Kyoorius with Kejriwal

10 Sep,2015

 

It’s tough interviewing someone who is always consistent in his views. For, Rajesh Kejriwal, Founder CEO of Kyoorius, is very sure of what he wants to achieve as he speaks to Pradyuman Maheshwari. The tenth edition of Kyoorius Designyatra will only get better, with marquee speakers and a varied mix of delegates, he says.

 

So it’s 10 years of Designyatra. How is this year going to be different from every other?

I don’t think the conference should change just because it’s in its tenth year. We’ve been changing things every year anyway, depending on audience feedback and our own perception. This year, too, there is an inspiring line-up of speakers. We are doing a few surprise things – not because it’s our tenth year — but because we’ve learnt a few things at Melt. For instance, we’re trying to incorporate more experience zones than expo stalls.

 

In terms of speakers, what’s special this year?

From the perspective of content, the speakers are all good. In terms of ‘famous’ speakers, we have Jessica Walls, John Wilkins and such. This year, we have a lot of speakers who are not that well-known but have done awesome work.

 

And Indian speakers?

I think there are a few like Autowale, so we’ve not got from the fraternity but people who’ve used design knowingly or unknowingly to solve some problems.

 

Given that digital is all over, is there a need for a separate IAA Digiyatra, which is in its third year?

Digiyatra, it’s in the third year.  In a sense, digital has evolved considerably, digital has changed considerably.

 

Yes, digital has become all encompassing. There is nothing which is not digital. We are killing it next year. At Designyatra, all our speakers use the digital medium. Today, you can’t get a conference in communication which does not use digital. So how can there be a separate focus on Digiyatra?!

 

At Designyatra, ones see a lot of paper. Guess the fact that you are a paper company, you can’t wish it away. But today it is all about tablets and smartphones!

It’s a lame attempt at me trying to keep my business alive! (laughs).

 

Jokes apart, the paper is still the focus around design in India (and Designyatra), right?

Paper still has its nuances. There are things that you cannot do without the medium being paper. There are things that are evolving for which digital makes more sense. From the paper perspective, if you see in 2000, 80-85% of our business was stationery. Today, stationery composes of may be 1% of my business. We are more into brochures, catalogues, then came your wedding invites which all of a sudden started becoming very expensive and very different. So, the medium has changed. The needs have changed. But paper is still used. I’m not sure how long, how much technology will take away paper but I feel if technology comes in, it also needs paper to promote itself. So, there is obviously going to be use of paper all the time. Yes, it’s coming down. What’s not coming down in terms of usage, China is bringing it down in terms of making it a commodity.

 

One of the highlights of Designyatra in large formatted writing board etc. Are you going to be switching to an app that we can just stick out there, I pads.. You still want people to put pen to paper?

Of course, as designers people do love because I don’t think designers can make do without doodling. We are talking about the graphic community which irrelevantly even if they are sitting in a restaurant they take a napkin and start doodling. So, pen and paper can never be segregated from this community of designers.

 

Do you see a change in the kind of the audience structure, the delegate structure?

Of course, over the 10 years immensely.

 

About the constitution of delegates, last year one saw a lot of clients attending. Do you expect it to be the same?

It’s increased. Ten years ago, our focus was purely on graphic design and 80 per cent of the speakers had it as their background. Then came digital, and design started being looked upon more as a tool than an aesthetic way of doing things. Today, graphic designers are only 20 per cent of the speakers. Similarly, the audience has moved from pure designers to advertising and digital guys, to clients who come to Designyatra to check out trends and see how they can use design in different ways to communicate.

 

But there are still some design companies who do not attend. It’s the same with some old-time designers some of whom come, while others don’t. Is there a specific reason?

I don’t know. [With design companies] I think it’s a matter of trying to see if it helps their business. If some design studio does not want to grow beyond its comfort level, it may not come. [With old design hands] I think it’s more to do with their personal comfort level about which areas they want or don’t want to go into. The marketing communications industry has changed because of the internet; not all skill-sets have kept up.

 

Is it also because you are very rigid and particular about not calling the big dads. At most conferences, you always call them to speak or give away an award or felicitate, etc. You don’t do that to people.

It’s not about giving importance. Whether it is young or old designers, I will always call them if they’ve something which is content-worthy. If they don’t have what I think is content worthy for the audience, then I won’t call them. My focus is the audience out there and I’ve try and make sure that every speaker who comes on stage keeps that  audience occupied. If a speaker is not able to hold the attention of the audience for any reason, I’m not talking about maybe a small group of 100 designers or 100 people in the audience may not like a particular speaker because he or she comes from a different field altogether though they could take inputs from that field as an inspiration for something that they do. But it’s a larger quantity that should be occupied, should feel inspired being there, should feel that they’ve profited from being there.

 

Are you happy with the way your D&AD-backed awards have happened?

Very happy, and I think this year, the work has been far better than the last. The jury, and even the D&AD president, mentioned there has been a lot of good work here which could’ve won a D&AD. I think there is a lot of Indian work that could win globally.

 

I did hear one jury member say the work was not all that great…

Must be an Indian. If you [compare the entries from last year to this year’s] there’s a context, and you are able to see whether there has been any good work this year. In advertising, there wasn’t as much good work this year compared to the last. Next year, you’ll see much better advertising.

 

More importantly, does it attract the best work done in the country?

Fairly, yes. We’ve got a lot of new studios, though some of the old studios did not participate. But that always happens. We had a fair amount of work that was awesome, and one of them – the winner of the Black Elephant — was really good.

 

So, you have a Black Elephant winner this year.

Yeah.

 

You normally never tell who is..

I don’t.

 

So, one or two?

I don’t know, I don’t think even the jury members know. But I’ll tell you one more thing about the awards which I found very surprising. There are a fair number of design studios which have won but there are a larger number of advertising agencies which have also won. I’m not sure where the industry is headed.

 

Are clients also sending in entries directly?

Yes. I have a client who submitted an entry and won an award. Many clients have submitted entries, but this one, won.

 

When Designyatra first started, many of us didn’t attend because we thought you are a paper merchant who is doing this essentially to attract designers so that they buy your product…

It started off that way, as a purely promotional exercise for me. As a paper merchant, I wanted to be closer to the community; a friend rather than a vendor. In some ways, it was also about giving back to society. But after the first year, you could see the passion and the hunger that this built in the audience. And after 2007, it also became a passion for me, and had nothing to do with paper.

 

So are you selling more paper because of this?

I don’t think so. No.

 

And you still you are a businessman?

Yes, I am (laughs) but this is something that my family is not very happy about.

 

I remember you once said that you were a not-for-profit thing and have converted yourself into not-for-loss…

Yes. We are now at that stage where Designyatra is breaking even.

 

Which is a bigger success, Designyatra or Melt?

Melt, obviously. It’s going to become a bigger festival, overall, which has nothing to do with design or advertising. That industry size is bigger than [our] industry size.

 

At Designyatra, you have people stuck in the hall, while that wasn’t the case with Melt. Is this a comment on the kind of crowd which attends?

No, partly it has to do with the fact that we could’ve done things better at Melt. But it was the first year. You’ll see a lot of changes happening next year because we’ve learnt that a conference like Designyatra is good with content-rich speakers who keep the audience occupied. But [at Melt] there are advertising, media, marketing, digital and social media attendees and the knowledge they want to gain is specific. So while the main hall of Melt was not full, the breakaway sessions — of which 15 were happening at any given point — were always packed.

 

While you parallel tracks at Melt, at Designyatra, there’s just a single track.

No, we are doing some things in the evenings, like workshops, because we feel they are required to enhance learning. We can’t do workshops for 1,400 people but we can do them for 400 people. So we are incorporating workshops this year in Designyatra. Day time will be restricted to the conference. But we are taking some side sessions, like The Critic. This year, we are having intense, get-your-hands-dirty kind of workshops.

 

Has the interest in design changed over the last 10 years?

Of course. From design being looked upon as an aesthetic skillset, it is now seen as a tool to be used in business/ product/ communication and as a strategy as well. You look at example of a company like Apple, which has become hugely successful because of design. There are companies taking design more seriously now than before.

 

As for Designyatra, when did you realise you were on to a good thing that could also become the mainstay of your business?

For the first three years, it was about getting the best out of Designyatra, even for my paper business. After 2009, the year we moved to Mumbai, it was no longer about paper as much as it was about a passion for doing something. I was driven by passion, but also by the fact that this will help fuel a design movement in India. I’ve seen that happening, and even though I’m not the cause of it, [I know] we’ve played a small role in helping that evolution happen.

 

When did you think it would become so big?

I realised that it has become big when we were voted among the Top 3 conferences in the world.

 

Given that digital is taking over the creative business, don’t you think you should now start evangelising paper?

I don’t know. I would probably try to figure out how I can do a business in digital rather than in paper now. Off the track from Designyatra, we are into specialty papers, not commodity papers. The specialty paper business globally is declining rapidly, and the biggest specialty paper merchants have closed shop. The larger paper mills have all gone bankrupt in Europe and the US. I’m not sure how big this industry will remain. But India is at a very low base, so there is still ample growth possibility. But is it a business that will become a focus point for us? I don’t think so.

 

In the last 10 years, were there any lows that you would rather forget?

I did a design award in 2007 which was very shoddy. But I learnt from it, closed it down and only brought it back when I was able to professionalise it with the D&AD partnership. The winners [of 2007] might have loved it. I regret that I made it happen without doing much research.

 

Then you brought it back in 2013. Anything else in the conference?

In the conference, in the early years, I did not research the presentation quality of speakers. Some were good names but not great presenters. That was a low. In 2008, we decided we are going to see the speakers first, and also curate the talk that’s happening on stage. So we asked for the presentations ahead. Now we write to speakers telling them what we’d like them to speak on.

 

Why is that you are able to do it so well in Designyatra, but not for the advertising folks?

This year, Melt was done in too much of a hurry, put together in two months, which was a disaster. We were not able to have a dialogue with the speakers because of the time constraint, which was a loss for us. This year, we are already in discussions with speakers we want for [the next] Melt.

 

Last year, you mentioned that you are looking at doing some other design conferences like interiors. Is that still on track?

We are trying to do that and will probably launch it in November of 2016 or 2017. I don’t want to do two festivals and not do either well. I want to get Melt to the quality and level that I personally would like it to be, perhaps of the standard of Kyoorius. Once we’ve achieved that, I’ll move on to the next, but not before that.

 

A shorter version of this interview appeared in dna of brands on September 7, 2015

 

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