The future of design in India – and what it means for the UK

Design Council associate David Townson reflects on a recent visit to India.

IDC member secretary Pradyumna Vyas and Design Council chief executive John Mathers sign a Memorandum of Understanding
IDC member secretary Pradyumna Vyas and Design Council chief executive John Mathers sign a Memorandum of Understanding

The Design Council was recently part of a British delegation invited to visit India, meet the Indian Design Council and take part in the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) ‘Designing the Future’ conference’.

Our trip to India was only five days and we barely scratched the surface. However, some strong themes emerged about the future direction of the Indian design scene.

1. In India, design’s value is focused on the tactical noun, rather than the strategic verb

Design is clearly seen as a way to add value to Indian industry but wasn’t seen as integral to a business’s strategy and few spoke of it being something the public sector could harness. Design is mostly seen at the level of what the guys we met in the IDEO Mumbai studio referred to as ‘the big D’. This is essentially means seeing the value (of design) in the output of the design process – the website, the interaction, the graphic, the product – as a way to enable commercial value rather than in the process of design thinking itself (what the IDEO folks called ‘the little d’).

2. Evidence of design being used strategically to create value can be found, but you have to hunt

During meetings with IIT Bombay and Dynamatic Technologies we learned how they are exploring the ‘little d’ IDEO talked about. They don’t express it explicitly as design thinking and still tend to focus on the output rather than the design process, but it seems only a matter of time before this is addressed. Rajesh Kejriwal,founder of design organisation Kyoorius, is keen that India embrace the strategic design thinking view. He reckons on India being 30 years behind the West. He also said it won’t take long for it to catch up.

3. There were differences of opinion on how inherently innovative India is

We met a surprising number of people working within design who did not necessarily see India and Indians as naturally innovative.

We discovered that those who tended to work at the ‘coal face’ of the issues – whether that be by spending time with people in slums to understand what quality of life means for them or by helping those who were developing their own businesses – certainly see India as an innovative nation. The final step in the ‘big D / little d’ model IDEO shared is ‘CC’: Creative Confidence. IDEO felt the locals whom they spend time with on projects, be they end users or clients, are naturally creative. As the chief executive of another agency put it ‘the opportunities for design are huge because there are entrepreneurs everywhere; everyone wants to start their own business’.

4. Innovation in education is where the opportunities for design ultimately lie

We heard a couple of times that as they leave primary school, children in India are told design, creativity and the liberal arts are not important: ‘tear up your sketch pads, throw away your pens’ as one academic put it. By the time they arrive at university, another design professor observed, they have ‘no critical thinking skills at all, you have to start over’. Others echoed these views. One simply stated, ‘design is not understood in India as it is not part of the education system.’

Some 1 million young people will be coming onto the job market every month for the next five years in India and so any advantage the education system can give them will be welcomed. An early and sustained exposure to design thinking throughout an education – from the early years onwards – will prepare people well given the fundamental value design can add to the world of enterprise. It’s something we’d do well to consider back in terms of educational policy here in the UK too…

Next steps

Next month the Design Council will host a visit from our IDC colleagues. It will coincide with our Leading Business by Design Summit and be a great platform from which to continue the discussions we began in New Delhi. One area under consideration for initial collaboration is how to help Indian industry better understand and use design as a strategic tool. Our design leadership experience, helping identify the opportunities for design and in turn for the design industry, is certainly something that the IDC is interested in, having established their own ‘design clinic scheme’ modelled on our approach.

A further area to explore is using design to help tackle big societal issues in a more collaborative way. From working with public sector bodies to better serve citizens, or with businesses to fuel their ambitions for growth, or with numerous organisations from across the private and public sectors to tackle ‘wicked problems’ such as independence in older age or a better start in the early years, the Design Council has experience and expertise in convening the right people and enabling a process that results in better outcomes for all.

Nearly 60 years after its publication the original India Report by Charles and Ray Eames, is still seen as a keystone in building India’s relationship with design, and rightly so. Rich in design thinking, it is a document everyone in design should read. We will return to it in terms of guiding principles as they are still relevant to many of the challenges being faced in society today.

Perhaps in another 60 years, the activities we are beginning to explore between the Indian and UK design councils will be seen to be similarly significant. If we design our collaboration in the right way then why not?

David Townson is a design and innovation management consultant and Design Council associate.

What do you think? If you have any thoughts on some of the issues raised in this piece or suggestions for topics the Design Council ought to explore going forward please get in touch with Design Council chief executive


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  • Giles Calver November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Interesting and thought-provoking article. Having worked on projects for Indian clients for the last three years – including the branding for a new 350-acre township in Central India – I’ve experienced clients willing to embrace design from inside and outside of India. There is a very real need to demonstrate its value and its depth but once you do that it is adopted as a practice that is business-enabling.

  • Angus Montgomery November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    The Eames’ report was very influential and helpful to the first generation of Indian students at one particular school in India who became designers. Teachers trained and influenced by the Eames’, (some of whom came from other countries) and eventually retired were not, in the main, replaced by equally qualified and prepared or international teachers, so in time, the information, course of study, and quality standards became watered down and were reduced in power and influence. After experiencing contacts from less than excellent candidates who were looking for positions internationally who were graduates of the school, I began an informal investigation. I learned the history of the descent from the glory days from graduates of the school from that time and recent ones. But the school’s curriculum has changed significantly and the objectives and type of informed graduate may be different from the original ones, this I do not know.
    Industries in India who are competing in the global arena, like automotive, embrace design, use international design consulting firms, and usually have a staff of designers born and educated in many countries, so eventually many other organizations in India will catch up because design usually goes forward (and spreads widely), not backwards, as companies learn its value.

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