Innovation & Design

Design in India: The View From Within


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.

Excitement Ahead

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.


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