DESIGN IS ALL

By: SUDHIR SHARMA             Dated: February 01, 2014

Social change, economic parity, national pride... you could serve all with design. And that becomes the purpose of design, says Sudhir Sharma Sudhir Sharma is the Founder & Creative Chairman of INDI Design. A widely-travelled strategist, photographer, speaker, and publisher, Sudhir uses his counter-intuitive expertise in design and experience in business processes to shape the future of industry. He seeks to create what he calls “instinctual business processes based on user perceptions and behaviours”. Sudhir has over two decades of experience and sits on the boards and councils of various design, innovation, and management institutions. (www. indidesign.in)

How is ‘design’ faring today? What is the aesthetic universe of design? More importantly, what is the purpose of design? And fundamentally, do we need a design culture at all? In an extended interview with Creative Brands, Sudhir Sharma says “design is becoming what an MBA was sometime back – a hot new way to make money by opening a design school”. He says there “aren’t any teachers” while “most students in fashion and graphic design learn how to copy styles, and make things look ‘cool’,”.

DESIGN AND PHILOSOPHY

Creative Brands: As a passionate proponent of ‘design’ what, according to you, is its purpose in our everyday life?

Sudhir Sharma: That’s a very religious question... However passionate I may be about design, it is not the purpose of my life. It definitely is a means to a higher purpose but not the purpose in itself. The objective/s of life has/have been changing, and believe me, in retrospect, it is never as deep as we make it out to be. I didn’t know the word ‘design’ when I was in school... The purpose at that time was to somehow get out of school and not land in a frying pan. Design sounded like fun. After college, my purpose in life was to earn enough to make a decent living. It was much later that I understood the power design was and how it could change lives and how it could affect economies! Once that realisation dawned on me, I started looking at what we as a country lacked, how we could organise ourselves better, and how we could open our eyes to the two. Social change, economic parity, national pride... you could serve all with design. And that becomes the purpose of design. This purpose could be different in another country... for us, in India the purpose of design is the above.

CB: You have grown diversely – as a designer, mentor, publisher, and an entrepreneur. What disparate elements do you bring to bear on your core philosophy of design?  

SS: I have always said that these are not really separate roles. Being a designer is a leadership role anyway... You need to figure out how you would like to do things and how you would like to move forward. As I have never worked for anyone, from day one I was attuned to figuring out my way forward. When I get thinking about issues or problems, I think ‘ahead’... I do not think ‘now’ or think ‘back’... I realised I could help many young designers sort out issues before they became issues. I knew the traps. Of course, I also knew what could become a trap later on. This also helped me with my clients. I always sought to integrate up and down the solution chain. Clients love that. Imagine not having a part of the big solution... but the big solution itself! That helped me turn publisher. As designers we know about production and design anyway, we also know what will work... We just need to work on the business model side. But designers are useless when working on business models, they just aren’t interested. The situation is now changing. For me it is not design if it is not workable for whatever reason.

DESIGN AND CULTURE

CB: We want to be global (“Auto rickshaws based on Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe”), but, without altering or adjusting our methods (“We are a culture of shortcuts...”). How does this ‘mindset’ manipulate design execution (and expectations)? When according to you can design lead to the opening of the “occupied” mindset that you talk about?

SS: That’s the sad way things are moving. There are so many design schools coming up now, most have nice fancy buildings, the owners of these institutions unfortunately look at the number of kids who don’t get admission in NID as their catchment, all they need is numbers and more money! Design is becoming what an MBA was sometime back – a hot new way to make money by opening a design school. There aren’t any teachers. Most students in fashion and graphic design learn how to copy styles, and make things look “cool”, that’s what I meant by kitsch as graphics that sells as Indian aesthetic! I don’t blame students for this... not even the professionals who are recycling popular culture. I think what we need is a policy jump. We need to figure out what design education should mean for India and how is that to be fulfilled. We as Indians are very sincere individually... but we do have problems working with each other. I haven’t sat on one council, committee or board (and I have been on all there is) that has been able to go beyond this factor. There isn’t any team work, we have no collective vision at that level... it is all window dressing. How do we come out looking good? Most are worried about their personal reputations. I get amazed when I see the results or actions of policies in the UK, or the Netherlands, or even Thailand.

CBDo we have a design culture? No odious comparisons here – and we are aware we are treading political and cultural territory here – do you think the West has a highly evolved sense of design? For example, some of the notable urban legacies the colonial British left behind – a classic one being Lutyen’s Delhi or the central business district of Connaught Place. Why is that, for example, that the great urban sprawls we have designed or not designed, such as Gurgaon and Noida in the National Capital Territory, hardly have a design soul?

SS: Right. We start design on the wrong end. Urban development in India is not lead by policy, or government, it is lead by developers and builders, and is difficult to assume where their interest lies. We always follow up development with policy, so policy is made o suit whatever has happened. It never leads what should happen. Why look at Europe... look what’s happening in East, I have seen cities planned and infrastructure executed way before the place is thrown open to developers. My own apartment where I stay in Pune is still under some kind of dispute. How does that happen? We clearly need a culture of planning ahead and then following it up with living in the plan. Both these mindsets need political will and social backing. And this is where corruption plays its role. As individuals we want to fight this culture of bad planning, or no planning... and together we don’t see eye to eye with anyone else.

DESIGN AND EDUCATION

CB: What educational challenges, especially in developing countries, do you see surrounding the teaching of design? Shouldn’t we be helping to develop a design sensibility early on?

SS: Absolutely, college level is too late for design to become an agent of social change. At that level you can only produce a few designers who would work in factories to make more of what is being rejected already. We need education in creative thinking early on. Kindergartens do a beautiful job in some places, very few schools follow that up, but it is not a system yet. All education in school needs to be on making the future happen... in imparting confidence that they can think and bring about changes. I am not sure if we have any purpose or mission in our school education... The government needs to take steps and initiate some thinking on this issue of how we can include design thinking early on. 

CB: Design as an educational option at the tertiary level is quite expensive, and therefore limited to a certain strata. Technology has widened this gap. Can we see commercial arts and design becoming more inclusive or inclusionary as a subject?

In addition to expensive, design is also exclusively in English. We haven’t developed vernacular languages for design. This winds up in a big divide – between the urban and rural economies. That means rural businessmen or smaller industries do not interact with designers at all. This sector naturally develops a funny impression about design and its purpose. For them design is frivolous and just glamour, something they see as unnecessary expense. Now a major part of our economy is excluded from the benefits that design can offer. Look at the picture: only students from urban areas take up design as a career, with their sights set on a lucrative career in a larger industry, or perhaps working comfortably out of their homes.

There is a divide between commercial art and design too. The vernacular client set is invariably looked after by the commercial art sector while ‘design’ becomes increasingly elitist. But with the number of design schools opening up and more graduates coming out, you also see more and more of them being jobless. So you see the irony! India needs more designers, but we need them for our small-scale industries, we don’t have enough designers in the market... The ones that are graduating are unemployed because they just don’t have the sensitivities or sensibilities needed for this sector. 

The situation can be easily addressed by institutes if they were to alter their focus. However, I feel on a larger scale design in India needs a unified approach, something like an “India Report” that can give a vision to the sector. Seeing how connected the world is today, it might as well be India’s vision for design globally, but it has to be something that is rooted in Indian realities. In my view, the Indian Design Council should have taken this macro approach towards providing direction. I am pretty clueless whose job is it.

DESIGN AND CONSUMERS

CB: ”The consumer is always looking for something new,” you mention in a conference on packaging. How does one come to know about this “new”?

SS: The consumer today is always consuming media, from the traditional media of newspapers, radio, TV, hoardings, books, and magazines, they are now always online with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. They have probably seen and heard of whatever there is to be seen or heard... they are not passive consumers any more... they ask for and look for what they want. There is this sense of freedom from geography for buying anything. You know who has what, and where, and for how much. Imagine the role packaging has to play in this environment. Many times television and media exposure makes packaging stale even before a consumer has ever seen a real one. Consumer is definitely not going to pick up something that he believes is not up to the mark... or if he thinks a better version exists (anywhere). That “moment of truth” when he opens the pack just doesn’t exist anymore. The times of working on a pack (by a packaging designer) is over... today you need very intimate knowledge of how design, packaging, media, and social media can work together. And you need to work on these in integrated terms... none of this can be stand in splendid isolation. The multimedia nature of such projects is interesting. If you have noticed, the word, “Campaign” is being replaced by the word “Project” in global advertising companies. Now I see design thinking going mainstream.

CB: We are consuming a packaged lifestyle from packaged food to packaged trips...  What do you feel is the role of the consumer in the decision that goes into design and packaging?

SS: Design or packaging have never worked in isolation, they are always a part of the overall experience to the consumer. The amount of emphasis depends on what role you want it to play. In a culture where value of “content” is high, the product, its design, and materials, usability, function cost etc will always play a larger role than how it is packed. In a consumerist culture, where impulse buying is becoming a phenomenon, packaging plays a major role. In my view India is still a very basic consumer market and we need to pay more attention to what we pack. Reach somewhere there and then move on to packaging. Packaged living is a very urban phenomenon and a very recent one... I don’t think that will make any lasting brand.

DESIGN AND BRANDS

CBFew brands experiment radically when it comes designing. Brand managers or decision-makers are happy to be on the safer side. Are there any gutter-landings in this tried-n-tested sensibility?

The purpose of brands is “profit” and not anything else. They need that clutter-breaking, innovative, unique idea when establishing a brand...  Once it is there, Brands become just the opposite of what they were to get there. They get holed in their own positions. They start doing good sales and then the idea is to just keep carrying out incremental changes to keep sales flowing. A very big reason for that is also because most of the brands reach there by fluke, they don’t really understand why they became successful, and hence they just don’t want to change any equation, lest they fail or fall. You can clearly see most product brands falling in this category, and you see that companies that have been launching one successful product after another have perfected the process.

Very rarely would a company research its success find out what made the product successful and how they could repeat it. Many just feel happy and become arrogant in the earnings, till something else comes and kills their brand. The time to invest in research is when a brand is doing very well. Indians need to learn how to go beyond success. We take success as a destination and stop everything there.

CBWith brands swelling the shelves of modern retail, a brand needs to cut through a lot of clutter to communicate. How does design aid and abet communication and brand impress?

This is what I mentioned earlier, shelves are not the only place you would communicate from... the message about the product would have reached the audience much before (it should have) and the role of the self pack is interesting. As a consumer I can just walk past it thinking (oh I have seen it... I don’t need it) or it can stop me and make me think... Well they didn’t tell it is like this (positive surprise) and I put it in the basket. So I feel packaging is less stressed for communication now (with so much other media being there) but highly stressed about experiencing the ‘wow’ factor. That’s a huge role for designers. Packaging designers who were just making messaging with colours and elements and photography are out. You need brand thought and more strategic integrated inputs on packaging now.

DESIGN AND MEDIA

CBAs every media has its own set of aesthetics and techniques, then, how does a designer transition from one media to another? How does a POOL magazine online differ from the POOL magazine in print? Do they have different functions?

SS: I wish I could say that they are different. They are not. As a product they are same, in fact, we changed the size of print POOL a few years ago so as to have the same product online and in print. They do have different functions, in the sense the audience for POOL print and POOL online is very very different and it does need different aesthetics and technology use. But for me they would become different products. I wanted our brand to be established first... we are getting there. Hopefully, we shall be able to work on making the online experience different now.

CB:  You recently blogged about the idea of creating a film around design in India. How do you see this idea shaping up? What would be the narrative structure of the movie?

SS: The idea has been in the head for some time now... I hope I get the right support and partners to move it out in some format. That blog came about after I watched “Design Thinking Movie” and “Bhaag Milka Bhaag”.  What excites me about the format of the film is that how with a strong narrative, it can change you within a few hours. And it does that to millions at the same time. It is such a strong tool to create change and in such a short time. Particularly true in India. We can write, lecture, debate, organise conferences and do whatever else for design for the rest of our lives... the impact is marginal. Whereas a mainstream movie on design, well thought, crafted and made would make millions of small industry and business people understand the value of design and scramble to find it and use it. I really believe we could do that. I don’t need to write about power of movies... we know it is awesome.

But we also know that it shouldn’t be a government project (ha ha ha), it should be another documentary about what good design is, it has to be an experience that works on many levels and relates to your personal success, and it should not compromise on being an entertainer. If there is someone to put Rs. 10 crores in it, I am ready to give up POOL and Indie for a year and have this done. I might just do it anyway like I did with POOL (it was a project that I suggested to a government body to make Indian design icons).

CB

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