We get a lot of clients because of the personal projects we do: Mira Malhotra

PrintWeek India talks to the founder of Mumbai based graphic design studio, Studio Kohl

22 Aug 2018 | By PrintWeek India


What makes Mumbai-based Studio Kohl’s work really stand out is the inspiration it draws from the unique aspects of Indian culture, alternative subcultures, and everyday life. Studio Kohl’s founder Mira Malhotra’s design journey started at Rachna Sansad and continued with National Institute of Design (NID). The latter, she feels, is what gave her a deeper learning for various facets of design and an independent streak to venture forth, first as a freelancer and then with her own studio.

Some of Studio Kohl’s recent projects include working with musician Tejas Menon, Penguin India, IPL team - Mumbai Indians, Facebook, among others. The studio continues to enjoy the critical reception its personal project, ‘Unfolding the Saree’ – a zine that pays homage to the quintessential saree garment – garnered. The project has been covered by various national and international publications, and has picked up a few awards.

PrintWeek India talks to Malhotra about some of these recent projects, the importance of personal projects, choosing clients who have a clear vision, and some of her upcoming projects, among other things. Edited excerpts:    

How were your initial work years like, between NID and Studio Kohl?

I have worked in various fields like advertising and publishing. Then I was working at Sony Music while I was at NID. The experiences I had everywhere were great but ho-nestly, I couldn’t really get comfortable in any job long-term as you had to make some kind of compromise at all these places. Even Studio Kohl sometimes involves making a compromise, but that’s a call you take – which compromises are you comfortable with. I also think NID gave me a certain independent streak and goals that I couldn’t realise while working for others. NID opens you up to many more aspects of design and makes you realise that a lot of different things can be done with it. I started off with freelancing before starting up the studio, which has definitely been more effort to get off the ground.

Did you ever think that joining an established studio would have been easier as starting your own studio entails a lot of risks?

I still think about joining a big studio as life would be so much easier (laughs). I think the ‘business’ part is very tough when you are setting up your own shop. I have to not only be creative, but also do a lot of administrative work and mentor others in my team.

Sometimes managing clients on larger projects can be very difficult. Also, setting up your own studio is not just about your skills and talent. You need to have a proper backing and some sort of protection of assets. In my case, I have a husband who has a stable job so I can do this, otherwise relying on this solely is risky. I would have also liked to have a partner for the studio, someone who has a similar vision. That would also really help.

So it’s basically a combination of many factors. If someone has the right resources, then it might not be so challenging.

How do you decide if you want to work with a particular client or not?
Like I mentioned earlier, the client should have a clear vision. Also, we don’t take clients who are very mass-market and can get their work done from almost anybody. When you have such a client, you need to create generic stuff and may be even dumb it down, which is completely understandable as their target audience is larger.

Last year, we worked with a wine brand which had a very unique and eco-friendly ap-proach to how they grow their grapes. It was really fascinating for us to talk to them and actually learn something new. So that’s another thing we look at. Then the ethics of the company matter a lot.

We also prefer individual entrepreneurs, because we get to talk to the decision-makers directly. They also look at graphic design as something that clearly adds value to their business, and they are often open to experimental stuff. And we are more in control.

Studio Kohl is also very clued into Indian art and history. While our commercial work might not always involve that, we try to use that in our personal projects. In-house work is really important to us because we want to enrich the design scene. Our idea is to push different kinds of work out there. These days, designers often look at Pinterest for inspiration and end up producing the same kind of work. I don’t get it. We are so rich culturally. Why would you ignore that? Don’t keep your culture in a glass case. When we made ‘Unfolding the Saree’, we talked about Indian culture but presented it in a way so that the global audience could relate to it too. And that project showed that when you think hard and not look at references, you end up creating something truly unique.

Since we are talking about personal projects, how important are they for you and how do they feed into your commercial works?

How they feed into our commercial work is something that depends on the client. However, a lot of times, clients have come to us because of our personal work. And sometimes, they want to do something exactly like what we have done in a personal project. That’s the best part about putting out personal work and that’s why we prioritise it. Even when interns work for us, we like them to get started with personal projects where the schedule is more relaxed and they can learn more.

Could you tell us about your recent book design collaboration with Penguin India for some of their classics?

These were really old books, with some being at least 50 years old if not more, and the selection was very interesting. The idea was to repackage them to appeal to a younger audience. We decided to have a very simple, easy-to-replicate approach. We did a lot of brainstorming with the client to decide what visual elements would go into the design. I feel that if you don’t understand the client’s brief accurately, the client will never be happy.

After I started the visual process, the clients pitched in a lot about what all we could do so there was a lot of discussion. For example, for Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World, the client suggested using the imagery of colonial furniture they had seen in a Bengali film, and that’s how the cover was created. I chose elements that worked for the illustration style we were going with.

Music seems to be an important part of your work and inspiration. You also did a project recently with the independent musician, Tejas Menon. Could you talk about that?

Yes, I do listen to a lot of music – especially punk, indie, hiphop and electronica. And I know a lot of weird trivia on music. I haven’t worked on a really expansive music project till now, and that’s something I hope to do soon. But I have been working on music projects ever since I was at Sony in 2010 and worked in their independent music division in 2011-2012

The most recent music project was Tejas Menon’s. What was really nice working with Tejas is that he himself is a creative director, and he manages visuals of his own shows. He had a clear vision of what he wanted when he came to us, but he also has a great quality of letting us designers do our thing.

These days it’s hard for musicians to put out a CD drive as everything is digital. Even in Tejas’s case, we knew his music will be up on Spotify and Saavn but he still wanted his fanbase to have some kind of souvenir. We decided to create a CD cover that also works as a poster, and it has a QR code which leads to the online download link. We also created these motifs using these fictional creatures, each representing a particular song, that come together to form a surreal world, which culminated into the poster.

What are some of your main plans for the rest of this year?

Apart from regular commercial work, I have been thinking of creating more zines. We are currently working on five different zines, and also figuring out ways to fund them.

These zines will be more in-depth than ‘Unfolding the Saree’. One of the zines, for ex-ample, is about sexual harassment in workplaces. It’s such a common thing and yet there isn’t much information available on how to deal with it. There is so much legalese you should know. Is there a way we can make it easy to understand? We have been collaborating with a Supreme Court lawyer for this project. 

The formats of these books are very important for me. I always experiment with them. ‘Unfolding the Saree’ format actually unfolds a saree! And we also want these books to be at the edge of fun and engaging, and at the same time, they should be able to connect the dots for a larger, probably serious issue.

Then there is our other project, KISS, for which we are creating a series of limited edi-tion wedding invitation cards with original designs, targeted mainly at the NRI community. We are also trying out different printing formats for these. 

Lastly, as a designer, do you face any specific challenges when it comes to printing?

I think there is a huge communication gap that I have experienced with printers. There should be a clear way of knowing how a printer works and what their capabilities are. Right now, that’s missing.

Another major pain point is that the majority of printers still work with Corel Draw files. And since designers don’t use it anymore, it is a big problem.  I am still not sure why the printers continue using it. And there is no reliable way to convert files to cdr extension as their could always be some difference in colour, shape, size etc. There should be a way to bridge this gap.

Also, there is a huge difference in price points. As a designer, I understand that there can be price difference when you go from one designer to another based on their expertise and experience. However, sometimes printers quote wildly different prices for the exact same job which is a bit perplexing.