The Designers: The Working Assembly’s Chandni Poddar on side projects, imposter syndrome and more
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 number twenty-one in the series, we spoke to The Working Assembly’s Chandni Poddar; covering everything from her first internships in Mumbai to imposter syndrome and her view on side projects.
EM Hi Chandni, how’re things?
CP Hey Elliott! Things are good. I’m finally going back home to visit my family in India after two really long years of being stuck in New York due to travel restrictions in both countries.
EM Being originally from Mumbai, how did you find yourself living and working in New York?
CP I grew up and went to school in Mumbai. After graduating high school, I applied to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and the School of Visual Arts in New York. I was accepted into both; however, SVA was my dream college, and New York was my dream city to live in. I was the first girl in my family to study abroad (my family used to be conservative and usually didn’t send women abroad to pursue higher education), and the day I got accepted into SVA, I remember crying because my dad said I could go! While applying, my family had their doubts about sending me abroad as I was pretty bad (to say the least) academically in high school. So that’s how I ended up here, and seven years later, I've grown to love every part of it. I wonder if I can call myself a New Yorker yet?
I needed to believe in myself more.
EM How did you get your start in the design industry?
CP My first ever internship was in Mumbai, right after my freshman year of college. I interned for Starting Monday Design and Studio under the owner and creative director of SMDB, Pratish Mepani. He taught me a lot about branding and even the basics of Photoshop. After that, I interned at Alfalfa Studio in New York under Rafael Esquer. Working for Rafael has easily been one of the best internship experiences I’ve had, and he has become a mentor to me. After Alfalfa, I interned at Anti Anti studio and was a teaching assistant for Richard Wilde before graduating. After grad, I interned at Hungry Studio before freelancing at Sunday Afternoon under Juan Carlos Pagan. I then went to intern for Paula Scher at Pentagram, which turned into my first full-time job. I’m currently a mid-level designer at The Working Assembly – a women-owned branding agency in New York.
EM What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career so far?
CP Imposter syndrome. Through my journey in school and while actively working in the industry, I had a lot of self-doubts. I have a very humorous personality which I think makes people underestimate me and my work. I did doubt myself a lot while I was at Pentagram, especially surrounded by some of the world's best designers and creatives. However, I soon came to realise that my work speaks for itself, and I needed to believe in myself more. I’ve learned that design can be so abstract in terms of what someone finds appealing – a lot like fine art. And I’ve taken away that as long as I believe and love the work – that is the most important thing.
EM You share lots of experimentation and personal projects alongside your commercial work – how do you find they benefit you and your practice?
CP Design isn’t just commercial for me but also a part of who I am. After working for clients and other people all day, I find personal work to be relaxing, and it also helps me get out of a creative block. It’s great to make work that doesn’t come with feedback sometimes. I practice new things that I’ve been meaning to learn and then post them to Instagram – it has become a visual journal to post my type, motion, and colour experiments. It’s interesting to scroll through and see my growth from 2015 to now, as well as notice things that I could do better.
EM Do you think side projects should be a part of every designer’s repertoire?
CP Definitely! I think that side projects and personal projects are a great way to design for yourself. Design can be so commercial and restrictive sometimes because we are constantly thinking about what our clients want and finding solutions to problems. I think side projects really help with letting go of constraints and let us exercise our creative mojo and learn new skills, which in turn benefits client work at the same time.
EM What would you like to learn that you haven’t been able to yet?
CP Cinema 4D or Blender! I’m a huge fan of abstract 3D work. It’s something I always want to do but it’s hard to learn so I’ve been putting it off. I love Khyati Trehan and Aarman Roy’s work – every time I see them post a new piece of work on Instagram I’m in awe.
EM What is the most important skill you’ve learned that isn’t design?
CP Communication! And people skills. I love talking to people and getting to know them. It was really hard to connect with my new team at The Working Assembly, as I joined as a remote designer during the height of COVID. I live by the ethos that if I spend the majority of my day working with someone, getting to know them as a friend and on a personal level is key to creating great work and true collaboration. When we present our work to clients, I always come in with excitement when talking about the work we made. I think this helps get them excited about the work as well, which usually yields good results.
EM What does your setup look like?
CP I love my sticky notes.
EM Who do you look up to in the world of design?
CP Too many people to count! But to name a few, Beatriz Lozano, who was my Senior Designer at Sunday Afternoon, inspired me to start making work I cared about. Emily Atwood, my Senior Designer at Pentagram, taught me a lot about empathy, mentorship, and kindness in the design industry. And finally, Jolene Delisle, my current boss and the founder of TWA, taught me that diversity in design and working for diverse clients is essential. From her, I've come to emphasise and prioritise creating accessible design within our communities and amplify diverse voices through my work and with clients.
EM Do you ever experience creative block? How do you deal with it?
CP I definitely do, and I don’t deal with it in the best way. I tend to get super frustrated and then just avoid the project if I can for a few days. I think stepping away from the work definitely helps me out. I tend to go on a walk and clear my mind if I am on a tight timeline and need to come up with something. Other times, I’ll call a few of my fellow coworkers who haven’t seen the project and brainstorm ideas with them.
EM How do you prefer to start a new project? Pen-and-paper or straight to the screen?
CP Initially neither. When we are first brought on a project I make a mind map while our strategist briefs us. I like just sitting on it and having it at the back of my mind for a few days. If an idea comes to me on the train or while working on another project I usually just make a note of it on my phone. When I really delve into the project, I start with pen and paper – especially while experimenting with versions of the same mark/idea. I find that straight to the screen inhibits the fluidity that pen and paper bring to the brainstorming process.
I love drawing free form letters and maybe a few words in the same style but drawing out an entire typeface isn’t my calling.
EM What have you found to be the ups and downs of being in New York?
CP The ups of being in New York has definitely been being able to learn from, work with, and network with some of the best designers and design studios in the world. As an international worker/student, I think my biggest struggle has been navigating my identity. I moved here at eighteen and trying to find a balance in my identity, even within design, was hard. My work tends to have a lot of cultural influences from India and balancing that with contemporary design was a challenge at first. Now, I pride myself in being an Indian designer, and I think that the use of colour in my work speaks to that. I think another struggle moving here was my accent. It sounds like a minor struggle, but I wasn’t able to copy an American accent without laughing at how I sounded – and I still do get self-conscious, especially when presenting to clients or an audience.
EM That colour really comes out in your designs for 36 Days of Type from the last couple of years. Is type design something you’re interested in pursuing beyond those letterforms?
CP I don’t think I have the patience to be a type designer. I love drawing free form letters and maybe a few words in the same style but drawing out an entire typeface isn’t my calling. I do absolutely adore finding new type foundries and hunting for type specimens. My most recent foundry find is General Type Studio.
EM Do you see yourself starting your own studio one day?
CP 100%. Or eventually being a partner at The Working Assembly or a place that holds itself to a similar set of beliefs. I want to see and work with more bipoc designers in the industry and I think starting my own studio would allow me to not just hire and mentor, but also give us a platform to really showcase the impact of diversity in design.