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Putting the "Desi" in Design
Why the Indian design community is uniquely equipped for emerging markets

By Niti Bhan



From Fiji to Canada, Australia to South Africa, "Desi" is the continent spanning self referential term used by the South Asian diaspora to refer to themselves, their culture, food, music, movies and books. It means "of the homeland," derived from the Sanskrit word 'desh' meaning 'motherland'.


Now that media hype on China's manufacturing boom has quieted (well, maybe just a tad), it seems to be India's turn. The focus, predictably, is on outsourcing 'knowledge work,' and recently on innovation-and-design, but we need to be careful not to view India as just another cheap alternative for yet another field of specialization.

The biggest mistake here would be to assume that in the same manner of "sending products to be made in China saves you money," sending product design work to India also saves you money. Or the idea that the Indian design industry will provide the same solutions to the same problems—only cheaper than in the West. These are misguided ideas, due to both the nature of the work involved, and the nature of the worker. And the assumption that the Indian designer is equivalent to the US designer (again, only less expensive), misses important distinctions. It's not that one is better than the other, either, but that they are two very different practitioners, each with unique abilities and perspectives.

As mature markets become saturated in the first world, Indian designers have the background, knowledge and experience to develop products and services tailored to emerging economies and as yet undiscovered or underserved markets around the globe.

Professionally, Indian designers have worked for years within the constraints of local market conditions—such as scarce resources, locally available materials and variability of infrastructure—designing and developing products that work best for the environment in which they must reside, the cultural milieu in which they will be used and to suit the complexity and diversity of India. They have received global recognition for their award winning designs, both for the domestic and now the global market. What are the unique skills that they have developed?

Well, designing for diverse and disparate market conditions.

Below, we will look at some of the strengths of the Indian design community, and uncover the reasons why we must look upon them as value providers well versed in the complexities of emerging global markets.


Urban vs. rural sympathies
The divide between the urban and rural consumer crosses both time and space. You can have the mobile-toting, iPod-wearing, young urban technology specialist in a pub in Bangalore knocking back the beer on one hand, and on the other you may have the farmer's wife in a small village, perhaps just an hour outside the city (if not closer), still drawing water by hand from the local well and carrying it back balanced on her head.

Even within the urban context, there is the taxi driver with the latest Nokia model—yet illiterate in English—asking his passenger for help in setting up the interface; or the 'celebrity fortune teller' who reads the cards for Congress party politicians and maintains a website for her global roster of clients. Products designed for rural use can range from Colgate's "dant manjan" (or tooth powder)—preferred over toothpaste by the majority of their lucrative rural markets—to rechargeable solar lanterns and street lighting for remote villages still not connected to the national grids.

Imagine designing road signs on a highway crossing four state lines—a simple task in a monolingual country, or a local task in the EU for each nation. But in India, crossing four states means four different scripts in four different languages...plus English for the rest of us.


The old and the new package of "Kanan Devan"

George Matthews, Brand Strategy and Packaging practice leader at Icarus Design, Bangalore, tells a story of a client, Kannan Devan tea, a strong regional brand in Kerala, South India. They went into markets served by Kanan Devan and conducted primary research locally. Here they found that while consumers liked Kanan Devan's taste, the existing package did not convey the fact that it was a 'strong' tea; the visuals and colors used implied a weak, watery tea. Secondly, there was a lot of confusion regarding what "Kanan Devan" stood for—as the word "Kanan" can mean Krishna, and "Devan" can be God—so there was a need to emphatically communicate that Kanan Devan was a mountain range, home to some of the largest tea gardens in the world...a very relevant story for the brand. The new package integrated the mountain range into its visual identity and the main image was changed to communicate the fact that the tea in fact delivered a "strong" cup. This made a significant impact on sales for the brand, because this market segment made their purchasing decisions based primarily on the packaging.


Multilingual and multicultural immersion
Imagine designing road signs on a highway crossing four state lines—a simple task in a monolingual country, or a local task in the EU for each nation. But in India, crossing four states means four different scripts in four different languages...plus English for the rest of us.

Branding, packaging of consumer goods, the design of point of sale materials, and national advertising outside of the English language press means much more than just localization of a global monolith through translation. Whether it's a product or a package, a brand or a service, Indian designers, almost without realizing it, take the cultural context in which they will be used—or their home markets—into account. Language, cuisine, clothing styles and culture is very different even between the 5 major metros of New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. (That's Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi, Kannada and Tamil; or English, as the case may be.) Binoy-Milton D'Souza, a technical communicator at Wipro's Pune office, says "We're all at least bilingual: our mother tongues and English. Most of us working in urban centers are usually trilingual as well. I believe that this facilitates development of the right brain, implying an inherent latent creativity, an ability to shift between languages and thus cultures. Wipro serves customers around the world, and we're learning about our global users and their needs. We've just entered the Japanese market, and train more than 200 engineers in Japanese every three months out of our Chennai office."

This same cultural diversity applies to product design and development. For example, South Indian cuisine requires quantities of batter ground from soaked lentils and rice for a variety of regional dishes (unlike North Indian cuisine, which is oriented towards wheat-based breads and naans). Therefore, an electric home wet grinder, a product designed just for this purpose, is extremely popular in South Indian kitchens where fresh batter is made for the morning meal.


The "Wet Grinder" and "Idli"

Infrastructural and environmental awareness
Variance in infrastructure—such as intermittent power and water supply, road conditions, traffic conditions, availability of materials and fuel—are all design constraints in the Indian context. For example, most washing machines in India are now designed to cope with periodic power outages; instead of the machine restarting at the beginning of the wash cycle after a brown-out, for example, it waits at the point at which it was at when the electricity went out, then resumes its cycle from that point when the power comes back on. Similarly, water, telephones and other basic infrastructural amenities taken for granted when designing home appliances and consumer products are not available with the reliability or quality that they are in other markets. Products must take all of these factors into account.

You can have the mobile-toting, iPod-wearing, young urban technology specialist in a pub in Bangalore knocking back the beer on one hand, and on the other you may have the farmer's wife in a small village, perhaps just an hour outside the city, still drawing water by hand from the local well and carrying it back balanced on her head.

Indeed, the perceived, or real value of a product starts with the condition in which it survives the rigors of transportation between the factory and the showroom. Indian designers have experience in designing eco-friendly, recyclable, reusable products manufactured with sustainable technology using the minimum of scarce resources. They have developed and designed world-class fuel efficient vehicles, capital equipment such as precision engineered medical devices and heavy machinery, as well as agricultural tools and a wide variety of water purifiers—from ultraviolet water purification units common in urban kitchens to simpler filtration units that can quickly and cheaply provide potable water anywhere in the country. (This last category is a very popular student project in India, where potable water is such a primary need.)

The award winning Solemates - biodegradable, eco friendly, cost effective & disposable footwear.

Social responsibility
Numerous Indian professionals develop products and services that serve the under-represented as part of their daily work, working with craftsmen in rural regions or finding new ways to use local materials such as bamboo, textiles, wood and leather. Graphic designers find ways to communicate with the illiterate the basics of hygiene, healthcare and birth control. In any portfolio—along with consumer products, big national brands and messaging—you will find examples of this kind of work; it comes with the territory. And the teaching in the schools here has instilled in a whole generation the notion that design has the power to change the quality of life for others. MP Ranjan, who teaches product design and strategy at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, heads the NID Centre for Bamboo Initiative and trains local craftsmen in Agartala, Tripura—one of India's remote north eastern states—to become 'design entrepreneurs' using their local materials and techniques to design and develop products for the contemporary urban markets and export.


Cohands-NID stall at the Gift Fair 2002

Ray + Keshavan Design, award winning branding and interaction design firm based in Bangalore, recently re-imagined the environmental graphics for their client, Mindtree Consulting's offices, by using artwork created by mentally challenged children to better reflect the company's deep commitment to this cause and visually articulate their corporate mantra "Imagination, Action and Joy."


Wrapping up
These are four of the unique qualities that characterize the Indian design community. It takes creativity and ingenuity to find solutions that bridge urban and rural contexts, under adverse conditions or within infrastructural constraints. It takes innovative thinking to find quality solutions when the latest materials are expensive or imported, fuel and power scarce and local conditions so variable. As mature markets become saturated in the first world, Indian designers have the background, knowledge and experience to develop products and services tailored to emerging economies and as yet undiscovered or underserved markets around the globe. Global brands looking to serve "the other 4 billion" might want to start their search for answers here, and if choosing to enter a new, unknown market, seek the research capabilities and expertise required to develop insights that lead to true innovation.



Niti Bhan is a global nomad who apparently calls India, Singapore and the United States, home. Based in San Francisco, she creates and implements strategies for entering new markets, identifying revenue generation and growth opportunities for her growing roster of clients. She is a columnist for BusinessWeek's Innovation and Design section and a regular contributor on business and design for Core77.com.