Monday, March 29, 2010

Design think on South East Asia -1

How to get a native Indonesian design who could work with us on the design research project was the task ahead of me. I tried my Google skills sitting in Pune but did not succeed. Hardly any results with ‘Industrial Design’ or ‘Design college’. All I ended up was ‘Jakarta Design Center’ but it proved out to be more of a mall-architectural display. I did post a note on a Indian online design network and lo behold! In three days I started getting several replies/portfolios. However, to my surprise these portfolios were of the Indonesians, currently living or studying in Netherlands. Later I found out that several Indonesians like studying in Netherlands (probably at least some advantage of being a colony of the Netherlands). I met one of the local designers who in turn got to know about my posting through a Dutch friend of his. He mentioned candidly that is it difficult to survive in Indonesia as a product designer. One of his classmate is thinking of joining work as a cop. Companies want a lot of work and pay close to nothing. As it is Indonesia has a fertile land with 400 volcanoes on 1700 islands that make up the country. But in the name of industrial export they largely have Japanese companies that have set up factories here and exporting them from here. Furniture industry also emanates from wood being in abundance. However, the growth has been modest 6-8% in last few years compared to 11% in India. Service industry, as in software seems to be non-existent. Though tourism is one of the great revenue earner, with Bali being an international destination.

With this background, I could immediately connect to the young designer in front of me when he said that being a product designer is tough in Indonesia. There was a sense of déjà vu almost as something that we as a design company have passed through. Way back in 1997 till recently (till 2005) it was really difficult for us to maintain a design office purely through product design revenues. While I see the trend, changing and more and more Indian companies getting ready to explore design and innovation avenues along with Indian designers. Companies would pay to designers, if they see the returns. As the Indian consumer gets choosy after tasting the western goods delivered to him/her for several years now, there is a question mark now on the new direction in the market. This lead to emergence of a new practice or rather a deliverance for a company like us in terms of ‘design research’ and ‘trend research’. From Microsoft to Volkswagen, Samsung, LG and a few more, enriched us through new methods of design research and we brought them well-studied cross-domain, cross-cultural Indian insights. Our articulation of India and its culture, from an outsider’s point of view was highly appreciated in many forums. My personal interest in ‘Cultural Anthropology’ came handy in preparing proposals, evolving new ways of presenting Indian insights and bringing together diverse ways of representations into a single understandable formats. Clients loved the way we simplified India for them yet take the project to a level where market research companies can’t take- visual concepts- period.

So I actually narrated our small journey to the young design in front of me and told him that probably te Indonesian market is 5 years behind India. If he connected with us on this international project then, it won’t be very long when more companies would line-up in front of him with similar design research request. I also reminded him that the fluent English he speaks is such a relief to us and would sure be an asset in any international project he plans to take up. While I was saying this, the several visuals of Indonesian culture flashed across my mind that I saw in the National Museam. Several different ethnic tribes with distinct identity, rituals, traditions dating back to thousands of years and then several hundred years of dark colonial rule that sapped out the sense of identity from the locals. Currently, Indonesia is struggling to gain the sense of identity pretty much the same way as India is. But the current state is of ‘catch-up’ with the ‘hunger’ of several centuries. Design is a higher realm and society would take time to come to question the sense of identity in design. Suddenly it also occurred to me that how much more energy we, as a design company has to spend in getting each project and educating the clients on what we can deliver and how will he benefit. Probably, had we taken a bolder step and set-up an office in one of the developed countries, 10 years back, we would have been way more efficient for several reasons.

More to come...