Fellowship Experience: Krutika Shah

A self-defined type & typography nerd, Krutika Shah is a star in her own accord. She’s one of the top three finalists of the Malee Scholarship 2022, a Sharp Type Co. initiative, which provides financial assistance and mentorship to support and empower women of color as they pursue a career in type design. Her achievement is no coincidence - she’s currently working on an ongoing Gujarati typeface project. Krutika was also part of the inhouse ownpath team as a designer for a short duration, where she worked on projects such as overhauling the website to uplift the user experience and redesigning brand templates. 

Read on to find out more about her journey as a designer, her passions & pet projects and her experience with the Product Design Fellowship! 

Tell us about yourself & a little bit about your previous work role.  

I’m Krutika, a creative thinker and designer from Mumbai, India and currently based in Sydney, Australia. I started my professional career by working as a UI/UX designer for Accenture in Bangalore, India. Currently, I’m working as an Experience designer with Exo Digital, a design agency based in Melbourne, Australia. I graduated with a degree in Communication design from Pearl Academy, Mumbai, where my specialization was graphic design. I have a strong background in visual design and have learnt everything about UX/UI mostly on the job. During my time at Accenture, I got to work with a lot of clients and in different projects, with individuals from different geographical & cultural backgrounds. 

Early this year, I applied for the ownpath Product Design Fellowship, and I was accepted into the program with a big scholarship. During the Fellowship, I learnt a lot of new skills from industry mentors that I got to apply in my client work. During my fellowship, Shreyas (Shreyas Satish, ownpath founder) was looking for an in-house experience/UIUX designer and offered the role to me. I was more than happy to join the team and work remotely to re-design the ownpath website, while I was moving my life to Australia.

I am a person of many interests, mainly in all things art, culture and craft. I tend to dabble in a lot of things outside of work, and have a few personal projects going which keep my creative juices flowing. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of type design work & that has led to me becoming one of the finalists for the Malee scholarship 2022, which recognises women of color around the globe growing in the type design industry. 

Outside of work, I also enjoy going to museums, learning about languages & cultures and traveling to new places. I was also teaching French part time, during my years at design school. I love interacting with people so I enjoy roles that involve communicating and interfacing with others.

Talk to us about your passion for type design.

I got formally introduced to type design in my bachelors in design. I had some great mentors who got me really fascinated with this craft. I’ve always been someone who is fascinated with scripts & linguistics. So type design just married my interests in linguistics and letterforms very well. I kept using typography as a way to express myself, through whatever projects I did during design school.

After graduating, I wanted to do more work in the type design space and wanted to work on creating a Gujarati (my mother tongue) typeface. I’m very close to my roots due to the upbringing of my family and their values. So I wanted to combine my cultural background with my love for type design. I wanted to do this project under a type designer as a mentor, who could guide me through designing a typeface of a regional script like Gujarati from scratch.

So I applied to the Alphabettees mentorship program in 2020- an initiative where the Alphabettes team connects enthusiasts like me, who have a goal/project idea, with potential mentors who can guide them through it. I was connected to Ms Shuchita Grover, who  guided me through the whole process of creating the Gujarati typeface and also introduced me to the history behind the Gujarati type design. I actually have an ongoing W-I-P typeface that I started during that program.

Early this year, I applied for the Malee scholarship, which I learnt about through my mentor and the type design community on social media - it’s a very close knit community where opportunities/events in the type design face are shared frequently. I actually didn’t apply with the intention of winning the scholarship or even coming so close to it like I did, but just to put my work out there and share my journey with the community.

Although I was only a finalist, it was a huge recognition & I’m very grateful to the community and the scholarship team because it not only supports people like me but also promotes more women in the type design community, who may not have the resources to get their work out there. If you’re interested in type design, you can read up more about my journey in the space here.

Can you talk to us about your introduction to the type design community, and how you went about applying for the Malee scholarship?

I was proactively seeked to be a part of the type design community locally and internationally by attending events in and around Mumbai, and signing up for online talks and conferences that exposed me to a network of the global type design industry. The type-design community is a supportive and tightly-knit one, where everyone is very approachable and helpful. No matter what you’re looking for, it’s very easy to talk to people and get help. The community is also very active on twitter and type forums online.

Coming to the scholarship, it’s for women who are truly passionate about type design and want to use the funds to build either a career in it or do an education program. Like I mentioned in the former question, I learnt about the scholarship  through my mentor and the type design community on social media.

During the application process I had to present my portfolio depicting the body of work I had done in that space, as well as provide a cover letter where I had to write a bit about my background, my journey with type design, my interests in the field, what my future plans looked like & what I would do with the funds. Just the application process for the scholarship was a very interesting exercise for me because it involved a lot of reflection on my journey so far in the type design area & through that I, for the first time, understood how far I had come.

You shared an interesting anecdote about teaching French to little children back in India. You seem to be very invested in languages/linguistics. Would you like to tell us a little bit about that?

So I was introduced to French in school because we had to pick a foreign language as an elective. I just fell in love with the language & I romanticized a lot about their culture and the way of living as it was presented in their books & movies. After high school, I wanted to learn more & be associated with the culture & language, so I took language courses at Alliance Francaise de Bombay. I was learning French while I was doing my junior college at St Xavier’s College, which has a very strong arts & humanities culture.

They offered French as one of the subjects of study in the humanities specialization for my HSC. They also had opportunities for their students to participate in cultural exchange programs - one of them being France. I signed up for it & because I already knew the language well, I was selected to be a part of the program in 2014. I went to France for three weeks, stayed with a local family, and lived life the French way, which was a very enriching experience for me as someone who is so enthusiastic about French culture & language. It was like a dream come true!

When you learn a foreign language, it’s very hard to be able to constantly speak it and use it when you are not in a country where it is widely spoken. Even after you learn upto the advanced levels, it is a challenge to keep in touch with it. So the one way I thought I could do that was by teaching the language because I would be speaking it more than I would otherwise. So I started tutoring kids, who had French as an elective subject in school, or they just wanted to learn as a hobby during my free time.

That was another great life-changing experience for me because it was not only about staying in touch with French anymore,  but also learning a new skill, i.e. teaching, which turned out to be very enlightening for me in a lot of ways. Teaching makes you very good at a skill because you need to be so good at it, that you need to be able to explain it to someone else and educate them about that subject. The experience made me a more mature, compassionate version of myself because you realize that every student is different and you have to cater to their pace & personality when you teach.

Other than French, I am also passionate about my mother tongue - Gujarati language, which I grew up speaking at home. My cultural roots are very important to me because my parents were always encouraging of staying in touch with my cultural roots. While going to English medium schools, my parents spoke Gujarati at home with me and my siblings and my grandparents taught me how to read & write Gujarati while growing up. My love for my family is just so deeply imbibed in me via the medium language of Gujarati. My personal design work reflects a lot of my love for Gujarati in them. 

You say you’re an Experience Designer. What exactly does an Experience Designer do?

In my experience, job titles in the design industry are used interchangeably these days where an “Experience designer” would be doing everything that a product designer does. Experience design is more or less UX/UI Design - you’re designing the experience that a user undergoes while using a product or service. Though my current title says I’m an Experience designer, I’m more or less doing end to end product design work - which is keeping the business’s interests, goals & visions in mind with the user’s needs & providing a human-centered solution.

And what do you do at Exo Digital? 

I am working at Exo digital as an experience/product designer. Currently I am working on a client project in the healthcare industry where I need to design the MVP concept prototype for their job marketplace platform for the healthcare workers willing to migrate for work. My role is to conduct user research, ideate solutions and test them with stakeholders and users to build an MVP product that can be launched to market for further beta testing and development.  

Exo digital is a good design services agency to work for with a midsize team of designers, developers and client servicing professionals. The culture is great at Exo, where everyone feels like they are a part of a community of innovators and experimentalists, trying to push boundaries of design solutioning and bring great value to their client businesses. They focus a lot on uplifting the team with learning, engagements and team activities. 

Does it show that I’m very excited to work at Exo?

Talk to us about the importance of user research in your job role. 

Any designed product or solution needs to be backed by research if you’re designing it for someone else. When designing for yourself, you will not need to conduct discovery activities like user research because you know what you want to make. But when it comes to doing the same for someone else, you need to find out what exactly it is that they want; what is it that will help them; what is their current scenario or context.

No matter the work or project, if it’s anything to do with design, research is the backbone of it.

How I got to apply research at my previous roles has varied with the roles and the design maturity level. So with Accenture, they’re a big multinational consultancy firm with a high level of design maturity. They have a lot of processes in place already. However, many clients usually give less importance to research due to budget and timeline constraints and expect you to give your suggestive inputs as ideas and dive straight into designing solutions.

But I did get opportunities where I was able to advocate for the importance of research and there was focus and a budget and a timeline for research which I really appreciate the clients who are open to research  because anything that is designed based on a lot of assumptions, carries a lot of risk when you start using it because you wouldn’t know if it works or not. 

Simply put, your product or design solution can only be relevant if it is informed by solid research - real needs, real pain-points, real goals of the users.

You’ve worked in a wide range of companies - consultancies, agencies, start-ups. How has your role been different across different organizations?

Actually, ownpath was my first introduction to the work environment of a small-team start-up. And before that, I worked with Accenture, which is a large scale consultancy firm. Both had significantly different team structure and processes.

Though it was a very short stint at ownpath, it gave me a lot of exposure for working with such a small team, where collaboration and communication are so important.You’re essentially a one-man show in many ways, because you’re not only handling the parameters of your own role, but also constantly documenting, connecting & coordinating with all the other teams to make sure everyone is on the same page on what we are trying to do. 

In comparison, my experience at a large scale consultancy has been that I’ve had an opportunity to work on different products/design solutions ranging across different industries and clients. As a designer, it makes you a versatile team player who gets to work in different project teams with individuals from different professional backgrounds.

You worked at ownpath for a while before starting your current role. Tell us a little bit about what you did here and what was probably your biggest takeaway from the whole experience.

I was working at ownpath as a UI and Experience Designer. My responsibilities were revamping the design of the main website based on a business metric of conversion. The goal was to have more users to sign up for more stuff like either an enquiry/call or one of the courses or maybe events. I was also working on enhancing the brand guidelines and the style guide, and also building templates which could be used on social media and growth/marketing.

I’m really glad to have had a mentor like Shreyas guide me, because his inputs as the CEO of ownpath and as someone who understands the design strategy aspects, broadened my horizons and skillset. I wasn’t just relying on primary research, but also talking to stakeholders within ownpath, facilitating workshops, trying to figure out other avenues to get better insights into how I can redesign the website to drive conversion. 

My biggest takeaway/learning from my role is something I’ve mentioned before - Just go beyond your role and what it asks you to do, because it will enrich your work a lot. Proactively try to push yourself a bit more and that can give you a greater value on your output.

You’ve mentioned earlier how mentorship has played a great role in you becoming the designer you are today. Can we talk about mentorship at ownpath and if it has benefited you, how?   

The people who are mentoring at ownpath are incredible in the sense that as mentors they are so invested in helping you out in whatever way they can. They are so knowledgeable as industry experts, so getting that direct insight from real world examples is something I have always seeked and appreciated.

Even when I was picking my design school, I didn’t want to choose a school based on brand name or how old they were. I wanted to pick one based which offered a program that was more at par with the industry. How you build that system is by getting real industry practitioners to come teach students because they have the most updated knowledge and insights.

That is what I found at ownpath and why I chose to do the Product Design Fellowship at ownpath. You already know there’s great value in such kind of learning - you’re always updated about the latest patterns, concepts, trends & learnings in the design industry. In my opinion that is incredibly important because you get to apply the learnings when you go out into the industry, and it equips you to face the real world challenges.

So for me, the mentorship at ownpath added great value. It was incredible to have industry leaders, who come with up-to-date knowledge, teach & support us as mentees through our journey.

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