Why India is trailing in design

Why India is trailing in design

Let’s take a little trip down memory lane. What was the first thought that crossed your mind when you beheld an iPhone for the very first time? Most people were enchanted by its form and function. Today, there are ample smartphones in the market to give iPhones a run for their money. Yet, there is one aspect that works beautifully in favor of Apple, differentiating it from the hordes – design.

Clean, appealing, functional design is today high on the list of priorities for any product company that wishes to stand out of the crowd and deliver with an edge. No wonder then that organizations across the world are investing time, effort and money towards ensuring great design. However, one unexpected country still lags behind in the global effort towards better design. India has always had a different approach to design. The bold, rich, Indian approach to design, which once stood to differentiate it from others, is now getting in the way of the possibility of the nation becoming a serious global contender.

What, you may wonder, has contributed to this situation? Here are a few possible explanations.

Cultural context:
On the whole, one of the end goals of design is that it has to serve a purpose. Whether that purpose is met or not is something that the users have to answer. Given that, audiences in different parts of the world have different expectations from design.

In India, audiences specifically seem to seek the “cluttered” feel. Minimalism in design as is preferred in many other countries simply doesn’t seem adequate for Indian audiences. At Yatra, a few casual user tests revealed that the perception of minimalistic design was that of being boring or uninteresting. The busier the design, the more successful the website and the company was perceived to be.

Schooling matters:
There is also the fact that good designers are hard to come by in India. Competent and capable designers are a disturbingly small percentage of the country’s workforce. One key contributing factor to this situation is that there aren’t enough options in education for those inclined towards a career in design. The premier institution for design education in the country is the National Institute of Design. The number of students who passed out from the institute in 2012 was a dishearteningly low 240. While many might argue that this is because the institution has a challenging entrance process to begin with, the truth is that a couple of hundred good designers every year are just not enough, when you are preparing to serve a billion smartphone users in the emerging markets (whose contexts we empathize more with, than the western designers). What’s worse, although engineering courses are aplenty in the nation, most of them don’t include design in the curriculum.

Compared to that, take a look at some of the top design schools around the world that combine design with engineering know-how as well as an in-depth understanding of audiences:

USA – Rhode Island School of Design, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, Carnegie Mellon University School of Design, D School Institute of Design at Stanford University,

Scandinavian and Nordic countries – Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, Umea Institute of Design (Sweden), Oslo School of Architecture and Design (Norway), University of Art and Design Helsinki

Asia – Chiba University (Japan), Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Risk averse outlook:
In India, companies and audiences really don’t see the need to adapt to the global design preferences. According to Vijay Bapat, professor at the Industrial Design Centre, IIT Bombay, “The Indian industry is still not ready for real risk. Companies would rather go one step forward than race 10 steps ahead in design. Most of them don’t cater to the global market where competition forces design innovation. Domestic demand is huge, yet at the current scale of operations, there is little incentive to think radical.” This situation leads to Indian companies constantly finding themselves in a state of playing catch-up with the world’s design pace. Innovation then gets pushed to the back burner while the companies imitate or replicate other designs that have proven to be successful.

Lack of collaboration:
What India has failed to emulate with respect to design is the collaborative aspect which fosters innovations. There aren’t enough partnerships between organizations as well as with academia. Where interaction is stifled, possibilities are scarce and innovation is virtually stillborn.

Lack of appreciation of designers’ skills:

Given the perception of Indian design being unsuitable for the western palette & a near-hostile domestic market which does not think much about design (much less, pay for it), India designers are up against significant perception & economics related constraints, to make their mark felt. That, design is a touchy, feely process also makes most discerning customers look for local designers than work with overseas teams.

This dreary design deprivation will hopefully not last for very long. We already see a trickle of design movement in India (aided amply by local startup successes and significant price parity between western and Indian designers). Grassroot movements for design have become regular, organized and are gathering momentum.

Let’s hold it out for a few more years for ‘India Design’ to come off age.

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