Sunday, June 10, 2012


Another conference on design;  May 29-30th, London. Impressive speakers and generic topic; which allowed everyone to stretch the content to their own interpretations.  This was my first impression in this conference where I was amongst the speakers. My impression changed.

I have been to several design conferences around the globe, speaking sometimes and listening to others at times. This was rather focused on Product Design with an added dash of innovation. In the world where ‘design’ is still, by and large, considered to be equivalent to ‘art’ or ‘good looks’ and when a whole lot of new streams like ‘interface design’ and ‘gaming design’ has taken birth, it was rather a classical confluence of minds discussing ‘product design’. 

Venue : Excel Center (massive infrastructure built near the Olympic Stadium)
in  the eastern London is in the far background, along the wharf.
Abandoned structures of the port have been retained as a piece of sculpture
As a design student seventeen years ago, I had only heard of Seymore Powell as an international design company and Philips as a grand manufacturer of ‘well designed objects’. BMW, McLaren etc. were car brands that were registered and canned in my mind as ‘unapproachable’ since luxury/sports brands guard their design secrets like crazy. On the other hand British Design was limited in my awareness as ‘good’ and ‘too many design graduates’, apart from some flickers of British Airways flat bed design by Tangerine and good signage at London underground etc.  Interacting with and listening to the design champions like Dick Powell, Sean Carney (Philips), Louis Kim (HP), Clive Grinyer (Cisco, ex-Tangerine), Sunghan Kim (Samsung), Allesandro Finetto (Whirlpool) etc. was a positive reinforcement , if not a knowledge nirvana, of several practices I have developed at Onio in the last fifteen years. It was interesting to see how Samsung, as a late entrant in the race which was has been won several times by companies like Whirlpool, Philips and HP, has really caught up with the game. Samsung’s presentation showed all signs of a company maturing in its thinking toward handling a large scale and meaningful innovation. Sunghan Kim’s presentation on how they go from ‘vision design’ to ‘platform design’ to ‘archetype design’ to ‘range design’ as a process did point to the direction that Samsung will soon have a strong semiotic language like Sony (who is losing it to Samsung).

The venue inside the Excel Center
I was the only speaker from the Indian subcontinent. One could see how an audience of nearly 240 people relished the change of flavor from ‘International’ to India, towards the end of the first day. It was surprising to see how my assimilation on core Indian design traits like ‘Longevity’, ‘Collective Wisdom’, and ‘Value thinking’ were precisely the same as spelt out by Cathy, my Chinese counterpart in the panel. I presented the tale of growth of design and innovation in India through three cases of Onio’s recent work. Several people in the audience later came up and told me that they were pleasantly surprised that design in India has reached the level of ‘cultural semiotics’ thinking or ‘global platform thinking driven by local usability’ as my presentation outlined.

Another contrast that struck me was that almost all the speakers mentioned that people, business and technology were the three pillars for any research on innovation. People either forgot ‘brand’ as the fourth pillar or simply took it to be ‘a part of business’. Brand, in the emerging economy is an important lever for innovation. If properly researched, a brand character combined with cultural semiotics, can result into multi-fold returns on investment on innovation.

There was a session dedicated to Trends and David Smith did a great job outlining the mega-trends impinging on the World. A healthy discussion also ensued post Prof. James Wodhuysen’s passionate presentation on ‘not design, but innovation led by technology’ will change the world.

There was a lot of discussion around Nano car from Tata and its failure to capture the intended rural and poor urban markets. I tried to dispel some myths (as I know of them) around some fantastic frugal innovation platforms from India, like Nano and Chotukool (by Godrej). In my mind, the next round of these products will be the winner round.

The only participant delegate from India was Aparna Piramal, a friend, industrialist (of BP Ergo) and a design journalist (for Mint) bundled in one. Interestingly, nearly 50% participants were direct brand owners in the industries and only 10% from the academia (rare, in such conferences).  

Is 3D printing, the technology of future or just another fad which remains on the fringes of the main stream innovation- this was another question discussed in the conference. Real implications of ‘sustainable thinking’ with respect to new polymers, manufacturing practices and product design were discussed as well. But it was clear that there is a long way to go.

Emergent note in the conference was surely the focus on emerging markets, emerging technologies, and emerging methodologies, in that order. It was indeed a well organised conference (by Crain Communications of UK) which generated a lot of traction amongst the industry worldwide. And yes, speakers didn't cross the time limit allotted to them.