Vijaya Bhargav

Partner-Ostraca (Interview PART-1)

Vijaya bhargav is a founding partner of Bangalore based design firm Ostraca and has over 25 years of experience in the field of design and architecture, In a freewheeling interview with Best Creators, she shared highlights of her professional journey and her mantra for success. She also offered practical insights, incisive ideas and actionable pointers that serve as a toolkit while designing solutions for clients’ requirements.

A glimpse into the formative years of Ostraca

At the start of my career, I focused on residential architecture, hospitality architecture and so on. While designing an office building for a software company, we were asked for suggestions on the interiors. The client liked our design ideas and our interactions with their team and offered us our first interior design project. Always willing to try something new and expand our horizons, we decided to accept the offer and got down to designing corporate interiors. Pretty soon we were designing 70,000 – 80,000 square feet offices. During one of these projects, we responded to a corporate RFP wherein we were pitted against a global architecture firm of 200 architects with a presence in India. As if that wasn’t enough to give me the jitters, I had to go alone for the presentation to Kolkata because my business partner Arnab Ghosh had other urgent business matters to handle. This was the first time I was presenting solo. It was a David and Goliath moment – I, representing a 12 member India team with 2 principal architects, pitching against a global firm of 200 architects, to design 2.5 million square feet of interiors for a corporate office designed by a Los Angeles based architecture firm! We won the account because of our ability to understand the architect’s vision of the exteriors and translate that into perfectly complementing interiors. They were impressed with the seamlessness with which we had proposed to translate their design intent into the interior spaces.

The win not just accelerated our business and elevated our brand but also helped boost the confidence of the team as a whole, and me in particular. We leap-frogged from handling 1-2 lakh square feet to 2.5 million square feet! While the corporate client had always been on the lookout for Indian designers, they ha’t succeeded in doing so. We were the first Indian team to entirely handle their campus interiors and this set a trend. Project execution wasn’t entirely smooth sailing though. We had 2 months to design 76 floor plates in 12 blocks. We were required to draw up a Bill of materials accurate to 5% with penalty clauses that stated that any slippage in budget would come out of our fees. Being a small firm at the time, we coul’t afford any such financial shock to our income and working capital. However, we succeeded and that was a defining moment both for me and for Ostraca. There are very few architects who have actually done campuses of this scale, and that too at one go, without phasing.

My tenets for success

A good designer listens I believe that a designer should always listen. And don’t be afraid to ask questions and probe further. Don’t always take the client’s wish-list at face value. Today’s clients have a great deal of exposure through travel and social media and often come back with something that they saw and liked. It’s the designer’s responsibility to dig deeper and ask the client what specifically they liked – was it the colour? The form? The texture? These questions will not just force the client to think deeper and crystallize their thoughts; it will also help firm up the project brief and specs. Clients are not trained designers and it is our job as trained and experienced professionals to provide them the best possible design solution. Our articulation of their requirements is very important and distinguishes a good designer from the pack.

Make your designs intuitive and engaging for the users

As a designer I feel that the design should be very intuitive and engaging, and offer the user an overall great experience. This is what I strongly believe in. Once you get these three things right, the design cannot go wrong. Design caters to the senses and delivers both the functional/utilitarian as well as sentient values. The space should be felt rather than seen.I also tell my team that what we design is a part of the larger structure and the ethos of our design should be an accurate translation of the client’s expectations.

Be practical

While designing, do so with a free mind without getting unnecessarily inhibited by a few aspects.When designing, the sky’s the limit, and we all come up with good ideas.Ideating and designing is within our control, but execution happens somewhere else and project deadlines are invariably a race against time. It’s important to be aware of the constraints and challenges of execution and to incorporate that into your plan. We are very mindful of the gap that exists sometimes between a dream design and a sensible project delivery plan. So when we design, we look at different scenarios and contingencies and agree on what works best for each of them. We ask ourselves “Do we have materials in the market which can translate this outcome? If not, do we need to customize? If we’re customizing, do we have the luxury of time? And so on, and so forth.” We are mindful of the cost, time and ease of construction. You can’t have a whole facility where you’re constantly innovating. At the end of the project, it may look great, but that’s not the only consideration. You need to take into account every single stakeholder and how your decisions could affect their deliverables – the contractors, the PMC – within the overall time and cost budgets laid down by the client. All these aspects have to be considered.That is when you can make a project a great experience for every single stakeholder

Be accountable

As an individual, I’ve always been very aware of and accountable for my actions.. I like inputs from people and am extremely mindful about criticism which is why I take a hard look at everything and preempt reactions. This practice has really helped us as a team.. We take accountability to another level altogether and practice it with a passion. I’ve also noticed that when people work with us, they also get into the same mould and start taking accountability for a project. A lot of clients have told us that accountability is one of our USPs. They tell us that they have worked with several organizations and they can instantly recognize the Ostraca team because we stay on top of things and work with the various stakeholders to see the project through. If there’s glitch, we go back to the concerned stakeholder, whether it’s the PMC or client, to discuss and sort out the issue, or go back to the drawing board if that’s required. Our objective is very clear – that our design should be translated the best possible way on the site. We monitor the logistics of it all. This culture has led to us getting repeat orders and resulted in a bulk of our clients being long standing clients. We have cumulatively designed over 21 million square feet over the last decade without a designated Business Development executive. Our work speaks for itself and word of mouth has been our most effective PR and marketing channel.

(Interview PART-2)

Planning is key to the success of a project

Turnkey projects involve a lot of civil and interior   and other services work. It is important to give yourself adequate time to design as per client specs as well as to draw up a project management plan that includes materials procurement, logistics, coordination with vendors and service providers and, most importantly, contingency planning. In our projects, we always emphasise on the design time, which is the coordination time. However, designing in isolation is risky. It is prudent to simultaneously examine the bill of materials and plan for procurement as well as delivery schedules. Contingency plans involve having back up plans in place at least for crucial materials so that there are no last-minute surprises. In short, project execution doesn’t involve only the glamorous aspect of ideation and designing, but also the more mundane activities of procurement, logistics, coordination and contingency planning. Once both responsibilities are executed perfectly in tandem, the project is bound to succeed.

Organizational culture defines space planning

We  spend a lot of time in space planning because that is at the core of a spatial design. It’s very easy to make a space look great in isolation,but the way you orchestrate  spaces is very important. As a precursor to space planning, we study the company’s brand image, the industry it operates in, its work culture, its employee profile and customize our designs accordingly.

Our designs are an amalgamation of functionality and aesthetics. Aesthetics cannot be compromised. The other important aspect to be mindful of is maintainability. We select materials which don’t break the bank, can be maintained without undue effort and  which age gracefully.

Travel often, travel far. Never stop seeking knowledge

My mantra is to never stop learning. Before the pandemic I made it a point to attend an international fair at least once a year. This helped me keep abreast of manufacturing trends and new products. I also took the opportunity, where possible, to meet manufacturers in the host country. I find it very educational and advantageous to meet manufacturers and do so at every opportunity, whether in India or abroad. My conversations with them give me insights into the uses/versatility/advantages/drawbacks as the case may be, of the material or product. This helps me when I experiment with materials. For example, there are times when I look at a particular material and think that it might look great as a table top, even though it was not intended to be used as one. The interactions with vendors make it very easy for me to decide if my idea works, because technically they explain to me how their material works. If the marketing team is not aware, they connect me to the technical team who help me iron out any  doubts. Additionally, there has been a lot of interaction within the fraternity.In-person interactions, whether at fairs or fraternity conferences are ofcourse on hold now due to the pandemic. The pandemic has highlighted the advantages of webinars and social media interactions through the various whatsapp groups that are extremely active. These interactions and chats have helped us continue our learning by sharing information and suggestions.

In addition to attending fairs, I’ve used my personal travel too as learning opportunities. I’ve always holidayed in places that are architecturally rich and these architectural piligrimages as I like to call them have been interesting experiences. I concentrate mostly on visiting modern buildings and observing their designs and materials they use. Another way to constantly upgrade my knowledge is through industry books and magazines. While I love the feel of physically holding a book or magazine, my environment consciousness has led me to reading largely on my Kindle now.

(Interview PART-2)

Never stop being a student

In design schools, we are taught good design and the technical aspects of it all. But nobody teaches you about business development, how to get a project into your firm. No one talks about how to handle it and you end up thinking that  there’s some other agency  taking care of it. No one teaches you the nitty gritty of it all. Most importantly, nobody teaches you how to handle a budget.  There are a lot of aspects which architecture schools don’t teach you. . I feel that you either have to be blessed with some of the skills that the educational institutes doesn’t teach you or you have to acquire the skills as you go along. I’ve seen some brilliant designers  with great designs who are unable to sell their ideas to the client. I would like to advice budding architects and designers to practice their marketing skills during their design submissions in college. Treat the jury as a client and tell them the story behind your design. Welcome the practical questions that the experienced jury member or evaluator asks because these are mock drills for the real life situations that you will face in future. Also, don’t be rigid in your views. Always explore new things and experiment in the right proportions. That’s very important.

Always keep upgrading your skills. I have noticed that a  lot of senior architects, are always very keen to know what’s happening in the market.  They ask a lot of questions. They are always curious. This constant desire to upgrade their skills helps them remain at the top. Never be complacent or have an attitude of knowing it all. Success is a journey and learning is a process.

Vijaya’s message to every person in the fraternity is that passion and devotion to your work are the cornerstones of success. She  draws attention to the fact that, while the requirements of each project change, yet the responsibility of a designer reigns supreme and never wanes. Her views on the ways to acquire new knowledge are practical, in an industry where sustained success is predicated on keeping up with trends. Vijaya’s endorsement of sustainable means to acquire knowledge is also very much in tune with a growing consciousness of a green world.

While looking back at an impressive and successful career, Vijaya shares her views on the changes in her industry and laments the fact that designers are being undervalued.

Design has become a commodity

When I started my career as an architect and interior designer, designers were sought after and valued for their contribution to a project. Sadly, that is not the case today. I believe that in India, unlike in the West, design is treated as a commodity. We are forced to compete on price without looking at the value we bring to the table by creating a great design or through value engineering. We have for example, on a particular occasion reduced overall project cost by redesigning the lighting configuration and bringing down the cost of fixtures by 25% by using simple logic in designing the RCP.

If the designer is sensitive to  the client’s requirements and is able to offer a good solution, it’s unfair  for their services to be commoditized. And yet, we are selected on how much we quote ‘per square feet’ in our proposals. I feel designers should be respected and that’s something I am seriously concerned about. This is something we’ve often discussed within our fraternity too and its something that I think needs to change in India. It’s a serious concern because, on the one hand our fees currently are a third of what we commanded a decade ago, and on the other hand, our operating and input costs have consistently increased. We have had to make significant investments in technology due to changing client expectations. For example, before the advent of the 3D medium we’d provide hand drawn perspective visuals. Now everyone wants 3D visuals of every single room, with the palette showing an exact rendition of the final finish. It’s a lot of work with a lot less money. That’s one reason why a lot of designers are turning into D&B, adding contracting or even PMC to their portfolio. Its moving people away from their core competence, which is unnecessary.

While Vijaya Bhargav has moved with the times and adapted to shifting trends in the industry, she’s still very much rooted in the age old tenets of excellence, commitment, dedication and accountability. Her firm’s ‘client-first’ approach has ensured that she and her firm remain the designers of choice for their impressive roster of clients.She leaves us with her take on work-life balance which is all about setting priorities..

Work-life balance is about prioritizing

People are lying if they say that they’re maintaining a work-life balance. It’s a matter of priority. If you ask at home, people would say I prioritize work. But I have never thought of designing as  work. It comes very naturally to me because I enjoy what I do. When my team and I are addressing a  design problem, its difficult to shut down at a defined time saying that we have to go home or have some other engagement. Designing is a process and its very important that the thought process should not be interrupted.  I don’t think work-life balance is really possible. It’s just that at any point of time, whatever needs prioritizing should be prioritized. To be continued.>>