Pooja Dhingra is an independent conceptualiser, art director and a graphic designer and has previously worked with Play Clan- India’s first graphic design store, as a creative lead.
She is also the founder of Compassion Contagion, an online archive that has been recording acts of compassion, hope and resilience through art, collages and graphic narratives.
Her work at Play Clan was mostly research and travel based bringing tales from Jodhpur, Banaras, Japan, Nagaland, Bhutan and other places to the forefront. She has also
worked on various collaborations with Paul Smith, Oxford Bookstore, India Art Fair, Tokyo Fashion Week in India, Mehrangarh Museum Trust etc.
As a freelancer, she has designed for non profits such as National Foundation for India; Pravah; Barefoot College,Tilonia; Apnalaya; Room to Read; Communities for Conservation, Khoj Foundation, Communities for Conservation, Canada; WNCB: Work:No Child’s Business; PSBT to name a few. She has worked on projects that address the issues of discrimination and social exclusion, campaigns designed to address early and child marriage, child labor, women’s nutrition, health and reproductive rights of adolescent girls. She has also been designing and art directing festival graphics for India International Centre’s The Festival of Arts for the last six years.
Her personal work revolves around waste management, sustainability, and addressing the patriarchy through humour and satire.
Her work has been featured in the Ladies Finger, Asian Age, The Better India, Khirkee Voice-Khoj Foundation, Mint Lounge and in British Council’s campaign ‘She Leads’ as one of their most favourite women creators from India.
She has exhibited her zines and comics at Bombay Underground Zine Festival ; Gayzi Zine Festival ; The Zine Show at MIT Institute of Design ; TIFA Working Studio, Pune; Art Book Depot, Jaipur.
Why are you a Conceptualizer/ Art Director?
I think I enjoy being a conceptualiser because I like to work on projects that allow me to be experimental in my approach. I have converted lengthy case studies into folk inspired artworks, made graphic novels for annual reports and have researched and simplified Mughal history to create a pack of playing cards. I rely heavily on research to design and feel that a strong concept and good storytelling are essential components for good
As an art director, I get to work on a project from start to finish which involves researching, storyboarding, creating the vision and the visual language based on clients’ brief. I also find it exciting to put the team together- finding artists I can collaborate with to translate ideas into illustrations. Once the illustrations come in, I do the final layouts/ design and also handle the production- choosing the materials and techniques, working with the printing press etc.
Did you attend school for fine art or design or Communications?
I did my B.A. from Lady Shri Ram College and then studied Fashion Communication at NIFT, Delhi. In the course, there was just a short module on Graphic Design. After the course, I joined a design studio and that’s where I learnt everything I know about design.
Were there any particular role models for you when you grew up?
Susie Derkins from Calvin and Hobbes. I absolutely adore her.
Who was the most influential personality in your career as an Art Director/Conceptualiser?
There are so many people who inspire me. I love how Maira Kalman thinks, writes and paints. I love Lisa Congdon’s art and also her journey as an artist. She became a professional artist in her 40s and even wrote a book called ‘ A Glorious Freedom’ on women who started their creative journeys pretty late in life. That’s extremely encouraging for someone like me who started drawing and making comics much later in life.
I am also a huge fan of Tara Books. I have learnt so much about tribal and folk art because of them. Sangita Jogi, Amrita Das, Subhash Singh Vyam, Sher Singh Bhabhor and Vayeda Brothers are some of the tribal artists I collaborated with recently and I have learnt so much about the power of storytelling through them.
Some of my favorite cartoonists are Bill Watterson, Charles M. Schulz, Roz Chast, Marjane Satrapi and Penelope Bagieu.
I am constantly learning from Paula Scher, Julia Rothman, Faith Ringgold, Orijit Sen, Priyanka Paul (artwhoring), Prashant Miranda, Rohan Chakravarty (Green Humor), Siddhesh Gautam (bakeryprasad), Mavelinadu Collective, Kadak Collective, Aravani Art Project, Shilo Shiv Suleman and the Fearless Collective, Mona Chalabi, Maria Popova, Kruttika Susarla, Shrujana Shridhar, Tara Anand, The Alipore Post and so many others…
I started learning embroidery last year and am working with my mother to create some embroidered pieces so these days I am obsessed with the works of Louise Bourgeois, Gimena Romero, Loly Ghirardi (Señorita Lylo) and many others.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
For my comics, inspiration comes from everything that happens to me or is happening around me; from my family especially my cats; from things that bother me; from places I go to, books and films. For commissioned work, it comes from research and spending time with the clients. For e.g. the work that I have created for Tenacious Bee Collective has all come from just spending a lot of time observing the bees and learning about them from the beekeepers and founders of the collective and also reading every possible book on bees.
Tell us something about your work on Compassion Contagion. How was the project conceptualised and how did it materialise?
Compassion Contagion is an online archive that documents acts of compassion, resilience, solidarity and hope through stories, art and graphic narratives. It was started during the pandemic immediately after the first lockdown in collaboration with Nida Ansari, an activist.
The decision to put a population of 1.3 billion people under lockdown with just four hours notice, without a clear social welfare package, led to a colossal humanitarian crisis in the country. Thousands of people were left jobless and starving; many desperately started walking in the scorching heat to get to the safety of their villages and cities. This was further compounded by discriminatory and violent attitudes towards the marginalized communties. The situation was extremely depressing but in the midst of all this ordinary citizens were coming forward to help and support each other. Compassion Contagion was started to shift the narrative from ‘despair’ to one of ‘hope’ .
We interviewed a wide pool of relief workers, volunteers, grassroots workers, essential workers, lawyers, farmers, journalists, students, activists, sex workers and ordinary citizens to understand their motivation to go ‘beyond the call of duty’ and help others in times of crisis. Based on these interviews, we curated deeply researched stories on the themes of gender, mental health and well being, animal rights, right to food and nutrition, interfaith bridges and voices from the margins, using the powerful medium of art.
We also started an initiative called ‘Art Aid’ during the second wave – a collaboration with various artists and poets to raise funds for individuals and organisations who were doing extraordinary relief work during the pandemic.
In 2021, I collaborated with another activist- Ashik Krishnan to add Manifesto for the Future to the archive with the aim to shine light on alternate, local, sustainable models of development through the medium of folk, tribal art. graphic narratives. Food sovereignty, holistic healthcare, place-based education, community banks, media and cooperatives and reimagining of both urban and rural spaces are some of the themes that we focused on to show how it’s truly possible to create a more equitable, just and compassionate future.
Our project could happen because of two grants that we received from the University of York (Centre for Applied Human Rights) and the Open Society Foundations under Arctivists.
What I find unique about your work is how so much is based around relevant issues. From Covid to Gender to Conservation. Tell us something about this. Artists have a strong say and influence in shaping conversations around issues and I am so happy to see you doing it.
When I started freelancing, I finally got time to figure out and explore what I really wanted to do. I had done a lot of fashion, lifestyle and travel based work when I was working full time. It was really fun but I had never really made things for myself. So I started making comic strips just to vent my daily frustrations that later led to addressing issues that bothered me. I created a series called Cut The Crap- that gives 26 simple methods to reduce waste by using 26 letters of the alphabet. I made this because I was bothered by the waste generated by my colony, complete failure of the Indian government’s clean India campaign, the plight of the waste pickers.
I started a series called Post For The Patriarchy that aims to address the Patriarchy through an anthology of graphic art/ comic strips based on /inspired from feminist writings, experiences and voices. I am 43 and in a live-in relationship. People either assume things about me or lecture me on my life choices. Invoices are often marked Mrs. not Ms. and my visual essay ‘Titles’ highlights how men get single titles but women get three based on their marital status. A friend once chided me for not wanting kids, that led to- ‘No Kids for Me, Thanks’ highlighting the pronatalist social pressure on childfree women. A project to brand a Grooming school for brides was turned down to create ‘Grooming the Grooms’ a zine that offers a crash course to turn men into good husbands. My work on gender comes mostly from my personal experiences that help me turn my anger into humor.
Did you ever want to work as an Art Director?
Not initially. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a dancer and later, after post graduation, I wanted to be an event organiser. I also left my job twice ..the first time to become a yoga teacher and the second time to join an eco travel company in Uttarakhand. Thankfully, I realised I couldn’t teach and couldn’t handle large travel groups.
What advice do you have for aspiring creative professionals?
Work with people who respect you and your time.
What’s your dream project?
I want to make elaborate, embroidered pieces in collaboration with tribal/ folk artists and my mom.
A journal on my 100 +plants.
I also would like to design for a music festival and for a dance school.
Where do you see yourself in 15 years?
Hopefully alive and still making things for my own amusement.
Who would you like to take out for dinner?
The entire cast of The Derry Girls
What’s on your iPod? Spotify? Podcast?
These days I am listening to everything that my dad used to listen to.. Munni Begum, Madan Gopal Singh, Asa Singh Mastana, Mehdi Hassan, Abida Parveen, Iqbal Bano, Madhushala by Manna Dey, Shabnam Virmani and Saieen Zahoor.
Podcasts: On being with Krista Tippett, Design Matters with Debbie Millman, Anurag Minus verma and The Great Women Artists: Katy Hessel
Mac or PC?
Whats your Twitter Handle? Instagram?
I am not on twitter. My instagram handles are
@that_thing_i_do, @ compassioncontagion
You can see more of Pooja Dhingra’s work here: