Tell us about yourself – how did you end up on the path you are now?
Let’s see. I grew up in India, Kenya, Germany and the United Arab Emirates before coming stateside. Fresh out of college with confused aspirations, I started out professional life as a structural engineer on infrastructure projects in the UAE and Qatar. Including the Burj Al Arab, the second tallest hotel in the world. I checked. It’s still standing. I did that for a couple of years before throwing in the towel and throwing out the bathwater. I made a list of all the professions I was sure I didn’t want to pursue. It was quite exhaustive. And advertising wasn’t on it. Everyone who knew me through high school and college thought it was a pretty natural move, even though it wasn’t apparent to me.
There were a couple of triggers, I was unhappy and looking for something else and I remember the Absolut campaign when it first came out—specifically that I saw through a friend of a friend who was working at the PR office of the Burj Al Arab. Wieden and Kennedy faxed over a storyboard for a spot that they wanted to shoot as soon as the hotel was done. They wanted to shoot a spot between Agassi and Sampras on the helipad, and I remember seeing that storyboard and thinking this is a real profession and you can get paid to come up with that.
There weren’t many schools with accredited programs back then that I could apply for as an International student. I came to Boston to pursue a graduate degree at Emerson College. And I basically never left. I chose Emerson because it just seemed the most interesting to me, it’s very hands-on, DIY. The word punk has a lot of associations, I use it mostly for those things, the DIY spirit of things, and the just do it attitude.
So, how would you describe what you do – do you consider yourself a designer, a writer?
I’ve been a free agent for the past 7 years, teaming up with artists, advertising agencies, branding firms, design studios and film production companies as a freelance writer/creative director.
Getting on the phone with Kapil Kachru felt like I was getting the inside scoop on what it was like to work on the kind of projects people regularly reference as influences. While he claimed being interviewed was a new experience for him, he seemed an old hand at it right off the bat. Looking back on his career and figuring out what’s next for him, Kapil told margins that he was trying to pinpoint a theme amidst his self-professed chaotic life. He said, “certain simple things emerge – those themes would be music and failure, and I would call it ‘a punk recipe’.”
As he recounted tales of working with the influential Boston agency, Modernista! and kicking it with Bono, and professing his boredom with the ‘glossy, bougie-ness’ of so much design out in the world today, it became clear to me that he couldn’t have explained his career in a cooler fashion: “Music, failure, punk, and joy.”
Back in the day, the first issue of Colors magazine had an Art Director called Gary Koepke along with Toscani and Kalman. Gary went on to found an agency called Modernista in Boston, along with a guy called Lance Jensen, around 2000–2011. It started out right around the dot-com bust and was gone pretty much by the next recession. It was insane the kind of work that happened down in that place in Chinatown.
I just knew I had to work with Gary, the dude who worked with Toscani and Kalman. It was that simple, I had to figure out a way to work with this guy. That last decade I spent involved with Modernista!. They called me a spiritual advisor, which was just a dude hanging out and participating with stuff but not getting anything done. And then I was a freelance writer there for a couple of years and then fulltime for another five. Literally, that’s where the best work happened. I was lucky enough to work with amazing people from all over the world, at one point in 2008, we had 200 people, 40 nationalities.
What's in your margins?
I’ve been putting this off for too long. I want to build a voice-over reel. Film. Video. Radio. Podcasts. Bring it. I’ll gladly work with social, progressive and not-for-profit causes for almost free. I’ve produced one piece so far. And I’m hungry for more.
Edited by Padmini Chandrasekaran
Where do you find inspiration, both inside and outside the fields of design and art?
I’d say my main inspiration comes from life in all its amazing variety. Everything I’ve perceived, whether consciously or not, has left its mark. The impressions I do remember, however, fall on a wide spectrum from ‘love’ on one end, and ‘love to hate’ on the other. There’s a line from a Johnny Rotten song, “Anger is an energy” – and it’s a very powerful motivating force, as much as love and compassion. But both of those things have movement unlike just accepting things – they propel things in one direction or another, as opposed to just standing still.
As for creative influences, it was music, comics, fiction, film, poetry and photography, before I got into design. While at Emerson, I spent most of my time outside the classroom hanging out with artists and musicians, getting the much-needed liberal arts education I didn’t have. The real education started after school, I learned more from artists and musicians outside of Emerson about art, music, and culture. And I was duly schooled in abandoned buildings in the Combat Zone, studios in Fort Point Channel, and dimly lit dives in Southie. Back when murals with the Irish tricolor and slogans in Gaelic stood as tall as three-family homes.
Way back in the day, the first time I became aware of graphic design was through album covers. The first design firm I knew by name was the London-based studio, Hipgnosis. They defined the look of the 70s for some of the biggest British bands of their day. After coming to Boston, a new world of influences opened up to me. Including Peter Saville’s covers for Joy Division. And Ralph Steadman’s art and illustrations for Hunter S. Thompson over the years. They lit the fuse. I just let it sizzle.
When it comes to artists and graphic designers, specifically, it was a trifecta. Oliviero Toscani, a photographer. Tibor Kalman, a designer. And George Lois, an art director, who came up with the expressions, ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it’ and ‘I want my MTV’.
These guys influenced how I think and approach my work. They gave me permission to be punk. And I’m happiest when I can be it freely and openly, against Child Sexual Abuse, for example, in the case below, and to the left.
What have been some of your biggest strengths and struggles during your career so far?
The biggest struggle, for me, was left brain vs right brain. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had to overcome almost a decade of right brain conditioning. I certainly didn’t realize the extent of it. And consequently, it took me a lot longer than I expected. After that I went through a phase in which I ignored and suppressed any impulse I suspected of being ‘too logical’ or ‘making too much sense.’ Fortunately, that too passed. I have finally reached a point, when I don’t want to decide on one side over the other. I’d like to use both sides of my brain, please. Simultaneously, if possible.
When it comes to life lessons, I’ve been a slow learner. So, I’ve had to learn to be patient with myself to begin with. Along the way, I’ve found when I turned that patience towards others, and took the time to listen, it was always rewarding. I try to do as much of it as possible.
“The word Punk has a lot of associations. I use it mostly for the DIY spirit of things, and the 'just do it' attitude.”
“I just knew I had to work with Gary, the dude who worked with Toscani and Kalman. It was that simple, I had to figure out a way to work with this guy. ”
Tell us about your creative process – how did you develop this practice?
My process, if you can call it that, is getting comfortable with chaos, of which there never seems to be in short supply these days. It basically comes down to knowing how to create a safe, comfortable place in which I am not afraid to fail. Because if you throw yourself at an unsolved problem, there’s a 50% chance you’re going to land on your face. As I have, quite spectacularly, on a few notable occasions. These days, I take my glasses off before taking the leap.
And speaking of leaps, my favorite example is the US launch of (RED), a campaign to curb AIDS in Africa, led by Bono and Bobby Shriver. The inspiration for it all was the one and only Barbara Kruger. Even in this case, I’d come across her work in the ‘Bulls On Parade’ music video, by Rage Against The Machine, before I knew who she was. The other music connection was the tribute video for the late, great Johnny Cash, RIP. Bono painted one of my lines, “sinners make the best saints” from the campaign on a studio wall covered in newspaper. It’s been the highest honor of my so-called career to have been associated with Cash, anonymously and for 1.5 seconds. Check out the video here.
On another occasion, we convinced Bono to propose that Vanity Fair change its name to Fair Vanity and feature a contemporary African artist on the cover for the month of December, in honor of World AIDS day. “Would you change your band's name?”, the skeptical board of directors wondered. “If you call yourself Fair Vanity we’ll switch to 2U for the month,” Bono offered. It would have been pretty sweet if they had. But they did no such thing. Vanity Fair does not change its name for nobody. Not even death.
The coolness of that project with Bono was because it didn’t come through the agency. If it had we would have come up with 50 different ideas that would have felt forced. It just happened. That’s what’s really beautiful, when the process is there is no process, it’s just pure spontaneity. When everybody is in the moment like that, that’s when the magic happens. It goes back to music – yes, it’s mathematical and you can read it – but that chemistry just happens. There were four or five different people just trying to come up with something. In the advertising world you’re almost never working in seclusion, you’re a part of a team, and when you’re trying to overcome the communication problem in the brief, it gives you a place to get started from. You have to wallow with the brief for a bit to start getting ideas. Where I start is usually just trite and cliché and trying to hard to be funny. I have to let it out of the system, nothing good is going to come from bottling it up. From experience, I just have to write it down, put it out there and once it’s out of my system, that’s when you really start digging. And the closer you get to the deadline, the more the digging happens.
Can you tell us more about your experience across various mediums – do you have a different approach to motion work versus print work?
My off-the-cuff gut reaction is ‘no.’ I always start at the same place irrespective of the medium. That said, each medium demands and deserves what’s best for it. For me, the most emotional element in the mix is music/voice/sound effects. That’s great for motion and digital projects, but what about print? How do you make an emotional impact without sound? With silence. That’s the challenge.
Why do you think inclusion within a team or project is important?
The way I see it, the more things you put in the stew, and the longer you let it simmer, the tastier it gets. Ask any grandma. It’s the same with people.
When you’re part of a team, you may all have different backgrounds, but you need to have some common ground, some chemistry. It takes people time to get comfortable with each other and be able to say something stupid. When you’re in a safe environment, you truly feel like there are no dumb ideas and you’ve got to be able to speak your mind. You’re there for a reason. You keep digging and the best stuff comes when you’ve exhausted all the expected options.
Do you feel as though this is something missing in the design field?
I do, and in a big way, in some places. I feel we’re missing a sense of balance. Between life and work. Between women and men. Between youth and experience. Between people and machines. We have to have more balance. I can’t believe pay equality is still a question in 2017, because if you don’t pay people equally, they don’t have equal power and don’t have equal say. I’ve worked in this business long enough to know that there aren’t really many women in positions of power. Just even Creative Directors. And it’s up to you and your generation to change that. It goes back to being punk again. If they’re not going to open the door for you, kick the damn thing down.
We’re also missing a sense of community and real-time connection. And, now, we’re increasingly missing the craft. Because the harsh reality is that craft takes time, and that’s the one commodity that’s getting scarcer in our time-poor world. Overall, we’re missing a lot of sense, I guess.
Still, there are, and always will be, Don Quixotes out there, charging at windmills, only they seem to see, without giving too much thought to what everybody else thinks. A big shout out to Profsky P. Lal, on this point. He was as punk at its purest, RIP. We could use some of that spirit now. Less fear. More love. And full steam ahead.
What are some trends in your field that you wish you could bring back, and which ones would you rather forget?
It’s not a trend. It’s a big reason for me to be in this business. The joy we all get from bringing something into existence to move the hearts and minds of, sometimes millions of, people. I’d love to bring back the joy and playfulness and not taking ourselves so seriously. Does everything have to be so bougie and boring? Personally, I’d like to start making things that are more graphic and less designed.