The Designers: NOT Wieden+Kennedy’s Ananya Mohan on her love of colour, maximalism and language
Our interview series The Designers delves deep into the world’s leading design studios through a series of in-depth conversations with the individuals that make them tick. For the thirty-fifth entry into the series, we have the pleasure of diving into the creative world of Ananya Mohan. A designer at Wieden+Kennedy’s sister studio (appropriately named NOT Wieden+Kennedy), Ananya’s work is infused with a playful and maximalist aesthetic, where she draws from her unique background and diverse cultural influences – from the vibrant and lively atmosphere of her childhood homes to the immersion in different languages and scripts. Alongside her creative influences, she shares her experiences of graduating amidst the uncertainties of the 2020 pandemic, and how she found her footing in the bustling industry.
PT Hi Ananya! How are you?
AM Hi Poppy! I’ve been well and busy, my family’s visiting from Hong Kong after a while, so I have just been spending time with them. How are you?
PT I’m very well, thank you! Going way back, when did you first realise that you wanted a creative career?
AM I grew up an only child and often had a lot of time by myself where I kept occupied with doing ‘creative’ things spanning from playing instruments to drawing fan art of my favourite book characters (definitely not cringe at all). Outside of a lot of drawing and colouring, I used to make miniature doll furniture out of junk mail postcards for my Barbie when I was very little. I enjoyed being crafty this way!
Upon getting our first family computer when I was eight, I remember spending a lot of time on Paint, Powerpoint, and Publisher to design ‘posters’ and greeting cards for fun. This was probably my first interaction with graphic design. Then later in school for projects, I used to enjoy making presentation boards and templates, and took the process of designing and crafting them much more seriously than actually having to present them, which I absolutely dreaded. It was in the last few years of secondary school where I considered design as a career I wanted to pursue, more than a hobby.
PT What drew you towards colour and typography?
AM I’ve always just been naturally drawn to colour for as long as I can remember!
In regards to typography, I was always really big on reading, writing, and words in general, so I think once I started dipping my toes into design, fonts and typography became an instant natural progression.
PT How have your experiences in India, Hong Kong, and the UK impacted your approach to design?
AM I think each of these environments have definitely played a big role in my journey. I grew up in India and Hong Kong – they are both busy, colourful, and lively places. Visually, these influences manifest as a lot of playful, maximalist elements, and colour in my work.
Upon moving to Hong Kong at eight, my parents were really adamant about me never forgetting our language, so every single weekend, for years, I would have to write a page in Hindi on anything I wanted; any subject, essay, or story, as long as it was in Hindi. As a kid, I thought this was very unnecessary homework, but looking back, I think it enabled me to have this creative space and play with words and writing. So while out in the city I was exposed to Cantonese, and at school I was learning English, at home I was immersed in Indian languages (Hindi dialects, and some Bengali on the dinner table as well). More than just the languages themselves, consuming a plethora of Indian TV, film, and music played a big role in my work in terms of often taking a bright and bold approach. I think my interest in scripts and languages probably comes from having to switch in and out of different linguistic environments. Then moving to the UK for university gave me this outlet, where I was taught to be able to express, practice and pour all of these experiences into my work.
I’m also drawn to quite ‘plain’ serif typefaces.
PT Having worked across different languages and scripts, what is your favourite typeface, and why?
AM Neue Haas Grotesk….(I’m so sorry 😭). It’s like my go-to for any secondary type, I can’t help it, it’s just such a classic!
I recently used Modak (a Devanagari typeface, a script which is used to represent multiple languages, such as Hindi) by Ektype for a self-initiated project; it’s a really playful and fun approach to the script. Seismic (a Bangla typeface) by Universal Thirst is a unique variable beauty, and really interesting because it’s built in a way that mimics “the shivering movement of the ground during an earthquake”; I mean how cool is that. I’m also drawn to quite ‘plain’ serif typefaces in non-Latin scripts, because I think there is a classical beauty to them, such as Noto Nastaliq Urdu (Urdu).
PT What was it like to graduate in 2020?
AM I think there was a lot of uncertainty that time, for everyone, and not just in terms of school and graduating, but just the world in general. So I had some lovely pandemic anxiety to top that off with.
I went back home to Hong Kong for the Easter break in 2020, and that break turned into a year and a half. Fortunately, around the time of my graduation, design studio OMSE, although based in London, had advertised a design internship where you could apply from anywhere in the world – which thankfully I applied for, and got it! I am super grateful for that. I was able to learn so much from them, despite being halfway around the world and working remotely.
Once that was over, I did small freelance bits, while on the side I remember having a spreadsheet of around 70 studios in London which I persistently applied to, for the position of a junior designer. I got rejected from many of them due to not having a visa.
PT Were there any particular tips or resources that helped you out?
AM For me, it was really helpful to stay in contact with my peers, knowing that we were all going through similar situations made it a lot more comforting (for lack of a better word). At that time, I was really just trying to spend time honing my portfolio, so looking at websites at Cargo for inspiration was a big one for me. I think looking at some really cool work that’s out there, and just in general being aware of the design scene always helps.
PT How did you land your role at Wieden+Kennedy? What attracted you to them?
AM Wieden+Kennedy was always a place I looked up to, so much so that I didn’t even try applying here because I thought it would be too unachievable! During the pandemic, I was being rejected from jobs left right and centre, mainly also due to not having a visa (I remember feeling good about some interviews, but then crying after the dreaded “sorry we won’t be able to sponsor you” emails). Nevertheless, I persisted, as I knew that moving to the UK would be a step in the right direction to be able to grow in my career.
Then one fine day, recruiter Tia Downey reached out to me, which I am immensely grateful for. I then landed my interview with Creative Director Adam Rix and Operations Director Kelly Soucaret, and honestly, it felt really comfortable (following initial nerves). I remember thinking “that was fun, I think that went really well,” but also didn’t think much was going to happen due to the usual trajectory. A couple of weeks later, I received the offer letter, and I couldn’t believe what I was reading, so I had my Dad and my friends read it to confirm I actually did land the role and wasn’t being delusional!
I always saw Wieden+Kennedy as a big independent agency making really fresh and creative work, and knowing that they had a killer design team along with a creative/ advertising one which I could potentially be a part of, seemed exciting to me.
The creative philosophy is “Move me dude”; making stuff that moves people and culture.
PT From thereon, what was the transition to NOT Wieden+Kennedy like?
AM NOT was born only as a natural progression for us, since as a team we had so much design work to offer. We branded ourselves NOT Wieden+Kennedy with an identity to be able to do more branding work on top of advertising, which I was really fortunate to be one of the designers for, along with Senior Designer Adam Hunt, and NOT parents Adam Rix and Anika Ramani. It was really an honour to be a part of a team that built something as interactive and fun as this is.
NOT is in the same building as Wieden+Kennedy (we also recently moved up two floors, and it’s been a bit of a trek in the mornings for me)!
PT How would you describe the culture and creative philosophy there?
AM I think it can be a mix of liberating, chaotic, and very jokes. Here, the creative philosophy is “Move me dude”; making stuff that moves people and culture.
PT Since first joining the W+K team, what do you think you’ve improved the most in?
AM I’ve learned loads, especially in terms of just learning how to exist in a work environment, and not be riddled with constant anxiety at all times. I think skill-wise, my Photoshop skills were laughable before, as I used to avoid using it like the plague. I’ve definitely come a long way, I think! I’ve learned a lot about type, a skill I had always wished to really develop and learn more about, which I am very glad I’m getting a chance to do. Time management is a big one as well; I used to procrastinate a lot during uni, but in working in a team, I’ve learned to come around it.
It was really fulfilling to be able to work on something typographic with a strong cultural layer like this.
PT Do you like to strike a balance between your work at the agency and self-initiated projects? If so, could you take us through some of your favourites?
AM I try to do small bits here and there alongside work when I can! Many of them don’t get to see the light of day mainly because I’m shy.
I had the pleasure of working on the identity for NOT Wieden+Kennedy alongside Adam Hunt, under Adam Rix’s and Anika Ramani’s direction. With something as engaging as ‘The NOT Machine’ with Jonathan Plackett, it was great to be able to push and really question what an identity could mean, and how disruptive it could be. And also just super fun!
We have self-initiated projects at work as well which I always enjoy. In one of them “Smile Like It’s ’88”, I got the chance to work with Gabriel Gayle. We did a street-facing disco window which was a tribute to The Second Summer of Love, and the design for that was loaded with trippy lo-fi smiley faces, with type and colour inspired by flyers from that time.
Outside of work, I have also designed for ‘Duri’ by Aaron Panesar, a platform (still in the works) documenting British South Asian presence in culture. It was really fulfilling to be able to work on something typographic with a strong cultural layer like this. Duri means distance across some South Asian languages, so the idea for the wordmark was elongated spaces or displaying distance within the letterforms, inspired from kashidas as seen in Perso-Arabic scripts such as Urdu, which are elongated spaces used as a stylistic or decorative element, along with Indic penmanship.
PT What does a typical Monday morning look like for you?
AM I wake up on my fifth alarm, scroll on my phone for a bit, get ready, grab something quick to eat, then get to my desk to start working.
PT Do you have any recommendations you’d like to share? Whether that be designers to follow or podcasts to check out!
AM Some really great designers I’m obsessed with, as well as some friends whose work I really admire – Ali Godil (House of Gul), Suzy Chan, Chutney Mag (Osman Bari), Cha Chaan Teng, Kaam Kaaj, Łucja Wróblewska, Sam Leung, Kayla Lui.