Growing pains

India’s enviable economic growth is fostering a burgeoning design scene, but can the country’s infrastructure develop quickly enough to support it and will this new industry manage to retain links with the nation’s past? David Kester finds out

Sixty years ago a new, independent India was born. Ten years into his administration, amid the turmoil of ‘midnight’s children’, Prime Minister Nehru’s government invited Charles and Ray Eames to travel the nation, talk about design and recommend how it could shape India’s future. What a far-sighted move. The now-legendary India Report, with its disarmingly poetic allegory about the design of the lota – the classically perfect pottery water vessel that has remained unchanged for thousands of years – sets out the precepts for a modern design industry of polymaths with deep roots in culture and craft, new skills in design and broad and open minds to tackle the social and economic challenges facing India.

India today is reaping the rewards of the investment it made in design education when, following the Eameses’ report, it established the National Institute of Design in Ahmedebad, India’s nearest equivalent to London’s Royal College of Art. Dr Darlie Koshy, the current director, boasts proudly of his alumni, many of whom are now the creative brains behind India’s most successful business brands. On visiting one of the country’s biggest independent design consultancies, Elephant Design, I discovered that all the partners met while at NID in the late 1980s. Another leading light of brand design, Sujata Keshavan, a graduate of both NID and Yale, affirms the importance of a rounded education that roots the best of Western-style design practice within thousands of years of Indian tradition.

India’s savvy new industry is wide awake to the urgency and scale of its calling. Hot product designer Mukul Goyal explains that, ‘The future of design in India does not lie in the hands of designers, but in the expectations of a billion people.’ The point he and others make is that there are at least two Indias that are set to make very different, but ever-growing demands on India’s design and creative capabilities. One India is the much-vaunted success story, with a 9.2 per cent annual rise in GDP, a middle class numbering a quarter of a billion, 45 million graduates in 2007 and a 20-fold growth in US patents in the same year.

In the other India, 500 million people rely on agriculture for survival, the majority in Bihar lives in poverty, hand-loom weavers in Benares commit suicide as their livelihoods are lost to the mills, the road infrastucture can’t cope and the cities are choked. Both of these pictures are real and both offer huge design challenges.

Rapid industrial and technological growth is providing Indian design professionals with colossal and demanding commercial ‹ assignments alongside a live learning environment unparalleled in the West. Retail designer Darryl Noronha from Retailscape has been working with Unilever to help transform the environments of 7500 local grocers, or Kiranas, so that these family-run stores become, for better or worse, effective channels to market for global brands. In another example, Elephant Design ran innovation workshops with industrial giant Kirloskar that led to a plan to revamp 100 products within six months and design 100 new products within the next five years. The examples continue across every sector, from automotive and computing to banking and telecoms.

The surge in demand for design, from clients and consumers alike, has had interesting and unanticipated consequences. There is a real sense that creativity and design are providing a new expression of Indian identity. This is largely at a national level, but evidence points to it extending internationally, in the same way that Bollywood has won fans from all corners of the globe. For instance, in the UK, Kingfisher is a premium bottled beer, while in India it’s an expressive brand competing successfully in the new arena of budget airlines. Similarly, Fabindia is a fair-trading, no-logo clothing and houseware chain that’s now opened in Milan. But in the rush to bottle and sell new India, writer, historian and creative guru Rajeev Sethi, who led the government’s taskforce on cultural heritage, sees a downside in the potential eradication of ancient traditions and crafts, many of which are unrecorded.

For a government wrestling with how to implement a new National Design Policy, the surge in demand from industry presents a potentially troubling capacity issue. On the one hand TC James, from the Ministry of Economic Affairs, is seeking to establish new institutions, such as an Indian Design Council, to promote design to hundreds of thousands of SMEs. On the other, he is painfully aware that exponential growth in demand may be unsupportable by the design sector, even with predicted levels of growth from within education.

The increasing disparity in earnings between public-sector design teachers and professional designers raises added concerns about quantity over quality. The influx of Western design consultancies may provide part of the solution. Consultancies such as Landor are already important training grounds for indigenous talent. WPP has a good presence both through Fitch and its recent purchase of multidisciplinary Bangalore consultancy Ray & Keshavan. Others are hovering. The right style of partnership will help to meet industrial demand and develop the sector.

Before leaving India I had the pleasure of speaking at the Designyatra, a design conference in Goa and the brainchild of entrepreneur and philanthropist Rajesh Kernwal. The event coincided with the religious festival of Dahi Handi, at which young people traditionally gather to form improbably high human pyramids to smash clay pots full of rupees. It’s a re-enactment of a story about optimism, appetite, fearlessness and vitality – all very much in evidence within what is arguably the fastest-changing design scene in the world. l

David Kester is chief executive of the Design CouncilBy Christine Losecaat

India’s phenomenal growth offers a raft of opportunities for British designers. However, this is not a short-term market. Fees are low by UK standards, intellectual property can still be an issue and relationships take time to build. Having said that, there are opportunities for British designers in retail design, at the luxury end of packaging, in branding and also in industrial design.

A new generation of management is taking over family businesses in India. This new workforce has largely been educated overseas, is well-travelled and design savvy.

In Indian multinationals, design as a business tool is accepted at board level, but still needs to filter down to middle management. There is a pressure for the larger Indian companies to become multinationals and in order to achieve this, they know that they need to look outside India for international design experience to help them modify and adapt their brands, products and services.

British ‘anything’ is still highly respected. However, being British alone will not necessarily win the business. There is almost a uniform and inflexible requirement of prior experience in a particular client sector, before a company is invited to pitch. For instance, if the brief is for the identity of an accountancy firm, the design consultancy must have prior, relevant experience in accountancy. There is not enough understanding of the design process to appreciate transferable skills – yet.

Having close, long-term relationships and continual representation on the ground is vital, otherwise project implementation becomes too costly and the final stages unravel. The local design community is keen to tie up with international consultants, both on a joint venture basis or, in some cases, as subcontractors. Local designers are finding that the larger fees are found in larger organisations, but these organisations are looking for designers with international experience. In this case, it helps to tie up with a consultancy that offers complimentary as opposed to identical skills, which makes it easier to work out the division of fees.

Christine Losecaat is sector champion for design and creative industries at UK Trade & Investment, a Government organisation that provides UK companies with knowledge, advice and practical support when setting up abroad

A conference for UK creative industries about winning business in India, titled Why India? Why Now? takes place at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London on 28 January 2008, organised by Creative Capital – World Cities

Opportunities for UK groups

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  • Peer Sathikh November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Jawaharlal Nehru who is always taken to task for admiring the Soviets and retarding the pace of India’s growth with his socialistic ideas, was also the genius who brought Ray and Charles Eames and Architect Louis Khan to visit India . He is also the genius behind the Indian Institute of Technologies, Indian Institute of Management and other institutions that have made India an emerging power house.

    While the article makes a good read, it is important to know that there is more to Indian design than just the National Institute of Design, though it has played a very important role.

    What is more important is to keep in mind the dichotomy of the Indian society and push the agenda of design and design education in such a way to prevent the widening of the gap between the two.

    A tall order eh ?

    Well, not many in the developed world thought that India and China would become what they are now anyway !

  • Arvind Lodaya November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Thanks for the upbeat reportage on the emergence of Indian design – which reads like the emergence of Indian consumerism. I was disappointed to not find a critical perspective to the “shining India” growth story – particularly from a society that has been there, done that – and is now seriously (I hope) reviewing its “achievements”. Traditional India (labelled as ‘backward’ and ‘primitive’) contained traces of a lifestyle that was ecologically sound and spiritually nourishing. In the rush for middle-class growth, we’ve lost touch with our greatest strengths, and instead are multiplying some of the biggest blunders committed by the wasteful west at an unprecedented scale. India can actually help the world – and design – reinvent itself for a wholesome and sustainable future, but are we listening?

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