Friday, 6 September 2019

ICICI Story-2: Conceptualising the Theme Spreads

In this article, I discuss one of the thematic design spreads on which we spent a lot of time. Some of the discussions I remember vividly, even after four decades (and withering of the grey cells of someone in her eighth decade of life!).

Selection of the visuals – photographs as well as the tantric art images – for each chapter was as creatively challenging for all the creative professionals concerned; and for me it was a fantastic learning experience. Each of the three persons involved in the implementation of the design concept – Yeshwant Choudhary, Mitter Bedi and Vilas Bhende – was a master of his own art. All of them were years senior to me, professionally as well as chronologically. The fact that they had so much respect for each other made the discussions, the arguments, the banter, even their acerbic comments for each other’s views, so much fun – memories that I treasure to this day.

Each one of them made critical comments and gave suggestions for the evolution of the thematic spread– sometimes leading to a complete abandoning of the original plan. But there was no heartburn, no ego hassles and, most important, no financial disputes about who would bear the costs of what was scrapped! It was a team that anyone would die to work with! Wonder why they took a novice like me under their wing. Although they took my suggestions seriously, sometimes I wondered whether they were just indulging me! Whatever be their reasons, for me, it was a blessing to cut my teeth into the world of book design with those masters.

Each composition of the book’s thematic pages photographs was nothing less than a piece of installation art. The Nanas’ Chowk (Bombay) studio of Vilas became our adda for the eight weeks or so that we took to complete the 10 theme photographs. The actual photography may have taken less than 10 days but collecting all the props, getting the models and setting up the composition took much longer.

For those who use today’s digital tools: software like Adobe’s Creative Cloud (specifically Photoshop) or the more recently introduced series of graphic design software developed by Serif (Affinity Photo) – it would be difficult to even imagine how these spreads were created without access to such tools. Each bit was manually crafted that required immense skills of making cut-outs, masking and superimposing, know-how of photography and dark-room techniques, and eye for detail for faithful reproduction in print. The entire text was photo-typeset and manual artworks were created for the entire document. Something that takes just a few clicks now would require hours or even days of human labour.

One of the chapters in the book was titled “ICICI and the Planning Era”. A head, or the brain, was the faculty to be depicted. That was the easy decision; what was challenging was the composition of the thematic page. We had to get the cast of a head made from plaster of Paris. Vilas and Yeshwant were perfectionists and rejected at least six or seven casts before they were satisfied!

I remember Vilas and Yeshwant discussing the hand that should be shown as working on the circuitry shown inside the head – it had to be a male hand; of someone in his 30s; the nails had to be unevenly cut – Vilas went to the extent of having just the right amount of dirt in the nails to convey that it was genuinely a worker’s hand! And he shot at least a dozen photos to finally select the one which showed the right amount of pressure of the finger on the screwdriver!

Today, in times of microchips, the printed circuit board may appear primitive, as would probably the photograph with women working on calculators. But THAT was the state of electronics industry in India in the late-1970s; it was difficult to even get permissions to shoot photographs of a mainframe computer because only a handful of industries had them.

For me, the most enjoyable and educative hours were those when Yeshwant went through great lengths to explain to me why he had chosen the ‘tantric’ image of the sun for that page and the significance of the number 28. He told me that 28, in Indian mythology, had a special significance. It is considered the perfect number and denotes wealth. Also, he used that number with the image of the sun because the rotation time of the surface of the sun at its equator as viewed from Earth is about 28 days.

The numerals had to be written in Devnagari script, of course, because we were writing about an Indian institution. I must add that, after hours of heated discussions with him, the only change that I could convince him to make was in the drawing of the Man inside that image of the sun. He introduced moustache; originally, the drawing had only the lines on the forehead which could be interpreted as a Brahmanical symbol. My weltanchaung did not permit me to accept that ‘intellect’ and ‘planning’ were the prerogative of the Brahmins!

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Story of How the "Story of a Development Bank" Was Designed

Forty long years after this “book” was published, and almost two decades since the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI), whose silver jubilee it sought to commemorate, lost its identity, it is time to put the book out in the public domain as an archival document. Apart from the graphic design of the book, what also needs to be archived, as a case-study perhaps, is the entire experience of creating a commemorative volume at a time when imaging and printing technology were rudimentary in India; simple things like getting the right colour and conveying the right emotion through visuals was an achievement! Even graphic literacy was in its infancy in the country and there were few in the corporate world at that time who understood subliminal messaging.

The Assignment
The year was 1978. I had not even completed three years of employment with ICICI, then a development bank. But, in that brief period, I had inspired a feeling of respect with the then top echelons of the organisation, perhaps because of my background of research in development administration and of what they perceived as my writing skills. I was still too ‘wet behind the ears’ to understand my abilities and too steeped in the upbringing of self-effacing professionalism, to appreciate the reason for that respect. For a comparative novice in the hierarchical corporate world, and a very junior employee, it was quite an enviable achievement.

HT Parekh, who had just retired as the Chairman of ICICI, after having launched HDFC (Housing Development Finance Corporation) in 1977, undertook to write the history of ICICI as its silver jubilee commemoration volume. He specifically asked for my services as a research and editorial assistant. And Siddharth Mehta, the then Chairman & Managing Director (CMD) of ICICI entrusted to me the task of ‘publishing’ the book. In his signature way, he told me: “Remember, I want a world-class book. And the deadline is sacrosanct.” There was no ‘briefing’ about design, agency, size, paper, costs, etc.

Thus commenced the odyssey resulting in this publication – I would have hardly called it a book. The text was a longish personal memoir by HT Parekh (HTP, as he was known in the haloed world of banking & finance as well as government and corporate circles). In that genre, it had nuggets of very valuable information – in fact, invaluable for a business historian of that period. But the manuscript was all of about 50 pages! HTP did not want a data-heavy book; its target audience comprised international bankers, corporate executives and Indian policy-makers – who would lap up every word that HTP wrote – such was his standing in those circles. So the author too did not expect a typical coffee-table tome that would be looked at but not read. But he did want gloss and colour. His one sentence brief to me was: “I want a book that’s good looking – one which will be noticed all over the world.”

The challenge was terrific and the opportunity once-in-a-lifetime one. Of course, I had to work with the best designer available in Bombay then – one who would be able to translate my concept into a work of art. So I turned to Yeshwant Chaudhary with whom I had just finished working on the corporate identity of HDFC. My instinct, and the experience of designing the HDFC symbol and logo, told me that Yeshwant Chaudhary would be able to weave together the symbolism of Indian tantric art with the industrial photography of Mitter Bedi blended with the thematic photography of Vilas Bhende and the philosophy of development that HTP and ICICI espoused.

The Concept
In the 1970s, communicators in India were animated about Marshall Macluhan’s book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”, in which he had coined the famous phrase “medium is the message.” I discussed with Yeshwant Chaudhary if a similar visual phraseology could be developed to communicate ‘Industry – The Extension of Man’. It would convey that ICICI was into assisting Indian industry; industry was working toward the total development of man; it was in a way extension of human faculties – the five senses. If we could develop that graphic phraseology, it would add a lot of gravitas to ‘verbal content’ of the book – where the book, as the medium, would also deliver the message of total development of humankind through industrialisation.

The concept charged up Yeshwant Chaudhary such that we spent nearly three months debating various aspects of this phraseology – even as HTP and Siddharth Mehta were getting impatient to “see” the presentation of the concept. They had to approve it before I could go ahead and commit the financial resources and work out a detailed implementation plan – within the deadline! We presented to them just the three theme pages; and we had expected that we would have to spend at least an hour explaining the why and the wherefore of it. We came out beaming, in three minutes flat! The visuals were powerful enough. No ‘wordy’ explanations were needed.

These were the three finally printed spreads.

Three images of the cover and the two theme pages