It’s hard to ignore the role of design in our society, as technology increasingly penetrates every aspect of our daily life, from the products we use, to the car we drive, to the spaces we live in !

Rubina Ramchandani, our next pathbreaker, Product Designer at Volkswagen Innovation Center, California, is a part of the group that solves today’s problems around mobility/sustainability and envisions what the future might look like.

Rubina talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about beginning her career in Graphics Design, transitioning to Interaction/ Product design at hi-tech companies (Cisco/VW) and her vision of moving from being a User Centric Designer to Environmental Centric Designer. 

For students, as new technologies continue to emerge, creativity is a very rare skill that is needed to complement these technologies with a human perspective !

Rubina, tell us about your background?

I grew up in Bombay. I had a very blessed upbringing. My parents were pretty open minded and did not pressurize me to pursue any one career. I studied at Arya Vidya Mandir, Juhu which was a very popular school at that time. Growing up around celebrity kids I was exposed to the creative arts since a very young age. In my mom’s words- I could stay up all night completing art assignment’s effortlessly. 

My family however, was the complete opposite. They were all in business and I grew up seeing the struggles of that world. Some part of me runs away from business even today. I am content with having a job and love what I do. 

I had started taking art classes in school at a very young age with the aim to give the entrance at Sir JJ School of arts. I worked very hard for it. I aced the elementary and intermediate art exams as a goal to get into JJ’s. That was my dream – JJs and them a prestigious ad agency, 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

Due to family circumstances, I was uprooted from Bombay one month before my entrance to JJS and told I would be moving to Bangalore. Growing up with the dream and goal to study at JJs, I did not have a plan B. I had never planned my life outside of Bombay and my friends. 

I studied at Wigan and Leigh in Bangalore, where I completed a  diploma in Graphic Design and learnt about universities in the UK. My mom has always been determined for both her kids to get a degree no matter what. Since W&L was only a diploma course, I went on to leave India and get a degree in the UK. I did my bachelors (Graphic Design) at University for the Creative Arts – UCA, UK.

I also went to Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles and got a Masters in Fine Arts with a Major in Media Design. That’s when my horizon expanded. I had moved away from an ad agency mindset to something much bigger. 

What made you choose such an offbeat and unconventional career?

When I was studying at Wigan and Leigh in Bangalore, I had heard that Ray and Keshavan was the top design studio and was very difficult to get in. I had made it my life’s mission to ace that interview and get a job there. After I studied in the UK and went back to Bangalore, I interviewed with them and got an offer that I accepted. I learnt a lot there during my time. 

I was a graphic designer at R&K. I was a part of various projects that spanned across branding, environmental graphics and packaging. I worked on some big brands like Canara Bank, Bangalore International Airport, GMR, Microsoft and Trident Hotels to name a few. My favourite project by far was creating an extensive brand guideline for Canara Bank and Environmental graphics for the Delhi International Airport. 

However, after a point I felt stagnated. That’s when I decided to return back to college. I wanted to take my design background to the next steps. 

After graduating from Art Center, I had a very tough time finding a proper job. Primarily because I was competing against kids who had grown up in the US and knew how to navigate their way and the Visa processes. I connected with alumni from the university and that’s when someone recommended that I look into the Bay Area. The tech industry is always looking for talent and are open to applying for Visas. 

After six months of stress I got an offer from Cisco and I started my journey in the Silicon Valley. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I started Connected Designs while as a student in Bangalore. I helped out friends with branding other design related projects. I continued taking projects while studying in the US. I interned at Nestle Research and Development and PUSH Offices while studying for my Masters. Both the opportunities were very different. Nestle used my past experiences while PUSH introduced me to the world of interaction design and user experience. After I graduated from University, it took me a while to find a proper job. In the mean time I contracted with POSSIBLE, an agency that has SONY playstation as a client. I honestly did not have any major plan. I applied to a lot of places and hoped I would get a job someplace. Due to needing Visa sponsorship it was very challenging and extremely stressful to find a company that would be open to applying for a visa. 

When I visited the Bay Area, I immediately knew it was the place for me. Cisco was god sent. Not only did they offer me a full time opportunity, they were open to sponsoring my visa as well. I started here as a junior designer. I grew from designing small features to conducting research and proposing new products within the company. Slowly but gradually I grew my skillsets, slowly but steadily. 

How did you get your first break? 

After my visit to the Bay Area, I focused on applying to companies here. After a lot of interviews and rejections I interviewed with Cisco. I honestly did not think I would get the job. The recruiter spoke to me and disappeared for three months. But when they came back they went through pretty fast. I ended up staying with Cisco for over five years before I switched to Volkswagen.

I got my offer one week before my expiry of the OPT. Imagine my stress. 

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

I will start by saying that – growing up in Bombay, if you told me this is how my life would be, I would have never believed you. I always had only a plan A. As things started to change I had to navigate my way around. 

I will never ever forget my first internship at an ad agency in Bangalore – I was given a computer with no software. All I did was browse the internet and went home. No one cared if I even existed. In short, It was a terrible experience and a complete waste of my time. I stopped going after a few weeks. 

After the family crises and my moving to Bangalore, we also faced financial hardships. I worked part time at my cousin’s call center to support my education and expenses. I did not have the opportunity to intern while I was in the UK. However I did work part time at a restaurant while I studied to pay bills. 

My time in the US was also pretty tough. Studying, tracking expenses, taking buses and trains to get to college and home, all these experiences made me a stronger person. 

Things really started to turn for me when I interned at PUSH offices, a small design studio by alumni of Art Center. I made some amazing connections. My then mentor connected me to a friend who was with Samsung Research. It was she who suggested I visit the Bay Area and get a feel of the landscape here. 

I connected with some friends I had here and stayed with them and they showed me around. Within the first 24 hours I felt at home. I remember leaving the bay area telling myself – this is where I am meant to be. 

My biggest challenge in the US was competing against kids who grew up here, had a lot of experience and other accomplishments on their resume as compared to me. I had to play on my strengths instead of focusing on my weaknesses and that’s what I did. 

Another challenge for me was the interview process. Over a period of time I have learnt that it takes a lot of preparation to interview and sell yourself to the company. They have standards that I was not even aware of. Now after being in the industry for a while I am a lot more confident during my interviews. I wish I had a mentor at that time to guide me through the process. Now I give back to the community by mentoring others. I especially love mentoring kids and fresh graduates. That’s when you need it the most in my opinion. 

One of my biggest challenges early on was accepting that life had completely thrown out my plan A. I became rebellious and fought it for a while. However, over a period of time I learnt that whatever happens does happen for the best and I started to accept, become more open and flexible in my approach. 

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do

I am currently a Product Designer at Volkswagen Innovation Center in California. I am a part of the group that solves today’s problems around mobility and envisions what the future might look like. It’s very exciting as I work with car designers, industrial designers, mechanical engineers, machine learning engineers. 

My work is not limited to any one technology. One project will be about the HMI (Human Machine Interface) in the vehicle, while another would be researching ways in which we could be more sustainable to have a positive impact on the environment. 

A typical day for me starts with checking my emails and looking at my calendar the night before. Since I already know what meeting I have during the day I plan how much work I can actually get done. Some days are good where I get more time to work. However some days I am just sitting in meetings all day and get very little time to actually work. I have learnt over a period of time to balance my calendar and block time out. 

Now that the team is working from home there is more empathy and flexibility. If my team knows I need to go and pick up my kids from school then everyone is understanding towards it. 

I miss seeing my team but I also enjoy the time I am getting with my family. 

I love a lot about my job here at VW. I work with teams across the globe. There are times I have meetings at weird times of the day. However, when I see my designs getting implemented and being used by people, it all becomes worth it. I remember the feeling when I saw people picking up the fair N lovely package that I had been a part of. Or the Canara Bank collateral that I had designed while I was at Ray and Keshavan. 

How does your work benefit society? 

So far I have not been fortunate to work on projects that have had a direct impact on society. However, I am now consciously making career choices that will take me in that direction. The Paris Green Peace Treaty has forced nations and companies to very seriously think about what our responsibilities are towards the environments. I am consciously making choices to be on projects that have a huge sustainability goal and impact. 

I am moving from being a User Centered Designer to Environmental Centered Designer. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I learn from every project that I work on. All my projects are memorable to me in some way or the other. To me it’s not about the end result of the product or solution, but it’s the journey of how I got there and how I continue to expand on it. As a product designer we continue to push ourselves post launch. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My biggest advice to kids is DREAM BIG. You are only limited by your beliefs. The mind is very powerful. Use it to become something bigger that you can imagine. 

Growing up I only knew Medicine, Business and Law are viable professions. I knew I would do something with my creative passion. I just did not know what that would be. I let the universe guide me. Until I fought it, I did not grow. It’s only when I surrendered, is when I actually was able to broaden my horizon. 

Future Plans?

I plan to grow as a product designer and work toward creating more impact on the environment. I am constantly looking to expand my network and grow my skill sets.