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  • Writer's pictureAarushi Agarwal

Design School to Design Director: Small Musings & Big Discoveries

Women & Design // Episode 8

Aarushi Agarwal is the Co-Founder and Creative Director at FIKA The Brand Brewers (@insidefika). A design and digital agency based in Bombay that may be boutique in size, but is big at heart. Having studied at Parsons New York, with a degree in Strategic Design and Management, she looks at design as a ritual. Conscious choices, small as they may be, that add depth and dimension to our everyday. And that we make our own.


Design is the doodles we drew on our stainless steel desks in the classroom.

Design is my mother’s A4 sheet with post-its as she got ready to close yet another issue.

Design is my father helping us make our way through a city using just a map and his memory.

Design is my sister's chase for comfort.

Design is my grandmother’s house, where every corner and every canvas has its own tale to tell.

Design is my uncle’s collection of objects - from a phone shaped like a boomerang to a chair shaped like a horse.

Design is the journey, from school to D school. From D School to (Creative) Director. And from Director to, well, who knows.

The start

While friends were checking off their A, B, and Cs, I was dreaming of all things D (no, not that D) - more like all things Design, Design thinking and not to mention the ‘drama’ that came with pursuing a career in a field that, at the time, didn’t seem exciting enough to even have a future. And while high school certainly helped cement my desire to pursue art and design, in hindsight, it barely touched the surface in terms of the world I was about to see. Enter New York. 2011. It is post-recession, and the only advice I get from the cabbie is ‘Don’t smile. New Yorkers don’t want to see you happy given the times we live in.’

But me, still in my teens, couldn’t help but smile about the places my mind would travel to, the things my eyes were going to see, and the magic my hands were about to create.

I expected D-school to be more about design softwares and techniques but in my case, turns out, that that wasn’t even half of it. At the time, learning about sustainability and balance sheets definitely had a few question marks around them but today they’re annotated with tick marks. In those three years, a few of my biggest life (and design) lessons were buried that today form the fundamentals for me as I take on the role of Design Director today.

The Cs - Collaboration, Criticism, and Context (and of course, caffeine?!)

There’s a reason why schools or universities stress so highly on teamwork. It’s the sort of thing that challenges you immensely (especially when you’re talking different cultural backgrounds) but also the thing that builds you up and urges you to see beyond. Fast forward to today and as I’m leading a team of 12 design and digital enthusiasts who aren’t in the same room (courtesy, pandemic) it’s become even more necessary. Why?

Because design without collaboration lacks perspective. Design without criticism lacks growth. And design without context lacks relevance.

Process over perfection

When you’ve got New York, or any other city for that matter, as your playground - it’s your journey that counts. Navigating through the subway to get to a museum for research, sitting on the sidewalk documenting what you see, looking through your window when you’re pulling yet another all-nighter are the sort of processes that teach you more about yourself than what you end up seeing as the finished piece. Yes, chase perfection if you feel that’s you - but it’s the process that you should be hedging your bets on. After all, processes encourage reflection. If you hit rewind (in life or on the assignment), what did you do well and what would you have done differently?

This forever work in progress is essential to your journey and evolution as a person and as a designer. And if it helps, capture this process in your doodles or your diary. Even if you happen to open it years later (like I do today) it’ll still have something to tell you from between the lines.

Look, hear, do. But also take time to stop and smell the coffee.

Absorb, absorb, absorb. And then put it into action. But also remember to hit pause when you need to. At that age, with that excitement, it may feel like you want to do everything and don’t have enough time to, but it’s essential to check in with yourself (and with what’s happening around you) every once in a while.

In 2011, I was consumed with classes, cooking, and clubs on repeat.

In 2021, it’s the work-life balance I seek.

The lesson: you’re never going to have enough time and there’s always going to be more - more to do, more to learn, more to have. But slowing down and getting cozy with that cuppa will at least let you know how you want to or should spend the rest of it. (Time management)

Seeing the big picture and giving attention to detail go hand in hand. The bigger picture and the tiny details go hand-in-hand?

More often than not - while doing either one of these we lose sight of the other. Why? Because it’s easy to obsess over the small stuff and lose sight of why you began doing it in the first place. And it’s also easy to picture the end destination without ensuring that you’ve got the groundwork right. At FIKA, we have a simple analogy. What’s the point of the beans if you don’t know what you’re going to brew? And what’s a brew without the best of beans? Be it a design school or full-time job, an assignment, or any brand, don’t forget to do one without the other. Together it’s what makes it matter. It’s not multiple choice. It’s checking off all the boxes.

Selling yourself as a designer isn’t selfish.

As designers, we’re so used to being the ones behind the scenes but if you’re not going to take center stage, show off, and mingle with the crowd every once in a while, no one is going to know that you’re the star of the show. Showcase your work, leverage social media, write for magazines (tsk tsk), (virtually) network with people, have conversations with strangers, and choose workplaces that don’t shy away from giving you your due credit. The world may be smaller than you think, and design, way bigger.

So - what’s your journey?

We're always open to other perspectives, opinions, and a good chat over some coffee or tea. We'd love to host a conversation with you, head on over to our Discord and get in touch!

With 🧡 Team WID.


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