Hi Simoul! Can you tell us a bit more about your background? Who are you outside of the design profession? What have you been studying and working on?
In my free time I enjoy underwater documentaries and really good television. I love biology and you’ll often see it influencing my work through projects. I have started to enjoy travelling because of the last few years. I spent six months last year at the ESAD de Reims, France, on an exchange semester without knowing any French. That period helped me a lot to grow my personal style and focus on my craft as a designer. My design school in India has an interesting structure that allows you to pursue a design project on anything you’re interested in every semester. I spent the last four years working on projects that ranged from behavioural addictions, the gender pay gap, climate change, systems design, visual strategy and graphic design. In the meantime I freelanced for Sagmeister & Walsh, A Good Feeling, Vogue and Wieden & Kennedy.
How did you find your way into design?
I have been drawing since I was three. My parents believed in putting me for a bunch of different classes to figure out what I wanted to pursue outside of academics. I eventually decided that out of all the classes I was taking, art class felt the best. In India and in my family, academics are super important. I was a straight A student in school. When I reached high school, I realised that I wanted to pursue visual art full time. My school drawing teacher’s son was a student at NID then. That was how I found about design.
What has your experience as an emerging designer been like?
I am extremely fortunate to have worked with incredible studios in India and now at Pentagram. Before coming here, I did three internships at extremely different set ups in terms of scale, type of work and at different roles. In my third year at design school, I was selected by the National Skill Development Council of India and IndiaSkills to represent my country for Graphic Design at the 44th Worldskills Abu Dhabi. I had to compete with graphic designers from over 150 countries. All of these experiences changed how I looked at design and how I responded to different teams, projects and timelines.
My first day at Pentagram felt very surreal. It only sunk in when I ate lunch with Michael and the rest of our team later that day. It was also my first time in New York. It’s been a wonderful experience because I felt like there was something to learn everyday. Both design and non-design related. Being a part of an immensely talented and encouraging team, I saw the growth I underwent in the smallest things like the hygiene with which you set up and save a file. My biggest takeaway was how humble and open to learn everyone is.
You’ve been the recipient of multiple awards and accolades. — Something that emerging designers and professionals learn along their professional journey is the need to advocate for themselves. Can you tell us about your approach?
The first time it happened, I was in my sophomore year and I had applied for the 25 under 25 program by Tata Nano and Vh1. It was a summit that brought some of the best talent in the country to network with actual clients and firms in the industry. I learned the importance being able to talk about myself and started putting myself out there. I realised that reading about graphic design in different contexts helped me find out about people who were doing things I wanted to learn.
When it comes to applying for scholarships or awards, it is not very different from applying to a school or a job. The point is make it relevant. Relevance is not achieved through portraying what you think a jury would like to see but communicating your thoughts and insights about the project. I feel like most awards–like most feedback–is subjective. A lot of people shy away from putting themselves out there because the fear of losing. I have been rejected a lot too. For every award I win, there’s probably a few that didn’t go through. I got rejected by the Rhode Island School of Design for an exchange semester in my second year. That broke my heart a little. But this taught me how to get up and dust myself off.
I feel like every time I applied for something and was very honest about where I was coming from or how I felt, it worked out. Winning awards or accolades teaches you about looking at your work from a more objective point of view. It also teaches you that even though your project took hours to build, the feeling of winning anything lasts 5 seconds. So you need to keep at getting better at your work and process more than anything else.
Similar to learning how to advocate for yourself, emerging designers also need to learn how to own and tell their own personal narrative and story. It’s not just about a five minute elevator pitch, but being able to distill their vision and mission in life. What’s your story? How have you gone about crafting it/expressing it in your work and conversations with people?
I didn’t really have a plan of how my story would turn out. The past two years have been extremely fast-paced and a lot of amazing things happened. When I look back at my first two years of design school, I can’t help but think about the perseverance, determination and sincerity I worked with. I grew up in an extremely humble but hard working as hell family. That just influenced how I work as a designer.
Before I realised it I was offered a life changing opportunity to represent my country and travel to Moscow, Russia, and Abu Dhabi, UAE, in the process. This helped my confidence and pushed me to apply to design studios abroad. When I do reach out to people, I talk about my travels and how it did influence my work and the kind of work I see myself doing. I also talk about why I want to work with them and where I originally learned about them. Being able to travel and work in different parts of the world made me a lot more open to different opinions. It taught me to be more accepting, flexible and to move on. I learned a lot through observation. Something that I had to heavily rely on when I didn’t speak the language in places like France and Russia. I also started looking at human insights and behaviour more than the output of design. Getting feedback from people in different countries made me a lot more receptive to storytelling.
Who are some of the mentors and peers who have impacted you the most on a personal and professional level?
One of my professors at design school, Tarun Deep Girdher was one of my first mentors ever. I started being a lot more responsible about what influenced my work and the context or where everything lived. He was the first person I told when I got the internship at Pentagram, New York.
Every mentor that I worked with on the different internships I did during my time at school, affected how I now look at a design brief. When I worked at Echostream, Sikkim, I worked under Tenzing Nyentsey and Sonam Tashi Gyaltsen. It was my first experience user testing anything I had made. I worked on the packaging for tea-bags that would be retailed in Sikkim, India. The studio was run by people who grew up and worked there. Their feedback made me realise the difference between classroom projects and anything that has to work in the real world. At my second internship at Codesign Brand Consultants, I saw how masterfully my mentors, Rajesh and Mohor Dahiya, worked with brands across so many sectors. Seeing the process of how much attention they put into articulation and the craft behind the experience of a brand was my biggest learning.
Last year, I was trained at Lopez Design to compete at the Worldskills 2017. That experience made me re-think how I looked at Graphic Design. I felt way out of my league when I realised I was competing not just on the basis of design but on a highly technical and fast level. During a practice session, I cut my finger and dropped water all over my mentor, Anthony Lopez’s computer. He taught me how to prioritise and tune everything else out. As someone who runs one of India’s most reputed and experienced design firms, seeing him I learned about being able to perform under pressure.
Before leaving for New York, I had the chance to work with Sanket Avlani on a typeface project for a leading comedy collective in India. I also was able to witness and work on the first edition of the Design Fabric Festival. Being a part of such a tight team and seeing how hard everyone worked to put up an entire festival was incredible. It was a very different experience from working at a design studio because their team was responsible for initiatives like Design Fabric and Taxi Fabric. These projects went beyond design and focussed bringing communities together and creating a conversation between design students, established creatives and non-designers.
I believe all these experiences help me now at Pentagram. Apart from learning about design and how to build identity systems, working under Michael taught me to be humble. Seeing him respond to almost everyone that reaches out to him and being so approachable, sets precedent for how I hope to be one day.
What is it like to study in the States? Have you noticed any major factors of difference and/or influence? What is your advice to emerging designers who may be considering international studies?
I did not study in the States. I was just here for the internship. I am finishing up my program at National Institute of Design, India. I felt like I grew up at the school. I went there right after high school and l am leaving as a young designer, it has been four years of many-firsts, memories, learning, experiments, growth, family and figuring what I understood of design. My school puts a lot of emphasis on using your hands in the first year. That opened how I looked at problems or briefs later on. Even now I don’t feel challenged by new tools because of being used to looking for things that worked best for a concept.
For designers considering international studies, I would recommend this if you can. Especially going to a place where the culture is far different from yours. It changes how you go about everything. If possible, apply to work or intern outside where you’ve grown up or lived for a long period in your life. But it is also not the end of the world if you don’t. Just don’t let any fears, limitations or insecurities hold you back.
What’s next for you?
I graduate in January 2019. I am really excited to be back in India and see my family and friends.
Simoul Alva is a Graphic Design intern currently at Pentagram, New York, under Michael Bierut.
She represented India at the 44th Worldskills Abu Dhabi for Graphic Design. Alva competed in Moscow, Russia and Abu Dhabi, U.A.E and won a Gold and Medallion of Excellence respectively.
Simoul is the South Asia Pacific recipient of the Helen Landsowne Resor Scholarship by J. Walter Thompson and the 4A’s Foundation. This award is conferred upon only five design/advertising female students from across the world. Simoul is also this year’s recipient of the Patrick Kelly Scholarship. In its history of 20 years, she is the first person the list who isn’t from the United States of America or has attended university here.