In this episode, we talk to Saloni Pabuwal Goyal about how she built and how she runs her bespoke stationery business.
Design for Retail Experience course at NID
Saloni is on Instagram
Angie: Namaste! This is design lota – the podcast where we talk about life as Indian designers
Sushi: I’m Sushi
Angie: And this is Angie
Sushi: Namaste? Really? Sounds very NRI ish
Angie: I was just trying to ease this episode into the Indian Aesthetic and wedding-y festive flavour.
Sushi: Oooh, who’s getting married?
Angie: Our weddings are now behind us Sushi, so our pinterest mood-boarding days are over – at least when it comes to wedding stuff. But I spoke to Saloni Pabuwal Goyal, who works on beautiful wedding invites and other stationery.
Sushi: Oh, you told me about this – Paper Planes, right? I loved her Instagram.
Angie: Me too! I’m excited for you to listen to her story…
Interview with Saloni
Angie: Hi Saloni, welcome to Design Lota! Thank you for doing this.
Saloni: hi angie! Thanks. Heard the last few episodes. They were pretty awesome! And so I was looking forward to this!
Angie: Thanks for listening! So, here’s what we know about you, you run a stationery/wedding invitation design business in Jaipur – called Paper Planes India. We checked out your work and we love it! Tell us about your background and how you ended up doing this.
Saloni: As far as I can remember – since my childhood days, I was just instinctively inclined towards the creative fields. I come from a family of self-trained product designers and my parents thought that would be my natural choice as well. But halfway through my interview at NIFT DELHI for my Undergrad – I had a complete change of heart and opted for Fashion Communication – which was completely different to what I had initially decided. After that NID happened, where we met! And I took up a course in Retail Design, then went to Central Saint Martins, London for a project in Narrative Spaces – but somehow, after all that dappling with various streams, I came back to graphic design. I remember I was in a paper shop in London – and I called my husband – back then a ‘friend’ – and I was like I know what I want to do in life. What excites me the most. And yes, Stationery and paper products.
Angie: So, you got a taste of somewhat different branches of design and then it dawned on you…what was your original decision of what you wanted to study at NIFT, how did that shift happen to Fashion Communication?
Saloni: So they showed us presentations on what each stream would comprise of. So while I was pretty much prepared on what a product design is – this 2 year old stream at NIFT – fashion communication – which had branches like visual styling , visual merchandising, graphic design and things not so familiar at that time, but all this sounded super exciting. So it was an instant decision and I don’t regret it one bit.
Angie: so both at central saint martins and NID, you focused more on spaces, right? Tell us about what you learnt there…
Saloni: At Central Saint Martins, it was more about museums etc, and how a space can tell a story. But I would say – it was all about creating experiences. How a space essentially makes you feel, adding elements or totally subtracting them. Even a product can invoke a feeling and influence an experience. I use a lot of what I learnt in what I do even today.
Angie: Since your products are available at stores, your experience in retail and visual merchandising must inform you in how you present your products there, right?
Saloni: Yes, I’ve made my own visual display systems. Since my work is all paper, I use pop up art and things like that to create an experience in a store.
Angie: What do you find interesting about what you’re doing now?
Saloni: I absolutely love the tactile nature of the work I do. I love that I can experiment with different materials, I love that I can prototype and create. I love the fact that in this day and age of digitisation, I promote the handwritten. And in a generation where email and whatsapp is taken for granted, I promote the process of sending out physical mail. I feel there is something so warm, so personal and for a fact luxurious in sending personal mail, that all this digitisation can never overrule! I know you’re a tech buff and all for digital experiences, but I feel there’s a charm to the old world form of communication that can never go out of style!
Angie: Yes, good old snail mail! There is something very personal about receiving something with your name hand written. It’s not the same with email.
Saloni: Yes it’s something you treasure and keep it as a memory.
Angie: That’s what paper can do! So, once you figured you want to work with paper, how did you find yourself working on invitations? Though I do know you have made journals, bookmarks but mainly you deal with wedding stationery…
Saloni: I was so in love with the print industry. I felt like wedding cards were an area that needed a lot of invitation. There were standard templates that were being used before. Now, this area has become hugely innovative, cards have become collectible, usable products. Now I’ve even branched out in stationery so that I can get into the retail market more.
Angie: Does a wedding invitation become the visual identity for the event?
Saloni: Oh yes. It works both ways. Sometimes clients already have a visual language in mind but more often we work on creating a visual identity and language that ends up setting the tone for the event.
Angie: Since your products are bespoke, how does your process work?
Saloni: We show them our previous work and inspirational products and get ideas from there. We gauge what they are leaning towards, we use moodboards to refine it further. And the next step to start creating exclusive concepts.
Angie: Any tools you use for the moodboards like pinterest?
Saloni: Moodboards are almost always digital so that we can make instant changes and refine easily. Pinterest is number one. I ask my clients to send me a few images to understand the vibe. they do a Pinterest search and this really helps me.
Angie: So, you’re from Rajasthan, right? Do you think hailing from Rajasthan has influenced your aesthetics as a designer, especially as a wedding invitation designer?
Saloni: I think ‘Jaipur’ or for that matter, ‘Rajasthan’ as a brand is really exotic! It adds a whole dollop of tradition and culture to any equation that is automatically viewed as super luxurious. With the forts, palaces and maharajas and maharanis being such a intrinsic part of the history of this part of our country – everything about it screams opulence and luxury. Which is really what the North Indian wedding industry is primarily about!
And honestly more than invitations- I think my line of Paperstationery reflects this sensibility more. And that is slowly coming out to be the USP of Paper Planes as a brand.
Angie: Do you have a story about a very demanding client or project?
Saloni: Well, we all do right? It was from my initial days as a graphic designer, when I started with branding and creating logos for different clients in jaipur. This is some 6 years back and people here never understood why they had to pay a price to get (which was to them) a simple image on their computer screens. So at that time, I had to struggle a lot with that mindset. But honestly that has very rapidly become a thing of the past. Good Design and Proper Branding is now very much given the important status it deserves. Now it’s understood that the visual identity sets athe reputation for a brand.
Angie: How important is your production process in your business?
Saloni: So, it’s funny but, I understood the importance of providing my clients with tangible deliverables after my digital attempts with branding failed to get me the monetary edge! I realised you need to provide your client with some product for them to really feel it’s their money’s worth. And hence, I started production of branding materials – simple stuff – business cards, envelopes etc
But now, the production part of the whole process has risen to become as crucial as the design work. It has the potential to essentially make or break. A beautiful graphic art with days and nights of hard work printed on a flimsy paper will be deemed absolutely worthless in front of literally a straight line printed in gold on a nice thick textured stock, that feels oh so good to hold.
Angie: What’s your iteration process and how do you make sure you get the quality you are looking for within a set time in production?
Saloni: I have invested a LOT of time with my vendors explaining to them on the job of how I want each product to come out. It has been a series of rejections, of reprints, of to and fro, back and forth. I have cupboards full of inspirational and well, aspirational print techniques that we want ingrained in our work. No matter how time pressed we are, we strive to never send out anything that would not get a ‘wow’ that’s interesting from a viewer. I try for each Paperplanes product to be an experience, it should at least hold your attention for a couple of moments.
Angie: You talked about being time pressed. How does that work out when you want superior quality and you’re pressed for time – in the wedding industry?
Saloni: Earlier, wedding vendors would deliver in 15 days or lesser. BUt now, even clients understand the importance of visual language for the event and they start the process 4-5 months in advance. We also try to take up clients who have that amount of time.
Angie: What other skills apart from designing your products have you had to learn to run your business?
Saloni: I think software skills were the only thing I’ve been formally trained for – design skills also I would like to believe comes from within. Rest everything I’ve learned is pretty much on the job. Every new technique you incorporate, even new raw material you dapple with, every marketing strategy you plan to implement – it’s all a huge repertoire of trial and error – risk taking – sort of – do it and you’ll know it attitude!
Specially when it comes to social media and marketing, I had to learn a lot of skills in that area as marketing is very crucial for us.
Angie: Are you the sole designer? Do you have a design team? If not, how do you think about scaling further?
Saloni: I started with being the one (wo)man army – but yes now I have a small team and am looking to hire more people in the coming times.
Angie: How do you pass on your aesthetic sensibility to your team?
Saloni: We do a lot of in-house exercises to brush up our skills. We will design movie posters using our Paperplanes signature style. This keeps us in touch with the tune of our brand.
Angie: How have you grown as a designer through this experience?
Saloni: Hugely. It’s been a huge leap. With every project I do, comes in more finesse, with every new product I design and produce – comes in more practicality. With every design – lesser planning and more versatility.
Angie: Have you had to learn business skills to produce cost effective and high quality products?
Saloni: That for me – cost effectiveness – is number 2 in priority. Right now the focus is only to create beautiful innovative products that are beautifully designed, with immense attention to detail, that are very very good quality and at par with any stationery you find internationally. I’m sure if we nail this, bam! business would follow!
Angie: How do you stay inspired and learn about what visual design trends especially related to Indian Aesthetics since that is the USP of your designs?
Saloni: Travel Travel Travel. I love browsing through beautifully curated stores, museums, design shops, quaint cafes and of course art and stationery stores. I try to bring in international standards and clean minimalist design language which is essentially ‘global’ and then carefully mix it with the Indian aesthetics.
Angie: Do you feel limited by the visual language of the Indian design aesthetic or do you feel there is still so much to be explored?
Saloni: oh so so SO much to be explored. We are fortunate to have a rich history behind us. So many styles and visual languages, painting styles, architectural marvels, cultural variety, ethnicities so many art forms – so much craft. I think I have enough raw material to explore for a lifetime!
Angie: Do you borrow from other fields like handicraft or textile design?
Saloni: I borrow from all kind of art forms – I try to incorporate a huge variety of different materials in what I do. Paper, of course being the primary one – I accentuate it with brass, leather, blue pottery, fabrics, ceramics, marble. With a whole lot of custom designs and fabrications and lots and lots of prototyping, like I said I strive for each paperplanes product to be an experience.
Angie: Have you made any interesting combinations like using fabric or unique shapes, or folding techniques, things that you don’t usually see in invitation design?
Saloni: For both my invitations and stationery, the key is to innovate. It’s very rarely that we offer a pre existing design to a customer. We always take cues and create a bespoke product, syncing the client’s brief with our design sensibilities. We’ve done invitations with pop – up art, embroidered envelopes with custom logos, unconventional packaging boxes, metal fixtures in invitations, leather trunks. We also sometimes go the extra mile like one time – we had differently-abled children paint different wedding motifs and infused that in the wedding card covers.
Angie: How do you understand your medium (which is mostly paper)? Do you go to paper shops and get samples that you find interesting?
Saloni: A mix of everything. I do go to different stores and collect the swatches that I like and then place orders as per requirement. There are ample paper merchants now who send swatch booklets- so there is no dearth of variety to choose from now.
Angie: I saw that you’ve also started thinking about Whatsapp invitations. How did you come up with that idea?
Saloni: it’s actually the demand of the market now. Maybe for the wedding, people prefer it to be more formal and elaborate and hence want to send personalised invitations in mail. But for the other events and smaller functions around the wedding – the whatsapp invitations are hugely popular. It’s sustainable, instant, there for easy access, perfect as a subtle reminder. In an age of digitised everything – these work perfectly!
Angie: Do you think making your products beautiful will make people repurpose them beyond the wedding event?
Saloni: Yes. For example, I ask my clients to leave paper bags without text on it, so that it can be reused. Sustainability is definitely something that we consider when we are working on our products.
Angie: Any advice or gyaan for design students or people who want to start their own business?
Saloni: Just Begin! Everything can be learned on the job. Fake it till you make it!
Angie: Do you want to talk a bit more about how to fake it till you make it?
Saloni: I think everything can be learnt as you go about your projects. I’ve taken up projects where I didn’t know how I would go about it but I took it up and figured it out later.
Angie: Any dreams for where you want to take this in venture in the future – in terms of product innovation as well as in the retail space?
Saloni: As of now, we’re available at the delhi international airport, at select crossword stores, And by the time this episode will air, we will also have begun retailing through nykaa.com and jaypore.com and we are in talks with a few more retailers.
We plan to expand our retail in the stationery section and that’s the short term plan. Long term. I want paperplanes to be the smythsons of India. Well, who said we can’t dream aloud!
Angie: Thanks so much for doing this, Saloni 🙂 Where can people find you on the world wide web?
Saloni: I’m the most active on Instagram – my handle is @paperplanesindia
Angie: Hey Sushi, are you back from the land of exotic stationery?
Sushi: Ah Stationery! I love how Saloni talks about tying traditional Indian motifs with minimalism, which is an aesthetic we don’t see too often in India, because in our heads it’s always this crowded, colourful picture of excess that we see in our daily lives.
Angie: I think this concept is slowly catching on in our country where ‘space’ can denote luxury, or less is more. There’s that sweet spot where Indian-ness meets luxury, and I think she pretty much nails it in her work. I’m sure it takes a lot of iterations with vendors to achieve that.
Sushi: Tell me about it! It’s rare that they get it right on the first go, especially when you’re trying something that’s not been done before. I had to go through dozens of print iterations myself, when I was working with a stationery brand couple of years ago.
Angie: Yes, I can imagine! And when it comes to weddings, I think it becomes vital to understand what the client really wants – especially since it’s a once in a lifetime thing!
Sushi: Yes! With so many options and sites like Pinterest, it can be really confusing, and it could easily turn into a mish-mash of colours and themes, as I have seen happen quite often, and almost went down that path at my own wedding.
Angie: That’s why I didn’t design my own invitation Sushi, and it was brave of you to design yours! But yes, it’s important to break all those crazy client wishes down to what they actually want. And weddings are a specially sensitive space.
Sushi: I understand why she insists on showing the client actual physical prototypes, because that would definitely put the client at ease.
Angie: Yes, so many things can go wrong in mass printing, and something that looks great on screen, may look terrible in its printed gold-foil version.
Sushi: All in all it seems like some high-stress work, needing presence of mind. It takes a lot of self-motivation to start a business like that.
Angie: I’m sure it does, but I really like her advice to just begin, and figure it out on the way.
Sushi: Hey listeners, do you have a design business idea or start-up story of your own?
Angie: Tweet to us @designlota and tell us about it!
Sushi: The references and transcript can be found at designlota.com.
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Sushi: Join us next week for a crackling discussion on design process.
Angie: Until then, Bye!