinkers off. Look outside your own specialism and out into the wider world, and you’ll in turn reap the rewards in your own practice.
As we’re well aware, design and music are longstanding and passionate bedfellows. Mitch Paone of Brooklyn-based studio DIA described his passion for playing jazz piano as directly analogous to his design work. “In music there’s a magnetic energy of getting your expressions out,” he says, describing the similar opportunities for experimentation in the early stages of a design project. Hey Studio, meanwhile, places a big emphasis on food, with a tradition called Pasta Challenge where staff create pasta-based lunch dishes and score them according to a complex system based on appearance, taste, and so on.
As well as taking time away from design for jazz, pasta, and any other cultural/food-based endeavours, Niemann also made a salient point about taking care of yourself as a designer, by not designing. He pointed out that to many people, sleep and taking care of your health—especially as a younger designer—can feel like slacking off. “You think ‘who needs weekends?’,” he said. “That works until you’re 23 ½.
“As designers we put things out, but that only works if you put things in,” he added, with a nod toward indulging in interests like movies, traveling, reading, and going to museums. “You do this actively to develop your design career.”