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July 26, 2021 —

Love What You Do: Chandra Casali-Bell of Upala Design

With a holistic and considered approach, Chandra Casali-Bell’s business Upala Design creates inviting online spaces which perfectly reflect the brands she collaborates with, we find out more…
Sine Fleet - contributingeditor of 91 Magazine
Sine Fleet
91 Magazine contributing editor,
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How would you describe Upala Design to someone discovering it for the first time?

Upala Design is a boutique branding and website studio that specialises in minimal, elegant visuals and a holistic working approach. Based in London, I collaborate with small businesses who value authenticity and resonate with my grounded and calm aesthetic.

What did you do before setting up your business, and what is your background?

I have a background in fine art and worked as a professional artist for a number of years. Later I moved to Canada to volunteer with a charitable organisation and began getting involved with marketing, graphic design and website development. After making the decision to move back to the UK a few years ago, I was working a dead-end job and designing websites in my spare time. I continued to receive requests for my work and decided to take the plunge and try to create the life I wanted – where I had freedom and creative fulfilment. I quit my job and went to Switzerland to do some meditation on retreat in the mountains, which is where I conceived of Upala Design. Within the same month I had my first paying client and my business grew from there.

It’s always been important to me to work creatively within my preferred aesthetic style – which is clean, elegant and thoughtful. I have a strong desire to genuinely help others and find it so rewarding bringing people’s vision to life through a brand that reflects them, or a website that feels like home.

Where do you find creative inspiration?

I find it so helpful to understand what makes good composition and balance, not only in graphic design but in photography, interior design, architecture, music – drawing inspiration from different sources definitely helps to bring a well-rounded approach to design.

Nature is also a huge source of inspiration for me and helps me to recharge my creative batteries. Almost everyday I will go for a ‘creative walk’ – which is basically a mindful walk in my neighbourhood and the nearby park, that refreshes my senses and helps spark new ideas. I also find travelling and going on adventures to be incredibly effective to get out of a creative rut – just exposing myself to new perspectives always brings inspiration.

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Where does the name come from?

Upala is another word for peony, which is my favourite flower. It also has strong connotations with spirituality as it means ‘jewel’ in Sanskrit and is depicted in Buddhist art (the female Buddha Tara holds a blue upala flower). I chose the name because it refers to two aspects at the heart of my work – beauty and a sense of wellbeing.

How did you first discover your love for what you do?

I have always been very creative so becoming passionate about design was something that developed naturally from my days as an artist. I like to create spaces where people want to dwell – which are beautiful, spacious and minimal. In the past I created large-scale installations and these days I design websites – but for me it’s always about creating work that feels as good as it looks and works on a subconscious level.

I was also deeply inspired by Fiona Humberstone, aka The Brand Stylist, who I have mentored with. Her emphasis on creating emotionally resonant brands and focusing on connection over hustle really changed the way I worked, and what I thought possible with brand design.

Could you describe a typical working day?

I like to get up early enough that I can enjoy a slow morning before I sit down at my desk around 9am. I’ll do some exercise or meditation, and I like to listen to a podcast while I get dressed. Then I like to focus and have a productive morning up to lunchtime.

I’ve realised that my creativity peaks in the mornings and evenings, so I usually spend a few hours in the afternoon running errands, spending time with my partner or catching up with friends, and then work for a few hours in the evening. I like to make sure I stop to cook a nice meal and I often spend the later part of the evenings reading or doing some self-care.

What are the values behind your business?

When I work on a client project I like to bring a holistic, integrated approach where the whole process of working together is just as considered as the final work. When you work with a designer – you’re not only trusting them with your vision, but you’re also trusting it will be a worthwhile investment. This can be pretty nerve-racking so I generally work with one client at a time in order to give my full, undivided attention, and support them through that journey.

I also take time to get to know a potential client and their project before we work together, so I can understand what impact their brand or website needs to have, and make sure I’m the best fit for them. I only take on a select amount of clients per year so it’s important to me that it’s a meaningful exchange, and a beneficial and creative process for both of us.

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What has been the greatest hurdle in starting your own business?

Figuring out how to schedule projects efficiently and hone my process. Learning everything through trial and error about scheduling, client processes, taxes, contracts, proposals etc, which I did ‘on the job’. The second biggest hurdle was learning to become more confident in what I offer and the value I add, which helped me to charge more and also say no to projects that I don’t align with.

How did you choose your location?

My partner and I moved to London in August 2020 during lockdown. We came down for a visit because I was doing a brand photoshoot for a client. We had been fairly nomadic and had recently lived in the Lake District, Switzerland and Glasgow, and decided it would be great to live in London as we have friends here. We both love the diversity of the city and the sense of hope and possibility, which is so important to tap into as an entrepreneur. I work in an office at home and my partner loves to work in cafes, so it suits us perfectly.

I love being able to work from home and genuinely work a lot better and more productively under my own direction. My partner is a freelance writer so we both have the freedom to move around and not feel too tied down. We have worked from cabins in the mountains, shepherd’s huts, and a variety of cafes and hotels. I love being able to take my work with me wherever I go, or leave it behind if I have decided to take some time off.

How has your work evolved since you began?

I have always grounded my work in a quiet and thoughtful style because it’s the aesthetic I resonate with most. My studio is likewise minimal, simple and feminine. However, my work has evolved a lot over the years – not only through being challenged to grow with the demands and requirements of various projects – but also because I have learnt to trust my vision more.

I’m very influenced by Japanese architecture and slow living, and in a basic way – the feng shui of an environment. I approach a brand identity or website like a physical space – I love the idea of creating a space where you want to dwell. I think creating an environment in which your ideal client wants to immerse themselves creates a successful and impactful brand.

Is there an element of your work that you love the most?

My favourite part of my job is discovering the essence of someone’s business and diving deep into the clarity of their brand. Many clients I have worked with have described the branding process as being almost like therapy – it’s often an opportunity for a business owner to really own their space and clarify what’s most important to them – and also enables me as the designer to create something that truly resonates with them and their audience – it’s so rewarding.

As an artist at heart, I also love the more creative parts of the process like making mood boards (so much fun), designing custom illustrations on my iPad, and working with businesses that have beautiful visuals – like photographers, interior designers, artists and makers.

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How valuable is the online community to your work?

I have been pretty blown away by how supportive the online community is – in a way I straddle two worlds – the world of brand design, and the Squarespace community. Both are so helpful, kind and supportive and I’ve made some really meaningful connections through social media.

What’s been the biggest eye-opener for you in running your business?

Believing in yourself and what’s possible, and then putting energy behind that belief, seems to be the foundation of creating the life you want and a business you are passionate about. When things aren’t flowing the way I would like them to, I always go back to these two aspects: Do I have confidence and total belief in the vision? Am I putting in the required energy? When these are aligned it seems like magical things happen, and that’s been pretty eye-opening for me.

How do you differentiate yourself in a creative industry?

When I worked as an artist many years ago there was definitely a trend at the time of ‘bigger is better’, and so my quiet and pared-back style definitely set me apart and helped me to establish myself. However, in the design world there is an abundance of minimal, thoughtful design – so rather than trying to differentiate myself – I just focus on what I do best and stay true to my aesthetic style.

It’s important to be aware of the current trends, but I always try to bring things back to a place of simplicity. I also pour my heart and soul into my projects and work a lot on the details. I think going the extra mile with your work always helps you to stand out, people can see the quality and care.

What are the joys, and challenges, of working as an independent?

For me the biggest challenge of running my own business has been the work/life balance. Because I love what I do and am passionate about the projects I work on, I can have a hard time taking breaks and saying no. I can easily work every weekend and 10-13 hour days consecutively, but I’m getting better at setting boundaries and learning to nurture myself. I think this is really the key to running a sustainable, creative business.

Also, shouldering the full responsibility of every aspect of your work, and working alone, is another big challenge. I have found sharing the burden in some way is a total game changer. I have a ‘creative mastermind’ with my brother at least once a week where we share the projects we’re working on, talk through our ideas or difficulties, and give feedback and encouragement.

For me the challenges are totally worth it to have the freedom to set my own schedule and goals. I love the ability to choose the projects I’m passionate about and truly excited to bring to life. I also love working with more creative, artisanal brands and supporting small business owners, which is something that would be less likely working for a big agency.

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How do you approach marketing and PR?

Rather than emphasising marketing and sales strategies, I simply believe in creating work that resonates and I focus on creating connection. It’s important to maintain social media and have a beautiful, strategic website – but rather than getting too deep into SEO and ‘salesy’ strategies, I focus on delivering high quality work and creating a great experience for clients. All of my work has come through word of mouth and client referrals, so I’m happy for my business to grow organically in a way that is most aligned with my values.

What have been your business highlights so far?

Being booked up six months in advance and living in central London have been great milestones in my business. Also, working on every project for an ideal client has been the biggest highlight, as well as inspiring a couple of people I know to set up their own creative businesses.

Do you have any creative pastimes or hobbies?

Photography is one of my passions, and baking. I’m also a long-term meditator and love adventures.

What is the most important lesson that running your business has taught you about life?

Working directly with other people has taught me so much about myself, my capacity, and what I need to sustain not only my creativity, but my wellbeing. Running my own business has really taught me the power of belief – in having the confidence to dream, to discover what’s possible, to create the life you want – to have vision. It has given me so much confidence in my skills and also that anything is possible if you believe and are willing to work hard.

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Any good advice for independent creative businesses who are just starting out?

Try to reach out to other creatives who are more established than you. It can be a steep learning curve discovering a process that works for you – finding the most efficient way to onboard clients, to create realistic timelines for projects, and also, charge what you’re worth. Early on in my business I actually paid for consultation sessions with a brand and website designer, and she gave me a lot of invaluable insights.

I would also say it’s so important to nurture yourself and make sure you make consistent time for self care. If you want to build a sustainable business and ensure your creativity is nurtured, you really have to prioritise your wellbeing and live a balanced life. This is something I’m still working on, but I’m getting much better.

What does the next year hold for you?

I plan to start a small website template shop in 2021-2022. These will provide easy-to-edit, aesthetically beautiful templates for those who are DIY-ing a project and either don’t want to wait to work with a designer, or can’t afford to. I’m also in talks to create a potential new partnership and have several exciting projects coming up.

Quickfire questions

Books I love: The Empowered Entrepreneur by Elizabeth Cairns, Brand Brilliance by Fiona Humberstone, The Void, the Grid and the Sign by William L. Fox

Creative Heroes: Fiona Humberstone (@thebrand_stylist), Kati Forner (@katiforner)

Shops I love: The White Company, & Other Stories, Free People, Anatome

Inspirational places: Switzerland, Toronto, Iceland

Instagrammers I love:  Little Sister Studio (@littlesisterstudio), We Are Branch (@wearebranch), Paige Brunton (@paigebrunton), Catia Lemmi (@catialemmi)

www.upaladesign.com

@upala.design

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