A career of firsts

Sujata Keshavan was the first Indian to obtain a post graduate degree in graphic design, writes Patrick Burgoyne.

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Sujata Keshavan's career has been one of firsts. She was the first Indian to obtain a post graduate degree in graphic design - from Yale, no less - and, after graduating, she founded the first graphic design consultancy in India. But she was almost lost to advertising. After studying at Ahmedabad's National Institute of Design, Keshavan went to work for J Walter Thompson/Hindustan Thompson Associates.

Her very first job was to create a brochure for a five-star hotel chain. After coming up with a layout that she was happy with, Keshavan was asked by the account executive on the job to do a few more "really bad ones" to make sure that the client chose the good one. A week later the client made his decision - he chose one of the worst designs Keshavan could come up with.

Thoroughly disillusioned, she decided to get out of advertising and applied to study a masters in graphic design at Yale University School of Art in the US. There, she was taught by the legendary Paul Rand who had a major influence on her. In a period she has described as "the high point in my career", Keshavan won the Schikle-Collingwood award for outstanding work in graphic design.

After graduating in 1987, she worked for design firms in the US before heading back to India in 1989 and starting up Ray + Keshavan design in Delhi with her former JWT boss, Ram Ray. "We were the first design company in India - there were advertising agencies before but no concept of design as a separate profession," she remembers.

Which is not to say that Indians were unaware of design. "Design as a profession is really very new but design has always existed. India has a huge legacy of craft and of artisans producing objects of great beauty and utility. Decoration is endemic to Indian life; we decorate everything, including ourselves. You can see decoration even in the smallest villages."

Nevertheless, the new business struggled to impress upon clients the important role that design could play in their businesses. Whereas Keshavan had returned from a US design industry where strategy and brand development were seen to be the way forward, in India, clients still assumed that the designer's role was restricted to layouts - the concept of brand identity was unheard of.

Working with international as well as major local clients, Ray + Keshavan set about introducing the principles of brand development to India. After Ray's retirement in 1994, Keshavan moved the business to Bangalore, centre of India's booming IT industry where she found a new generation of entrepeneurs much more in tune with her beliefs and methods. "India was changing radically, she says. "We had always followed a pattern of economic self-sufficiency since independence - we didn't interact much with the world. But, following the end of the Cold War and other realignments, that policy was dramatically revised around 1990/91."

The growth of hi-tech businesses was one consequence of this new openness. Ray + Keshavan, now employing around 20 people, found most of their new clients in this sector. However, though these new companies were international in outlook, they could not divorce themselves entirely from their particular national experience. "The new economy has spawned a generation of entrepeneurs whose business models are much more aware of their responsibilities toward the community and have a genuine commitment toward putting something back," says Keshavan. This sense of responsibility ties in with her own attitude: "You cannot live and work as a designer in India without cognisance of the mad and maddening place in which we live. We think less about which font to use and more about whether this will be useful to people? Because we are confronted every day with issues of inequality, you can't get away from it and so you are forced to get involved."

The best illustration of this attitude is in a project the Ray + Keshavan did for Bangalore-based software developers, MindTree. One of the company's executives had a long association with the local children's spastics society and wanted to involve them somehow with the process of coming up with a new identity for MindTree. Keshavan had the idea of letting the children themselves do it by asking them to do a painting based on their impressions of the company name and its corporate ethos of "imagination, action and joy". One was chosen to be the company logo while others were reproduced around its offices as large-scale digital images on walls and glass partitions.

Elsewhere, Keshavan is optimistic about the developing receptiveness of Indian business to the level of sophisticated strategic brand consultancy that Ray + Keshavan specialises in. She points to the influx of foreign companies which has led to domestic competitors having to smarten up their act in response. Also, joint ventures have become increasingly common in which a local business must match the visual strength of their partner's identity. Ray + Keshavan now boast an impressive client list, including the likes of Motorola, Unilever, Citibank and Compaq.

In its transition from an agrarian to an industrialised economy and its shift away from primary products and commodities towards hi-tech services, Keshavan sees a lot of parallels between India and South Africa. Both are countries of huge contrasts with massive disparity between rich and poor. Both have the advantage of English as one of many national languages. Both have strong vernacular design traditions. Both are emerging onto the international scene after periods of isolation. And of course, there is a special bond between the two countries due to the fact that Gandhi spent a significant portion of his early life as a lawyer in Cape Town, South Africa, Keshavan says, "gave us the Mahatma and he gave us our freedom; it's a debt we can never repay."

South Africa, however, should not be looking for any favours in the design field as the two nations are now emerging as competitors. Keshavan has a similar outlook to many South African design firms in that she feels that her company's work bears commparison with that produced in the West and that Ray + Keshavan is ready to take on allcomers on the international stage: "We feel that we can take the skills that we have and offer them to the rest of the world. I see many battles ahead with South Africa in that respect."

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