Karn Malhotra — “A creative professional must ask of themselves today, “Am I relevant or replaceable?””
Karn Malhotra has been helping brands define their strategy and positioning since establishing his consultancy Exit Design in 2004. Since then, he has worked with large companies like Decathlon and 3M as well as small and medium enterprises. In 2017, his interest in tech led him to found Outlined.co, an AI-driven digital design assistant. We asked him about the intersections between design and technology and what that means in today’s India.
Fill in the blank: A creative professional must ask of themselves today, “Am I relevant or replaceable?”
You’ve built a successful career and business as a design consultant — what prompted you to start a tech company even after achieving that?
I dislike the status quo and defining my identity based on things I’ve done in the past. I’m grateful for the connections, exposure, opportunities and impact it has afforded us — but personally I have a burning urge to look ahead. I would’ve loved to have been a trend forecaster, sociologist or futurist right from the outset — and I guess I’m shaping my career/life in that direction now.
That apart, doing anything in the AI space is extremely structured and process driven, which is something I enjoy. So, I want to see how I can leverage my experience and merge that with new tech to create lasting impact.
What is the most valuable design lesson you’ve learned from someone who is not a designer?
Understand business and numbers. And answer the phone even if it’s going to be a difficult conversation!
You’ve worked with a lot of Indian brands. Do you think there is a modern visual language that is specific to India? How would you define it?
The nuances that show up as ‘Indian’ in design disciplines have gone well beyond kitsch and are being recognized and appreciated globally. At the same time, there’s an emulation of cultural influences from other countries that show up in visual communication work here, some of which can also be attributed to being a ‘growing’ economy.
There needs to be more done at a policy and sectoral level — going down to diploma project choices that students make — all of which will help the revival of region specific art & craft. We’re a country of large numbers, so reinterpretation needs to happen in volume and at scale to be truly noticed. I’d also implore designers in their 20s, who are especially good at visual tech platforms to create work inspired by Indian art & craft.
Being creative is largely about having the courage to fail repeatedly. Could you give an example from your own experiences of a project that failed? What went wrong, and what did you learn/take away from that experience?
We worked on the strategy & positioning of a heritage jewelry brand recently. After going through the entire exercise and after presenting findings, it became evident that the client was basically looking for an ‘Advertising Campaign’ — where ‘Brand Strategy’ (what we were actually doing) has a lot more to do with experience creation and behaviour change today. You’d think after over 15 years of being in the market, such an elemental mistake wouldn’t happen — but it’s amazing how interpretation (or lack thereof) of lexical semantics in a conversation can impact the end result.
What are your pet peeves as a design professional?
Keeping communication lines open at all times. If we’re creative individuals, empathy isn’t limited to the creation of the work — it extends to the managing and delivery of that work as well.
You are actively working towards automating design tasks with your startup Outlined. How does design education need to change to keep up with increasing automation?
McKinsey came out with this report last year — Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transitions in a time of automation. It says that by 2030, the number of the global workforce displaced due to automation will have reached 14% — which means it has already begun in various sectors. In 2016, Fast Company came out with an article about The Most Important Jobs of the Future — AR Designer, Drone Experience Designer and Machine Learning Designer now exist (along with a few others) — but how many of these are available as disciplines at design schools in India today? Note: Furniture, Graphic, Animation Designers etc don’t feature in the FastCompany article. It doesn’t mean that these careers will cease to exist — but it’s very likely that ‘ReSkilling / UpSkilling’ of the creative force will become a primary conversation for both individuals and companies over the next 3 years.
Companies & educators need to work closely to ensure we’re not putting the burden of reskilling on the individual alone — especially if companies stand to gain financially from retrenching employees. Where AI & ML are concerned — awareness and understanding of impact needs to start in school, not just in college.
Having said all this, AI and automation is likely to replace the need for human intervention in mundane tasks while accelerating productivity (something we’re doing with Outlined). People in college or fresh graduates need to look at AI as one more medium to express themselves; so learning and understanding code will become even more necessary.
And finally, to wrap up — How do you spend a perfect Sunday in Bangalore? Any specific recommendations or must-trys?
Depends on how the week was from Monday to Saturday. Usually it ranges from binge watching a new Netflix series; to taking off on Friday night to a destination that’s not more than 6 hours away (given there are so many weekend getaways from Bangalore); to just craving and then acting on a doggie excursion to Cubbon Park, followed by Mince Mutton Toast and Appam Stew at Koshys. Crave a movie, theatre play, live music performance — Bangalore has it all!