A brand strategist and serial entrepreneur, Meeta Malhotra was one of two partners at Ray Keshavan, India’s leading brand and design consultancy, acquired by WPP in 2006. Her latest venture, The Hard Copy (THC), is an online publication that chronicles the design and innovation ecosystem in India. In a very informative interview she tells us about the various nuances of design and her curatorial process behind THC.
You have been a part of the design industry for over two decades. Can you tell us what are the most important things you have learnt during this time?
I would say that there are two important things I have learnt during my time in the design industry:
Firstly, design is so much more than a narrow, commonly understood ‘visual and aesthetic’ interpretation. I knew very little when I entered the industry two decades ago, and my life has been unbelievably enriched because I was privileged enough to learn from the best. I wish there was a way to expose millions of Indians to the power of design because it can transform the way you interact with your world.
Secondly, the language of design is too insular — there’s still a lot of work to be done, so that, we can better explain the value of design to other people
What makes for good design and what qualifies as bad design?
Dieter Rams’ ten principles are still the best articulation of good design. To quote, ‘Good design is innovative, makes a product useful, is aesthetic, makes a product understandable, is unobtrusive, honest, long-lasting, thorough down to the last detail – good design is as little design as possible.' The only contention is what qualifies as ‘aesthetic’. This is particularly important for us in India, as we try and design products and services for billions of Indians, who may have an aesthetic sensibility that is at odds with our own westernised, urban standards. Bad design is the opposite — it is indulgent and self-serving.
Design should find solutions. Comment
That is a given. The ability to offer solutions is what distinguishes design from art. Having said that, I would like to add that the best designers are in love with the problem and not their solution. There’s this stereotype of a Creative Director breathing fire and refusing to make changes. In my experience, mature, successful designers are always open to feedback because they are committed to solving the problem.
You said in one of your talks that design needs good storytelling. I couldn’t agree more. Can you elaborate on how one can apply the art of storytelling when designing? What are the key questions one should address?
I think there are two major aspects to storytelling in design:
Firstly, the ability to frame a narrative with user at centre, so you can situate your design solution in that ‘story’. This allows you to clarify the place your solution has in the user’s life.
Secondly, a designer needs to be able to inspire their audience — to get them to care. However, this is a different aspect from the first. In this one, the business or business value needs to be the hero. I have seen so many great ideas die because of poor storytelling, because designers could not speak the language of business or communicate the value their work would deliver.
Can you tell us about your most recent venture The Hard Copy? What inspired you to start THC?
It was shocking to me that after so many years, we still had nothing that spoke of all the great work and amazing people in Indian design. THC’s focus is very much the ‘business of design’. So, in addition to interviews, we have industry analyses, case studies and in-depth articles on the Indian design ecosystem.
What is your curatorial process for the content you feature in THC?
We are very clear that every story in THC must add value for the reader — we will not publish surface, fluff-pieces that say nothing new. THC is a publication for and by practitioners. If you give us your time and attention, we want it be a rewarding experience for you. We have an ace team of writers and editors, and all our stories are based on primary research — since honestly, there is no material available in most of the areas we cover. In addition, we have guest authors, who range from designers and writers to business heads and investors.
We are all going through extremely challenging times. What kind of change do you anticipate in your industry post lockdown and what changes need to be made?
There are challenges on multiple fronts. On the one hand, we have economic contraction, so both new projects and jobs will be in short supply for a while. Yet, if the pandemic does indeed create long-term behavioural changes in the way we shop, work and live, then design will be needed to find solutions to reorient our current systems. My advice to the design community is to be as proactive as possible — identify opportunities, learn as much as possible, shore up your skills, connect with more people. This is not the time to retreat into a shell.
Lastly as a design professional what kind of stories do you personally like to tell?
I am not a designer — I am a writer and strategist by training, so storytelling is what I do best. In the context of design, the stories that really excite me are the ones we are currently shaping in India. Instead of constantly looking to the West, we are slowly developing our own narratives around design and celebrating the innovation that is happening here, right under our noses. For example, on the back of the India Payments Stack, we are building a fin-tech industry that is quite unique to India. What role does design have in this? Today more than 50% of all searches on Google are voice searches. Can you imagine what it means for our semi-literate, multilingual populations to have voice as their primary interface? What role does design have in this? These are such exciting stories and we hope to do justice to them in The Hard Copy.
To find out more log onto: https://thehardcopy.co