An event initiated by Onio last year, took the first step towards blossoming into a great design extravganza this year. Nov. 19th to 23rd 2007, several design dignitaries descended in Pune and felt the throbbing innovation culture with design fraternity. Onio Design had taken up the entire communication design and branding work for this festival this year, including logo design (Conceptualised by Prakash Khanzode), print material and outdoor publicity banners.
Manoj Kothari moderated the conference session on Trends and Design Research.
From founder of Frog Design Helmut Hesslinger to current CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown, futurist thinkers like Paul Saffo and Bruce Sterling, upcoming American designer Yves Behar and other usual suspects like Philips’s CEO and chief designer Stefano Marzano etc. all spoke at length on design and future of design. One could see a sizable Indian gathering with Dr. Koshy, Pradyumna Vyas, Uday Dandavate from Sonic Rim, Mookesh Patel, Surya Vanka, Poonam and Geetha from Srishti, Unmesh Kulkarni from Philips, myself and several Indian students who are studying in USA. Dr. Koshy, myself and Unmesh were amongst the speakers (who were in the list of whopping 142 sessions which split the audience in 8 parallel sessions).
My expectations were grand. I expected grand new dimensions of design, new articulations of the philosophy and new dimensions of practice across the world would be discussed. I was largely disappointed. Though it was enthralling to listen to some of the speakers like Sir Ken Robinson, on creativity. He spoke with any Power Point for 45 minutes and people gave a standing ovation in the end. It was refreshing to hear new point of view of Bio-mimicry (learn from the nature) to bring new concepts i.e. CO2 is not poison. It is poison if we do not learn from mollusks who convert CO2 dissolved in water into Calcium Carbonate shells. etc.
IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown presented the case of ‘DESIGN THINKING’ (they are done with product design…they have done thousands of them). Case of Aravind Eye hospital (I think Mysore), where they could reduce the cost of lens from 400$ to 4$ and able to conduct close to a 100,000 operations a year, was used to illustrate the design thinking. Several speakers made it a point to use work done for Indian (emerging) markets as a feather in the design cap. India was the hot favorite though the point of view appeared quite naïve to native Indians sitting there (us). Also, one expects that the design mature economies where three generations have worked on design (as an example Walter C. Teague’s grand son was felicitated there), are still groping for new directions and new articulation of what design and designers should be doing. If INTEGRATED and FUTURISTIC thinking is called ‘DESIGN THINKING’ then it is being practiced by all visionaries for time-immemorial. Design, to the common mind, still evoked images of ‘Beautiful Product’ and not of ‘Beautiful Solution’, as we expect it to be. Probably time has come to re-brand DESIGN. Its classical definition of ‘Creative Problem Solving’ or new definitions of ‘Exploiting Hidden Opportunities’ both have not touched the masses and already become clichéd.
Another prominent theme of discussion was ‘INTERACTIONS’ apart from design for the third world. However, the speakers and case-study presentation sounded stale to me. They do not bring news anymore. I think Indian design community is moving faster than the world and it is about time that more case-studies from India start going out. The socio-cultural complexity that the emerging markets of China, India, Brazil and Russia (along with Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia) present can not be grasped fully by the approaches familiar to us now. My presentation was on ‘Intentiability, that speaks of new design research methodology for such market. However, no other such discussion happened.
Although it was primarily a designers gathering as usual ( I did not come across many CEOs being quoted or being greeted), who do not like ‘portfolio presentations’ from fellow designers, but I think that is a very powerful way to propagate the cause of design. What is stale to designers may still be a fresh insight for rest of the world. I think CII-NID Design conference as well as Pune Design Festival should strongly focus on PORTFOLIO PRESENTATIONS from fellow designers. Ultimately the design community gains when media has more masala to quote from the individual design projects. Richard Seymour did present their work for Virgin Galactic (was far from inspiring). Yves Behars’ 100$ laptop was interesting, without being exciting. Philips’s case of revival through design was very professional and did account for overall business overview apart from usual ‘form’ and ‘function’ discussion.
There was a mention of ICSID and ICOGRADA not coming together for even grand occasions like this one. For a change I was happy to see an Indian name doing rounds in ICSID board (Dr. Koshy). Kudos to Dr. Koshy, he has a great political voice in the international design circles that is badly needed in India, as much as the good body of work from the design community.
There was a small informal meeting of all the Indian participants to discuss the agenda and structure of CII-NID Design Summit, coming up in Dec. Idea was to choose the good speakers from this conference to be invited there. While we need some international sparkle to woo the media, I think the time has come when REAL STORIES from the ground (SMALL and UPCOMING, design lead organizations) should get the limelight on the podium through design community. Trying to call all the usual suspects, who are jet-setting between conferences, presenting the same of old stuff in different settings, is a no brainer for anyone anymore. There are hundreds of new start-ups in India, lead by innovation savvy entrepreneurs who understand the new Indian reality of retail boom, educated consumer, socio-cultural nuances, anti-colonial mindset and Indian’s new mission to go global. Design community will win if they are made the AMBASSADORS of design. Not to forget that PORTFOLIO PRESENTATION should be made an essential part of such conferences (at least in India). I think a good strategy is to divide the speaker list this way- 20% foreign, glossy speakers, 30% Indian design community presentations, 30% Design led new age companies from India, 20% Education and Policy presentation.
Overall, this experience did tell me that excitement is shifting to India and China for reasons beyond market reality. However, we, the design community, needs more mature articulation of ourselves in all the forums that speak DESIGN even remotely.
Manoj Kothari- Onio Design- Oct 07
Onio organised the Trends Workshop for Renault Design Team in June 2007. A 15 people cross-functional team drawn from various design offices of Renault, attended the workshop, lead by Manoj Kothari, the Principal Strategist for Onio.
The author, a strategist at Onio Design in Pune, says a big boom in innovation and design is coming
India has a small, busy community of professional industrial designers (around 3,000 in total). And for them, things have never been so good. While we hear from the European design professionals and interns at my design firm, Onio, how hard it is to find a decent design job elsewhere, many young designers in India find companies lining up with lucrative offers even before they graduate.
The software industry needs designers to beef up its graphical user interfaces; brick-and-mortar businesses need more traditional corporate design; and product-led companies have started turning to serious innovation and design. But while the overall mood is upbeat, the country's businesses are nonetheless sharply divided when it comes to their ability to absorb or apply real innovation. Here's a brief, personal take on the different attitudes being shown toward design in India today.
Let's begin with startups. There are two types of startups in India—and you see them in all industries. The first is spawned by the second or third generation of a well-to-do business family. These chief executives are aggressive and more attuned to a Western model of experimenting with new ideas than their elders, and they have generally experienced the power of good design.
But these guys suffer when it comes to major decisions that involve large changes or expenditure. Their boards are invariably still made up of older, more traditionally minded family members who make pushing forward a design-driven agenda less than smooth sailing.
Software for the Indian Market
The other kind of startup is usually the child of a team of technocrats who left flourishing careers to give shape to an idea—in other words, the more traditional, Silicon Valley style of company. Increasingly, entrepreneurs who were embedded in engineering want to convert that knowledge to capitalize on India's booming gadget market. These startups are more open to innovation, ideas, and expenditure than are those in the first category.
Transtrite, for instance, makes GPS-based vehicle tracking products, which are gaining popularity because of newly constructed expressways across the country. I should note here that despite the media frenzy about the Indian software industry, software products designed specifically for the Indian market are still a rarity. So this is a fledgling group, but one set to have increasing impact in the coming years.
Next are the traditionally successful companies that used to rule the Indian market with their once-great products that may now be badly dated. These are feeling the heat of competition from local companies as well as from better-designed foreign products, and are far from visionary.
Owners cling to an attitude of "We know what works for us. We know the market. Give us a design to match that foreign brand, and we'll take care of the rest, we've done it before."
Big Businesses, Old School
Part of this attitude comes from the monopoly they enjoyed in the past, and part of it comes from ignorance of the reality of innovation today. Sporadic or incremental innovation does not accomplish anything, and these companies are heading for a disaster unless they do something radical—and soon.
Then there are the established Indian business houses. These are usually a part of bigger conglomerates with multiple business lines—making and selling diverse products such as soap and software and employing designers across all their companies.
In general, all have done well in understanding the language and worth of design. I'm talking here about companies such as BlowPlast in office furniture systems, Titan in watches, Onida in consumer appliances, or VIP in luggage.
But today, some in this category are suffering from a problem of having enough insight (the starting point of design) to decide the course of innovation, but not enough to implement it within the new market realities, which are changing at a faster pace than ever before
Another Round of Mediocrity
In one meeting with a TV giant that had better remain nameless, I asked them why, when they've ruled the Indian market for so many years, they had not managed to become the Sony of India? Total silence. Even though they have a full design studio (doing reasonably good work), their products don't differ much from other international players who are putting all their financial and design might into eating the Indian pie.
Once these companies understand that they have to innovate, they don't seem ready to take the riskier step of continuing to do so. It will take another round of mediocrity and failure before they understand that engaging with higher paradigms of design is not optional. These companies have the potential to become shining icons of Indian design, but they need a visionary leader to take them there.
The fifth category is the most recent—multinationals wanting to localize innovation for the Indian market. This one comes courtesy of the booming Indian economy and signals foreign awareness of the end of the Indian consumer's love affair with foreign products.
Once upon a time, everything with an overseas label sold well. For years, foreign companies operating in India considered Indian consumers "Third World" residents who would be happy with any foreign label, and who didn't have an idea of ergonomics, style, or evolved taste.
Getting to Know You
Products that had proved unfashionable elsewhere were introduced in India, but then the Indian consumer began to catch on. Traditional segmentation and economic capacity-based studies don't wash any more. Gone are the days when Indian consumers would buy whatever was presented to them.
With many choices and plenty of information on what is available—and what constitutes world-class quality—consumers know what they are looking for. So now companies planning for a longish stay in India are seeking more local insights into the minds of their users.
One of the companies we are working with is Volkswagen, which is using a mix of market statistics, ethnographic research, and trend research to understand the dynamics of the Indian mind. They still have design studios far away from Indian soil, but there is a sign of increasing Indian involvement in their innovation process—at last.
The last category is the large public sector companies, hitherto untouched by "design." They are the legacy of pre-liberalized India and still enjoy huge support from the government in terms of money and policies.
Design here is a not a mandate. Usually it is forced by competition—one of the senior managers decides to try it out. The problem they face is that it can take a long time before the power of design is truly understood by all tiers of a hierarchy. So they continue to struggle with good design, bad design, and no design all lumped together. But these companies are becoming bigger beacons of design. They are ready to experiment.
So where does it go from here? Well, the Indian economy is booming. Consumers are showing signs of becoming discerning mature buyers and users. Companies are ready to spend money and take risks. The government even declared a National Design Policy (though the effect on the ground will take a long time to become visible) (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/14/07, "India's Designs on Innovation").
New design schools are opening every year (there are more than a dozen now). Design companies are getting their acts together to attract investors and grow (WPP invested in Bangalore-based Ray+Keshvan, Tessaract became Idiom with the help of Future Group, Onio got angel investment.)
Internationally acclaimed design houses like IDEO are on the prowl for their piece of India. Even the Italian government has seen the opportunity and is promoting the Italian design industry heavily on Indian soil. All of this points to an exciting road ahead for design in India.
There are hurdles for sure: the lack of a trained intermediate layer (design engineers and design managers) or a governing body for design practice, the lack of skilled supporting resources such as model-makers and prototyping companies, and above all, the lack of trained designers in the country may slow the big boom of innovation that can transform India. But it's coming.
Manoj Kothari is founder, director, and senior design strategist of Pune-based industrial design and branding firm Onio Design.
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