Indian firms begin to realize the need for design

I had an article due today for a UK design magazine on the product design industry in India. It allowed me to talk to some of the designers there and I thought I’d share some of the fascinating parts of what they shared with me:

From Manoj Kothari of Onio Design Pvt Ltd comes this succinct paragraph of the current environment in Indian industry,

“Indian consumers have become more sophisticated in their tastes – travel, the software boom and the internet educated them on changing tastes and their ‘consumer rights’. Did Indian manufacturers change accordingly? Well, the answer is yes, and no. We know of many tiny companies who are taking on the global giants or Chinese companies head-on. There is no fear in them. They have learnt to master the sea they recently entered.

The suffering still continues in the larger companies, driven by traditional thinking on product innovation. All they did was to hire a better sounding ad-agency, which charged them a bomb. They also hired the management gurus to advise them on corporate restructuring, but things didn’t quite happen the way they expected. Returns of the investment remained abysmally low and consumers frustrated. Now that all other readymade sources have been tried and no other option is left to survive in the liberalized market, companies have no choice but to turn to ‘design’. Here is the beginning of real design for India.”

Sounds like the Indian companies aren’t too far behind the rest of the world in realizing that design can offer competitive advantage. But the paragraph sounds so familiar doesn’t it? Seems that is a path, regardless of country, that so many companies get stuck going down on. Trying readymade options for innovation.

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9 Responses to Indian firms begin to realize the need for design

  1. This is what history says – design and R&D prosper in a country with surplus funds.
    I have not found any example in the annals of history which contradicts this primary rule. (Designers often try to take the stand that if you spend on design, business goes up. Sounds good, and probably may even work good. All I say is – there is no historical precedent of a trend that uses design to increase business, barring occasional stories. Ergo, this behaviour of reviving sales by investing in industrial design is not a trend-setting behaviour, for whatever reasons)
    Even the turning point, the industrial revolution, could only happen when europe was flush with surplus funds – the direct spoils of imperialist earnings.
    If a country has a crunch on the cash floating in the market, then it will go down in spending on design and R&D. (They will make an effort in advertising and graphic design- If you can sell the same old wine in a new bottle, first try that, before spending on inventing new wine. Corollary – a company that is going down gives a sudden dying spike on its spending on advertising and graphic design. Example – BPL in India).
    If a country has surplus funds, only then they will look more at design. (note – this does not apply to economies where design means manufacture of imitation products)
    Perhaps, if someone had statistics (or indicative statistics), they could look into this. For example – the most direct parameter that is indicative of design spending that may be available is the sale of design tools in a particular country.
    Have the sales of design tools gone down in countries with a cash crunch?
    Have they gone up in a country like India, which is finally seeing some spare cash?

  2. Ashish Banerjee says:

    Surely, the lack of a historical precedent cannot be used as a viable argument for denying a trend. As someone (Levitt?) once said, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.
    Progress is not linear, but propelled by jump discontinuities. There wasn’t much of a historical precedent for the personal computer (unless you count the abacus, pun unintended).
    The iPod is a massive global success. In essence, it is nothing more than a portable disk drive with a convenient user interaface and stunningly good design. So yeah, if you spend on design, it impacts sales positively. And if you bet the farm on design, as Target has in the US, it impacts sales extremely positively.
    The trend is here. It is here to stay. Resistance, as the rather well-designed Borg would say, is futile.

  3. niti bhan says:

    Well said, Ashish. In fact I was talking to Poonam Bir Kasturi, one of the founders of Shristi School of Art &Design in Bangalore a couple of days ago, and she pointed out this very fact – why on earth does the indian industry have to follow the same long slow cycle of the industrial revolution as in the west? Why re-invent the wheel? If the realization that design can add value has been demonstrated by Target and Apple, why not begin the implementation process?

  4. Ah – designers love to point out how the Ipod sells because of design.
    Marketing guys point at Ipod’s brilliant branding, and what-have-you.
    Advertising guys point at the success of the iPod as theirs.
    So, any profession who wishes to claim Ipod as their baby, kindly stand in the queue 🙂
    In truth – success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.
    Allow me to restate my contention – I am saying that “Money promotes design investment as a social phenomenon (as a trend) and this is borne out historically”.
    This is undebated.
    You are saying “design promotes business and this is borne out by Apple and Target” I fully agree with that – it can be done by individual companies. Individual entities are always beyond rules. (but notice, the subtle attempt to attribute the credit of apple and target’s success entirely to industrial design. Frankly, weren’t there better designed products in the market that failed miserably? How can any single profession claim the success of apple and target, pray tell me? Success is eclectic – it is a chain that is as strong as its weakest link).
    And to believe that a entire economy (that is nosediving) can be bailed out of economic downfall, by the magical powers of design, is an unrealistic expectation. Has never happened, and will never happen.
    It follows that when an economy nosedives, its design spending also nosedives (I mean, does anyone seriously mean to tell me that this is not so? If so, kindly give me an example).
    My comment is very clear that India is getting some spare cash – so, the rise of design in India is bound to happen. The statement that “the trend is here to stay” is directly supportive to my observation from past history.
    To reiterate – the general rule is – the fortune of the design industry of a country is directly dependent on the level of its economic prosperity. India bears out my contention, since design is following the graph of its prosperity.
    And don’t anyone dare to tell me that design has been responsible for India’s rising Sensex! 🙂 That would be a really really far-fetched statement!
    Sad Fact – Designers have had almost a zero contribution in India’s rise as an powerful economy and if this sounds bitter to design professionals, they can console themselves by the fact that even if they were not able to contribute (in spite of wanting to), at least they get to partake of the spoils.

  5. Ashish Banerjee says:

    Atrakasya, this is not an attempt to get in the last word; we can agree, disagree, or agree to disagree.
    The issue is perhaps definitional. I use the term “design” in its broadest sense, because it really does permeate eveything now, and everyone is a designer in their own way. You make design choices when you open the wardrobe door every morning and contemplate what to wear.
    To me, the human spirit, not money, propels the quest for design discovery, creativity, utility or enhancements. The people who designed the first rafts were probably not affluent, but driven by a need to explore what lay on the other side of the lake/river. But they made an immense contribution to human progress.
    In the end, whether designers have contributed to India’s development, or to the rise of the Sensex, is a trivial argument at best. If you travel in Africa, you’ll see what the human spirit is capable of birthing… everything that can be recycled, repurposed or redesigned, is. And it leads to economic progress at the margins, quality of life enhancements at the margins. Ever see a shopping bag made by stitching together used prepaid mobile recharge cards?
    To clarify, I’m not a designer, nor an apologist for the design profession… just a business-minded communications guy who happens to love design and believe in its power and ability to enhance/transform the mundane into the remarkable… often at very low cost.

  6. niti bhan says:

    Ashish, thank you for the words I can echo to explain my background too, you said,
    >>To clarify, I’m not a designer, nor an apologist for the design profession… just a business-minded communications guy who happens to love design and believe in its power and ability to enhance/transform the mundane into the remarkable… often at very low cost.>>

  7. Ashish,
    Sure, I understand your love for design and how it has the power of changing the world. No harm in keeping at it.
    (Though, I do feel that in your comment you are confusing the industrial design industry (plus advertising/graphics/what-have-you) with Appropriate Technology and sustainable development).
    Perhaps, we may be able to at least have ONE society that was transformed by design, and not by imperialistic capital alone or war alone or trade alone.
    Not utterly impossible, considering that Gandhi managed to win back his country by non-violence, which was an unprecedented task, too.
    The irony of this is that at the end of it, you and Niti (who are apparently from the business-side, from your last two comments) are the ones who are hoping for an unprecedented happening of design causing a turnaround in the revenues of a country (which has never happened in global history – ever ever ever), whereas I, who can claim to be from the design industry, harbor no such hopes.
    Quite a role reversal, isn’t it?

  8. niti bhan says:

    Atrakasya, I can see where you are coming from, and I can see the validity of your arguement re: what you brought up ref gandhiji et al in today’s world. But I also believe that much of ‘our’ percieved ‘difference’ in this conversation may have it’s roots in understanding where we each are coming from, wrt design and it’s role. As a designer, I’m guessing you are, you may indeed be right in your perspective because you are looking at it at the practitioner level. While I cannot speak for Ashish, certainly speaking for myself, much of what I say is not so much at the practioner level, so much as the large scale changes level. Those factor, by virture of their very nature, take time to trickle down to the day to day level. That may be a failing on my part, always seeing the longer term, bigger picture than the issues that face the industry right now with the pressures there in. However, some of what I’m saying, I genuinely believe in, that is, that there are approaches to problem solving that as a field design possesses (again, I don’t care what you call it, I”m not so particular for silo building as I am for achieving the end result) that can address the large scale problems of society that traditional mba/business/profit orientation without regard to the larger impact on society, have not as yet been able to.
    as for role reversal, it is only a matter of perspective, I”m quite sure you and I are looking for the same solutions.

  9. Niti,
    Where we match is that you and I both will confidently say that it is possible to positively affect an individual company’s revenue stream by leveraging design.
    Where we probably differ is that you believe this can be done on a large level, as a trend that changes the fortunes of an entire economy, whereas I say, no, it probably cannot be done – not Bhuto, nor Bhavishyati.

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