Cultural factors in design – discuss


This image is from my article Putting the Desi in Design published on Core77 in February 2006. Yesterday, I received this thoughtful email from Sriram Thodla, and it struck me after last night’s post on culture specific design by Lenovo, that it provides a good base for a timely discussion. My response to Sriram is in the comments section, and I encourage you all to chime in with what you think.


I read with great interest your article about the unique
characteristics and capabilities of Desi Designers. I’m a desi designer
based out of Boston and I wanted to share some of my thoughts when I
read the section on the redesign of the "Kanan Devan" tea packaging. I
grew up in India till I was 11 and came to NY and over the past 16
years, have come to accept and understand that the packaging design in
the US is significantly different that packaging in India and both
convey very different qualities about the project.

My experience has been that US packaging tends to be flashy,
with extreme use of graphics to catch the eye among crowded shelves but
rarely does the actual product convey the same strengths. On the other
hand, indian packaging with it’s quaint graphics and muted earth tones,
while blending among the numerous other products on the shelves, often
contains products that have a stronger concentration of taste. Case in
point, Indian tea such as Taj Mahal vs the generic Lipton tea bags
found in the U.S.

It is interesting that with repeated exposure to these
patterns, I’ve come to internalize the basic generalization that flashy
packaging rarely contains products that are of intense flavor/taste and
vice/versa. In fact, I make it a point to look for the dull and
unoriginal packaging of indian products,  knowing that what I’m getting
instead is a stronger and more intense flavor.

The use of graphic design will no doubt continue as indian
products start competing with global imports and standing out in the
shelves will determine market share. However, it will be increasingly
important for indian firms to avoid abandoning the qualities that have
made Indian products distinctive and avoid the general me-too look that
that Kanan Devan redesign conveys.

I would love to hear your thougts on the matter.

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One Response to Cultural factors in design – discuss

  1. niti bhan says:

    My email response:
    Hi Sriram,
    I can see where you’re coming from on this, particularly perception of packaging in the context of socio cultural experience. But let’s take another look at what you’ve written – this is just a hypothetical exercise below.
    1. The US Market has a long history of developing their marketing communications, advertising and branding. What I see in it is the result of years of an open market, extreme competition between numerous products, infinite choice among products, and ever increasing ‘noise’ wrt to reaching the consumer.
    2. Until 92/93 the Indian market was protected, did not have to compete with many others for any product they make, and the noise level was not at the same level. This was reflected in the packaging, promotion style and distribution as well.
    3. Since 1995 or thereabouts, the market in India has exploded, and there are numerous products available, both domestic and international brands, each with their own packaging.
    4. What, your US educated / experienced eyes – quite rightly – perceive to be flashy, and the associations you make with the said flashiness, is learnt behaviour, yes?
    5. The indian products, and their packaging, that you have percieved since (in the 16 years) are from products available at patelco or the local desi shop. Those, for the most part, are particularly regional, culture specific products, brought in to fill the gaps in our shopping basket that a Walmart or other supermarket here can’t fill.
    6. But in the meantime, India’s retail sector has exploded, and they have increased the marketing ‘noise’ to compete, the consumer is faced with a barrage of international brands and packaging and the local brands sit next to them on retail shelves and have to compete the way all the products on a walmart shelf have to compete with each other.
    7. in hte us, till now, you will not see our indian packaging having to compete with the international brands on the same shelf, because they exist only in indian specific stores. so you see them with each other, not with every other package on earth. you will see nirma with surf, not nirma having to sit next to tide, as it does in the indian metro store.
    8. in that context, I would say that the development of packaging in india is commensurate with the conditions changing in their market and their competition, rather than in isolation apart from the american brands as they are presented to the shopper here.
    9. Could that then give rise to the perception problem you are questioning?
    ps. in the specific kannan devan case, George, (a classmate from NID) had gone into rural areas, where the majority is illiterate, and conducted interviews – user research – they made the changes based on the feedback they received from customers – customers who were being educated by newer brands, newer packaging, etc as the market got more competitive and noisier in India. Something which we may not necessarily perceive in our context.
    so, kanan devan’s me too look is in your educated context of what you’ve seen both in patelco and in walmart, whereas, in the context of the indian market, kanan devan is not a me too.
    Just throwing out one possible answer, design though is always heavily perceived in the cultural context, no?
    [and then I added]
    rereading, I think I may have misunderstood your question. In which case, here’s another thought 🙂
    I agree with what you’re saying below – but, would that not apply to situations where the ‘indianness’ is important vs. for commodities like tea?
    secondly, is it a cycle of development that a market will undergo as it matures? i.e. in it’s choice of design and colour elements in packaging?

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