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Talking Global, Staying Local – Roshnee Desai

Design Log 22 Aug

With an array of experience to boot, the young designer recently set up her own independent graphic design and branding studio, LOCAL. What prompted her to launch this, the kind of work she believes in, the people that inspire her – we wanted to know it all.

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First Look at Roshnee Desai's LOCAL.

To put it simply, Roshnee Desai’s life is filled with experiences. In her own words, “there’s been a lot of different things that have contributed to where I am today”. In July 2017, the designer launched LOCAL with a guiding principle of Form + Function + Culture = Good Design. “I want to use LOCAL to research locally and apply that research to whatever culture we’re creating for.”

Growing up in a family of doctors, Roshnee spent her childhood trotting across the motherland, re-drawing the packaging of gifts that aunts brought her from America, reading a lot and drawing her own comics. The pivotal moment of her life, however, was when she won Go 92.5 FM’s college radio hunt while still in junior college. “Not only did I get to host my own radio episode, I wrote my own script for it as well. That’s when I realised you can make a career (and money!) from media and the creative arts.” And so, after close to 10 years of working within the creative arts, I decided to set off on my own.

The reason I started LOCAL was because I felt that design wasn’t talking to the people it needed to talk to, in the language it needed to speak in. Fashion Design and Architecture have always done a great job but Graphic design in India was currently, quite alienating and not well researched visually and so had no clear identity or purpose. It is just visual pollution. If you walk our streets, that’s all we see, visual noise. And this happens because we undermine our consumers and don’t respect our own design voice. A lot of graphic designers just use their projects to fill their portfolios with pretty work that they saw done somewhere internationally, but will it work here? Can you make something that your audience will love and yet well designed? And so, this was something that I wanted to check if LOCAL could address. So you see LOCAL is like a mouthpiece, it is a studio with a very clear agenda.

‘Fakt Purushansathi’ for Taxi Fabric

Design Fabric: Your reasons for setting up LOCAL are very interesting and also resonates in the kind of work you do and the aesthetic of the company. Can you tell us a little about how you approach work and the dream companies or projects that you would like to work with via LOCAL?

Roshnee Desai: The idea with LOCAL is, whichever brand we’re working with, we use the principle of researching the local. So, even if you’re launching a German brewery in India, you need to understand how much is it that Indians understand about German culture. You then design for that. I don’t only mean designing with an Indian aesthetic. It’s about going on-ground and researching that brand’s ‘local’, whatever it may be.

My dream project would be to design for our museums, theatres and cultural venues and historical sites. India has so much heritage, but I don’t think they’re branded and designed to make for great touristic experiences. I also want to help startups that want to do big, meaningful work and are looking for design to elevate them. It will also be fun to work with arts and crafts firms, with rural and local craftsmen and indigenous workers. I want to see if we can use their work in graphic design and make it more sustainable.

But really, the concept of LOCAL could be applied to everyone. Even an old company that wants to update its current brand with an eye on current culture and what their current customers want or an international company that wants to launch in India, or Indian companies that want to go abroad. The idea is to do on-ground visual research and bring in local visual languages in design.

'The Bengal Project' done during Roshnee Desai's tenure at Saffron Brand Consultants

DF: Over the last 10 years you’ve worked with a multitude of companies and a fascinating bunch of people. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences?

RD: I started off working with MTV in the design department. At the time, MTV used to only hire design students from NID or JJ School of Art and here I was, without a portfolio. But, I got the job! It was my first design job. I worked at MTV for 2 years as a Junior Motion Graphic artist, and learnt the ropes from an extremely patient and skilled bunch of seniors.

I then went on to work with Wally Olins at Saffron Brand Consultants. I was the first designer in their India office. Although overwhelming,  I got some exceptional international experience here. After working there for 2 years, I moved on to work with Landor Associates.

At Landor, I worked with a list of big corporates like Taj, Mahindra, ICICI, Anita Dongre, La Folie Labs, etc. and it was great. But, at some point, I felt like I needed a formal degree in design. So, I packed up and moved to London, where I studied Graphic Moving Image from the London College of Communication. It was one of the most rewarding years of my life.

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Sketches and roughs of the script for her film 'Cover Up'

In London, I met design legend Michael Wolff and even though he wasn’t looking for interns at the time, I asked if I could shadow him, and he agreed! I learnt so much from him. Apart from designing and how its principles are to be applied everywhere, even simple things like how humility is really what makes you a better professional than others. I also met some very inspiring people through him.

After that, I moved back to India and joined Culture Machine as their Design Lead, overlooking all of their other digital brands. It was a very exciting place to be in and I had a wonderful team that came together to create some award winning work and some memorable internet brands like Blush, Being Indian and Awesomesauce.

Around this time, my Taxi Fabric had launched and that really opened my eyes. I saw how local people were reacting to it, also, my film Cover Up started getting international recognition and winning awards. This made me realise that design has more work to do than it currently is. And so, after months of contemplation, I finally had the guts to tell my boss that I wanted to start off on my own.



Experimental mixed media film, made by Roshnee Desai for her Major Project at London College of Communication, exploring the themes of subconscious of a medium, a city and a character and the different ways to express it.

DF: Through your career, what are 3 projects you've worked on that you've loved and why?

RD: The first one will have to be Cover Up, a film that I made. It’s a 2-minute, mixed-media film that was filmed in New York and won a couple of awards. It was very special to me because it was the voice of an Indian woman and was extremely well received. In fact, a lot of women from around the world said that they felt the same way so it showed me that we’re not that different after all. It also made me feel more confident as an Indian designer.

The second one is the Taxi I designed for Taxi Fabric. It showed me that the normal, every day Indian is also receptive to design and that design truly is for everyone. It made it clear to me that design is democratic.

The last one will have to be this project I’m currently working on, which is Dr. Sheth’s for Indian Skin. It is LOCAL’s first branding project. Together we created a luxury medical skincare brand for Indian skin where the products have been designed based on three generations of medical research. Working on this project has taught me a lot and really set the standard for what LOCAL could become. You’re being inspired by India, you’re saluting your inspiration but taking it forward to an international platform.

Branding, Packaging design and Art Direction done by Roshnee Desai for Dr Sheth's Skin and Hair Clinics

DF: Who are the 3 people that inspire you?

RD: Definately Michael Wolff who has been a great mentor to me. And he taught me how design means adding an element of joy to an otherwise boring company!

Alan Fletcher whose book The Art of Looking Sideways was my first design book and the one that made me want to become a designer.

And lastly, I’d say a lot of women in business – Zaha Hadid, Sheryl Sandberg, etc. Women who’ve really cut through the glass ceiling and made their mark.

DF: The 3 Indian designers whose work you’re inspired by are?

RD: Sujata Keshavan! As a person, and as a designer, she brings a whole lot of research to her work.

Charles Correa, mainly because I think architects have done a great job in design.

And, Manish Arora. The man has gone mad and done it SO well with design. He’s literally taken Indian design, the kitsch and everything, and served it up to the international market with a whole lot of personality. I think it’s very interesting what he’s done.

DF: Lastly, if you had one message for young, upcoming Indian designers looking to to do something of their own, what would it be?

RD: I just want to say that when you get into design, it’s a life choice. So make sure you want to be there for the long run. If you start a firm now, you need to make sure you’re there for the next 40+ years and that you’re still relevant. So think about that. Secondly, industry experience is extremely important and teaches you several things that are essential. Don’t be impulsive; think about the quality and lifespan of your career.

Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India.

Image source: www.wedesignlocal.com