Surfacing the Issues : An Interview with Itu Chaudhuri

It was a Sunday night, New Delhi time when Itu and I had a Skype video call while he was slowly sipping a cognac.

While it had been awhile some time since we last communicated, we both had the ability to pick up where we last talked like it was yesterday.We first met in 1990 while I was on a Fulbright to India and believe a host at a social event introduced us. From my memory, what drew me to Itu was his thoughtful intensity, ambition and he seemed like a perfect person to have at a dinner party to introduce delightful polemical conversation.

This is no accident. His father is the late Sankho Chaudhuri and his mother, Ira Chaudhuri, a still practicing potter.India in the 1990′s had a small club of graphic designers that all seemed to know one another and we spent many hours at small events with other designers talking about contemporary issues. Itu represents the best of intelligent graphic design. His many years of immersion in typography and communications systems has transformed him into a very articulate practitioner of design in the widest possible sense.

While Itu has mellowed slightly, it is not due to exhaustion, but rather built up experience that allows him to know his roots and build a more sophisticated model of shaping design as a process of discovery that creates meaningful frameworks for specific actions. His firm ICD with his long- time collaborator Lisa Rath is growing and developing a planning offering. This again is no accident and Itu is methodically creating the foundation by bringing on new skills and ways to connect design to larger business and societal issues. The interview meanders between graphic design, systems design and into planning. We surfaced many things that point to a new type of value creation for clients in the sub-continent.

What was the influence of Aurobind Patel as a role model, and then mentor on your understanding of graphic design?
Aurobind has been a generous mentor. He gave me the confidence to switch from architecture which I had been studying with growing disillusionment (with the education, not the profession). He demonstrated that graphic design could be learnt through typography, as was the classic way for progressive schools in the 1980s. Graphic design used to be taught by typography as the teaching medium: It was the Swiss way.

Aurobind’s proved to be a lasting influence. Perhaps too much so, for a respect for designing as minimally as possible can become a habit. And habits can be damaging, though none of this is anyone’s fault but mine.Aurobind was an art director for India Today , which was at the pinnacle of Indian news design in 1984 and he gave me my first freelance work and early education. It was about developing a respect for a Swiss mode of learning graphic design.

He had a good collection of books and I was already interested in typography. For example, the first graphic design book I read was J. Mueller Brockman’s “Grid Systems”. After a couple of weeks, he asked me if I read the book and I replied many times. That should do it, he said.

Aurobind redesigned The Economist a few times, and introduced the first version of their original typeface working along with a type designer.  He iives in Mumbai and is still a typography maven and yes, still a mentor.

 

How did your involvement with The Economic Times inform your practice of system based design – and wider thinking about design?
In the last year or so, Aurobind and I redesigned rival business newspapers. I redesigned the Economic Times of India, the national category leader, and Aurobind redesigned the The Business Standard. When I showed him our work for the Economic Times, he said our approach was correct, but that the actual expression of the system was over elaborated and would wash away any chance of a profit (and he was right). His work took a fifth as long and was more efficient in implementation from the client’s point of view.

From this experience, I learned that a client’s organization and capabilities need to be understood first before a specification is developed. I learnt that the balance between legibility and economy (the number of copy words on a page, net of headlines) is an issue that really matters to some newspaper publishers. In the process, I was forced to investigate the factors that led to this balance with high economy and legibility, and learnt what design adjustments are made in the newspaper typefaces that address this issue. Surprisingly, there was no metric that tracked this concern of the publisher.

I leant that management can be surprisingly ineffective in conveying intentions to the executive layer, and designers can step in and do this. I learnt that though the branding function owned the redesign project, and were driving the need for change, they had little conviction in describing what the real business reason for redesign was, other than clean it up or refresh it. By listening to the client, though, we could tease out a hypothesis of where the pain lay and build a better brief for ourselves.

So the part played by us in formulating the problem was what really won us the work; and yet there was very little explicit recognition of this fact. The brand view of most companies who invest in advertising believe that advertising alone creates their brand. For a newspaper, it is so clearly the product that makes the brand distinctive, by the role it plays in the news space, for example. The content’s selection and styling (language for example), should be brand aware; the design therefore can follow, to create a personality and an ambience that suits it in that way. Yet the brand-as-product perspective is surprisingly unarticulated by owners, marketers or editors. The product is altered solely to address the market’s transient and changing needs, rather than informed by some notion of the paper’s identity or its particular role in its comity.

At NID they teach the form of something has a meaning by itself, which a form does. However, the idea that an emotional structure can be planned, and discussed explicitly using words, diagrams or tropes and that design can be shaped to fit it is still not internalized by design schools and designers in India. In advertising, these discussions are routine and part of the culture.

 

You have a great love of typography. Given the digital revolution and the explosion of digital type foundries, how do you view type design today?
A wonderfully open field.

The explosion you refer too, of course was clearly foreseeable by 1990 when we met. What has happened is that type was democratized and our relationship to type therefore changed. The sheer number of typefaces has made it difficult to have a relationship with particular typefaces.

Back then, I ‘d be bothered if I could not name a typeface in use, but it became more and more difficult due to so many independent foundries. In today’s digital climate, we are starting to see an increase in the sheer numbers of good typefaces and here and there an original idea.

However, the way information is currently transmitted on the web and mobile, form is separated from content. We have less and less control of the way our content is represented. As an aside, the larger issue is that our interaction with the internet is functional, and we could make a case that true brands in their fullest sense do not exist on the net. If a brand is supposed to override my rational preferences, I am not sure if the internet has brands from a brand expression standpoint.

 

Why do you admire Wieden + Kennedy and what can we learn from their ethic and work?
W+K is one of a clutch of advertising agencies that seem to retain a flavour of independence and a belief in a hopeful agenda for design. They are one of those agencies that did not go in the way of big media groups like Publicis. They have a life to their company through independence and have never fallen into advertising orthodoxies.

 

Are Indian businesses open to design as a form of thinking and planning – or do they focus on expression to production? Where do you place yourself on the continuum of on one hand “design to seed, provoke, or direct change” and on the other design management?
We try to look at businesses and find out what they do and try to find out where design can have the greatest impact. This means you need to find an opportunity that is vision led, like  brand consultancies, who discovered the value in what was called trademark design before the firms that originated this business came to the fore.

The discovery of the structure of the value started with branding (of products, mostly, for most of the 20th century) and then really matured with  the creation of corporate identity as a profession. In India, too, the more successful design firms have morphed into brand firms. Our practice has so far avoided calling itself a brand consultancy — we’d rather focus on wherever the values is. If you look at companies and how they create value, you can often spot a design intervention that could make something better. The brand is just one perspective, but it’s perceived as commercially valuable, even though its understood  mostly as organizing communication, and mostly advertising at that.

To get clients to see it as broadly valuable however is more of a challenge. A planning process that systematically explores client assumptions and plans is what we are moving towards. We needed to surface the issues that can challenge clients and make a case for planning process. Clients who eventually see the result of this process, have so far have been surprised with our insights and recommendations.

We have just begun to hire non-designers focusing on the business side and  on research and planning. We are developing this planning function to be able to shape a more confident strategy offering and also be able to sell design more effectively, for how you sell an engagement effectively determines how it will run.  To rephrase the old line: good selling is good design.

 

How do the experiences and skills of four female designers affect the thinking, management and results of ICD?
I am not sure there is much to your observation. I am not sure why we have a lot of female designers. We used to joke a lot about this fact. Maybe they help us become less aggressive. Women have an instinctual understanding of the limits of a relationship and are more accommodating. I believe I need to give this question deeper thought.

 

How has design in India changed since we met in 1990? How is design thought about and practiced in 2012 in India?
Unrecognizably different.

The number of firms practicing design today has created a very competitive environment. It’s harder to make a decent living in design despite the greatly expanded consumption of design. Now you need to start at a much higher level due to greater exposure and learning curves are much more compressed. Designers learn in five years than what I learned in15.

Design is much closer to being a profession – and a serious one at that. In India, many advertising agencies are adding design firms to their bouquet. These outfits will be, and are, very competitive with graphic design firms in this country. Independent graphic design studios will feel the heat sooner rather later. Time was I used to joke (and half seriously) that I owed my firm’s survival to advertising agencies, since their work would drive clients to us. This is no longer the case.

In India most of the design firms are six to ten people and have not come from a great tradition of design. For example the planning activity in design is not very strong. We are also seeing international brand consultancies build footprints in India, due in part to the west’s economic woes and the continuing growth of emerging markets. For example, Saffron (Wally Olins’ second inning) is here in India as is Landor. I expect the Dutch to be here soon. The next goal or bar seems to be around convincing business that there is a better way of doing things. For example AEG in Germany, or Olivetti in Italy, or IBM in the US – all saw design as a way to create a competitive edge.

 

You mentioned in an interview that the takeover by non-designers or people who are not trained in design, but, think broadly about design was the next big thing. Can you elaborate and where does this place the trained designer?
In advertising there are account managers. Design needs to play a stronger strategic role, which is closer to account planning. Why shouldn’t account planning be part of design firm culture?

The battle for control over the project, perhaps the greatest source of heartburn for designers begins with the selling. Non-designers may also lead design firms and many people in these firms will not necessarily be creative in the traditional sense.  That is what Indian designers will need to start doing to sell clients on value.

When brand consulting happens at the highest level, it is part of management. If designers insist being at the big table, and has been talked about since the 1950′s, it has to be codified as part of design culture.You have mentioned in the past the term design methods. These methods can be used by designers to address larger problems. Donald Norman called design thinking that a myth, but a useful myth. Once designers exhibit these behaviors more often and they become part of what a designer does, then that term can disappear from our lexicon.

 

How did you become involved with travel and literary writing?
I was invited to Helsinki, Finland, which is the Design Capital 2012. A travel magazine invited me to go for five days with Lisa Rath. The city has become a design destination… Finland has constructed a lot of its national identity around design. Alvar Aalto is treated like an icon, like Abraham Lincoln or Benjamin Franklin. Their only railway terminus is called Eliel, after Eliel Saarinen. The lionization of design in Finland is a sight to behold.  My literary output began as writing short stories, a couple of which were published this year in an anthology of new writing by Indian writers.

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