Ashwini Deshpande- The co-founder & Director of Elephant Design Pvt Ltd. is impacting some of India’s most well-known brands.
Creativity is not everyone’s cup of tea, but everything needs creativity to be interesting. Born and brought up in Aurangabad, Ashwini was always inclined towards creativity and visual storytelling. After trying and testing elocution, debates, dance, writing, and drawing, Ashwini wanted to walk on an unconventional path. NID- the premier design institute in Ahmedabad selected 24 students to join the undergraduate batch in 1983, and Ashwini was one of them. New to the design career, she was unaware of the nuances at that time, but extremely excited and powered up to follow a road less walked.
Ashwini believes “NID opened my mind, broadened my horizons. I came out with a conviction that design is a team game. I understood that design always has a purpose, a parameter, and a problem to solve.” In the late 80s, planning a large-scale, sustainable multi-disciplinary design consulting company called Elephant was exciting, path-breaking, and created a benchmark. Elephant raised the bar of design impact in India. The name was inspired by an interesting story of blind men and the elephant. It is always about adding another dimension to form a richer, bigger picture.
The name has worked well as it has an excellent recall. Ashwini is a strong proponent for sharing and giving back to the professional community. On weekends, she regularly contributes to activities of the Association of Designers of India as an active member of the Pune Chapter. She also spends time for TiE – The Indus Entrepreneurs’ activities as a Charter Member of the Pune team. Her biggest hobby is Elephant.
A canvas of innovation
Elephant, founded in 1989 by graduates from the National Institute of Design, is an independent multi-disciplinary design-led innovation consultancy that solves complex challenges that focus on people and the future. The focus is on breakthrough insights, building brands, developing products and services, and bringing digital/spatial experiences to life that enable clients to align towards a bigger picture. Elephant has been around for 30+ years demonstrating the power of design & design thinking. There are only a few organized & long-standing players in the design consulting domain.
Ashwini believes that India can benefit hugely from the impact of good design. Elephant’s biggest strength is their experience in every Indian context & category, along with the ability to bring cultural insights to life through the brands, products & experiences. Large assignments or challenges that need a very quick turnaround are a specialty of their company. As the top design consultancy in India, Elephant has the responsibility of staying profitable and progressive which gives them the liberty to select clients, projects, and teams with the best opportunities for creating impact. “This freedom is almost unbelievable & it still fascinates me,” says Ashwini.
Elephant’s client list spans across Foods, Personal Care, White Goods, Banking & Finance, Automobile, IoT, Healthcare. They are associated with large Indian conglomerates like the Tata Group, Mahindra Group, Future Group, Reliance Group, and frontrunners like Asian Paints, Marico, Organic India, MTR, ICICI. Some start-ups where they have managed to make a difference include Epigamia, Licious, Too Yumm, &me, Tasty Tales, Witlinger, and Paper Boat.
Some of their client relationships like Symphony (World’s No 1 Coolers brand) go beyond 25 years. Some clients have changed jobs, domains & even geographies, but have continued to reach out with interesting problems to solve. Elephant is a highly experienced team of 70+ design consultants straddling areas like Product Development, Industrial Design, User Experience, Design Strategy & Research, Brand Strategy, Space Design & Visual Communication.
Elephant has some exciting rituals. Monday Meetings, Friday Knowledge Sessions, and a fruit day every month for discussing good eating habits. In safer times, there are potlucks, parties, Elefunk jamming sessions, and even EPL – Elephant Premier League. Elephant consistently inspires magical change for all associated.
A place of equality
“I believe entrepreneurship or leadership should not be judged by gender, age, or geography. There should be neither any concessions nor handicaps. I have never looked at my success or failure through the lens of gender. Nobody should use that as an excuse to feel superior or inferior. Each of us has a unique set of strengths. The sooner one discovers those the better for moving ahead positively. Staying on course, showing up at all times & working every day helps you become the leader like there is no other option but to be great,” said Ashwini.
After working with many women entrepreneurs as clients or as mentees Ashwini believes that women in India need to work on their confidence. Everything else would fall in place. Interestingly, many large & small design consultancies in India have women in leadership. Elephant provide equal opportunities. The team’s gender ratio has always been balanced.
Women’s professional capabilities are no different than men’s in Elephant’s perspective and we have consciously dissociated our actions from all gender-based biases. The philosophy is that sum total is always far bigger than individuals. Ashwini’s vision for design is not limited to Elephant. “While our government is emphasizing ‘Make in India’ & Atmanirbhar Bharat, I do hope it rightfully begins with ‘Design in India’; because we are ready!” she says.
Ashwini’s advice for women entrepreneurs
- Show up. Be there for your team and for your clients/ associates. No matter what. There are good days & there are lows. Show up anyway.
- Don’t hold back on great work. Everything else is secondary.
- Distinguish between non-negotiable & flexible decisions. It is ok to pivot/ change some decisions in times of crisis. But not all.
- Building competencies is the only way to build credibility. Focus on adding value.
- Learn to listen. Build the big picture with your team.
A book that inspires Ashwini
- “Design for The Real World” by Victor Papanek.
- “The Path: Creating Your Mission Statement for Work & for Life” by Laurie Beth Jones
- “Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All” by David & Tom Kelley
Awards and Milestones
“My father used to say you should wear your success, but lightly. For me, awards & recognitions are small amusements on the way. There is no point in getting distracted by them. They are neither pit stops nor destinations,” says Ashwini
- Elephant’s stellar work has been recognized at several national & international platforms such as Rebrand International (USA), Spark Awards (USA), ‘A’ Design Awards (Italy), Worldstar Packaging (Germany), Design for Asia (Hong Kong), CII Design Excellence, NASSCOM Design4India & many more.
- The founders have been Speakers & Jury members at various international seminars & awards like Cannes Lions, One Show, D & AD London, Design for Asia HK, etc.
- Elephant has been ranked as No 1 Design Agency by the ET Brand Equity Agency Reckoner for more than five years in a row including the most recent rankings.
- Ashwini has been listed among Impact 50 Most Influential Women in Media, Marketing & Advertising six times in a row.
Find purpose, the means will follow – Mahatma Gandhi