June 5, 2015

Starting up with Design

by Ritesh Rathi

In front of Vaibhav Hegde are over 50 samples of peanuts and cashews covered in everything from salt to chocolate, various pepper powders, jalapeno powder, cinnamon and other concoctions. Like an alchemist, who instead of metal deals in food, he must determine the appropriate combination of herbs and spices to flavour the nuts. A life-size cut-out of his brand ambassador Gilly, an anthropomorphic super-powered squirrel looks on at the Super Bites factory in Mangalore. An engineer by education and an entrepreneur by nurture, Vaibhav left a job at a pharmaceutical company in Washington D.C. to realise his dream of starting up new businesses in India. He calls his designer to ask whether he received the samples he had sent across, and the two converse about which flavours work for his brand ethos of “snacking smartly”.


Now this story might not sound unique among the wave of new entrepreneurs sweeping across India, however what sets him apart is both, the fact that Vaibhav hasn’t joined the long list of tech startups, and his willingness to use design and designers to promote his new ventures. As his plans of world domination unfold, he elicits inputs from designers on multiple fronts, including branding, strategy and packaging. He wants them to “come along for his journey, and share the scale of the vision for his new business.”


Gilly_1 Gilly_3

Vaibhav Hegde – Super Bites

Unlike Vaibhav’s story, when you think of a startup in India, you might envision a group of guys sitting around a computer pining over lines of code trying to debug an error. Shorts, empty beer cans and rock music playing in the background. This image has certainly been propagated via news sites primarily complying with the perception that startup = online and/or technology. While this might sound like your average tech startup, increasingly, there is also a scenario where a group of guys and girls are pining over whether a little more carrot juice needs to be added into their fresh, home delivered, mixed fruit juice, or, more sequins need to be added on a cummerbund to make it look suitably on-trend. There is a refreshing new trend in India, and a search for home-grown startups can lead you to industries such as education, hospitality, fashion, agriculture etc.

If crowd-funded Kickstarter and Wishberry projects are any indication of the vibrancy of startups, the signs point to variety. Food, music, movies, social development projects are all over-funded projects on these sites. Another indication that change is in the air is angel investors and venture capitalist firms seeking to invest in non-tech startups. Sasha Mirchandani, founder of Mumbai Angels, in March this year, told the Economic Times “we see great potential in non-tech companies and will continue to scout for good investment opportunities.” This bodes very well for startups looking to set up shop in the seemingly non-traditional offline space.

A new space for designers
What this boom of non-tech startups also means is that designers in India can evolve from their traditional roles of graphic designers, interaction or product designers, and start perceiving themselves as entrepreneurs and strategists. Akin to their Western counterparts, Indian designers can benefit from this paradigm shift and play the role of managers, founding employees and even founders.

Besides the operations and financing stages, most startups begin by addressing a human problem – something their app, restaurant, machine or store is aiming to solve – rather than the medium through which to solve it. The story begins with asking “Why?”. Why would someone want what they are about to make. At this stage, the platform, such as a website, through which they engage with their customers is loosely considered. This open-ended, almost speculative way of thinking is exactly the reason why bringing in designers early on can positively impact a startup.

Responding to a human problem requires an understanding of the human condition.

For this, one needs to be aware of how people perceive things, make decisions and handle aspirations. A good designer is able to understand human behaviour and then predict how a ‘user’ might react to certain stimuli. They are also keen observers, and can use what they see to create products or services that are more efficient, more enjoyable and easier to use.

Gandharv Bakshi – Lumos


Gandharv Bakshi, the founder of Lumos, a Bengaluru-based company that produces solar-powered bags, earlier saw design only as a practice to make something look good. With the help of Lavina Mahboobani, a designer who is also one of the co-founders, his “understanding of design started to change.” Gandharv is quick to agree that they made a few mistakes early on in understanding what people want. Only when they stepped out as a team and started observing, talking to people and testing their product did they learn that people were keen on using these bags as objects to show-off and there was more to them than just utility. Features such as removable solar panels and the angle of the sling to accommodate cyclists had to be revisited. By employing design as a methodology rather than a practice of aesthetics, Lumos has been featured on numerous media outlets and is well on its way of leaving its startup self behind.

There are umpteen numbers of resources where startups are advised to engage with designers at an early stage, offering the benefits of design as well as notes on how to manage design. Websites such as startupsthisishowdesignworks.com provide insights into how “designers enable you to… create a product customers will fall in love with. Love is a really strong emotion.” Startups are waking up to the possibilities that design and the varied design services can offer. What isn’t readily available is the other point of view; what do designers need to know about startups.


It is imperative that a designer first understands who the client is as well as the product/service they are making. You might have heard new entrepreneurs refer to their businesses as their babies, but that bond might be more intrinsic. A startup often becomes the identity of that person; where the failure of their business is in direct correlation to the failure of themselves as a person (on the other hand, success = success as well). It can get extremely personal. You could argue that this relationship is what drives a new entrepreneur, where the new venture is more than just about money…it is about them. With startups there are no brand guidelines, assumptions, samples of previous works etc. At best you might get a well-researched and knowledgeable client who can articulate herself. The role of a designer is to interpret not only the project brief but also the client. Designers need to ask, “Would a client be able to relate to these designs” or “has the client understood his/her target user?” Purists might argue that the customer/ user is the only individual that matters, and while this is true, it is important to see if a client sees a reflection of themselves in the designer’s work.

What most startups struggle with is creating credibility about their products and services, which is where they differ vastly from more established companies. For a startup looking to sell furniture for instance, the toughest task might be to convince their customers that their furniture is reliable, strong, authentic and of the highest quality. That credibility can be aided by the work of a graphic designer in setting the tone of the brand, or of an industrial designer in making products easy to use, and so on. While creating this credibility, designers take advantage of the notion that startups allow for a lot more creative freedom and experimentation. Working with startups can also be easier than working with larger companies, as there tends to be an absence of protocol and hierarchy. This freedom allows a great deal of exploration to occur, and because there are limited biases, truly unique work can be created.

Anuj Rakyan – Raw Pressery


While the above scenario might be painting a pretty picture, we are aware that the reality is far grimmer. If the startup and designer relationship was working, why do we still see poorly designed interfaces, products and branding? When speaking generally about the design community, Anuj Rakyan, founder of Raw Pressery, an online store that produces cold pressed juices in Mumbai, observed that designers struggle with meeting deadlines. While he has had very positive interactions with designers, timeliness is a feature he feels designers can improve upon. Most designers in India would agree that our field has a penchant for missing deadlines and underlying problem of unprofessionalism. Delays for startups can have a compounding effect, as the number of opportunities are already limited. Consider a situation where a venture capital firm has, after many failed attempts, finally decided to meet with a startup and asked them to share the vision for their new product. If such a deadline is not met, such an opportunity might never come again.

Pooja Dhingra – Le 15 patisserie

Pooja Dhingra, owner of Le 15 patisserie, known for satisfying the sweet teeth of many film stars, now shares a successful 5-year long relationship with her designer, where conversations between them are no longer limited to design and branding. They have been able to create a bond where new ideas and the direction of the business are also discussed. This relationship was not easy to foster, and according to her, much like any other relationship, this one too needed to be worked on and built upon. Initial meetings with her and Pratish Merpani, Creative Director at Starting Monday Branding + Strategy Co., can be summarized as a place where “thoughts weren’t aligned and ideas were conflicting”. Early conversations progressed into dead-ends and their relationship was on the brink even before it started.


“It takes a whole village to raise a child”

Startups are looking for designers to share their enthusiasm and believe that it belongs to all their partners, including designers. There is a great deal of uncertainty and second-guessing in the early days, and having the support of people who believe in them and their idea helps especially with partners such as designers, who are deeply involved with some startups from the first day. But belief is not the only thing that makes a business successful, sound advice and good decisions are far more important.

When speaking to entrepreneurs, another important feature of a successful startupdesigner relationship emerges, which is the garnering of trust and respect. Much like the quote above, what startups are really looking for in designers are partners who will put the startup first, well before ego and role definitions, and believe in a combined effort. A designer might need to align themselves as a stakeholder rather than just a consultant or employee.

For Pooja, understanding the process of design helped her communicate more clearly on her vision. Her briefs improved as the relationship grew. Pratish maintained patience and guided her through his process and explained why things take as long as they do, or why he chose to take the brand collateral in a certain direction. This communication and training is essential for both parties to build a relationship.

Le15_3 Le15_2Le15_1

A typical startup team often consists of people, who have to function almost like 10-armed gods (or at the least they wish they had more hands then just two), and must juggle multiple hats and do the work of more than one person. It is a constant battle for them to deal with starting a business and creating their product. Taking some of this workload off is a key element in working with them. For obvious reasons, there may be some decisions where a designer’s opinion might not help, but sharing the load on matters such as sourcing, manufacturing, ethnographic research, strategy and importantly honest conversation are well within the domain of a designer. These are offered besides the regular services designers provide, such as branding, web design and development, product development etc.

Most designers who have experience working with startups might share stories of the battle scars they acquired, but also how they are better for it. Decisions are made on the fly, work processes are almost always under process and days are filled with small victories and nights with big disasters. Startups might very well come with the warning, “working with us may be injurious to your health”, but if you are like many designers I know, you can take this as a challenge worth cracking. Startups offer a unique problem of limited resources with the hopes of top shelf work. The pockets of most startups are lined with scraps. Thus, a special treatment might be in order. Designers need to help make better decisions for their clients, because money saved now for a startup can be used for promotions in the future, and for the designer’s own work later.

What often works is an open line of communication, let the founders know that you don’t think a decision they are making is the right one. Presenting research based on previous experiences helps validate your opinion. Demonstrating that you care enough to fight about it has the advantage of fostering trust. What’s more, a sustainable relationship will benefit both sides. As the entrepreneurship bug catches on, the number of opportunities for startups and designers to work together is going to increase. Some of the most prestigious startups in the US, albeit many in the tech space, have seen designers become part of core teams such as Youtube, Android, Flickr and Instagram. This trend is catching on in India, but the first step is for both parties to understand what it means to work with the other.

A version of this article was published in Kyoorius 21.

Share Button
Kyoorius is a bi-monthly print magazine on visual communications. To subscribe, write to us at subs@kyoorius.com. To buy a single copy (or any of the previous issues), write to us at sales@kyoorius.com. You can order the issue from Tadpole, get the digital copy from Magzter and also buy it from bookstores near you. For any feedback on the magazine or to submit your work, do drop in a mail to us at editor@kyoorius.com. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

TAGS , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related Posts

The Beautiful Black List

Myntra launches its first edition of Fashion Incubator

Dialogue: Carlton D’Silva


Leave a Reply


Flickr Photos

View More Photos →

Twitter @kyoorius