September 03, 2003

Design in India

Our meeting with Rashmi Sinha went very well and lasted about three hours. She and her husband Jon offered a lot of ideas and insights into how to take the discipline forward.

Rashmi was very excited that discussions on the HCIIDC Yahoo! list have improved radically in this past year or so. Even though she lamented that since the list has private archives, people in the US and elsewhere do not have access to it. She encouraged us to submit papers to international conferences and to organise small, local events.

One of the topics that were discussed was what can India contribute to the world in design and why design here has never been in the forefront until the recent past.

I see two main reasons why design as a profession never emerged in the decades after India became an independent state in late forties.

Political reasons

There were far more critical impending problems when we got independence than design. Self-sustenance in agriculture, national security, poverty, development, education – to cite some of them. The sole aim at the time was nation–building.

Everything else took a back seat. Even in higher education, the stress was on technology and management with the establishment of IITs and IIMs across the nation. A wise move indeed. This early investment paid off rich dividends as India is now widely recognised for its high placed technology leaders in large US corporations almost all of whom can trace their roots to these institutions.

But that’s a digression and fodder for another post. With nation-building as the main goal, design – something that comes much higher in Maslow's hierarchy of needs – was relegated to a lower place. National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad [with no branches anywhere else] was the only initiative in this area for decades.

Socio-economic reasons

Two things discouraged the industry to innovate in design: India’s socialist economic structure therefore lack of a consumerist society and as a result thereof or for whatever reasons – a highly value conscious consumer.

India was a poor country for a long time – it will be inappropriate to call us one now as we pay our debts today and extend loans to the IMF itself. India is now viewed as a lucrative emerging market. The only one that can offer some competition to the economic behemoth that China is likely to become in the coming years.

But for many decades after independence with a fairly low per capita income, price and ‘durability’ were the only driver of sales. Products were created to provide maximum value. People did become quality and brand conscious but this came very late. Probably in the 80's when Bata - largest retail chain in India - became widely recognised for its well-made and affordable shoes.

In the decades ensuing independence, design never achieved prominence simply because it was never a priority for the government, the industry or the consumer.

When things changed

All this was to dramatically change in the 90's. Two things happened at once: Satellite television came into our living rooms and the government eradicated the licensing barriers and ushered in liberalisation.

People began watching the same soaps, same movies and the same videos that the west was watching. Everyone from Pepsi to McDonalds rushed to India in the next few years to capture the new market. The great Indian middle class was born.

Today, price may remain a strong driver of sales but in the new cosmopolitan and consumerist urban India that has grown up on western media, design has firmly established its roots. Even though what constitute good design may not be as widely recognised.

One only need to look at the booming automobile sector to understand how important a role design plays in a consumerist economy. Until 1996, we had just about 30-35 variants of cars with over 75% of the market share captured by Maruti Udyog Limited - a subsidiary of Suzuki motors – that manufactures India’s most affordable cars.

Today, in 2003 there are about 180-200 variants in the market, a phenomenal jump of about 500% in the past seven years. With everyone from Mercedes to Skoda entering the picture, market share of India’s low-priced car manufacturer, Maruti, has gone down to 53% from a high of 75% in 1996.

What can India contribute

Whether we have a universal ‘Indian design ethos’ that can be somehow translated into products and artifacts across industries is debatable. We certainly have a diverse and vibrant culture and values. But whether that can be incorporated into products that must answer the needs of today’s consumer is uncertain.

One place where India’s rich cultural legacy still plays an important role in everyday life is India’s rural poor. Two recent innovations have attempted to address the needs of the illiterate and semi-literate users: Hisaab software and the work of Ranjit Makkuni.

Hisaab is a micro finance software that has an innovative user interface that uses more of numbers and images rather than text. This is based on the simple fact that it is easier for the semi-illiterate to recognise and remember numbers. They are easier to type too.

The software is the brainchild of Kaushik Ghosh, Media Lab Asia and Apala Lahiri Chavan, Human Factors International. A paper on hisaab was presented in the recently held CHI 2003 conference at Florida. Apala is also one of the contributors to this blog.

Ranjit Makkuni, who was formerly a scientist at Xerox PARC involved with the design of the first Graphical User Interface in the late 70’s has attempted to demonstrate how culture can be a driver of design innovation.

Challenging the traditional modes of interaction, Ranjit has designed interactive devices and environments that use hand skills, gestural browsing and multi-dimensional displays that go beyond rectangular monitors. His work is currently being exhibited across Europe.

India is just beginning to make its mark on the world map in design. It will be interesting to see where we go from here.

Related Links
Rashmi Sinha- see previous post
HCIIDC Yahoo Group
CNN story on India’s technology institutes
Story on India’s growing economic clout [use sub.ID 5223 for India edition]
National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad
Hisaab Software
Ranjit Makkuni's Crossing Project
Story on changing face of Indian software industry

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