Image shot while exploring Mumbai's graphic design scene

Following in the footsteps of our London City Guide, this is the first in a new series that weighs the pros and cons of living and working in Mumbai’s creative community. We offer a refresher on the evolution of the current graphic design scene, explore the state of the local design education, cull a handy list of all the best design-y places to go, and more.

This is a dynamic time for designers and design companies in Mumbai. While graphic design as a discipline is still relatively in its infancy, numerous young studios are popping up in response to an abundance of work and clients that are (slowly) becoming more receptive to the power of good design.

The city, the most populous in the country, has a more established history when it comes to advertising agencies (including Wieden+Kennedy, BBH, Ogilvy, JWT, McCann, and Publicis), but it’s only in the last decade or so that design and branding agencies have moved in. Fitch opened an outpost in Mumbai in 2007, Wally Olins’ group Saffron Brand Consultants opened in 2008, as did Landor, and Interbrand joined in 2010.

Apparently there’s just one word you need to sum up the creative scene in Mumbai at the moment: “Exciting.” That’s according to Ritupriya Basu, a self-professed “design maniac” who’s byline you may have spotted here. “There’s definitely a sense of community and lot of emerging designers and illustrators.”

Compared with the rest of India, Basu says Mumbai leads the way when it comes to graphic design and illustration, though Goa in the south is also seeing an increase in creatives moving in. “Delhi and Calcutta are more focused on art than design; these are the cities where we find our best photographers and artists,” she says. “However, Mumbai is the best place to be if you’re a designer and want to find a community that understands and is part of the struggle of being a young creative in India today.”

Indeed, things are changing fast. “In 2010 there was nothing,” says Sameer Kulavoor, co-founder of Bombay Duck Design, speaking about the influx of graphic design studios. “It’s changed very quick. It’s a small scene, but there’s enough work for everyone.” For Kulavoor, Mumbai provides a constant source of inspiration, “in terms of the kind of people, and the contrasts,” he says. “It’s crazy, but it’s a very exciting place to be. It’s easily the fastest city in the world, except for the traffic. It’s extremely dynamic.”

The Bollywood Influence

Historically, when it comes to creative output, Mumbai has been known mostly for cinema—it’s the epicenter of Bollywood productions (Bollywood is a portmanteau of “Bombay,” Mumbai’s former name, and “Hollywood”). The movie credited with launching the film industry in Mumbai is Dadasaheb Phalke’s 1913 feature Raja Harishchandra, which was shot in then-Bombay and propelled Phalke to the status of “The Father of Indian Cinema.” Today, Mumbai produces more movies than any other city in the world, with around 900 films made there each year (Nigeria and its Nollywood productions come in second.)

“It’s a little cliched, but Bollywood plays an integral role when you’re speaking about Mumbai.”

According to a report from Prudential Investment Management, produced by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit, Bollywood has a direct influence on other creative industries, including music, fashion, digital media, and of course, design—suggesting that Bollywood has been at the forefront of promoting tolerance for different religions and sexual orientations, as well as other forms of diversity.

The Economist’s report posits that the “spirit of entrepreneurialism” often portrayed in Bollywood films has a huge impact on the attitudes of those working in Mumbai, and that the push for individual economic success intensified in the 1990s as Indian liberalization policies reduced tariffs, opened markets, and eased restrictions on licensing and permits. This brought about a surge in foreign investment, and drew global media firms to the country, who saw “opportunities to tap into a growing middle class, as well as expand the film and television industries.”

“It’s a little cliched, but Bollywood plays an integral role when you’re speaking about Mumbai,” says Sakeena Tayebji, a local designer who’s currently working as a UI/UX designer at Accenture before completing her studies.

Bombay Duck Design studio exterior

Why Mumbai Is Great for Designers

While Bollywood is likely to remain at the zenith of Mumbai’s creative output, the city become much more design-centric in recent years, with a number of bigger agencies setting up satellite offices alongside local studios and freelance designers. One reason for this growth spurt is the city’s position as a center for banking and trade, with a prime port-side location on the Arabian Sea. Today, 40% of India’s largest companies are headquartered in Mumbai.

“India is growing, and that means it needs more designers,” says LocoPopo studio’s Lokesh Karekar. More than 50% of India’s population is below the age of 25, and more than 65% are below the age of 35; with this youthful demographic comes a drive towards all the things that push design to the fore: technology, fashion, branding, entertainment, etc. “They want to live a modern Indian lifestyle and that all comes back to design. Even a young person from rural India wants to live a Bombay lifestyle,” Karekar adds.

The evolution of tech, in particular, has heightened young people’s desire to work in the design industry. “There’s a lot of scope for people to work in UX and UI, and a lot of excitement around design,” says Karekar. “There’s a great opportunity to do great work in Mumbai; it’s a huge market. One big advantage is that culturally, Mumbai is like a mini India—all kinds of people come here, and it’s the economic capital.”

Another benefit to working in the country’s financial center? The local economy is large enough to support niche projects and perspectives, if the influx of zine bazaars, design talks, panel discussions, workshops, and exhibitions are any indication. “Being a creative in Mumbai gives you a large pool of opportunities in terms of work, inspiration, and the people around you,” says Tayebji. “The exposure that you have to the industry and to creative people is immense and easily accessible. There is scope for collaboration in a multi-disciplinary arena, and that’s essential in my opinion.”

There is a we’re-all-in-this-together spirit that also bonds the new creative crop together. “Working amongst a sea of other young creatives who understand your journey, where you’re coming from, and where you eventually want to go is hand-in-hand with opportunities like collaborating with other creatives on passion projects,” says Ritupriya Basu.

Bombay Duck Design studio

Why Mumbai Is Not So Great for Designers

One inherent difficulty for designers in Mumbai, especially those working with typography, is that there are 11 different Indian scripts, plus Latin, in the city alone. According to the founder of type design studio Ek Type, Sarang Kulkarni, there are 400 scripts across India, as well as more than 780 languages and dialects (in Mumbai, people speak mainly Marathi, Hindi, and Gujarati). This becomes something of a nightmare when it comes to creating things like Unicode type.

Aside from the technical aspects, Kulkarni says one of the main challenges of being a designer in Mumbai is that “there’s so much variation in people’s backgrounds, you can’t just have one design solution for any given project. People are now beginning to understand the importance of graphic design, but… [clients] often don’t know how to define what they want. People just want to do what they already see in the competition.”

As they say, no risk, no reward. Mira Malhotra of Studio Kohl agrees. Clients “want to see something demonstrable; if they see something that’s already been created, they have more faith in it. They definitely don’t take enough risks,” she says. Instagram plays a surprisingly important role here. On the one hand, the platform has made clients more aware of illustration and design work from all over the world, and as a result they’re a “bit more open to new ideas.” But it also means there’s a numerical value placed on how “good” work is, as determined by follows and likes. “They’ll go with someone who already has popularity” on social media, says Malhotra, “so they’re still being safe.”

“What the creative scene in India is lacking at the moment is guts.”

Mumbai’s exciting transition period isn’t without its growing pains. When you consider that just 10 years ago there were hardly any design studios in the city, it makes sense that clients are more cautious than in cities where graphic design is more deeply embedded and better understood. Yet all the designers we spoke with confirm that there is more than enough work to go around. 

For Tayebji, the disadvantage of being a creative in Mumbai is the increasingly rapid pace of life. It’s a very busy city, both in terms of the number of events and happenings to stay on top of, as well as the sheer crowdedness of the place. “You may need to constantly remind yourself to slow down, to go at your own pace,” she says. “Another disadvantage with the amount of success you see around you makes you constantly doubt yourself.”

While the design industry is booming—to an almost intimidating degree—graphic design as an industry is still in its infancy. Smaller agencies have spoken about the relatively narrow understanding of what graphic design means, what a graphic design studio is, and why smaller brands should even engage with the discipline in the first place.

Another disadvantage is how expensive it is, relatively, to rent a studio. Most studios are pretty tiny, since Mumbai’s space is at a premium. Geographically, it’s “like an island. It’s not like Delhi, which can grow and grow,” Karekar points out.

“The disadvantage of being a creative in Mumbai is the same as that of anywhere else in the country—slow-paying clients; unadventurous briefs, and the general difficulty of coming by good projects,” says Basu. “What the creative scene in India is lacking at the moment is guts.”

Finding a New Voice for Indian Design

There’s a sense that unlike London or New York, Mumbai is reliant on real, physical human communities, favoring direct connection over the itinerant, Slack-based communication that’s common with so much of the world’s design types. When we visited the city last year, it seemed as if every studio we met knew each other well or even studied together in school. “I think all the studios here follow the same model—we’re all the same age really,” says Studio Kohl founder Mira Malhotra. To be fair, the design industry often functions like its own very small world within any city, but in Mumbai, this insularity is an indication of just how new it is to even be working as a designer at all. 

Malhotra says that when she started her studio, she and her peers were on the hunt for something different. “We were looking for a voice in Indian design that we weren’t finding. We were seeing a lot of archaic stuff, and we wanted to do something more contemporary. We were either just seeing copycat stuff from the West or traditional paintings that had no real relevance to daily life. It feels like now, everyone wants to be an illustrator and have a very big Instagram following.”

Bombay Duck Design studio

Mumbai’s Top Studios

For all its challenges, designers in Mumbai seem hugely excited about the potential for creativity in the city, and are deciding that they should celebrate and push their own roots, rather than solely looking to the Western design proliferating online. There are also some great smaller studios in Mumbai, including LocoPopo; Studio Kohl; type foundry Ek Type, Studio Eight-Twenty Three, Bombay Duck Designs (BDD), founded by Sameer Kulavoor; Kahani Design Works, Thought Over Design, and Jungle Gym Studios. Global design agency Landor also has a Mumbai outpost.

Bombay Duck Design studio

Mumbai Facts and Figures

Locopopo studio

What Do Designers Do Besides Design in Mumbai?

For a look at what designers get up to in their down time, we asked Studio Kohl’s founder Mira Malhotra to take us along on a typical weekend out and about.

“On weekends, or after work hours, you’ll find most creatives at cafes such as Blue Tokai Coffee, or pubs such as Todi Mill Social, working away on freelance projects,” says Basu. “We definitely need larger spaces where creatives could meet, bounce of ideas and work together. There are co-working spaces like WeWork and The Ministry of New, but I feel we need spaces that are aimed towards nurturing conversations around design.”

Design Stores + Galleries

Kulture Shop
Located in South Mumbai’s trendy Kala Ghoda neighborhood, Kulture Shop sells lifestyle products by leading Indian graphic artists. Since opening in 2014, it’s been heralded for spearheading the creation of an urban Indian art scene that’s very much local-first, but with a global outlook, stocking work by Indian artists based throughout the world.

TARQ
TARQ is a contemporary art gallery in Mumbai’s Dhanraj Mahal area. It takes its name from the Sanskrit for “discussion, abstract reasoning, logic, and cause,” and the gallery founders say that its focus is on showing art that’s provocative and process-driven.

Gallery Chemould
Founded in 1963 by the late Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy, Gallery Chemould is one of the oldest commercial art galleries in Mumbai. The gallery got its start by celebrating the first waves of India’s modernist art movements, and now its curation shows a particular interest in artists who work in installations and new media.

Jehangir Art Gallery
Established in 1952, Jehangir Art Gallery in South Mumbai hosts exhibitions by painters, sculptors, print makers, craftsmen, ceramicists, photographers, and weavers. The gallery prides itself on fostering an art community for emerging practitioners as well as bringing together art lovers from the general public.

 

Studio Kohl, Unfolding the Saree zine

Conferences

The city still has a way to go when it comes to conferences, but those that come highly recommended from the designers we spoke to are Bombay Zine Fest, Gaysi Zine Bazaar (founded by Gaysi Family) and Kyoorius Designyatra, which is hosted all over the country.

Mumbai’s main design conference, Design Fabric, has now ceased due to allegations of sexual harassment made against its founder.