She has been in the forefront of the brand-identity and design movement in India. Sujata Keshavan has fashioned brands across a range of sectors and many a client has her to thank for image-revival.
From the quirky plastic bags carrying the spoils of the latest round of retail therapy, to an ATM in Jammu-Kashmir; the helpful welcome signs at an airport, to the logo of an IT company on the NASDAQ -100 — Sujata Keshavan's work is everywhere.
Ray+Keshavan, the brand consulting and design company co-founded by Sujata, has fashioned brands across a range of sectors — hospitality, telecom, education, healthcare, financial services, FMCG, art, and that's only naming a few.
Functioning from a tasteful 160-year-old building in the heart of Bengaluru, the award-winning 22-year-old firm has been a pioneer in design, communicating the Science behind art in ways that reflect on the bottom-line of its influential clients.
“Design is not art, it fulfils a purpose,” explains Sujata. “It addresses a certain need or situation.”
The executive creative director of R+K, honoured with the Outstanding Woman Professional of the Year award in 2007 by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, insists that her work isn't about being fashionably creative or even ‘cool'. Guided by a strong sense of aesthetics, hers is not “airy fairy design”, but “strategic design that helps businesses do better”.
Businesses come to her with a problem, she says, while she finds the solution to it in design.
“Many a brand has her to thank for image-revival,” says brand expert Harish Bijoor. “What she has to offer has been tested in the market on the score of intelligent-design, and just not plain old graphics oriented work that is eye-comfort candy.”
The process could take up to a year, Sujata explains, and is backed by market research and brand engagement. She works “on the ecosystem of design”, also bringing on board employees who wonder why their company is spending significant amounts on something other than salaries or a functioning coffee machine.
But is a makeover a direct ticket to better profits and performance? The “transformational” power of design is measurable, Sujata insists, either through the number of new customers, items sold or visibility.
Yet, she admits candidly: “Window dressing can only help so much.” Good design does not amount to much without a quality product.
It is this emphasis on quality and professionalism that led Sujata to start her own firm in 1989.
After her course at the National Institute of Design, she dabbled in advertising and design for newspapers, both of which she found did not allow enough space for a designer's opinions.
She then headed to Yale University's School of Art on a full scholarship for her post-graduation, studying under graphic designer Paul Rand by whom she was inspired.
With more clarity on what makes for good design, she decided to return to India, she narrates. Apple Mac in hand — one of the first in Delhi, if the customs officials were to be believed — she joined an old boss Ram Ray to set up a graphic design company that would bring the standards and professionalism of design in the Western nations to a field unexplored in India.
In the 1990s, as the lumbering Ambassadors and Fiats gave way to the sleek Maruti Suzukis, and the nascent Indian IT industry aspired to show just how flat the world was, R+K took off.
In post-liberalised India, it took more than a well-established family name to build a brand and her firm could pride itself on knowing its audience.
“Sujata has been in the forefront of the brand-identity and design movement in India. Her contributions have been robust, cutting-edge and differentiated,” Bijoor adds.
Personally, following her career choice was not a challenge, Sujata insists. Married to historian Ramachandra Guha, with two children, she was already a mother in R+K's early days. Her parents — her mother an artist and father an engineer with an eye for design — had always supported her educational choices.
The challenge, according to her, is in convincing customers to step out of their comfort zone.
“We spend more time than we like trying to convince clients to do something different from the competition. Companies here are often reassured by what they've already seen,” she says.
Sujata has since sold her company to WPP. The work from the stables of Ray+Keshavan The Brand Union, as it is now known, from the airports to the economic centres, is more visible and influential than ever. It's a journey that has “never been boring”, the woman behind it all signs off.