Design & Money: How Good Design Becomes Good Business

Continuing our conversations on ‘Design & Money’, Amit K Gulati, founder & MD Incubis Consultants narrates how good design becomes good business and why it’s important to sensitize clients to the design-process so that they can learn to see failure as a stepping-stone to a greater success…

Incubis was set up as a design studio in the mid 90s together with a close friend from NID, Sabyasachi Paldas; My brother, Rohit, an architect, joined us in a couple of years. We started in a time where Design (especially Industrial Design) was relatively unknown (a time when NID and NIIT were used interchangeably and Design meant “Dress-Design”, whatever that is). There was no mobile telephone, no email and no internet, which meant that the only way to get potential clients to know you was to either connect through office switchboards or wait patiently for appointments in assorted receptions. One worked out of the backyard at home (or in offices of small clients who were often equally broke!). A PC with an Intel 486 chip was an absolute luxury that was the result of close to a year of toiling over a drafting board (How many designers are familiar with this term anymore?). Though things seem somewhat quaint and laid-back in hindsight, one was actually quite charged-up and hands-on about getting companies and entrepreneurs to know, understand and experience the power of design. Though often insecure about the prospects of our education at NID, we were still mostly optimistic, landing new clients (and learning at their expense) was satisfying in itself.

Our enthusiasm and reckless can-do spirit more than made up for our relative lack of experience—many mistakes were made and one had to learn to apologize often and then go out and find new errors to trip over. We were lucky to find many equally adventurous clients who were happy to work with wide-eyed rookies. These early clients deserve a lot of credit for letting us discover where design would take us and for being generous with new opportunities and guidance. We realized that we were mostly hired to give shape to and help realize dreams nurtured by others, and shine our unique point of view through the cracks.

We grew up with a sense that we were lucky to be paid to do stuff we genuinely enjoyed and money was seen as a bit of a side effect. We lacked the hard-nosed profit motive of true entrepreneurs and though that was a blessing in our early days, the lack of business nous became a major impediment to growth in later stages. I don’t think the queasiness of asking clients for our hard-earned money has left us completely, with often-disastrous consequences.

It takes some time to see design actually making an impact for clients and it is only once the multiplier effect kicks-in that both designers and those who hire them start recognizing the huge value and outsize returns embedded in the engagement. It’s important to recognize the contribution of design and ensue that time invested in projects as well as professional equity are rewarded without sacrificing humility and honesty-of-purpose.

It was only when we started expanding the team slowly that the need for more discipline and a systematic approach to managing financial and other resources became obvious. It would have been a lot nicer to have this simple realization dawn on us earlier on! When I look around me its quite clear that design is good for business when done right, however, not necessarily the best business to be in – So the motivation to go on irrespective of the financial upside needs to be high. Being an entrepreneur and being a designer are not always compatible and not taking oneself too seriously and retaining a sense of fun and excitement is what it takes to tide the swings.

Good design becomes good business when designers realize that they are providing a professional-service (not unlike dentists, lawyers and accountants) and high standards, responsiveness and constant improvement need to stay in lockstep with creativity and original thinking. It’s, of course, equally important to sensitize clients to the iterative and often indeterminate nature of the design-process so that they learn to see failure as a stepping-stone.

The thing about design as a business is that no two clients are alike and no two projects use the same process — One not only creates products, services and spaces for clients, one ends up reinventing the process behind the design service very often to suit new situations and expectations. This continuously-variable environment is where one needs immense reserves of intensity and stamina. Scaling-up creative services on this changing-canvas is a challenge we’re still grappling with. It is the sheer diversity of what one can do with design that makes this marathon totally worth it.

Design is all about creating an ecosystem with diversity of thought and constructive dissent backed by precision and clarity. It’s about multi-disciplinary teams that mesh together and sustaining a high ‘tolerance for ambiguity’. With age and experience comes the danger of becoming jaded and predictable; it’s important to then to surround oneself with and mentor young, passionate professionals and allow them to explore fearlessly. What I’ve also realized is that there is no ideal size and scale for a design company, however, I suspect smaller is more manageable and affords greater creative freedom.

What also keeps things exciting is finding new and impactful areas to discover. Getting out of a comfort zone and back into the learning curve is what really gets creativity going. Here in India, we’re fortunate to be in an environment where many things are broken and design is one of the most potent ways of fixing complex systems. We need to start caring about the outcomes of our work and gradually align ourselves to the kind of design that will deliver lasting and meaningful change.

Here are some images from Incubis’ iconic 100 m long iconic ‘Mudra’ installation at the T3 air terminal at New Delhi.

delhi-airport-mudras mudra-1 mudra-3 mudra-2

Amit-profile

Amit Krishn Gulati studied industrial design at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad and is the founder and managing director of Incubis Consultants, one of India’s leading design firms with a diverse mix of Fortune 500 multinationals as well as several start-ups as clients. Incubis employs close to 50 professionals in Design, Engineering and Architecture at its New Delhi studios. Incubis’ clients value the unique ‘Experience Design’ process, which brings together user insight, local knowledge and innovative zeal to create a wide range of built-forms, spaces, products and service offerings.

Incubis is known for its design work in the low cost sector with innovative projects for Ginger hotels, Honda, Unilever and GE. Recently, Incubis conceptualized and helped create the iconic 100 m long ‘Mudra’ (hand-gesture) installation that has become the celebrated symbol of the new T3 airline terminal at New Delhi.

Amit is also one of the founding investors and design-advisor at, Barista Lavazza, India’s pioneering espresso retailer and at Eye-Q — a successful and fast-growing chain of affordable eye hospitals targeted towards low-income patients in small towns.

In addition to the consulting work at Incubis, Amit is involved with design education and is a visiting faculty at The School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, IIT Roorkee, and The National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Amit is actively engaged in creating design awareness in India and served on the CII National Committee on Design for several years.

Amit is the recipient of several awards from organizations such as, the Plastindia Foundation, Indian Society of Lighting Engineers, Art Centre Europe, Sony Corporation Japan, National Gallery of Modern Art and the Ashok Jain Foundation.

Leave a comment