Consumer Appliances have become an integral part of our daily life, thanks to smarter design with a resolute focus on ease of use, better communication and improved accessibility for a diverse range of customers.

Ashwathy Satheesan, our next pathbreaker, Industrial Designer at IFB Industries Ltd., works on design and development of washers, dryers, air conditioners, microwaves, dishwashers, and other small kitchen appliances, bridging the gap between technology and user experience.

Ashwathy talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her experiences across diverse industries such as transportation, healthcare and consumer appliances, uncovering the potential of inclusive and sustainable design.

For students, the future of design will be in creating seamless interactions for customers no matter how complex the underlying technology is !

Ashwathy, can you tell us a little bit about your background? 

I grew up in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. My parents are both from Kerala. So, I grew up in an environment where I was exposed to two different languages and cultures at home and outside and I often found it difficult to blend in. I used to be a shy kid and drawing was one of the hobbies that kept me busy most of the time. I liked to make caricatures and create tiny models from scrap. My father is a Mechanic and owned an automobile workshop, so most of my  Sundays were spent scavenging through the junk to find bits and bobs to make something out of them. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation? 

After my 12th standard, I got into the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad for my undergraduate study (2014). After the  foundation year, I chose Product Design as my discipline of  preference, and I graduated as a Product Designer with the degree  Bachelor of Design (B Des.) from NID in 2019. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career? 

I was a fan of Rob from the POGO channel’s award-winning arts and crafts show, M.A.D. At the time I did not know that he had studied design, but I liked the process of how he created things. I  was in my 10th standard when I first heard about Design and NID. I remember reading about innovative ideas from NID students through newspaper articles. 

Like my other colleagues in school, I was busy preparing for engineering entrance exams. Though I still had no idea about what I wanted to do, I knew that I did not enjoy the process of just learning through books. That is when my parents helped me fill out an application for NID among the rest of the engineering colleges and asked me to just give the exam for fun. At the time I had no clue as to how big NID was. So, on the day of the NID interview, I grabbed some of my old sketchbooks and put them together in a folder and went. Now when I look back, I feel it was a good idea because i was able to show my original and unfiltered self at the interview. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted?  Tell us  about your career path 

Studying at NID completely changed my outlook and widened my horizon on what design is. People often perceive it as just  aesthetics, but it is a process. By studying design, you are essentially learning the process to solve any problem, whether it is a product, system, or service. 

While studying Product design, I got exposure to the process of research, analysis, ideation, concept development, prototyping, user testing, etc. These experiences trained me to get out of my bubble and talk and empathize with all kinds of people. I got the opportunity to dive into diverse projects ranging from packaging design, design for special needs, medical design, speculative design, sustainability, and design for transportation and mobility. These experiences gave me an insight into what I am passionate about and what skills I need to develop further. I also used to participate in many design challenges and contests. On the side, I worked with NID’s Railway Design Centre on a research project for the redesign of the platform seating of Indian railways. 

After the 6th semester, I went to do my summer internship at TI Cycles of India. Here I got the opportunity to work on research, concept development, and ideation of Roadster and Ladybird cycles. It was my first experience in the industry, and I learned a lot about consumer trends and manufacturing. 

For my graduation project, I worked with IFB Appliances on research and development of a new sustainable packaging solution for IFB Washing Machines. This project had a great impact on me.  For this project, I mapped the entire lifecycle of packaging from the manufacturer to its disposal, and created a collection of visual  representations of the insights. As an outcome, I developed a DIY  solution that engages customers. The idea was to change society’s  perception of waste and help them see value in it. This project was well-received for its thought on promoting sustainability to the mass through mass repurposing as a solution. This project was presented at the Relating Systems Thinking and Design  Symposium (RSD8), IIT(ID) Chicago in October 2019 and later at  International Upcycling Symposium 2020, De Montfort University,  the UK in September 2020. 

This was when I realized the potential of design and what my responsibilities are as a designer. 

How did you get your first break? 

As one of my classroom projects, I had developed a stabilizing pen designed to help people with Parkinson’s tremors with writing and drawing . This project ‘Fleo’ utilizes gyroscopic principles to stabilize and reduce tremor impacts. This was my second research project,  and I was keen to work on inclusivity and people with special needs. While visiting people at Parkinson’s Disease Society in  Ahmedabad, I observed and studied their daily routines and the difficulties faced by them. 

Throughout the design process of Fleo, I was in constant communication with the users, right from finding the opportunity to user testing. Over this period, I developed a lot of prototypes and conducted user testing to finally arrive at a proof of concept. This  project went on to win the prestigious James Dyson Award 2019. This was a great morale booster for me. 

What were some of the challenges you faced in your career? How did you  address them? 

As a young designer right out of college, I felt there was a gap in my understanding of what a change-making solution is. At design schools, it is often difficult to fully grasp the complexities of the real world. I used to think that my idea had to be the one-off solution to  a particular problem. But the truth is that design is all about constant improvement and iteration. Small differences can have a  huge impact at a system level. In the long term, they are often the ones that create a change. 

Another challenge is the constantly changing software and tools. I  have learned that being adaptable and open to new tools helps, and so is knowing which tools to use when. Equally important is the originality in the thought process that can set us apart from any technology/tool that aids in design. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve? 

Currently, I am working as an Industrial designer for IFB Home Appliances. The Home Appliances division of IFB deals with washers, dryers, washer-dryers, air conditioners, microwaves, dishwashers, and other small kitchen appliances. I work with my team here consisting of international designers on the research,  design, and development of all these products and its system. Every day we deal with challenges on how to make a product that  communicates better, provides a premium experience, and evokes  the brand identity. As it is a small team, I get to work with all kinds  of touchpoints of a product from the design of internal components that enhance the product’s performance to the branding and packaging of the appliance itself. It is nice to be able to work on  diverse areas as it keeps you on your toes and helps to improve your skills across all domains. 

In the consumer appliance industry, design is a key factor that creates differentiation and enhances a brand’s identity. As a  designer in this field, it is my task to make the bridge between technology and user experience so fluid that it is nearly invisible. 

Apart from this, I keep experimenting and exploring new tools on personal projects. This balance is good because I get to cross fertilize the knowledge of commercial and experimental projects in  my work. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Good Designs are known to make things easier, faster, better, and more accessible. A lesser evident fact is how lack of  communication and misunderstandings can be reduced through  effective design interventions. This can make communication better, which in turn can lead to better understanding and thus help us be kinder towards each other. I always aspire to make my work  in some way reflect this so that we are part of these small changes that create big differences.

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

I find great joy when I interact directly with the users. One such  experience was when I was developing a DIY therapeutic kit for children with developmental disabilities as part of my classroom  project. I was talking to the parents and testing out ideas with children from the lower economic group. I still remember the smile that the games that I made brought to a child’s face when I visited  him. 

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

Following your heart is very important. I feel that sometimes  external pressures can get us confused about what we are and  what we want to be. But I feel we must slow down and believe in  ourselves to truly understand what we enjoy doing. This can help us find a path that keeps us passionate and curious always. 

Future Plans? 

I look forward to being part of more inclusive and meaningful projects. I also plan to collaborate, learn, and work with people from diverse sectors to explore the potential of design and discover more tools in it.