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Khushboo Sharma

IWB Blogger

Roshnee Desai Of LOCAL On Revolutionizing Branding In India By Infusing It With Culture

  • IWB Post
  •  July 6, 2019

If you take a look around the busy streets of your city you will come across half-hearted efforts at advertising and designing. You will see worn out hoardings containing advertisements of fairness creams promising to make Indian skin British-white and of foreign products that leave us confused. To sum it up, they lack relevance. Well, Roshnee Desai is here to change that.

Roshnee Desai is a graphic designer and creative director who has been trying to revolutionize this setup. She has studied design at University of the Arts London and has had the good fortune to work with Michael Wolff. She aspires to make culturally and socially relevant designs. She is fulfilling her aspirations through LOCAL which is a design + brand studio and collective.

Roshnee started LOCAL in 2017 and since then has been working on making branding more meaningful and culturally relevant. “I want to use LOCAL to research locally and apply that research to whatever culture we’re creating for,” says Roshnee.

Roshnee draws an interesting corollary to bring about the state of design in the country. She says, “Honestly after looking at the new Indian currency I really think that the government needs to reach out to good Indian designers. The new notes are really badly designed. If only the PM could have a design council!”

She adds, “Back in London when my friends used to see the 10 Rupees they’d be amazed by the intricacy of its design and ask me to buy it. But when it comes to the new pink Rupees 2000 note, I don’t want to be seen in public with it.”

Here are excerpts from a conversation that I had with Roshnee:

Let’s start with your time in London. How did it make you more conscious of the design back at home? 

I guess when you go out, the Indian bits back at home hit you even more. Like you realize how the British powers made Bombay. It provides you with a vantage point to look at the cultural difference. It made me realize how things are done differently in India.

Also, after studying in London did you have trouble becoming ‘Local’ in India again?

No, actually I think that when you are in a foreign land you cling to your roots even more. You hold on to your roots by doing simple things like speaking to other Indian students in Hindi. I cooked more Indian food there than I have ever done before. And you know how there is a bit of you wanting to embrace the other culture? That goes away.

One thing that the European countries do very well is packaging the East. Go anywhere and you will find immense respect for Indian design. When it comes to graphics and Indian designs they make it their own. Others call it commercialization but I perceive it as respect. The realization has made me even more local at heart.

You have worked on a spectrum of ventures from the branding of the state of West Bengal when you were working with Saffron to Dr. Sheth’s through LOCAL. Can you tell me which one among them is the closest to your heart?

Oh no! Okay If I had to pick just one I would say Dr. Sheth’s. Dr. Sheth’s was started by a family of Indian dermatologists who had been researching Indian skin for 3 generations and was certainly not a fashion luxury brand. They had been prescribing these products to their patients since forever and had decided to extend them to the masses. The brand’s brief was that it was a clinically tested luxury brand specially made for Indian skin. When I heard of it I was like woah, that’s really interesting!


What was it about the brand’s concept that appealed to you the most?

The idea of the brand resonated well with the concept of LOCAL. We at LOCAL strive to use Indian context to serve a real Indian problem.

Having grown up in a racist society that worships fairness, the concept of the brand hit close to my heart. Thankfully since childhood, unlike most of my Indian counterparts, I was fascinated with that mocha tone of skin and grew up always wanting to be dusky. While my friends and cousins constantly feared getting tanned I’d go and purposefully stand in the sun.

Indian skin is so dynamic, there are like 50 different colour shades, it’s like an entire colour palette. Most of the international brands that boast of catering to Asians totally overlook this fact. Dr. Sheth’s, however, caters exactly to the needs of Indian skin.

Can you name one venture that gave you a new perspective while you worked on it and enriched you culturally or spiritually?

I would say that the branding of the state of Bengal is very close to my heart. Our team of young designers from Saffron travelled from the North to the South of Bengal for one entire month. We visited the smallest of the talukas to the biggest of the cities and interacted with people from all walks of life. It was during this project that I realized how well-researched design can get.

Branding for the state of Bengal done by Roshnee and her team while her time at Saffron Brand Consultants.

Branding for the state of Bengal done by Roshnee and her team while her time at Saffron Brand Consultants.

I was really young back then, just 22 if I am not wrong. One of those days we were sitting in a room full of officials from the state and a lady minister approached me and said, “your parents must be so proud of you.” It hit me that we were going to impact the entire state with our work. We weren’t just doing the branding for the state but we were working towards raising the morale of Bengal. We wanted to create something that the people of Bengal could wear as a badge.

Another image from 'Everyone's Bengal' campaign.

Another image from ‘Everyone’s Bengal’ campaign.

It was my first project that was so real where I actually had to go out in the field and conduct research instead of sitting behind the desk and brainstorm. I have been trying to bring that to LOCAL ever since.

Your venture ‘Men’s Only Taxi’ has been quite a rage. It is a pun on the invisible rules that apply to women in public spaces in our society. Can you tell me about the invisible rules that you always break or want to break in public spheres in India?

Umm, good question! I think the double standards of freedom in our society. What goes inside the head of a man who is travelling in a public space here is completely different than what happens inside the head of a woman in the same context. You know what I do when a man stares at me? I stare back at him.

Work done by Roshnee for Taxi Fabric.

Work by Roshnee for Taxi Fabric.

Oh my God, I do that too!

It works, right? I scan that man head to toe just like how men mentally undress the women and it actually works. They look away. I sit in front seat of the cabs. I rebel against everything that threatens to curb my freedom.

In that case, what according to you would be that one act of rebellion that all Indian women need to make?

I think being fearless is an act of rebellion. The more confidently we keep going to these public spaces the more we will claim them. No matter how the world tries to scare us by never-ending cases of rapes and violence we shouldn’t let that curb us and we should keep living our lives like we do.


Okay coming back to ‘Men’s Only Taxi’, how did the taxi driver whose cab you revamped react to the idea?

Okay, so the name of this taxi driver was Ram Prasad. He got really excited when he got to know that his taxi would be getting a free interior. I explained the concept of the taxi cover to him. He kind of got it, he kinda didn’t. But slowly as he started receiving attention from the press and people he himself became a spokesperson for it.

What according to you does the young independent Indian youth want to see as a brand message today?

What a good question! I think inclusion. I think there also is a need to rebrand feminism to genderism. Just like we tell our girls to be who they want to be we also need to tell our boys to do the same. We need to tell them it’s okay to cry and cooking, gardening and pink all of them are fine. Through branding, we need to create a more gender-fluid world.

What do you think would be that one rebranding or let’s say reinventing that India is in desperate need of in the current scenario?

There is a need to rebrand the way we treat our public spaces. We need to love our public spaces, respect them and treat them just like we treat our homes. I have seen BMC workers slogging the hell out to clean our crap and we don’t even think before littering.

We need to nicely design our public spaces and then take good care of them. Citing the population as an excuse for not being able to do this is a sham. I have been to Hong Kong and they have a high population there and still, everything is nicely maintained.

Talking about your phenomenal short movie ‘Cover Up’ now, were there any personal experiences that inspired the movie?

No, and yes. It is a rant of dispassionate exasperation by a 27-year-old woman who sneaks into her own house. It is about the collective grief of us all. It is like how when even you and I haven’t been raped yet we feel the grief when we read about it happening to someone. I bet sex hasn’t been the same for people in the last few months after having read the gory details of so many recent rapes.

Branding done by Roshnee for Blush while her time at Culture Machine.

Branding by Roshnee for Blush while her time at Culture Machine.

Was there a difference in the way men and women reacted to the movie?

When the movie was screened in college, I’d ask people to put on their headphones and listen to it. And note that I am talking about people in London now. Every time a woman watched it and removed her headphone she’d say this is exactly how I have felt. So this is a problem faced by women everywhere, be it Paris, be it London or be it New York.

But the reaction of men. You have to listen to it, Khushboo! Each time they finished watching the movie the men would look at me all shocked. And it happened over and over. They’d look down and then look at me and say I can’t believe this is how you feel. While the women felt connected with the movie, it was the men who were hit hard by it.

Here is the full short film:

Cover Up | Award Winning Short Film

SUBSCRIBE to Being Indian Channel by CLICKING the Link Below – #BeingIndian collaborates with Blush to give you a story about an Indian woman traveling through the city of Bombay at 3 am. Told a bit differently. A film by Roshnee Desai. Awards Won: WIFT India and U.S.


Can you recollect instances of being asked to ‘cover up’ in India, both metaphorically and literally?

All the time, on every level! Isn’t it the case with all of us? Our mothers have asked us to cover up, our teachers have asked us to cover up, everyone has asked us to cover up. It is like that dialogue in ‘Queen’, ‘Hum log ke wahaan pe toh ladkiyon ko dakaar karna allowed hi nahi hai bilkul (In India, girls are not even allowed to burp).’ And you know what women do it to other women more than men do it to women.


Haven’t we all faced it? We have been constantly asked to keep our opinions to ourselves or do not have any at all. And this is something I have never been good at. I think that’s the case with every creative person. We can’t keep, haven’t been able to keep our opinions to ourselves and that is why we are who we are.

‘Cover up’ is a dive into the Indian woman’s subconscious. There is a lot that is fed to the Indian woman’s subconscious from the childhood like you should learn to cook, dress modestly, etc. How are you challenging all that conditioning that goes into building that subconscious?

I just don’t do any of those things. (Laughs) I want every young woman to stop feeling guilty about herself. If you choose to rebel and live life on your own conditions then you have to be okay with people not being happy with you even if the people are your own parents. If you are confident about the voice in your head then stand by it and everything will fall into place.


How do you maintain the cultural and social relevance of your designs while working in a commercial setup?

I go by the formula: Form + Function + Culture = Design. At design school, we are taught that Form+ Function = Design, but I believe that culture is a crucial aspect of design. For example, if I am designing a chair then the shape of the chair would be called its form and how good it is to sit on would be its function. But culture would install it with value and it is very important to understand the culture of the company that you are working for. Like for example if someone wants to set up an ice cream kiosk in a commercial setup in Gurgaon. I’d look at the ice cream as a tiny piece of joy and relief amidst the mundane corporate setup.

As a woman in the advertising industry can you recollect instances where you had to face sexism?

Honestly being a woman in this industry can work both ways. Like for instance, I have conducted a room full of men and I have been looked through. But yes there exist bigger issues like the pay scale. The higher you go the starker this disparity gets.

Picture and artwork courtesy: Roshnee Desai

First published on May 2, 2018.

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