‘We're grateful for the opportunity to bring some of India's largest brands to life’

Ashwini Deshpande, Co-Founder & Director, Elephant Design, walks us through their 32-year-long journey and shares reflections on the design space particularly in the light of the pandemic

e4m by Christina Moniz
Published: May 11, 2021 8:50 AM  | 8 min read
Ashwini Deshpande

Elephant Design, one of the country’s largest independent integrated design consultancies, recently marked their 32nd year in the business. Ashwini Deshpande, Co-founder & Director of Elephant Design talks about the journey, the growing need for building brands with purpose, the core focus areas for Elephant in design and the challenges brought on by the pandemic. 

Edited excerpts

Q. Congratulations on completing 32 years, Ashwini! How has the journey been like for Elephant Design over these three decades?  

Really thankful for the good wishes. But this year, there is a difference. The pandemic has caused such suffering that it exceeds any urge to celebrate. At Elephant, we recognise there is a need to heal. To pause. To look out for each other. While we are immensely proud of our 32-year-long-journey where we braved numerous global downturns, recessions and the pandemic – our celebrations will not have that air of festivity this time. 

32 years sounds long, but also quite short if we were to look at how long some of the other professions have existed in India. When we started out in 1989, there were a few boutique design studios and there was nothing of scale in the design practice space. There was no established business of design, no benchmarks, and no awareness. Also, Design was yet to start making positive impact for Indian businesses as the number of designers was very low, with just two institutes and barely 50 designers graduating every year in a country of billion people. 

Q. Looking ahead, what are some of the key priorities for Elephant Design?

Like any start-up, our priority in the first decade was to establish, survive and stabilise. The second decade was more interesting as India was changing and liberalisation brought in a need for brands, products and services to differentiate. This was also the decade when we started defining and building our culture as the team size was growing and technology was making it possible to do more work in shorter time. In the third decade we spent our energies in building communities of professional designers, mentoring start-ups, spreading awareness about the power of design thinking for businesses. Our confidence and appetite for complex projects and turning them around successfully grew manifold. We are now looking to create magic through deeper interaction between emotion and technology, to serve a large number of people and their needs using design thinking. 

Q. Looking at the brand design industry now, how far do you believe it has come during these thirty plus years? 

Brand building in the eighties was limited to one sided communication with the users. There was less competition, no global brands to compete with and no feedback mechanism. The biggest difference today is the meaningful conversations between brands and their users. It is uncensored, happens in real time and keeps brands aligned to their purpose all the time. There was a time when brands could keep their business and their social responsibility separate. But the scenario is different now. It is not about the quality of technology or aesthetic of the offering. It is the whole experience. Online and offline. Gen Z wants brands with purpose. 

Q. What have some of your proudest, most cherished accomplishments been over these years?

The fact that we could build such a long-lasting practice out of a profession that did not even exist in a true sense is something we feel quite proud of. We have been through global downturns, recessions and now this pandemic. But we have built a sustainable practice and we feel immensely fortunate to have a team that believes in the concept of Elephant. 

It is difficult to pick projects or awards we cherish. It is like asking a mother to choose her favourite child. Suffice to say that we feel grateful for the opportunity to bring some of India's largest brands in automobile, banking, IT, FMCG, healthcare and consumer durables to life. We also feel proud of the rising stars we work with from the start-up ecosystem. We have represented Indian design at the most prestigious design platforms around the world. Those too are moments of glory. 

Q. What are some of the key areas the brand design industry needs to focus on and address in a big way going forward?

On my agenda, I have two key areas where I would like Elephant to make a positive difference in the near future. The first is a realistic approach and action towards sustainable solutions for all the projects we are associated with. This is not a choice now. It needs to be at the core of all discussions. And the other is to avoid setting gender bias at inception of a brand, product, or experience by being conscious and fair at the briefing stage. 

Q. How challenging has it been for brand design agencies during a pandemic? What were some of the key challenges you faced at Elephant Design? 

A new idea or brand is just the beginning of the investment cycle for a business. What follows in terms of product development, manufacturing, logistics, promotions, retail or online presence, service etc involves deeper investments. As businesses were caught completely off-guard last year, it was obvious we would see lower investments in developing anything new. We did face negative growth for a large part of last year, but not something a mature business like ours could not take in our stride. We did not reduce salaries, nor had to let anyone go due to the downturn. Working remotely with clients in other locations was the least of our concerns. Elephant has worked from Pune all of its 32 years. Our clients have always supported us through exchanges over mails, calls and video calls with very few in-person meetings. Our close-knit culture and robust technology was already in place making work from home quite an easy transition. But design is a collaborative activity. It took time to learn to brainstorm online without being able to share coffee moments at our Palm Beach Cafe. 

Q. You’re also part of The Collective, the initiative that seeks to create safer workspaces for women. Looking at the design industry in particular, what are some of the things that can be done to ensure gender equality and equal opportunity for all?

As I always mention, solving issues faced by women will not just benefit women. It will make the workplaces, society and ultimately the world a better place to live. This is not a movement against all men. It is against the mindset that makes people behave in a certain way. The Collective is a group of women from the Advertising and Design industry. We want to see more women in leadership positions across both. We do not want women to drop out because of having to face bias or lack of support or unequal pay or anything else that bothers them so much that they give up. 

Interestingly, the design industry in India fares much better in the gender ratio. And we would like to work towards keeping it that way. Many brand and design agencies have women as the leaders at this point. But there may be other issues that are yet to surface. We are encouraging women to speak up, so we know the issues. From what we have been hearing, it seems clear that women in advertising regularly face adversities based on gender. So, we have a lot of awareness building to do there. 

Q. How do you see the brand design industry evolving in the years ahead particularly in the light of this pandemic? What are the shifts we will see? 

It is particularly challenging to build a new brand during these times and in some years ahead. Consumer sentiments have been unstable and brand loyalty could not hold up in times of crisis as people had to take what was available rather than not getting even the essentials. Brands need to be responsible citizens and look out for others with empathy. These may be times to build brand collaborations between entities with common purpose but different offerings. 

Brands that are honest, build hope and lend a helping hand will have a better chance of getting off the ground and become sustainable. 

As for the brand design industry, it may be a time of collaborations and consolidations. Since real estate and location do not matter, there is a rise in gig economy. Conventional agency structures are being reimagined to accommodate these resources making it possible to widen the basket of offerings.  

Q. On a personal note, as someone who has been in this industry for so long, is there a brand on your wish list? Any Indian or global brand that you’re especially keen to work with in the near future?  

For a long time, I wished for India to get to host the Olympics and for Elephant to work on the branding. Last year, we got a bit closer to this wish when JSW team invited us to develop the identity and experience of India House at Tokyo Olympics. We were really looking forward to experiencing the Olympics up close and getting ready for the bigger wish to come true. But that will have to wait. 

The brand that we continue to build is Elephant. 

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