“Design/Art is vague and cannot be learnt from a textbook”
Mira Malhotra is a graphic designer, visual artist and founder of Studio Kohl. With ten years of experience, she studied Applied Arts first, and later completed a post-graduate in Graphic Design from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. She works on design, strategy and visual branding for a variety of select, game-changing clients, including those for social good. In her free time she works on her own graphic art characterized often by humour, wit and the combined experience of being an Indian and the experience of looking at Indianness as an outsider. Her work primarily revolves around image-making, with a variety of themes. She is known for her specific style of hand-lettering; a bright, offbeat colour palette; a visceral use of line; and movement in her works.
1) Tell us about your journey from being a student who decided to take up art as a career and to being the owner of a successful studio, Studio Kohl.
It’s been a long one. I don’t know if Studio Kohl is successful yet, but it’s getting there, I guess it is how each defines success. I was always fond of drawing as a child, sometimes using my hands and legs as canvas, possibly to the chagrin of my parents, so it was a natural progression. I completed a Bachelor in Fine Arts (Applied Arts) from Rachana Sansad in 2006. At the time, this course was geared mainly towards advertising and print design. After a few small internships, I was working in a girls’ fashion magazine and then later a small, cozy advertising agency for around 2-3 years. It was then that I decided I needed more exposure as I wasn’t too happy in advertising. I did prefer editorial but felt it was too early to decide. So I applied to NID in two disciplines and got into graphic design. There I was shown many other forms of graphic design (for example, design for urban poor and semi-literate or illiterate audiences), more advanced terminology and process, like ‘design thinking’, and not advertising at all! It was great because it was extremely interesting and I am someone who gets bored easily doing one thing only.
2) What role has formal training from an institute like National Institute of Design played in your growth as an artist?
A lot. NID exposes you to so much that sometimes it’s hard to take it all in. It’s multi-disciplinary for starters, and even if you don’t take courses with other students, simply existing on campus with other disciplines can be beneficial. I have gone to the workshops, sawed, painted and used several machineries (usually reserved for the industrial design students) which I never got a chance to anywhere else. You’re also exposed to different viewpoints, which is great, even if you can feel lost and confused when you’re the recipient of that much information. Most of the time I would say NID contextualized the work we did. Instead of saying– here, just draw an isolated something, or design a logo or whatever it was, it taught us to scale up and factor in not only the design process but everyone and everything that is affected at each step. I think NID does a great job of opening your mind and reminding students of the diversity and effect of graphic design practice.
3) How would you describe your personal style? Also, how is your workflow pattern or your approach towards a project?
My personal style is more or less pop art, characterized with sunny colours and visceral use of preferably black line-work. I’m inspired by folk arts, objects in the bazaar and I would describe my aesthetic as homage to many kinds of work from India but just a contemporary take on it. I draw and I also design, but there is a huge bifurcation in the way I treat both. With drawing, usually I need a strong concept before, which guides my hand. A rough sketch based on a loose structure is created. Then I create a few more drawings in between to get it perfect. If I try to jump that process the result isn’t that good. You need your lines and your form to find the correct position and space on your canvas. Then, I ink on Photoshop with a Wacom tablet. Drawing is more instinctive and intuitive an approach and usually the work is solely for personal purposes, rarely created for a client or for payment.
My work pattern towards a client project is vastly different. If I take on a client, it’s usually for branding, publication or packaging on a long-term project, sometimes even for social good. There I use the NID treatment of being very thorough in background research/design research and also what the client needs to achieve with the design I come up with. Client satisfaction is the primary purpose. I actively create a lot of tools to engage the client and collect this information and I really truly shut up and listen. Designers’ habit of falling in love with their work, or imposing a solution that doesn’t suit the brief is something I avoid.
4) Which has been your most memorable piece of art that you have created? Can you give us a brief description about it and the tools you used for the same?
The last artist series I worked on, had a piece called ‘Tainted Love: Pretty Poison’ for Kulture Shop. I used a combination of digital and traditional methods to create it. It was first doodled in pencil during a very boring, for me, but dramatic building society meeting that concerned my Studio. It is loosely inspired by a 80s-90s popular Bollywood song that goes: ‘Zeher hai ki pyaar hai tera chumma’. I thought it would be a good idea to show how short term love (mostly just lust/excitement) fools us into thinking something is good for us. Or how we really like to do a thing we know is ‘bad’ for us, but we do it anyway because it feels too ‘good’ for a small while. I drew the basic structure first. To get to the final piece there was 1 more pencil hand drawing that was clearer and more defined, and finally smaller aspects were corrected, like the snake’s head, and created with the help of a few references to complete the overall effect. This was done in photoshop on my laptop with the help of a Wacom intuos4 pen tablet device.
5) Among various artists, who have been your most important influences?
Too many to name all. If I had to choose designwise, I’d say my faculty Chakradhar Saswade, and Armin Vit of UnderConsideration. Illustration-wise right now I am very interested in work by Lalu Prasad Shaw, Oliver Hibert , Andy J Miller and Alena Skarina.
6) What challenges do you feel an artist has to face on the job front?
The challenge of communication in design with the client for one. Design is rather subjective, and there is no ‘right’ solution. Each party interprets a brief differently. Also design is undervalued as it is difficult to measure. Design operates best when not noticed. If you’re only an artist-type you are more than likely to fall in love with your design. You have to force yourself to be objective.
7) Do you take interns or offer some training programs for budding artists?
I take interns all through the year, every year, who are selected carefully as I have only 2 spots at a time.
8) What message do you have in mind for the aspiring artists?
Make it a habit to learn by yourself. Don’t wait for people to mentor you, push you, force you. Design/art is vague and it can’t be learned from a textbook anyway, and is best learned by experience and practice. Go for it on your own. You will always have to be learning throughout your life. It will definitely make sure that you are always the best on the team or even by yourself you will need no help. Learn allied skills, like communicating with clients, running a business, choosing clients, writing, etc. to support these. Design is a very hard skill to quantify, and so you need to calm your anxious client, gain their trust and this is most of your job or you can’t release good work. Don’t be lazy, and be willing to start from the bottom. Very little is gained from taking shortcuts in the long run. Unfortunately I have seen too many design students cheat, misappropriate and plagiarise work. You’re only cheating yourself sadly, as clichéd as it might sound. If you aren’t putting your own personality into the work it’s an empty vessel. So be interested in other things, music, politics, science, gardening etc. and let that inspire you to create your own unique voice.