Sthuthi Ramesh on 'permalancing' and why the industry should be more supportive of creative mums
Sthuthi Ramesh is a London-based graphic designer with a wealth of experience at the city’s leading studios, including Pentagram and Wieden+Kennedy. She also runs her own independent practice, working with clients globally such as Mumbai’s Jhaveri Contemporary; and is the co-founder of digital library Nicety Materials. We had the pleasure of catching up with her to find out more.
EM Hi Sthuthi. How are you?
SR I’m fine, thank you! Just holding a glass of champagne and doing a little dance now that my 4-year-old son is back at school after months of homeschooling.
EM What’s the best part about working with different studios like Pentagram and Made Thought?
SR I freelanced at Made Thought for a short period of time, maybe six months. It was a really inspiring place to be and full of really hardworking and talented designers. In the case of Pentagram, I’ve been freelancing with different teams for about three years which is also the best part about them – there is always so much going on across the different teams, each led by an incredibly talented Partner. I have been lucky enough to have had a chance to work with Marina Willer, Angus Hyland, Harry Pearce, Astrid Stavro and Naresh Ramchandani. You end up being called a permalancer there which is a nice title to have I guess. The other thing is, you get to meet so many incredible talents from different teams; some of them are my closest of friends now. Everyone there is so friendly and helpful, not at all egoistic or clique. We all sit together at the lunch area, which looks like a refectory and we are provided with cooked lunch – that vibe is totally unique. Growing up in India, food plays an important role in connecting with people. I have been an advocate for shared lunches in all the studios I have worked for and I know it’s not always possible but it’s good to do it at least once a week. WFH has changed everything now. Hopefully, this nasty stuff will be over soon.
You end up being called a permalancer there which is a nice title to have.
EM What are the biggest challenges you face working independently and as a freelancer?
SR After a few full-time positions, I have now been freelancing for the past four years now. I didn’t choose to go freelance, but my circumstances were that I had to cover £85 per day nursery fee for my little one so going freelance allowed me the flexibility and the financial means. The biggest challenge is when you are freelancing for design studios, you get a decent daily fee but it takes some time till you establish that trust to get the interesting projects or to lead a project. So initially when I started I got a few projects consisting of just finishing someone else’s design work.
When freelancing for different studios, you end up being like a ping pong ball. You get thrown into different teams, projects and studios. So you should be agile enough to adapt your design and working style to their needs – which can be draining at times. So late 2019 I started taking on more direct clients and launched my own independent practice, which in my opinion is creatively more rewarding. Eventually also financially, but you have to be persistent, proactive, and constantly connect with new people to get new clients.
Design studios and creative agencies should be more supportive of creative mums.
EM What would you like to see more and less of in the design industry?
SR So glad you asked me this question. Design studios and creative agencies should be more supportive of creative mums. Design is meant to solve problems. But the design industry doesn’t feel inclusive far too often; it has forgotten to integrate working mums. That’s why you don’t see enough women design leaders in the industry. It is already challenging to come up with creative ideas, deliver outstanding creative output, keep up to date with ever-changing technologies/software, but as a parent, you have to leave at 5pm to pick your little one from nursery. And then after your child is in bed you continue to work late into the night to complete your work. It’s draining.
The design industry is already so demanding for non-parents/designers. Before I became a mum, I worked weekends and late nights to complete a project. Can you imagine how demanding it must be for a parent to prove your worth in this industry? And if we continue the way we are doing it now, creative mothers will continue to change careers or give up their design career and no progress has been made.
I also want to see more diversity in the design industry. Since I moved to London in 2011, I have always been the only or second brown person in all the studios I have worked for. Never come across a single designer of colour in most of the studios I have worked so far.
I want to see less trendy Pinterest designs repeating themselves in everyone’s work. It’s become a copy and paste world; people have stopped trying, being hungry for something unique. I would love for people to look outside European/western design and see what else is interesting out there.
EM How were your work and processes affected by the pandemic?
SR I guess the main thing affected was the collaboration aspect and working alongside people. Early 2020 January, I got myself a lovely shared studio space with United Practice in Bermondsey. I was so excited to have my own workspace along with some incredible designers. Just waking up and going to your own studio space in London felt very empowering. After the pandemic hit, I didn’t get to use the space much. Luckily all of my clients continued to work with me so that has been positive. There were a few glitches when I got stuck in India for almost three months and could not return to my studio back in London.
EM Do you have a project you’re most proud of?
SR Hmm, tough question. I have too many projects that I’m really proud of, without sounding arrogant. But to keep it simple I’ll mention three projects. The first is a type installation project I did at the White City Place, commissioned by Tiipoi and based on Kolam (Indian folk art). The project was an evolution of my university project, and it (finally!) came to life eight years after completing my degree. I am also proud of the Dorling Kindersley brand identity I did with Pentagram. Feels good to see the logo on my son’s books. Recently the Jhaveri Contemporary brand identity project really boosted my confidence to take on large scale projects independently, and create a team around me.
EM What inspired you to co-found Nicety Materials?
SR When Sebastian Grenzhauser (my husband and the other founder at Nicety Materials) came to me with the idea of creating a digital library for physical materials to simplify access to what’s out there, I jumped straight at it. I have always wondered: why can’t there be a more convenient way to find physical materials of all brands in one place? But did nothing about it. Sebastian immediately started working on the idea and I joined along.
For as long as I can remember, I have always collected interesting papers or other materials; friends and colleagues have come to me for printers or paper recommendations. Having worked at studios that were heavily focused on printed matter, I gained a lot of knowledge about printing methods and materials. Also, back home while growing up in rural south India, physical materials and sustainable materials have always been a part of people’s daily life. For example, in South India even today many eat using banana leaves as plates. It’s not just sustainable, but also enhances the taste of the food and is then used by cows or just used as a compostable fertiliser for farming. So I find these details fascinating when it comes to materials. I want to continue to research interesting physical materials, and it’s something I’m bringing to Nicety Materials as we’re scaling up the business and extending our material library.
EM How challenging has it been to build up the material library? What has the process been like?
SR Nicety is a self-funded project and it has been quite liberating to work in that manner. There are no investors restricting us from our vision, which means we can focus squarely on building a great service for designers. The main challenge is trying to convince all these old school paper and material manufacturers that there is value in making their materials accessible through a smart, well-designed digital platform that designers can access easily. I guess they don’t know what they have not seen yet. We started with a Closed Beta version in 2020 just focused on Paper which thankfully turned out to be hugely successful, seeing designers from companies like Puma, COS, Dropbox, Google Creative Lab, Polestar etc. to exciting design studios and creative agencies like Pentagram, GBH, dn&co, Two Times Elliott, Apartamento Studios, W+K, Winkreative etc. try us out. This has attracted more manufacturers to get interested in what we do, which is exciting. The biggest challenge remains building out our library without sacrificing the quality and integrity of our library, which is something we’re actively working on for 2021.
When we started, the first step was to find a developer or a digital agency that understood and helped us realise our vision. When we proposed the idea to design and digital studio Lundgren+Lindqvist over in Gothenburg (SWE) – who we have been admiring ever since we started out into the world of graphic design – they loved the idea and ever since then we have been working with them on developing our website.
The other interesting part about our platform is the list of Material Processors (Printers, Binder, etc.), created based on direct recommendations we received after reaching out directly to creative agencies and studios in cities all over the world. It was such an amazing process for us to connect with so many amazing designers and they have been so generous with sharing their contacts. So we now have a huge database of recommended processors that you can search by location, speciality, etc. Previously, there’s simply been no way to reach these guys other than word of mouth, or Instagram if you’re lucky.
One thing we’ve seen is that more and more studios are moving towards sustainability in their design processes, but still require a bit of help to make sense of the enormous amount of noise and greenwashing out there at the moment. So we have been invited to host a few workshops here in London studios and agencies, which has been lots of fun. These are very much hands-on, centred around a particular topic of value for the agency, and the feedback has been really strong. Sadly COVID lockdowns had put a quick end to those, but we’re looking to pick this up again later in 2021…
If you haven’t already, give us a try if you like, we’d love to hear if it helps you with finding new materials for your projects!
This has been amazing, many thanks!