In the lanky Shakti Mills Lane in Mahalaxmi, Bhavika Shah has housed her slightly unusual design studio. Armed with a team comprising only of women (for multiple reasons, as Shah explains in the interview), Beyondesign has been in the business for the last 14 years now. Having had her formal education at Mahindra United World College of India, Maharaja Sayajirao University, and Savannah College of Art & Design, Shah eventually started her own studio from the confines of her bedroom in 2005.
We speak to Shah about her journey, love for minimal design aesthetics, work culture, and about being an all women’s team, among other things. Edited excerpts.
Could you tell us about your background in design?
I remember once we were asked to use colours in any way we liked at the Mahindra United World College of India, and while people from other countries started splashing colours on the canvas, the Indian students worked with pencils and crayons. That’s when I realised the huge difference in the mindsets. I was only 15 years old then, however, my mother being an artist and father an organised businessman had always inspired me to blend both.
Out of the 80 students, 79 left the country but I stayed back mainly because I always believed we have so much interesting art and design in India. It’s just a question of streamlining, minimising, and putting together what we have with international standards. I was very keen on working with the rich heritage and design India had in store for me to explore. So from United World College, I went to the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda, and then eventually to the Savannah College of Art & Design to do my Masters in design, whereas my college project, I worked on semiotics which gave me an insight on infographics. And also on how to start removing every element that wasn’t required and how minimalistic design spoke so loudly.
How did you end up starting Beyondesign?
After I came back to India, I changed about six jobs in five months simply because I was one of the only ones using the computer. This was around the time India was making the shift from analogue to more digitised modes of design.
I was familiar with Adobe software because of my education. After a while though, it got quite frustrating being one of the only employees using these software, and I almost gave up. My parents were not too keen on me starting my own studio because I barely had any experience. And being an entrepreneur for a 23-year old girl in India was not something to feel confident about. So I finally went to my grandmother one day, took a small loan in zest, and started Beyondesign from my bedroom in 2005.
Neelkamal Plastics' new venture @home was the first client that trusted me and I will always be grateful for that. They gave me a retainer which helped kick things off. Mamta Mangaldas and Saker Mistri gave me their book to design which too boosted my confidence, and then there was no looking back. Today 14 years and over 700 clients later, I can confidently say it has always been about combining the passion for design and management
In terms of the design aesthetics you had, did you face too many challenges with the clients initially?
It was more about convincing them that less is more. I have done it through so many ways including my email signature! It’s worked well because as I said earlier, I am a strong believer of Indian aesthetics; I just want to present them in a minimal format. The clients were open and accepting because it was still Indian design, the kitsch was pulled out of it, and the communication was strong and clear. For us, every design element, motif, and font has a reason. For this reason, strategy has become our biggest strength over the years.
Do you have any particular criteria to choose clients?
Honestly, we have not been very choosy. We have worked on so many different categories, and have really enjoyed it. Each one is a learning curve that takes us to exciting new heights. However, we are particular about the kind of design we put out there. If we are not happy with what the client wants to go ahead with, we have let go of some projects in the past. We continue presenting options to the client, till we are mutually happy with the final result.
How has the first half of the year been for you?
The first six months of 2018 have been our best in the last 14 years, and I hope the rest of the year goes well. This year, we have a lot of packaging and other work in the hospitality sector. We are also trying to tie up with the Maharashtra Government to do everything to promote Maharashtra Tourism. Usually, our retainers keep things steady, and then we have more flexibility to choose passion projects. We work with TED every year and we also adopt one NGO every year to do their design work, and also help them get them on their own feet by creating comprehensive brand manuals.
What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the design landscape over the last few years?
The acceptance and value of branding has become huge. When we started out, most people didn’t think they should pay us for what they considered to be an ‘idea’, not even a service. Over the years, we have also been creating extensive brand manuals for our clients and that has helped us get a quantum of work and money. We also try to teach the clients about the value of design. We do the strategy presentation before anything else, as it is crucial for us to be on the same page and understand the sentiments and values of the client and their company before starting work.
And then there is generational change. Many businesses are being passed on from one generation to the next, and the next generation often wants to change the look and feel of the brand to make it contemporary. We have worked with many established companies to give them a brand revamp, updating their brand language but retaining certain distinct features so as to not isolate their customers.
Do you have any favourite brand category to work on?
I really enjoy working with startups. It’s like giving birth to a child. Each launch feels like our own launch. We also get to study a new category every time. This year, for example, we have worked with a lot of law firms, and changed them from black and white to colour, from text to infographics. We have done some interesting collaterals and websites in the category. I also absolutely love doing FMCG branding and packaging. This year, we have 14 brand launches (many of them pictured here) in the pipeline and I cannot wait to see them out there.
One of the most unique things about Beyondesign is its all women's team. Has that always been a conscious decision?
We are an all women's team for multiple reasons. Initially, it was simply because I wasn’t allowed to work late hours and the overall culture in advertising and design business is to do late hours. So I wanted to make sure I have a team which works regular hours and gets to go back home and live a normal life. Though I have got enough flak for it because people say even boys want to get back home on time. We shut the agency at 6.30pm sharp, and I can proudly say that we have never missed a deadline. While we are here, we are very focused on work, and planning our time and schedules is our huge strength.
Has being an all women's team ever been an advantage with the clients?
Absolutely. Many a time, clients want to work with us because they feel as an all women’s team we are more focused and can multi-task easily. I feel it’s been a huge advantage. I have also noticed that many clients have consciously hired all women’s teams after working with us. So in some way, we have influenced the culture.
What are some of the other things that shape the work culture at Beyondesign?
There is absolutely no hierarchy in the agency. We all work as a group of friends. While hiring new people, their attitude is the most important criteria for me as it is important that everyone gets along and works as a team.
There is no project allocation. People get to choose what they want to work on. I believe only if they are passionate about the project they are working on, it will be a success. The only thing I have to assign is boring annual reports and wedding cards. We also take joint decisions on passion projects and NGO projects. The work culture at Beyondesign is shaped by the team and is based on trust and love for design. My team has always been my strength.
As a designer, do you face any particular challenges when it comes to printing?
I feel that printers are going through a crunch right now. There is not too much work and no one seems to have the budgets or inclination to experiment. In general, paper and print are not developing together in the country. For example, I needed handmade paper recently for a project and it turned out to be a nightmare.
Printers don’t have the time to experiment, which is a challenge for us because all our projects are so experimental. However, we now have a few printers that we have reached out to. Superlekha has been a fantastic tie-up. Screenart Enterprises is a screen printing press we have been collaborating with for 14 years now and it’s been fantastic – Suresh Lodh is always upto every challenge and accepting of all our crazy ideas and experiments. They are literally now an extension of our team.
I also think that there should be a dedicated platform for designers and printers to interact with each other, to collaborate, share ideas and do experiments. Hopefully, Printweek India and I can come up with some solution for this soon.
Payal Khandelwal is an independent journalist and editor of The Floating Magazine (thefloatingmagazine.com)