We spoke to Tejas Bhatt, Founder of 3 Sided Coin, and a mentor at ownpath. He discusses what it’s like to run an award-winning design studio, what the culture of a remote-first design studio is like, and his emphasis on visual design.
Q. Tell us a little about how you got started and a little insight on your background?
My name is Tejas, I run a design studio called 3 Sided Coin. I’m based out of Ahmedebad and I’ve been running this studio since 2010. A little over 10 years ago, I used to work as a business analyst/IT consultant in the US. I returned during the sub-prime of the recession in 2008 and started the studio. Product design was fairly new to India, so we didn’t start off as a ‘product design’ studio per say, although a lot of our work was well within the realm of product design.
We’ve become a little more generalist now. We try to follow the same principles and processes across both product design and content design or experience design. But in terms of the kind of work we do, we’ve become a little more generalist. We have always been a remote-first company, which has now become a thing to call yourself ‘remote-first’ due to pandemic, but we have always been a remote company and we have team members in Bangalore, Mumbai, and Hyderabad.
Q. What are the design principles that you share within your agency?
We have started to do a lot of content design work. And we are starting to implement a lot of user research into our content design work. We recently worked with an online/print magazine, and we were tasked with redesigning their online publication. We went out and spoke to 10-15 of their regular readers. It’s a very niche magazine, but still has a very cult following in its own niche. We spoke to people to understand how they consume content on this particular publication as well as what else do they enjoy reading, what constitutes a good reading experience for this particular reader, etc. We managed to derive a lot of inputs from those user research interviews, which doesn’t happen a lot. Usually the user research that’s conducted is for when you’re designing a product and solving a problem. We started to treat the experience the content was being consumed in as the ‘problem’. Whereas it’s usually treated as more visual design, we started employing a lot of processes that we usually use for product design within content design. Namely, research, testing etc. Although the output is different, the approach to it is similar.
Treating content design as an experience, and as a product because ultimately both platforms are driven by similar goals. Like if you’re a Zomato or Swiggy your goal is to maximise deliveries or optimise your delivery time and how to get as many orders out as possible. Similarly, content platforms have some type of financial model attached to it and are trying to reach out to as many people as possible. Whether it’s advertising, subscriptions, or donations- you want to give everyone the best experience from both the feature and experience perspective; this drives people to do those things. So, to go back to your original question, research, testing, thinking about content publications, is something that meets a certain goal, it’s not only products, but content is the product.
We started to treat the experience the content was being consumed in as the ‘problem’. Whereas it’s usually treated as more visual design, we started employing a lot of processes that we usually use for product design within content design. Namely, research, testing etc. Although the output is different, the approach to it is similar.
Q. Tell us about your team dynamics and what it’s like working with a design studio
I would say we have a very laid back sort of a culture. From the very beginning, people worked within their own schedules. We maintain an overlap where we can work together, but beyond that everyone works during their own time. We have had those principles from the beginning because I had read 37 Signals book about remote work before I was starting the company, and this is why I stayed in Ahmedabad because I realised this was not a career that needed me to be in the same geography as my clients. Although that assumption is challenged a lot in India.
We started the company with the assumption that we could make it work remotely. And it terms of culture, it’s pretty easygoing. We really emphasise two things. One is documentation. We make sure everything is written, so we can follow through with our ideas and take accountability for work. The other, is communication. We try to cultivate a sort of transparency with our work; one where you’re able to communicate things quickly, more frequently and avoid as much of synchronous meetings or any sort of synchronous catch up as possible. So, what working asynchronously on slack or any other medium is it forces us to write things down. This is one of the most guiding principles, not just for designers, but developers and really, any field. Writing things down has a lot of short and long term benefits, maybe not so much medium term benefits.
The other thing about our culture is that we’re very friendly to introverts, because we realised the majority of our incentive systems, reward and appraisal systems, and even feedback loops are all catered towards extroverts. Where people are able to sell themselves better on a micro level. At a macro level, they would be the ones with more to say, versus another person who isn’t comfortable with thinking on their feet. There are introverts who prefer to take things back, think about them and then come back with certain solutions or feedback. This is just another reason we avoid too many synchronous meetings, so it evens the playing field and everyone can spend time on something and come back with whatever your involvement is. These are our efforts in trying to make our team more inclusive, not only in visible factors but accommodating different personalities.
Q. Tell us more about why you’re the ‘most interesting studio’?
So this is an inside joke, and you can quote me on it too, but I always say we are India’s top 87th Design studio, where all the 86 who rank above us are all number one. We were just talking about how to make light of it, and we thought everyone calls themselves number one, how do we do it differently. Jokes aside, the reason we picked the most interesting studio is because of our approach towards design. We focus a lot on problem solving as well as the visual aspect of things. We want to make the visual experience just as rich for anyone who’s using a product we have designed. So, a lot of people use this quote, ‘Design is not how it looks, but how it works.’ I believe that’s a Steve Jobs quote. But Steve Jobs headed a company that made probably the most beautiful products in the world.
I see this a lot within the Indian design community, where the visual design and the overall experience which is the last layer is often short-changed. We don’t want to do that, we are very much focused on both sides. Our problem solving has to be at a certain level and our craft of design has to match up to that . And so, we got ourselves a kickass design studio because we want to make that end to end experience really nice.
We focus a lot on problem solving as well as the visual aspect of things. We want to make the visual experience just as rich for anyone who’s using a product we have designed. So, a lot of people use this quote, ‘Design is not how it looks, but how it works.’ I believe that’s a Steve Jobs quote. But Steve Jobs headed a company that made probably the most beautiful products in the world.
Q. What was it like to have designed Froggipedia, an award winning app?
So, the funny thing is that we designed the interface for the app within a week. It wasn’t a big app and it had a few things going on within it. But it was the first augmented reality app that we designed, And at that point, I think a couple years ago, there weren’t as many AR apps in the market. The most popular one was Pokemon Go, which I believe was the biggest thing at the time.
We had to do a lot of research in tangential sort of places. Like, thinking about what sci-fi interfaces were like. This part was fun because I watched a whole bunch of sci-fi movies during the time. We had to think about things like the future of UI as imagined in a certain time period; knowing what that looks like and taking inspiration from those things and testing them in real scenarios. The most fun thing about these challenges were reimagining how these things would look like in real life, like imagine how Iron man’s fancy gadgets would look like if you were to see them in your actual environment. You have to think about what the affordances are and what are the design principles they need to meet.
Q. What’s your forecast for VR/AR in the Indian tech landscape?
I think it’s going to take time to get there because the Indian landscape is, it feels to me a little bit more geared geared towards problem solving, than a new technology. And while we are designing products that are solving more problems, globally people are still figuring out what problems AR could solve. Something like the Oculus became very popular but it was confined to gaming and entertainment.
Q. What are the fields or industries you are looking forward to working with?
I’m really interested in working on few things, actually. And that’s a really interesting question. Because as a team with a culture of documentation this is another thing we are mindful about listing down. Every year, we publish a list on our website with all the futuristic things that we want to work with. Some of them are; IoT, electric vehicles and mobility segments, the ‘phygital’ world where we’re combining our screens and physical objects.
Q. How does mentorship play in to your role as the Founder of a creative studio?
I’d say mentoring students was how I evolved into scaling my studio. Until two years ago, 3 sided coin was a single person studio, it wasn’t even a studio, it was just one person. That was me. I wasn’t really sure how to scale up what I was doing. So, I started mentoring through Springboard first and now on ownpath, where I started honing in on what it would take out of me to run a studio. I was able to work on communicating better through documenting more, I was able to give feedback efficiently, as well as goal setting. It was much like a practice ground for me, and once I was confident of scaling the studio I started growing the team.
Q. What have you been reading these days? Do you have any recommendations?
I’m reading the least serious things right now. A couple of months ago, Marvel made 250 Black Panther comics free for everyone to download. And I ended up downloading all 250 of them. I was reading a lot more before the pandemic struck. Since we were working with a publication I was reading a lot about visual journalism and books on design/journalism. Right now, it’s hard to read anything serious.
As for my recommendations, I’d say if you’re trying to become a designer, understanding the fundamentals of visual design are really important. So if you’re a good UX designer but you’re not happy with how your visual design skills are shaping up I would recommend going back to the basics, read a lot about typography, color grades, principles and the foundation of visual design. This would give you a lot more ammunition to handle the visual aspect. And once you have that nailed down it becomes easier for you to grow as a UX designer.
If I can add another recommendation, it’s not to be too married to the idea of finishing books! That being said, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman as well as Mindset by Carol Dweck are two books I’d suggest.
Q. Advice for anyone who wants to improve their creative thinking and workflow?
Walk away from your computer every hour: This helps to change your perspective as well as it helps in creating distance between you and your work. This mental space allows you not to get too attached to your ideas and welcome feedback better.
Kill your darlings: This is often practiced in journalism, and with writers. Where you can get rid of vital parts of your story. You can see the parallel with design where you don’t get too married to your ideas and your able to part with work that you have put a lot of effort in.
Low fidelity notes: Document your ideas in low fidelity, just pull out a scrap of paper and long list your ideas. This helps get started.
Tejas is a mentor on The Product Design Fellowship, that starts in Jan 2021. Grow your skills in Product Design and get hired at top design teams.Learn more
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