Taking forward the design story with Ramkripa Ananthan

by Sumana Sarkar & Sumantra B Barooah 07 Mar 2020


Making design talk volumes: Ramkripa Ananthan's design rendering of the Mahindra XUV300 and the production model itself.

As Head of Design at Mahindra & Mahindra, Ramkripa Ananthan is no doubt a gender bender. As she takes forward the Mahindra Group’s design philosophy of ‘Freedom and Adventure’, Sumantra B Barooah and Sumana Sarkar speak to her about M&M’s vision of cars in 2050 and how design acts as a bridge to strengthen consumer connect in a fast-changing industry.

An automobile designer is an artist with a difference. Using their experience and interests as their palette for inspiration, their creations brings metal to life and lend power to the automaker’s aspiration. “Design is about everything, about every element in the system talking together”— As the lines & form blend effortlessly with aerodynamics & manufacturing techniques, it is about creating “a common narrative and all of the elements talking the same thing.” Well, that’s how Ramkripa Ananthan, the Head of Design at Mahindra & Mahindra, defines automobile designing in today’s context.

Ramkripa or Kripa as she is popularly known as, is a graduate from IDC, IIT-B and she also studied Mechanical Engineering at BITS, Pilani. The major works of the team led by her include the Mahindra TUV 300, XUV 500, KUV 100, XUV 300 SUVs and the Marazzo MPV. She was also a part of the team involved in designing the Bolero and Scorpio.

Speaking about her design journey over the course of the past two decades and more, she says, “ during the past 10 years, our journey has been all about defining urban SUVs, a little bit of course correction to make our language, while still being distinctive, have a wider appeal, focusing more on perceived quality & details – that’s where we are now.”

An example of course correction, perhaps, can be seen in the Mahindra KUV100 NXT. The original entry level SUV was targeted at young Indians with some very trendy design elements like the outside rearview mirrors designed like a fist and headlamps that looked like glares but received a lukewarm market response. However, Kripa points out that in terms of a concept, the KUV 100,  “was a little ahead of its time” and what worked in India on the bigger sibling XUV 500 didn’t work on the much smaller volume. She highlights that “It’s a lesson learnt in terms of how much a design language can be stretched. So we made a strong re-orientation in-house.”  

Communicable design language
A definitive design language continues to be a key focal point. As Kripa charts M&M’s journey through the years, she highlights the bond that an OEM forms with its customers and the importance of considering how the customer and the markets are evolving. She points out that the design language needs to communicate with the customers while aligning with the legacy the car maker is taking forward.  “Our designs represent the values of Freedom & Adventure, truly representative of our origin, our heritage of off-road, go-anywhere sort of vehicles & tapping in to a more basic or visceral desire of the customer, kind of something that everybody connects with. Striving to stay ahead of the curve is important; she reiterates the need to, “dive deep and think far into the future.”

But how do you really define future in the world of automobile design? Elucidating the time horizon that the M&M design team is typically looking at, Kripa hints that it is hard to look for water-tight compartments.  The 55-60 members “work on three or four areas. One is a far future, which is like a 2050 or 30 years ahead scenario where it rarely transforms to product. So it may remain at a sculptural level, or future scenario-building level, sort of mood boards or sketches that describe what the world look like, whether it will all be aliens or robots. So it's a little more vision building that would  link to the future language. One would be a closer scenario, which would be 20 years, working on evolution of design language. And then there will also be production design; they typically work on multiple design options about 3-4 years ahead of launch, of which a single theme will make it to production.”

Electric moves
In terms of influence of mega trends in automotive design, future electric mobility and autonomous vehicles take centre-stage. But how much do they really influence Mahindra’s design? Can we expect a radical evolution? Speaking rather candidly on the issue, Kripa says that “autonomous, to me, seems far-fetched but I probably need to focus a little more in that area. However, electric mobility is here. And short-term, in my view, we will not move away and do something radical; I think cars will look like cars, to retain familiarity, though the experience will be new; the interiors, with sensors, electronics, lighting, connectivity, things like that, it would become a much more hi tech experience. So you would see a lot more technology in the car.”

According to her, “There will evolve a completely new aesthetic for electric vehicles- or maybe a few different distinct styles. Long-term, it's very interesting.” As a designer, she feels that it “gives a lot of freedom in the frontal area of the car.” As she elaborates, the possibilities are immense – “with reduction in powertrain size and peripherals, need for cooling, there is a lot of freedom for designing the hood & the fenders; facial definition can change, the wheels can go further out to the corners, the ‘A’ pillar can move forward. You can release a lot of space for the interiors, as vibration and noise become less thereby reducing a lot of sectional strength requirement. Lots of people are exploring in many directions and the winner will take it all. So it's challenging but exciting.”

Making design walk the talk 
Kripa connects designing with storytelling. No wonder the inspiration and the influences dictating that design language are crucial. Nature and animals have influenced M&M’s designs. Kripa adds that, “There will be other influences too. There are two aspects that we focus on in our passenger vehicles. One is with respect to volume – it has to be muscular, it has to be big. Even if it's a small footprint, it has to be visually big; it has to have these section details which are communicating power.”

The second aspect is the storytelling. “What is the expression? Is it dynamic, aggressive, fluid or aerodynamic? There will be the storytelling part of it, which in many cases may be inspired by nature and/or animals but it could be something else also. In future, they could be tech influences too,” avers Kripa.

Like every good story, the anchor point is crucial. What is that distinguishing aspect that Kripa concentrates on in maintaining the narrative across forms, segments and even colours? A visibly excited Kripa’s eyes light up. She says, “As we move from ICE to electric, the interiors will become like an extension of architectural spaces & we will have to focus on the brand experience; coherent, consistent strong identity or signature to communicate with the customer gains importance.”

She goes on to elaborate about the inspiration for the recently launched e-XUV, “As we are moving from ICE to electric power trains, we're using Escher’s Flying Geese as inspiration. So if you look at the lower grille of the e XUV, you'll see these arrows which cross each other, taking us in a different direction metaphorically. That would be our transition phase from ICE to electric and that would be true only to our electric vehiclesShe adds that, “it could become a signature but our intent is to showcase that it's a transition phase.”

When you talk about M&M, it is difficult to just think about passenger vehicles only. Mahindra’s automotive offerings range from passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles to defence, construction equipment and farm vehicles. The tractor is as easily relatable to M&M as the e-XUV or the Atom or even the soon-to-be launched new Thar SUV. On the commercial vehicle side too, the aspiration factor is acting as a catalyst in inducing a fresh lease of life in terms of designing. “We do need to get some cohesion across the portfolio; commercial vehicle product lifecycles tend to be longer, but we will eventually see that the entire portfolio is refreshed and made more contemporary and as you rightly pointed out, commercial vehicles also need to be aspirational. They're no longer those decrepit looking things – there has to be significant attention to detail, in terms of features and comfort.”

But what really inspires the designer who is inspiring so many dreams and aspiration across the Mahindra Group and the customers of the brand? "Well, right now I'm looking at several artists – Milind Mullick, a Pune-based water-colour artist and then Claude Monet, the original impressionist. I'm really inspired by their brush work, their profusion, their ability to experiment.”

In case you're wondering where water colour and automobile design converge, she explains: “It’s after all a vehicle of x by y-size, it will have four/five people sitting in it, it's going to have so much power. How do you reinvent that? How do you show that in a new light? How do you make that exciting? How do you connect to a bunch of people and bring something new to them in a formula that's existed for, you know, 120 years? I find both these people inspiring in that sense of just how creative they are with a limited palette.”

Does being a women help bring something unique to the table? Well, if you ask Kripa, she is a champion of ‘individual achievement’ – “Everyone brings value to the table. Whether you're a man or a woman, you are special, and you bring some value.” To her, what's always important is that the design teams need “to work together to make sure that our design philosophy, our messaging is consistent always but yet we create a distinctive design each time.”