Narani Kannan: Graphic and Product Designer

by Kate Andrews | September 30, 2010

Graphic Designer Narani Kannan’s design process revolves around a message-driven design discipline that involves thought, considerable research, conceptual development and image development which is carried out by functional aesthetics and fine execution in every project. Her work has been recognized by many online design galleries and design blogs, and has recently featured in some reputable international magazines and books. Notes on Design spoke to Narani this week to find out more about her career journey.

When do you first remember being creative?

My first memory of being creative was with my father when I was about 3 years old. I remember picking up my new box of crayons and my father teaching me how to draw a picture of a fishing scene with a boat and a man fishing. I remember that night quite clearly. My father was pretty strict on me when it came to coloring, making me color inside the lines and in one direction (well, instead of just scribbling all over the page). That night, I remember my father teaching me how to draw fish, clouds and a bright yellow sun.

I also remember when I first started school I was one of the talented kids who knew how to draw and color, while other kids were drawing stick figures. I believe my ability to draw came from my father and grandfather who are both artists as well. When my father would paint I would get inspired to start my own little projects – watching him paint during the wee hours of the night certainly helped my drawing skills develop.

Can you tell us why you chose to go to art school?

For as long as I can remember I was pretty much always thinking about drawing and art. I always wanted to do something related to art. I was really not interested in a lot of my other courses and I was one of those kids that were very passionate about all forms of art; painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking and art class was pretty much the only class I looked forward to. Throughout my schooling I was always known as the ‘artist’ in all my classes. Since I was about 6 years old I knew I wanted to be in the creative field. Every now and then I remember my parents trying to feed ideas into me by saying that maybe I should try to become a doctor or a lawyer, but they knew deep down that art was my passion and eventually became very supportive.

My initial idea was to become an architect and I loved drafting, but as soon as I started learning a bit of AutoCad my dreams of becoming an architect just went down the drain. Then when I was in grade 10, one of my art teachers told me that I should transfer to an art school. I had to go through an interview process to get in and I completed my grade 11 & 12 at Wexford Collegiate Institute School for the Arts. From there I gained experience in drawing and painting, life drawing, illustration, print making, sculpturing, photography and graphic design – it was an awesome experience. My two years at Wexford prepared me with a good art portfolio and from there I applied to one of Canada’s most prestigious art & design school, Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) – now renamed OCAD University.

I pursued my design career at OCAD in 2004 and received a Bachelor of Design in Graphic Design (2009). In my final year I focused my design thesis project on an eco-friendly milk packaging called ‘Gotta Moo’ and came up with an innovative solution to replacing plastics and any form of plastic packaging in milk packages in the food/beverage industry. Through this project I graduated with 4 reputable awards. After this exposure my work has been featured in many online design communities and design blogs, and has been published in some international magazines and books.

What projects or departments attracted you the most in school?

After I began at OCAD I was mainly interested in Typography, Brand Identity, Editorial and Package Design. To be honest, I don’t think there was one specific area that I was mainly interested in, I was just passionate about all areas of design!

What has been your most challenging obstacle?

I think being a designer is great and is something that I am passionate and proud of. I definitely have the drive to do design for the rest of my life, but one of the biggest problems about being a designer is that design is very subjective and everyone has their own opinions about it. It’s hard to please everyone and at times it can get tough to find the right balance. Sometimes it seems clients almost forget that a designer has gone through extensive training, that what they do is a profession and they forget that they hired the designer for a reason. It can get frustrating when untrained designers begin ‘art directing’ a designer and then you are left trying to convince others that you might know more can be a challenge.

What were you trying to express through your work in school and has it changed now?

When I was doing my final year thesis project, “Gotta Moo”, I wanted my project to be remembered. I wanted to make a difference in this world. I wanted to design something totally unique and different… something that would define me, and my project. My idea was to come up with a sustainable approach, something that would benefit people and the environment. My aim was to develop and design a friendlier milk packaging solution and an innovative carton design solution, that would stay away from the use of virgin tree papers, plastic and plastic coated paper products as much as possible in the food/beverage industry. Before I even started this project I set out goals for myself and although I faced many roadblocks throughout my process, I did everything possible to reach my goals. Through this I learned that, never let anything get in the way of your goals. If you put all your effort, time and focus into one thing, great results will appear.

How do you know when something you have designed is ‘just right’?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell and for certain projects you realize that, it is the way it is and that is how it shall be (well, with appropriate reasoning of course). Sometimes you need someone else’s perspective on things and to take a few steps back to see the flaws.

What are your inspirations? And who has influenced your work the most?

I am inspired by anything and everything, from music to random things I find. It can be wallpapers, old manuscripts, Swiss typography, Art Nouveau, carpets, curtains, calligraphy, the web. Usually if I am really stuck, I like to browse around design blogs and design books to stir my creativity and to see what is out there.

I love and admire the simplicity of modern age Swiss Design. I love the focus on grid systems and the overall impression it offers. I think it’s a classy style that is cleverly structured, geometric, simple and harmonious with a beautiful emphasis on typography. My two all time favorite designers are Herb Lubalin for his ‘craft in typography’ and the master of Swiss Design, Josef Muller-Brockmann. I also admire Jacqueline Casey’s work that also represents the same style as Brockmann.

What is your favorite typeface? And worst?

I don’t really have a ‘favourite’ typeface. I use certain fonts depending on what kind of feel and look fits the project. H&FJ are definitely one of my favorite type foundries. The quality of type they produce is just stunning! Some typefaces that I love are Sentinel, Chronicle, Gotham, Archer, Requim, Verlag, Ziggurat, Mrs. Eaves, Bree, Museo and I really love Calluna but don’t have my hands on them yet. These are a few I can think of… I’m sure my list can go on.

Some of the typefaces I can’t stand are Papyrus, Apple chancery, Comic Sans, mistral, Brush Script, & Zapfino the ‘fancy’ font… or that’s what ‘they’ think. I’m sure my list can go on for these as well!

You found early success in your design career, has it helped you get work that you feel passionate about?

I’ve been fortunate enough to win a few awards right after graduation and I have been published in a few books and magazines but I wouldn’t really consider myself ‘successful’ yet. I still think I have a long, long way to go in the design industry and a lot more to learn so it’s definitely a journey. I work at a package design firm in Toronto and I am definitely learning a lot of valuable industry experience there.

You are an amazing packaging designer, why packaging? What is your favorite piece of work?

I can be overly critical about my work at times. When I look at some of my projects after some time, I usually think to myself ‘crap, I could have done that a bit better’. I don’t really have a favorite piece of work but if it’s for packaging, I would say my final year thesis project ‘gotta moo’ is one of the best packaging projects I’ve done so far.

Is design art?

I think design can be art if it serves a function. I do believe that design has some artistic aspects to it, but design is not ‘strictly’ art. Design is an intellectual process. Designers may use artistic methods to visualize their thinking process but unlike artists, designers work to solve a client’s problem with an aesthetic approach. It’s an integrated process, from research to planning the appropriate communication strategy, to designing functional and beautiful designs, which at the end, serves a function and solves a problem. Art is not ‘functional’. It involves personal expression and is purely for aesthetic pleasure that is appreciated by others.

You are based out of Toronto. How is Toronto as a design city? Can you describe the design scene there?

In comparison to other cities the design scene in Toronto is fairly small, but there are a lot of great design studios here. There are design communities like RGD Ontario and Communication Designers of Toronto (CDOT) keeping the design professionals, educators and students connected to the industry too. I personally would love to travel one day and get out of Toronto and explore other design scenes/cities; Europe and Australia would be great to visit.

When looking at other design work, what do you find attractive?

Every designer has their strengths and weaknesses in different areas of design. It’s interesting to see every designer’s style to their work and how they execute their final designs. It’s very inspiring to see different styles and methods used in design pieces.

What is your advice to new graduates?

My advice to graduates is to always be confident about your work. If you are not going to be confident about your work then no one will be confident about you. Never settle for any sort of spec work even if it’s to ‘build your portfolio’. Be flexible to new ideas and suggestions. Be firm behind your design principles that you learned in design school, be humble and observe as much as you can from your new job. Also, never be afraid to voice your opinions – just do it with both respect and reasoning.


To see more of Narani’s work visit naranikannan.com and follow her on twitter @NaraniKannan.

Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.

If you are interested in developing your graphic design skills, Sessions College offers a range of graphic design courses for students at all levels. Contact Admissions for more information.

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