This is Part 1 of the podcast. Find Part 2 here.

Gyan

Hi and welcome to Unbox. This is Gyan, I’m interviewing Ratik today.

Ratik

(laughs) बाद में करता हूँ मैं record intro… अभी नहीं करूँगा मैं (I record the intro later, I won’t do it now)
.

Intro music
‣ Feels like Summer by Childish Gambino

Ratik

Hello hello hello. Welcome to Episode 4 of the Unbox podcast, and also welcome to summer! It’s officially May, and the temperatures are rising every day here in Delhi. So yeah, were officially in summer! And summer brings an interesting challenge for podcasters, especially with the setup I have, which is not really a setup, but you can’t have fans running when you record episodes with guests because the mic catches the fan noise and I don’t want to give you that to listen to and as a result the episode for this month was recorded without the fan with both me and the guest being all sweaty. I guess it was more intimate in a way?

Moving quickly on from that pathetic joke, this month we have Gyan Lakhwani on the show. Gyan is a very dear friend, and he is also a self taught designer—specifically he has worked in UI and UX. For people who don’t know UI is User Interface design and UX is User Experience design, so designing what something looks like visually and then designing the experience of that thing. Basically, you’ll probably understand more when we go deep into it later in the episode. That was like a quick intro.

Apart from UI/UX stuff, he’s also worked on like conventional graphic design stuff. So logos, branding and that sort of thing. He is currently studying Interaction Design at IIT Bombay. So we talk about that in this episode, and how it feels for him to actually formally study design after being self taught. So that’s something we’ll go into.

Another thing we’ll talk about with Gyan is his wealth of freelancing experience. Because he’s done a lot of freelancing and earned a fair amount of money, so we’ll be going into like his tips and tricks for you. So if you’re somebody wants to get into freelancing in any in any sort of sphere or career, it need not just be just design freelancing.

Interesting thing about this month episode is that it’s going to be in two parts, that’s because I thought that the episode was a bit too long, and episodes in general have been getting longer, and I don’t really like long podcasts. So, I decided to split this month’s episode into two parts—although don’t worry, they’re both gonna be out together so you can listen to the first part, which is this and then just go and start the second one immediately if you want, or if you want to listen to it later, you can do that too.

In terms of what the two parts will contain.

So the way I’m trying to break this is the first part will be just Gyan’s journey from 11th, 12th grade to learning design and picking up a few internships and his freelancing work and then the second part will be more specific to his Masters degree, and finally yeah recommendations. Second part has recommendations, which is the recurring segment on the show. So yeah, don’t miss that. And once again they’ll both be out, so you can go and listen to the second one right after this.

And I think that covers everything that I had to say in the intro. So yes, let’s get into part one!

Ratik

But all right, let’s start the show. Hi Gyan, thanks for coming on.

Gyan

Hi Ratik

Ratik

Welcome to unbox. So how have you been? You’re in Delhi for a couple of days. How life, how’s Delhi? How’s the heat treating you?

Gyan

The heat is terrible, but it was quite bad in Bombay also.

Ratik

So yeah, you were mentioning, I think before we started recording that the last two days when you would in Bombay was heat was pretty bad, so I think a good way to transition into Delhi.

Gyan

Yeah, from one smelly under arm pit of a city to another.

Ratik

Lovely.

Just maybe then start with like a quick intro of who you are, what you’re doing, what are your interests? You have like 12 seconds, go.

Gyan

Hey everyone, my name is Gyan. I’m an interaction designer. I largely work on designing apps and websites and I’m currently doing my Masters in Interaction Design at IDC School of Design at IIT Bombay.

Ratik

So how would you—this is something out of curiosity—how would you define what interaction design is? Because I’ve definitely heard of what UI/UX design is, but interaction design is something that I’ve only recently started hearing.

Gyan

So interaction designers is, anytime a person interacts with technology, how do you make that interaction as smooth as possible?

And so you’re not the only one. I mean, each time I say I’m doing a masters in interaction design to anyone, I kind of have to explain what it is.

My favorite way to put it is—so you know how your bank, website and app is kind of terrible but PayTM is pretty good. Or when you try and book a train through the IRCTC website, it’s kind of terrible. But if you try and do it through, say Makemytrip, it’s a lot nicer?

That’s basically it.

Ratik

That’s interaction design, so would you say like it’s a combination of both UI and UX?

Gyan

Yeah, definitely. It involves interface design, experience design. There’s a lot of research component to it. There’s also hardware. You can also have interaction design for hardware devices, so it’s not just digital screens.

Ratik

Oh, Okay, nice. So it’s a pretty broad term then.

Gyan

Yeah, I mean these days you’d even consider AR & VR and designing for natural language interfaces part of interaction design.

Ratik

Got it, got it. Yeah makes sense.

Great so I haven’t really heard a lot of people doing masters in design, especially in India—I hear a lot of people going to colleges like Srishti or NID and they study bachelors there. Masters is something I’ve only heard from you so maybe we can like dive deeper into what led you there?

Ratik

So maybe we start as we can just start with this section I like to call the origin story section of the podcast. So how did you even end up in design? Is this a thing you picked up in school or later on?

Maybe you can just start talking about 11th and 12th grade, maybe. So what was that like for you?

Gyan

11th and 12th was a pretty confusing time because I took commerce in 11th and what I really wanted to do was computer science—I think you talked about this in another podcast also, there is no way you can take computer science in India unless you take essentially, PCM. Physics, chemistry, math. I was okay at math and terrible at physics and chemistry.

I did okay till 10th but when I… just 11th and 12th was hard. I took PCM for a while, didn’t work for me… so I shifted to commerce. And then a year into it, I realized that I was really hated that also. There is this idea that commerce is easier than science, and I feel like it’s that’s really not the case. It’s more of what you have an aptitude for, and I felt I had an aptitude for… if I had to take my pick, I would have taken English, Psychology, Computer Science, I don’t know… maybe history? But that was just not a choice I could make.

Ratik

Dude, definitely agree with this. I think about this a lot, especially nowadays ‘cause my brother is picking his subjects. The system is so rigid here and you don’t really have a choice to explore your option, you just kind of have to take one thing and see if it works, that sort of thing. So your experience is completely valid I think, and it’s it’s hard… and what you said about commerce. I too believe that I had a good time with science because I wanted to take science, but I don’t think I would have coped with something like commerce or humanities. But then again I’d also never tried them, so maybe I would have been fine with them.

Gyan

But here’s the thing, because I realized that I didn’t like commerce either towards the end of 11th, I had this conversation with my mom, where I told her that I just felt like I was going wrong, and this is just not something that was for me. She took me a lot more seriously than I expected her to honestly, but we went and talked to the school about whether it was possible for me to repeat a year and do 11th in science this time.

But a couple of the teachers who knew me told my mom that listen, if you drop a year, that that’s usually not a great experience for anyone, because you see all your friends go ahead. So what you can do is just try and skip 11th and go to 12th in science.

Ratik

Oh wow, I mean that’s also quite nice of your school. I don’t think a lot of schools will allow that.

Gyan

So this is what the teachers felt, but then the administration said that if you don’t pass 11th in science, you can’t go to 12th in science. And if you don’t pass 11th and commerce, you can’t go to 12th in commerce either.

So they told me to give the regular finals in with my commerce subjects and then when they held re-exams for students who could not clear the main exams, then I give the exams in science. I took crash courses essentially in class 11th science subjects, so physics, chemistry and computer science, and just, just managed to scrape through.

Ratik

That’s a mess though, dude, like I mean I’m sure it must be not easy like doing this.

Gyan

So advice for anyone listening to this—do not do this! I was lost all through 12th because I studied my science subjects only to pass the exam and not to understand the subject. So it was a bad way to do class 12. And with my boards I really struggled, I think I didn’t do great in my boards and that was largely because I didn’t have that 11th base. I just jumped straight to 12th.

Ratik

Yeah, it can be a lot of stuff thrown at you if you directly pick it up in 12th. So what’s interesting is… where did the interest in tech and design come from? I know it’s a probably a different debate that you need to be creative to be working in design, but were you a creative person already all through your life and you were growing up? How did you discover that you were interested in doing this?

Gyan

So a large reason of why it took me so long to realize that I didn’t like what I was doing in 11th because I wasn’t doing so much of studying… I was really into extracurriculars. My school’s computer club Exun at DPS RK Puram is a great computer club. Shout out to Exun. I went for a lot of competitions—interschool competitions—back in I think 10th, 11th I was largely making videos.

So I learned After Effects merely because that’s what there was a need for at the time, we already had enough graphic designers, we already had enough coders, but not enough people doing video, and that was sort of a need the club had at the time. So I started with video. I did motion graphics. I tried shooting my own short films. I made a couple of ads. And I won a lot of competitions back then. Which gave me a lot of confidence because I felt this was something I was good at, and there’s a lot of positive feedback from winning competitions.

Ratik

Yeah man, I can’t even begin to talk about the existence of these computer clubs in school, at least the schools here in Delhi and Noida. A lot of them have these clubs and I think there are good place for you to meet like-minded people and just learn from them and work on things that you want to work on. So that I definitely had that also with me.

Ratik

So what happened after school was about to end and you had a turbulent time with science and commerce, board results—what was happening around that time with you?

Gyan

So when it came to… when I got my board result it wasn’t great.

I did not get through JEE mains, and what everyone assumed was that I’d do engineering because I was good with computers. But the thing is, I was good with making things with computers, so I was always interested in the more creative aspect of things. I wasn’t ever really coding or doing more of the engineering side of things.

Ratik

So what did you end up then choosing finally? Because I have noticed a lot of times people want to pursue different things, but there are no routes to do that, so they end up doing engineering only if they want to work in tech.

Gyan

So I decided to do engineering because that’s the only thing I could figure out at the time. I got in for IT engineering at Maharaja Agrasen Institute of Technology, which is a College in IP University. For the first year of college, I just had this whole thing about not doing well in the boards and how I should just buckle down and study hard and get a good job. At the time my parents had just just gotten a divorce and there was a lot of family pressure for me to do well and financially support the family also.

I was still fairly interested in all these other things I was doing, all these more creative things and I kind of slowly… I was just doing them as favors for people.

Ratik

Yeah, that’s how usually how most people start. I guess we’re just doing favors and just looking for projects and doing them, because honestly, it’s because you like doing that stuff, and that’s why you sort of seek it. And yeah, that completely makes sense.

So whatI want to talk about is, you were in your first year of college and you said that you wanted to focus on your studies because like you mentioned, you wanted to do you want to be a good engineering student, but you are also still super interested in all these creative things?

Ratik

How did you make that into like a freelancing career? Or like, how did you manage to freelance alongside college? How do you start? I think that’s what I want to ask you.

Gyan

Back in school I worked on a lot of print magazines that because the different departments in my school published magazines every year. I’d done a lot of that, so I’d learned how to do layouts. I used Microsoft Publisher back then because that was the one tool I knew, but slowly I started doing graphics.

One time my mum’s friend had a restaurant and he was trying to design a logo for it. He showed me some options he was working on and I told him I could maybe help him out and show him some other ideas.

He really liked one of the ideas I came up with, and so I told him he could just take it because I didn’t really know this was a marketable skill. He said I could have a free meal at his restaurant.

Ratik

Oh, that’s cool.

Gyan

And so, and so I was very proud of it. I posted about it on Instagram. A senior of mine from school who who’s now working at Spotify as a designer, Achal, he told me that I got cheated out of… I mean he told me that I got under paid for the work and…

Ratik

You did not get paid.

Gyan

So I didn’t get paid, it was… I mean no such thing as a free meal, it was a free meal. But that was the first time I ever thought that I could actually charge for the work I was doing and.

Ratik

Wow, that’s that’s pretty cool that your senior reached out and like told you that because I don’t think you would have, you probably would have realized at some point, but him telling you this might have accelerated the process in a way.

After this point you started doing more projects, I’m assuming, and started asking to get paid?

Gyan

It was a little slow. Once I realized that this was the thing I could be doing… I was on this Facebook group called HH Design. It’s still around and it’s a great resource for young designers wanting to learn more, but back then it was a much smaller community and people would sometimes post about projects they were working on. So I would just message people on Facebook and ask them if they needed some help with their logos.

And then I’d quote them something like give me $25, I’ll show you 3 options for logos and so I mean I started small and because I was working cheap, enough people responded to me and I set up a PayPal account, started randomly doing logo design without knowing anything about it for strangers on the Internet. It was surprising how well it worked. I mean, I had a roughly 50% response rate for my cold Facebook messages.

Ratik

Wow, that’s really good dude.

So what’s the story behind your transition from doing graphics work, which is like logos and branding to more like UI & UX, which is like design for the web and apps. I know you still do a lot of graphics work and it’s like a combination of the two at this point.

But how did you even discover that UI/UX was a thing considering you weren’t going to a design school… how did that happen?

Gyan

So right out of school when I joined college, my college started about a month later than most of my friends. So I was looking for an internship because I figured I didn’t want to sit at home in the summer, wait for college to open, so I did a one month internship at this… again, this was I saw this posted on a Facebook group, but there was a internship opportunity at an advertising studio in based out of Shahpur Jat, in Delhi. I thought it was interesting because I was mostly doing graphics at the time and I went and interviewed and they liked me. However, the founder who himself was, I think a 23, 24 year old guy from Bombay who’d been running this ad agency and then shifted to Delhi because that’s where most of his clients were.

So he said that he was also working on a startup called Surgge with two of his friends and both of them were IIT engineering grads. He asked me if I wanted to split my time between the startup and the ad agency because they were running out of the same office, but they were essentially two different outfits and so I thought that sounded interesting and I decided to help them out with the startup as well.

Gyan

I ended up spending my entire month kind of helping the startup Surgge with their web product. So my job there was to do some user research which is the first time I had ever heard of the concept of user research. And then I had to design their web UI for for their engineers to build, this was the first time I’d really done work on a UI project and I realized that I really enjoyed this and this was something that was more fun to me than the kind of graphics work.

Even though I don’t think I made a very strong distinction at the time because I was using Illustrator for essentially everything I was doing, including the web work.

Ratik

Right, so did you have any like people who guided you here or when you were like learning things on your own? That sort of thing?

Gyan

So my boss Ravi at Surgge, even though he was an engineer, he studied at IIT Kharagpur. He’d read a lot of books about design and he guided me through how I should be thinking about it. I think having him around, having him talk to me about what he was thinking and I think then he moved on to product management himself.

So even though he was not a designer himself, he pointed me in the right direction and so going into college I already kind of had this idea that this was something I was finding interesting and fun.

Ratik

That’s so cool, man. Kudos to you for taking the internship opportunity up. It ended up teaching you a lot of things and it opened your eyes to the UI/UX path which eventually led you to where you are today.

So before we sort of move on, I wanted to touch upon one thing that you mentioned before, which was these online communities like HH Design and how that helped you progress in your freelance work. Because that sort of information might be valuable for somebody listening to this. So do you want to talk about that quickly?

Gyan

Because I didn’t study design, I essentially taught myself things on the Internet.

I read a lot of articles online, so online communities were a way to discuss work, get feedback on what you are doing, look at what other people are doing, try and help them out, and HH Design was, at least back then, was a very active community and a fairly small community, so you kind of had the same people posting over and over.

It was an open community. Anyone can send a join request so people can still do that right now.

Ratik

Yeah, I’m definitely going to put the link to HH Design below. Gyan is actually a moderator there now, so if anybody wants to join, I think it’s a pretty cool place. I’m part of the community too, and it’s a pretty active community. Lots of interesting stuff happening there, so if you’re a new designer then yeah, check it out.

Ratik

So next I am going to talk to you about your freelance work. How did you get into it? I mean, how did you even manage it with college? Do you have any tips for people who want to start freelancing? Maybe like shed some light on how you went about it and I think that should be good information for people listening to this.

Gyan

I went about it in a pretty haphazard way because I didn’t really know what I was doing, but there’s always Internet articles that you can refer to. There’s always resources on the Internet and I strongly believe that you can teach yourself anything on the Internet.

But in general, I’d advise they advise people to create a portfolio of work so anything that you’ve done, whether it’s personal projects, whether it’s client work, always show it online somewhere, say on Behance or Dribbble, or if you can put together a website then that automatically makes you look more professional.

Gyan

And what I’ve done personally is write Medium articles about most of my projects and then just sort of link to them on my personal website. Once you’ve done that then you can start reaching out to people and asking them if they need your services and you can.

One easy way to do that is through Facebook. I did that back in my day on a lot of hackathon groups where young people who were starting to work on startups or had ideas where they wanted help on the design side of things.

These days I think it’s a better idea to target startup groups. There are a lot of Facebook groups where startup founders kind of discuss their ideas and sometimes they clearly post a need for a designer, like they might post that they need help with UI/UX for their app or they need a logo design. Sometimes you can just see that it doesn’t look great and maybe you could do a better job and you can pitch your services to them.

Some general advice—which I learned the hard way, is how to handle payments. Always make a contract and as a freelance designer early on, I just trusted my clients to pay me… and some people are good they’ll do that.

Ratik

Do you have like bad client stories also?

Gyan

I have so many bad client stories.

Ratik

Okay, let’s not go into those right now, but yeah, so payments, yes.

Gyan

But as a general rule, create a contract and a contract doesn’t have to be very complicated. What you essentially need to mention is the work that you will do in terms of deliverables—so if you’re going to design a logo and and do the branding then deliverables, may be

  • A logo—three logo options, one finalized logo
  • A branding PDF document
  • Some business cards
  • Letterheads for them

So you list all of these things down, and for larger projects it makes sense to create milestones and so your contract should clearly mention the deliverables you’ll have, what format they’ll be in and all of the milestones and the payment you expect at each milestone.

So for me, usually the first milestone is an advance payment. So I take 10 to 20%, sometimes higher of the entire estimate for the project as an advance, and I only start working once I have the advance in in my bank account because I’ve just had a lot of projects where I’ve put in effort and then the client has backed out, so my advice is just don’t start working till the client puts their money where their mouth is.

Ratik

Yeah, that makes sense because you don’t want your clients to ghost you essentially. How did you balance this while being in college? Like freelancing and also like coursework?

Gyan

I realized I think around my third year of college that engineering was not for me. Freelancing work was going well, I was already making roughly what I was expecting to make as an entry level engineer from my college. My mother was fairly okay with me doing what I wanted to do and she saw me working hard.

I kind of deprioritized college at the time, but I was still studying—I gave all my exams, I was skipping a few classes, but I was still managing to do last minute studying and clear my exams and to my credit, I didn’t have a single back in four years.

Ratik

Wow, that is… because a lot of people not doing freelance work also have backs, so it’s pretty good that you were able to manage that. Wouldn’t have been easy. A lot of hard work. But that’s good that your mom was supporting you and I feel like our parents if they see us working hard towards something, and they see that we sort of know what we’re trying to do, that they end up supporting us.

I guess we’re also lucky that our parents do support us in a way. What are your thoughts around just getting your parents to understand… if somebody wants to talk to their parents about the design field. Do you have any thoughts around that?

Gyan

I had my fair share of issues with my mother because, uh, I kind of wasn’t sure if I wanted to do engineering, and I kind of wanted to take a gap year and explore my options, and especially since I did that one month internship right before college.

If I had had the chance to do a little more of something like that, maybe do that for 3-4 months and really realize that this is what I wanted to be doing. I could have maybe avoided those four years of engineering and done an undergrad in design. So I do have certain regrets but I understand why my mother did what she did back then. She felt if I sat at home for a year I would just waste time and who knows that maybe I would have wasted a lot of time, but it would have also given me time to think, so I feel like if you are confused, then if you can afford to then you should just take a gap year and kind of think about things.

Because there are a lot of fields out there and engineering is not the only option, even though that’s how my mom felt. That’s how I felt because I didn’t think design was a field you could work in.

Ratik

Yeah, yeah. I’ve also been thinking about this so I have you heard about this thing Ashoka does, this Young India Fellowship thing?

Gyan

Yeah, I mean I actually got in for the Computer Science and Entrepreneurship program at Ashoka and I kind of wanted to go for that, but that was the first year. That was that would be their very first batch and they offered a B.Sc, not a B.Tech, and the consensus seemed to be that a three year program is not as valuable when you’re looking for engineering jobs.

Ratik

Yeah, so this fellowship. What basically is like. This something I’ve also been noticing a lot of my batchmates from college instead of working or studying more, they ended up going for this fellowship, which is like a one year program and they basically expose you to a lot of things in the world, like a lot of fields. So for example, for a month you study what the finance field is like and for a month you look into what, for example, design is like. So that you’re exposed to a lot of things because there are a lot of things now that you can do.

And after that year when you spend there, you can actually decide what your interests are. So a lot of stuff is happening in the world where such opportunity opportunities are coming up, we didn’t have these when we will sort of getting into college, but there’s a lot of stuff out there which is doing this right now.

Now just wrapping up on college. When did you know that you want to actually get into design? Did you have like, a moment when you thought that this is working and I should probably pursue it?

Gyan

So around my third year, as freelancing was going well and I think at that point I’d already proven to my mother that this could work as a career, so there was no longer this pressure to take college very seriously, study hard, get a job because I also got an Internship at Zomato I think again in my third year in the winter, so I had kind of proved that design was a feasible career and I kind of considered dropping out at the time because when I was working at Zomato, they offered me a job, they told me not to return to college and just start working and I kind of did consider it, but I also felt that if I wanted to study further then it just made sense to finish off the remaining one 1, 1 and a half year of college.

So I think by my third year I already knew I was not going to do much with my degree, but I also just didn’t want to drop out because I felt I was able to do both things. So I just wanted to finish it off.

Ratik

Yeah, that makes sense.

Ratik

I mean, you’ve also invested so much time you do something. So you might as well wrap it.

Outro music
‣ Summertime Magic by Childish Gambino

This is the end of Part 1 of the podcast. Find Part 2 here.