Passage to India

Despite it being one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, poverty remains endemic in a country of 1.2 billion people and growing. John Stones explores the ways in which innovation is being promoted in India and why practicality, frugality and simplicity continue to shape what is being designed

’Sir, may I present you the luxury yacht Nefertiti, it has six luxury suites…’ intones a salesman in an ad running on Indian television for Maruti Suzuki, the Indo-Japanese car company. The prospective client, with heavy shades and a beautiful woman on his arm, is unimpressed. ’How many miles per gallon will it do?’ he asks in Hindi.

According to Anil Sondur, vice-president of the industrial design division of Tata Elxsi, part of India’s biggest conglomerate, this speaks volumes about the mindset of the Indian consumer. Economy, practicality and family friendliness are the most important features, and they are also qualities that an increasingly confident Indian design community is finely attuned to. Of course, these are encapsulated by the Tata Nano, the super-economy car whose sheer ingenuity woke the world up to the potential of Indian design (Tata Elxsi designed the interior while the exterior styling was done by Italian consultancy Idea).

The Nano is not a flash in the pan, and similar design ingenuity is evident in other products. For instance, there is Godrej & Boyce’s Chotokool mini refrigerator, aimed at the rural poor in a country where only 18 per cent have a refrigerator despite the hot climate. Using a pared-down approach, the fridge has a cooling chip rather than a compressor, runs on batteries and looks a bit like an oversized icebox. Godrej & Boyce is proudly presenting it as an example of ’disruptive design’ and ’frugal innovation’. It is currently being tested and the manufacturer is aiming at a purchase price of less than £50.

Manufacturing feasibility is still a very important aspect and it is very difficult to take this into account if you are not a local organisation

Anil Sondur, Tata Elxsi

Then there is Tata Elxsi’s own Pureit for Hindustan Unilever, a portable and affordable water purifier. Since its launch three years ago, it has spawned three variations with another six in the offing. And the Oorja Super, an affordable biomass stove, again designed by Tata Elxsi, is currently being trialled in China.

According to the recently published census, India’s population is on course to overtake China in a couple of decades. Much of the talk here, understandably, has been about opportunities for UK design consultancies, and in the area of branding and strategy foreign consultancies are indeed dominant. ’But when it comes to product design we are on an equal footing, or even at an advantage,’ says Sondur.

’Manufacturing feasibility is still a very important aspect and it is very difficult to take this into account if you are not a local organisation,’ says Sondur. ’And we understand the strong needs of the bottom of the pyramid in India, which is a huge market.’

In China, consumers are favouring local brands, and in India, too, an explicit use of the ’Designed in India’-tag has been going down very well as it instils ’a sense of pride in the Indian consumer’, Sondur suggests.

Meanwhile, there is a major overhaul of traditional Indian design taking place, in areas such as handicrafts and jewellery, which are being reinvented, branded and slowly shaped into significant modern industries. And if a traditional Indian design sensibility might inform a more flamboyant use of colour and form in packaging, when it comes to product design it is practicality, frugality and simplicity that count.

While some design is being outsourced to India (for instance, the Argos catalogues are designed by the Mumbai office of Manchester-based Photolink Creative Group), that is not on the whole how Indian design consultancies are positioning themselves. Design, after all, is not a simple back-office operation like IT, as Sondur points out.

Organisations like the Confederation of Indian Industry have recently stepped up efforts to promote design. Is this with the intention of ensuring that Indian businesses do not ever need to go abroad for design? ’No,’ says Sondur. ’It is to make sure that design is considered as a tool in everything that Indian businesses do it’s up to them then who they wish to use, whether an Indian consultancy, one in the UK, or wherever.’

And as established consultancies such as Tata Elxsi, Desmania and Elephant Strategy & Design are complemented by the products of India’s recently ramped-up design education sector, the tag ’Designed in India’ can only become more common.

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