India’s Simoul Alva is a design powerhouse whose work displays a flexible range of approaches and styles united by imagination and confident intelligence. A 2019 Visual Communication Design graduate of the National Institute of Design, India, this young designer has already racked up an impressive list of scholarships, awards, and recognition. Alva’s typeface Vixen Display was awarded a 2018 Certificate of Excellence by the Type Directors Club in New York City and was lauded as a student typeface designer to watch on Printmag.com.
She interned at Pentagram in 2018 and freelanced for Wieden and Kennedy as well as Sagmeister and Walsh. She also won the 2017 Helen Landsowne Resor Scholarship awarded by global advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, given to only five design/advertising female students worldwide. Clearly, she’s a young designer to watch.
Her portfolio contains several self-generated projects and student work, such as designs for Nike Organix and Air India that display a cross-cultural form of translation reflecting her own design interests along with a larger window into Indian culture. Packaging for a line of dairy products uses Hindi script to create the brand name Doodh (milk in Hindi), resulting in a graceful word mark that doesn’t require the ability to read Hindi to appreciate it. Alva says, “I have a sense of pride of where I’m from, and I like taking the time to educate people about it, setting the cultural tone and context no matter how random and messy my references may look.”
While she was on an exchange semester at École Supérieure D’art Et De Design (ESAD) in Reims, France, Alva found herself at a disadvantage since she spoke no French. For someone used to designing across language and cultural barriers, the experience was frustrating but she rose creatively to the challenge with a photo project, Onomatopoeia, intended to make a viewer hear sounds as a response to visuals, relying on common ground that all humans understand no matter what language they speak.
“We take language so much for granted until we’re severed from it,” she says. “The experience pushed me to start observing things more closely because for a good part of five to six months, my life was largely silent. Basic decision making relies on whether you can read something or not. I never thought of how important it is! I had to keep Googling what words meant every time I went grocery shopping to know if I was buying chicken or fish.”
Working at Pentagram on a team headed by Michael Bierut for MIT, a huge client with a formidable design pedigree, might have given even a more seasoned designer pause. Was she scared? Intimidated? Nope. “When I arrived, I started working on MIT Technology Review my first week,” says Alva. “Most of the identity design was already done! I created diagrams and infographics for Associate Partner Aron Fay. I had never worked within a big identity system like that, and I was tasked to really push it and explore how the diagrams would fit into the bigger picture.”
Her time at Pentagram had a lasting impact on the way Alva now approaches the collaborative design process. She says, “Every time I make a presentation now, I work really hard to make sure everyone is on the same page: It’s not just about the final artwork but the whole story behind it, and clients need to understand the things that went through your head. You can’t make a presentation and say things like serif or sans serif or use a lot of design jargon—you use images and anything else that will get your point across. Break it down, enable them to talk about it. You have to keep going until you understand what they like and what they don’t like.”
Alva’s approach to career management blends ambition and fearlessness. Asked how she’s achieved so much recognition at an early point in her design trajectory, she says, “It’s important to apply for things even if you think you don’t have a shot. Students don’t realize what other people can see. Push yourself, go the extra mile, make connections, reach out to the people you look up to and want to work with. Established designers are so generous with their time, because they remember being in your position! When Stefan Sagmeister did the Happy film, we couldn’t access it in India because of the country restrictions and all of that, so I reached out to him and said that we really wanted to run it in the film screenings program at our design school, and he was nice enough to just send us a copy. It was incredible. There’s so much support in the world design community; all we have to do is find each other.”
As encouragement to current design students and recent graduates, the designer points out that for every award and scholarship she’s received, and for every situation that’s worked out the way she wanted it to, there have been three or four that haven’t.
“It’s always hit or miss…you never know who will like your work. The first time you apply for an award you realize the number of steps you have to go through, even little things like optimizing file size,” Alva says. “Small things like that take you a long way, the practice takes the fear out. Every time you put yourself in a room where you’re not the smartest person, you open a set of connections you didn’t even know existed. It’s important to be uncomfortable in that way, and accept the challenges. Just observe. You have to learn from the best, or you’re not going to be any good.