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Sunday, March 02, 2003

Indian Design on the Up and Up

Ajit Balakrishnan, chairman of the Indian internet outfit Rediff.com, has some interesting things to say about Indian Design. I think people in Europe really are missing how rapidly the Indian scene is changing. After all, all those call centres are bound to lead somewhere, in part because more people in Indian already speak fluent English than in the whole ex-UK EU, and the more they use it the better they'll get. This obviously goes for a lot of other things too.

I quote next from a report Design for Development written by Ashok Chatterjee the former head of NID “…the consumer market established the importance and ability of the design profession…[but] …not a few design institutions are troubled by the take-over by market forces of a professional once linked to concepts of ‘dignity, service and love.’” Here it is again, the brahmanical distaste for the market, the condescending concession to the consumer market as a distasteful barrier one must leap so that the designer could then go back to his true calling- ‘designing for development’. Here is my submission - by designing products of mass consumption , that save users time and money and effort and drudgery, you will do more for the cause of India’s development than any so called design for development . Let me take you back to the origins of design to see what its true mission is.

The place is England and the time is the late 1700’s. England is agog with recent inventions like the steam engine and the spinning jenny. It is a time of Empire – the sun, at that time, truly never set on the British Empire. At that time a young man saw that the rising new middle class in England were taking to drinking tea recently made available at very cheap prices from India. He saw that money could be made by making tea sets that had the look and finish of expensive Chinese items. His first great success was the perfection of cream-colored crockery which had been produced in Staffordshire from the early 18th century onwards. The chemical composition was actually that of stoneware clay, but it was fired to an earthenware temperature and lead-glazed, giving it it's characteristic creamy yellow color. He was able to eliminate the problem of crazing (he appearance of small cracks in the glaze) which had been a great problem in English pottery up to that time.- this simple 'cream-colored' ware became wildly popular, especially it was conferred royal patronage by Queen Charlotte of England, in merit of this ware, which was from then on called 'Queen's Ware'. This 'Queen's Ware' became so popular and well-known that in 1767 he wrote: "The demand for this cream color, alias Queen's Ware, alias Ivory still increases. It is really amazing how rapidly the use of it has spread almost over the whole globe and how universally it is liked." This was Josiah Wedgwood. Wedgwood was perhaps the first designer in the currently accepted sense of the term. And you can see his mission was to provide the middle classes of Industrial Revolution England ceramic cups and plates to replace the pewter and wood of that time.

I recently polled a few design professionals and academicians about the three India-designed products that they greatly respected. Here is the list in no particular order:
The Titan Watch including its presentation in showrooms and advertisements. The TVS Victor bike And, the Electronic Voting Machine from Bharat Electronics.
The Titan watch case has been inspirational because it taught all of us that design is a great driver in differentiating brands where the underlying technology has got commoditized. HMT, the pioneer paid a heavy price for persisting with the notion that consumers bought watches just to tell time. The TVS people are harbingers of the time when foreign collaborations will be seen to be just short-term engagements to learn things; and that in a joint venture with a foreign company you can let your partner nominate the Finance Director and control the money or the Marketing Director to drive marketing, but you must always control technology. The Electronic Voting Machine has shown us how rugged, well-thought electronic design can reduce the cost of elections, declare results instantly and make irrelevant those staples of Indian elections- rigging and booth capturing. Your list of the best three may be different- but I am happy if the list is made up of useful products that make life a little easier to live and which have been sold in large quantities to middle-class India.

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