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Episode #74: Man of Many Talents Melvin Thambi

Melvin Thambi standing in front of his work at an exhibit.

Graphic designer/fine artist Melvin Thambi joins me to talk about pursuing design and fine arts, how he got his work to be exhibited, how hearing “no” led to him achieving his dream, why he says to get out of your comfort zone and get ready to fail, and what advice he has for non-U.S. designers looking to get U.S. clients.


Show Notes


Melvin Thambi headshot.Melvin Thambi is creative director of Riversand, a data management company based out of Houston, Texas. He works closely with the marketing and product team. After finishing his bachelor of fine arts in applied arts, he entered into the digital world of branding, user experience and user interface design.

He lives in Houston with his wife Nimmy Melvin, who’s a professional artist, and their 11-year-old daughter Teresa, a budding artist. He can be found at melvinthambi.com.


Getting to Know Melvin

Colleen: Welcome to the podcast, Melvin. It’s great to have you here.

Melvin: Hi, Colleen. Thank you for having me here.

Colleen: First, let’s start with a couple of fun questions.

Melvin: Surely.

Colleen: If you won a trip to any place in the world, where would you go?

Melvin: I would like to go to U.K. There are two reasons: because I can see some good art there. I love art, and many of my relatives are there, and I never got a chance to go there.

I would go there and wish to visit some countryside places as well.

Colleen: Oh, okay. Any specific cities?

Melvin: London. We wish to go to Tate Modern. That gallery showcases most modern artworks and some legendary artworks.

Colleen: Okay, cool. And do you eat the heel of the bread or toss it?

Melvin: It’s a difficult question. But in some cases I used to go to the end, but, in some cases, I’ll just toss it.

Colleen: People seem to feel very strongly one way or the other with that. My husband loves the heel of the bread.

Your design background includes illustration. Your work is amazing. Also, you have branding and UI and UX experience. Did you start out as an illustrator? What did you get your start in?

Melvin: Actually, back in India, I studied a bachelor of fine arts from RLV College of Music and Fine Arts, where I learned applied art, which is a degree for advertisement. But then one of my uncles, Joshi from U.K., gifted me a computer, and, from there, I started Googling and learned a lot of tools like Photoshop and other stuff.

Then, when I got a job, I slowly transitioned from advertising to IT.

Colleen: Oh, okay. Is art what brought you to the United States?

Melvin: Not exactly. I was working for a company called Rapid Value. They have global customers around the world, so they had one requirement here in the U.S., and I got a visa to work here. So based on a project, I came over here.

Colleen: You’ve worked with some big brands like Facebook and eBay and LinkedIn, which is amazing. How did you get those opportunities?

Melvin: As I told before, I was working with the global enterprise company called Rapid Value. We had customers. So Facebook and LinkedIn, eBay, they were our customers. They had some requirements on the enterprise solution, so I worked with the customers and produced some tangible solutions for them.

Colleen: Were those opportunities more graphic design-related, more branding and UI and UX?

Melvin: It’s more into UI and UX. It was not a branding project. It was user experience and user interface design projects.

Colleen: Now you’re at an IT company, where you’re doing product design, UI and UX, and branding. Of all the skills that you have, if you had to pick one of them, and you had to get rid of the other ones, which one would you choose?

Melvin: Yeah. That is what I’ve been struggling to figure it out for the last 14 years, because I’m very bad in niching down. I love photography. I love doing art. I love design. And, in design also, I love branding. I love user experience, UI, product design, everything. So it’s a tough question for me to pick one particular category.

For me, it’s a way of doing work. I get bored very soon, so when I work on product design for a while, I allow to put my hand on branding and try some experiences there. When I reach home, when I spend my time with my wife and kid, I allow to do some artworks. So it’s mix of all sort of skills, whatever I can do from my side.

Colleen: Wait. You said it’s boredom, but is it boredom or do you just like switching from left to right brain?

Melvin: I think it’s a distraction, more of a boredom, because, while working on something, if I see something, if some idea got into my head regarding branding or art, suddenly I’ll find some time for it, and I’ll work on it.

So, yeah, you’re right, it’s not boredom, because I love all these things, and it’s not work anymore for me.

Colleen: Yeah. Because I started out in print but also in web at the same time. I always liked going between the two, because development is just a totally different skillset and different part of your brain that you’re using but …

Melvin: Got it.

Colleen: Yeah. How did you get into branding?

Melvin: Branding, which I learned in my college … I told you, right? I learned applied art, which mainly focused on brand identity and advertising. I love the part like shaping a business with some design and art skills. Right? I was very much interested to that part.

I always try to brand whatever things that I have. For example, I had a design team back in India when I was working for Rapid Value, my previous company. We branded our team Rapid Gems and make it like a design studio, which was not a common thing at that time.

Now, every IT company has their own in-house design studio. But, back in 2015 or 2014, it was not a big thing. It was a rare thing. I started out with those kinds of activities, and we had done some art exhibitions, and we had done some many interesting things. That’s where we do all kinds of branding, even though I was working in an IT company.

Fine Arts and Exhibitions

Melvin's print at Big Ink.Colleen: Interesting. Oh, yeah. You just mentioned art shows and exhibitions. You’ve had your own art shown at exhibitions. How did you get that opportunity?

Melvin: While working in the IT company, I realized there are a lot of talented people inside the IT sector, but they don’t have an opportunity to explore themselves, or they don’t know how to start.

The best thing that we did was we conducted some art camps at our home and some places. My wife is a personal artist, so she also helps in connecting these camps and helping these engineering-turned-artists to do some amazing work. Once we had some good stuff of work, we contacted an art gallery, and they gave some space, and we put on art exhibition.

It was the first thing in my place and care level, all the engineers being an artist and showcasing their artwork. And many of the artworks got sold, and it was a trendsetter at that time.

I used to wander with my wife in all our galleries, seeing her work and my colleagues’ work. So it was not a new thing to me, but I thought to give that experience to all sorts of people.

Colleen: How many places have you exhibited your work at?

Melvin, Nimmy and their daughter showing the wood cuts at Big Ink.Melvin: Right now, my work, it was exhibited in Kerala in India. I got an opportunity to do a large-print wood block. It was the first time I was doing that, in Baltimore. That was done by Big Ink.

We were a big fan of that printing studio, and they invited us there, and we carried the woodblock from here. Right now, it’s being exhibited in a gallery. I forgot the name, but I’ll share the gallery name with you [Toe River Arts].

Colleen: How heavy is this woodblock?

Melvin: It’s three to five feet.

Colleen: How much do you think it weighs?

Melvin: I’m not sure about the weight. We had to pay some money while carrying from Houston to Baltimore.

Colleen: Oh, my goodness.

Melvin: Yeah. Yeah. It was fun. All my friends joined, and they were also part of the journey, and it was very fun to put some ink into it and take the print from big paper and all. That is a really new thing to us, and we really enjoyed.

Colleen: That sounds cool. I haven’t done any of that kind of work before.

Melvin: Yeah. It was really new to me, as well. Actually my wife told like, “Okay, it’s been a while since you’ve done something, so I’m planning to do this. You can also join.”

Previously, I had done one painting. It’s called a Slice of Home, where I portrayed my native place called Palakkad. It’s a small village. It’s a small place in Kerala. I drew all the simple forms, experiences, into a canvas, and I translate that into wood block as well.

Colleen: Oh. Wow. Well, you know what I would really like to get into that I haven’t done since college, which is 23 years ago, is sculpture.

I made these giant flowers that are … Well, I made them out of a four-by-four piece of plywood, and I cut them with a jigsaw in the shape of a flower. One is a sunflower, so it’s very spiky and pointy. It’s also … You can really hurt yourself if you don’t carry it properly when you’re moving it.

The other one has five rounded pedals on it and then I stretched canvas over them, and then I painted them. I put texture with spackle. Oh, so I put spackle on first and then I painted it with the color. The one is hot pink, and the other one’s a sunflower, so therefore it’s yellow.

Then, the center of them … This is so funny, but it’s insulating foam. I remember, when I was creating it in college, that I used an entire can of insulating foam, I think, on just the sunflower. One of my roommates came in as I was painting it brown, because it was the center of the sunflower, and she came in and she’s like, “It looks like an elephant pooped on the middle of your canvas.” It looks fine, but it just looked funny at the time I was making it.

But the other one has some insulating foam, and then it has these pliable wires with epoxy coating on them that come out. But I think that would be fun to get back into, if I ever get time to.

Do you ever do any kind of sculpture like that? I mean, not flowers on the wall, but you know…

Melvin: I don’t have that much skill in sculpture, but I love sculpture a lot. We were thinking about doing some clay sculpture in our garage because my wife really loves sculpture and doing ceramic work as well, so we were thinking about it.

Colleen: Oh, so you guys would do ceramic sculpture?

Melvin: She had done it earlier. She had tried it, and she wants to explore it more.

Colleen: Oh, cool. I did take a ceramics class in college, and I did not do so well. I did okay with the course, but I just had some trouble sometimes, when I would go to throw the pot and then try to keep it straight up, so it wasn’t off kilter.

Melvin: Yeah, yeah.

Colleen: So, I actually have, in my house, some of these pieces that I made back then, and they’re all off-balance, kind of slanted in some areas. It’s funny.

Melvin: Yeah. It needs a lot of patience, and it’s so much fun, right? Playing, seeing that shaping out into a different form, right, so…

Colleen: Right.

Melvin: That’s the fun part of working on clay or sculpture things. Yeah.

Colleen: Well, at least with the clay, if you just keep enough water on it and then you screw up in the middle, you can just—

Melvin: Exactly, yeah.

Colleen: “All right, fine. I’m going to get a do-over and start all over again.”

Melvin: Yeah, yeah.

Colleen: Who’s your favorite artist?

Melvin: It’s a difficult question, because I love most of the styles, and it’s very…

I like van Gogh’s work because his strokes are too good, and it evokes an emotion. I don’t know. I’m very much attracted towards his work, but I don’t carry that style, but I admire his style a lot.

Yeah. I think van Gogh is my favorite artist. It might be because of his story associated. That might be the reason. I don’t know. It’s really hard to pick a good artist, yeah, but…

Colleen: I remember the story about the ear.

Melvin: Yeah, yeah.

Colleen: Which is gross.

Melvin: I recently watched a movie. I’m not sure about the name [Loving Vincent], but it’s completely made up of paintings. A lot of paintings.

Colleen: Of his paintings?

Melvin: Yes. A lot of artists came together and make the entire film as painting frames. It’s not a real live thing. They shoot the live video, and then they convert that into paintings.

You can imagine, right, for example, for one moment, how many paintings they need to do. It was a big project, and the movie is fantastic. I’ll share the link with you. Yeah.

Design and Art Tools

Colleen: Wow. Of all of these skills that you have, what is your must-have tool for each of them?

Melvin: In terms of fine arts, it’s just paper and pen. I used to do acrylic painting, as well.

Mostly I do digital illustrations. So for that, I always rely on iPad and Apple Pencil. I use a tool called Procreate to draw a rough sketch of storyboards and illustrations.

When it comes to design, I use Sketch a lot, and I use Adobe XD, Figma.

For vector graphics, I use Adobe Illustrator. To convert the designs or to transfer the assets to the developers, I use a tool called Zeplin, and for prototyping, I use InVision.

Colleen: I like InVision.

Melvin: And I use Final Cut Pro for editing the video and other stuff.

Yeah. I think these are the main tools that I use. I tried my luck on After Effects, but I’m not that proficient in it, but I like doing some interaction designs in After Effects, and there is one model called Principle, which is much easier for simple, simple animations.

Colleen: Do you ever do anything with conté crayons or Prismacolors or charcoals?

Melvin: I have tried charcoal. Usually, I draw with pen on paper, so that I don’t need to erase anything and I don’t feel like, “okay, this is not perfect or anything like that,” because whatever you have done, that is it. So I like pen, and I have done some Indian ink artwork as well. Mostly I use acrylic color.

Colleen: I still have my supplies, actually, from college, but, yeah, I have a bunch of conté crayons and the Prismacolors. The Prismacolors were like my fave thing, because you could blend them with that white blender marker thing.

Yeah. I mean, I just loved them.

Melvin: Yeah. You can create realistic pictures using Prismacolors. It’s an amazing medium. Yeah. Yeah.

Colleen: If I remember correctly, I think I had to sharpen them with a razor blade or something because you didn’t stick them in the pencil sharpener I don’t think, right?

Melvin: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a satisfying moment, right? Like using your knife and sharpening your pencil. I don’t know. I love it.

Colleen: Yeah. I remember having to do that. So, in my little art box tool kit, I had to have a razor in there to sharpen the pencils. You know they were so expensive that you wouldn’t want to stick them in an electric pencil sharpener. It would take too much off of it.

Melvin: Exactly. Yeah. For anything related to art, everything is expensive.

Colleen: Yeah.

Melvin: The tools and maybe even the medium. People don’t realize it.

Colleen: Oh, yeah. And the matte board. In college, the art supplies killed me. I mean, it was like, that was such a huge expense.

Melvin: Exactly, yeah.

Advice to Non-U.S. Designers

Colleen: What advice would you give to artists and designers that are in other countries that might be trying to get U.S. clients? Because sometimes I hear from designers who are in other countries, and they want to get U.S. clients.

Melvin: Mm-hmm. One of the advice that I can give is they need to directly communicate with the customer—I mean, the main stake holder, instead of going with an intermediate channel. So, if they are confident enough to do that and if they can explain their ideas verbally as well as through presentation, that will work out.

But if they can’t quantify the work without any explanation, then it’s going to be … The customer would simply look, you might say, graphic designer or a simple designer. But, if he’s able to explain his idea with proper presentation skills, then he will become his business partner kind of feel, right?

The other thing is that, all the creative people, they need to understand the business. Not just the outer layer, but how the people respond and how the people use the product. It can be anything. It can be a website. It can be a web app or anything. It’s more than our satisfaction.

It’s user satisfaction, how they use it. So that usability part is the main thing that we need to consider and how the designs can work or elevate a business to the next level.

For that, they need to understand the end goals or the future goals of the customer, or you need to ask proper questions and convert into high-fidelity designs.

Colleen: So that’s interesting. You said go directly to a business owner, not going through another channel to get there?

Melvin: Because, for example, if I’m working on a project, and if there is a project manager, if there is another person, if he is talking to the customer, he might not be the creative person there.

The client might be giving all his goals, his financial expectations. He might be talking about his company. That project manager or that particular person is getting the whole picture about that company.

When he plans for that idea to a designer, he might only grasp 50% of what the client told him, or he might interpret in a different way and he communicate that to a creative person. So that is his perspective, right?

The creative person who is observing the requirement is only getting the viewpoint of the project manager, not the client. So whatever he produces, the project manager or the second person, the intermediate person, he needs to approve it. It’s his taste and his perspective. It might not be client’s perspective.

When he submits that to the customer, he will say like, “The design is not good.” That is the feedback that he will get, right? I have gone through this space several times. Then I realized it’s not the correct way to connect with your client. So then I said, “I need to connect with the customer,” and it’s worked out very well.

Colleen: So I would normally say, “Yeah, you always want to be talking to the decision maker,” but in this case I thought, well, maybe it would actually be easier to get an in with a client in another country if you had a connection, like maybe an agency who’s working to help you find work, and then they’re already working with them, or something like that. But you’re saying it’s worked out better for you just to go straight to the business owner.

Melvin: Yeah. That’s what most of the creative people think. There is a comfort zone, if someone is there to introduce you or to get the requirements, and so that I can just focus on the requirements and produce the thing. But I would say,

Don’t go with that comfort zone. Get ready to fail.

Sometimes the client might not like how you speak. They might not understand your accent. They might not understand your way of thinking, but one thing they will understand.

If you are sincere to your work, he will understand our passion and how much we are putting out effort to make his business better.

If we just showcase that, like show our passion towards work and show our interest to help his business, then all the customers, they love it, and they will help us understand, to meet their expectation.

So it’s like not working for a customer. It’s like working with the customer. Sometimes the customer is bringing the solution by asking good questions, right? So we just need to master that technique, like how to ask better questions, how to present our idea better.

Colleen: Yeah. So true. Yes.

Melvin: Rather than proving ourself as an international designer or a highly experienced guy or anything, we just need to align the goals with the customer. That’s it. So try for it to the end. Then you will succeed.

Colleen: Did you get … I don’t want to use the word “rejected” because I don’t like that word. It’s more of like, it’s just not a good fit. But did you get rejected by quite a few companies before you decided to just go straight to the business owner?

Melvin: Yeah. Well, I’ve got a lot of rejection. I can clearly use that word. I got a lot of rejection, but I would say it’s a different way of opposing some idea. For example, if a designer is saying in a company, like “I want to talk to the customer,” then that design studio or that agency or that company should support him to do that because there lies the business. If the designer fails, they need to train him or need to mentor him. That is what is exactly needed.

Instead, many companies believe, “Okay, the designer doesn’t have that communication skills. He is very good on paper or good on a computer, but he’s out a speaking person. So let him do his job. Let the sales team do the speaking job.”

Colleen: Right.

Melvin: Don’t do that. What I would say, put the designer in front of the customer. Let him sweat. Let him travel.

So that’s completely okay. Even when I was working with my designers, I always pushed them to connect directly with the customer, and they fear like anything. But after one or two interviews or one or two failures, they bring a lot of value.

Then the revisions will be very less. They understand the business, because business owners, they will always talk about business, right?

Designers will understand the language of business. That is really, really important.

If they don’t understand, they will stick on with their own perspective of putting things together. I mean, saying like, “Okay, I love this font. This is the trending font. We need to use this.” It might not be the case. If it is a publishing company, the reader will be as the main factor. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s a sleek font or not, right?

Colleen: Right.

Melvin: So, yeah. So that is what designers need to focus, and … I request every company to help the designers to do that kind of thing with the customers.

Pursuing His Dream

Colleen: Awesome. Awesome advice. Now, you and your wife Nimmy offer art classes online, which I think is so cool. What inspired you all to do that in the first place?

Melvin: Two years before, I had one product idea where I was thinking, “All the kids they have… They’re getting a lot of information on IQ and EQ. Schools are teaching it and everything. But this creative quotient, CQ, is getting backstage, right?

Even though schools are promoting some art activities, that is not enough. The kids should interact with highly experienced professionals around the world, and they need to learn more stuff. Like it’s not just craft and art, right? They need to understand design and all those things.

So I was thinking, it might be a cool idea, if for example, people like Chris Do or some designers from Adobe, if they teach kids on design or art. So for that, if there was an iPad app or something, or a web app, where these experienced guys will come and they’ll teach about design thinking.

For example, design thinking, and if a six-year-old kid, if she needs to create a doll house, and she can apply the design thinking there, but we need to give it digesting to a kid, right?

The syllabus should be something like that. So, I made a prototype, and I wrote some article, and I approached many people, many parents, and it got selected, won the Global Design Sprint Workshop as well.

The main feedback that I got was parents are not comfortable doing that. The number one reason they told was the privacy of kids. And they don’t like if … My suggestion was using Zoom or some kind of platform. It was two years before, okay? It’s not now. People are doing some live sessions with teaching kids and all.

Most of the parents opposed my idea and they thought, “It’s not a secure thing, and it will affect the privacy and all other things.” So I had to stop that—

Colleen: Wait a minute! That blows my mind. So they had privacy concerns because you would be doing art classes online, but their kids are already online all the time with their devices, I’m sure. What’s the difference?

Melvin: Yeah. That’s what I countered with many parents. I asked like, “When you watch Netflix, do you know if your kid is watching on iPad?”

And you’re talking about privacy, and I’m telling like, “Kids should learn from masters.”

Then I had to stop that idea, and I didn’t proceed with that idea. I thought like, “Okay, the time will come when I need to focus on that.”

I told my wife. We moved at that time, two years, and I told my wife to start virtual art classes, but she was not confident enough to do that because she was an art teacher in India and she was teaching some kids. We had to rent a place, and she was teaching kids. Luckily, we got like 40 to 60 kids at that time.

Colleen: Wow.

Melvin: But she was not confident enough to do that. Then this global situation comes, and then I told her, “Now is the time. At least try it.” She somehow tried it, and I have all the equipment for the virtual art class.

I told her, “Why can’t you start right now?” She started with her existing students. Initially, she had like 10 students, 20 students. Right now, she has like 400 students.

Colleen: Wow.

Nimmy teaching an online art class.Melvin: Now she’s teaching … Yeah, at the time she’s teaching 100 students per hour. She even got some amazing opportunity with another studio, like where you do camp, where my friend is taking classes, and he invited me there. She was teaching thousand kids at a time.

Colleen: Whoa.

Melvin: She’s connected to many patents around the world. It’s not just U.S. The people from Canada, U.K. are also coming. Their kids are learning.

The one thing that I noticed is kids are so focused than a physical class, because they know the time, and there is no one to distract them. The beautiful part is parents are also sitting with them. So it’s very transparent.

Earlier, it was like we had a studio, right? So the parents will leave the kids here, and they will go for shopping or something. After one or two hours, they will come back, and they will collect the kids. So they don’t know what is happening. They don’t know what their kids are learning.

But, now, since it’s virtual… These five-year-old kids, right? Five- to eight-year-old kids, parents will also sit with them, and they’re also learning—all these blending techniques, all these shading methods and everything. They love doing it. Many parents work with their kids, and they showcase the work in our Facebook group.

In our Facebook group, it was only eight members earlier. Now it’s like 800-something.

Colleen: Wow.

Melvin: So it’s a closed community, a private community where all the parents and kids exhibit their work, and we conduct some free workshops for parents. The reason why we are conducting those free workshops is we believe parents are the second teachers. The main teachers, like for a person like Nimmy, she can be a mentor. She can introduce some materials to kids, right? Or introduce a new art to kids or a new way of doing things.

But the actual teachers are parents. If they’re sitting with… Because they only know the kids properly. Right? So they support their kids and they work with their kids, and the results are amazing. That is going very well. So one of my dreams got achieved.

Colleen: That’s awesome.

Melvin: We just started that. Yeah. We just started that as a MVP project, like trying out my product idea in a small way, but it’s going on very well.

Colleen: Wow. What a story! What a way to turn a crazy global situation into a huge opportunity not only for yourselves, as a business opportunity, but an opportunity for parents to connect more with their kids in the process.

Melvin: Yeah, and this is our mission.

Connecting With Melvin

Colleen: So where can folks find you?

Melvin: You can find our art classes on NimmysArt.com. Right now, enrollment is closed, because we plan to do an advanced course for three months. It was a risk. We don’t know whether people will register for that classes, because it’s like a longterm, right?

Like three months, they need to book up front. So we tried that, and then we got like 400 students. That’s our maximum right now, because we can only take-

Colleen: Wow.

Melvin: 100 students at a time. We didn’t take that high-level Zoom capacity, but we are planning to do that later. So we had to stop at 400. So all the enrollments are closed now, and we are planning to do a free workshop. Whoever could not attend the classes, right?

So we are planning to do three workshops every month, and Nimmy’s uploading some free tutorial videos in our YouTube channel, too. And YouTube channel is also Nimmy’s Art. Kids can enjoy some free tutorials there. They can look at our Instagram page. We used to put some time lapse videos there as well.

Colleen: You have stock photos somewhere.

Melvin: Unsplash, yeah. And it’s been widely used by many big brands like Adobe, Trello, and other people. It’s been published in many blogs as well.

Colleen: Oh, that’s amazing.

Melvin: Yeah. But I’m still an amateur photographer. I’m not a professional guy, but I love photography and video.

Colleen: Well, that’s really cool. You have your hands in lots of different pots.

Melvin: Yeah. Whether it is a good idea, I don’t know. But there’s the energy that I have, which makes me move forward. That’s it.

Colleen: Well, that’s cool. Well, thanks so much for coming on the podcast. This has been so much fun.

Melvin: Thanks a lot, Colleen. Yeah. It was nice talking to you as well.

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