One-to-One with Anisha Thampy

One-to-One with Anisha Thampy

February 2024

In this regular feature, we put a spotlight on an Essex-based creative practitioner working in diversity. This month we talked to visual designer and illustrator Anisha Thampy, who moved from India to settle in Colchester in 2023.

As an artist who values learning, play and experimentation, Anisha keeps her practice purposely broad, with a portfolio that ranges from digital design, branding, publications and film posters, to children’s books and illustrations, ceramics, film and photography.

Social impact and human stories are at the heart of much of her work, and she often seeks out projects that convey strong social and environmental messages. She has a deep interest in cultural anthropology, behaviour studies and psychology, and over the years has worked for design agencies, consultancies and clients which share these values and feed these interests, such as ThoughtWorks, Quicksand, Design Route and Vihara Innovation Network.

Many of the projects highlighted in her portfolio take a holistic and collaborative approach to finding solutions to complex problems through innovative design. For example, one of her first jobs at Quicksand was a branding campaign to help reduce plastic bag usage in Cambodian markets. She was part of an interdisciplinary team that undertook immersive research with vegetable and fruit vendors, looking at ways to influence behaviour that would impact positively on the environment.

The theme of innovation and the joy of finding solutions runs through many of her projects. One of my personal favourites are her beautiful illustrations of grassroots inventors and innovators in rural India. Taking the concept of Jugaad as a starting point, the drawings were commissioned by Avinash Kumar, Co-founder of Quicksand. As Professor Rina Arya, Professor of Visual Culture and Theory at the University of Huddersfield explains:

Jugaad, a colloquial Hindi word, which approximately translates as ‘quick fix’, ‘workaround’ or ‘hack’, expresses a quintessentially Indian concept, used ubiquitously throughout mainly Northern India. In essence, Jugaad describes a mentality or approach that seeks solutions in adversity, describing how the world is negotiated by improvisation and ingenuity. The word refers to the practice of bending rules and thinking laterally to making something work.”

The colourful illustrations make you feel optimistic, inspiring empathy with the inventors who proudly look out at us, showing off the machines they have created out of necessity, but which are also full of joy and character. The illustrations became part of a film exhibited at the India Design Forum in the London Design Biennale 2016, which celebrated the evolution of design in India and depicted the country’s layered heritage.

One of Anisha’s main motivations is to help others, and she is a firm believer of using one’s skills to enable people to affect positive change in their lives. She enjoys making complex issues more accessible, creating tools that can equip, guide and inform. In her current role at Thoughtworks she is learning to build accessible tech products, one of the reasons why she is excited to work for the company. Her portfolio is full of illustrations for human-centred user interfaces, maps, training toolkits and visual aids.

Examples include an illustrated game board to help rural communities understand their financial goals; a Financial Literacy Toolkit for Design Route to introduce concepts of savings among sanitation workers; and the Panch Paar ASHA Worker Toolkit, part of an anthropological and design-led research study that aimed to uncover sources of risk to children aged five and under.

Women’s rights is also a special area of interest for Anisha, and in 2018 she was part of Project Udaan, which aimed to reduce early pregnancies amongst adolescents in Rajasthan, India. The project sought to change attitudes and practices on sexual and reproductive health through consultation, accessible branding and awareness raising campaigns, and improving resources for schools, counsellors, parents and young people.

Above (top line) Illustrations for Training Tookit for ASHA Workers commissioned by Vihara Innovation Network, Delhi; (bottom line) Illustrations for Research Tools for Contraceptive Innovation, commissioned by Catapult Design, Denver.

Anisha describes herself as “a visual designer by profession and a learner by habit”. She is passionate about the process of learning and cultivates a growth mindset in everything she does; every new experience is an opportunity to learn, which brings with it a “new language” that excites her and ignites her creative spark. In her words, there is freedom in ‘playing without the fear of failure’. One thing she likes about learning new things is that it enables her to connect different disciplines or themes and create something new, for example her love for ceramics and her illustration skills.

This strong sense of play is especially evident the various children’s books she has created, and illustrations for Thaliru Children’s Magazine, published monthly by the Kerala State Institute for Children’s Literature.

She enjoys the creative process, often involving others in all its stages from initial concept to final delivery. Her online visual journal is often where she works through her ideas for various projects, and also shares insights into her work. It is a fascinating read, with musings on issues such as women’s rights, religion, family, personal memories and inspirations that shape her approaches to design.

Moving from India to Colchester less than a year ago, Anisha has quickly settled into Colchester’s creative community. She has found a second home at Colchester Makerspace, a shared studio specialising in print and ceramics, which chimes well with her collaborative and skills sharing ethos. Makerspace has enabled her to kick start Unibrow, a creative collaboration with her husband, fellow artist and designer Dwarka Nath Sinha – “Unibrow is our playground and safe space where we create without any external voices telling us what to make”.

Anisha is also part of Women Assemble, a new informal self-organised collective for women of colour in Colchester who are working with Essex Cultural Diversity Project on an empowerment event for International Women’s Day. Anisha has helped the group hone their purpose and identify through new branding and a promotional campaign, and will be ‘in residence’ at the event, enabling women to visually express their thoughts and feelings through art and creativity.