Saturday, January 26, 2013

Engineering the Design


“Engineers who join this institute are told to forget engineering”. A head of a prominent design institute of India was heard speaking at an event. It was like déjà-vu. I heard that many times while I was in my design school. There were two kinds of students inducted into the design school – first, those who join after twelfth standard and spend five years in honing their skills as a designer, while the others join after engineering or architecture for half the period i.e. two and a half years. And as one would imagine, usually there would be marked difference in some skills i.e. sketching, between the two streams of design students. But was ‘freehand-sketching’ the only thing and everything that ‘design’ had to offer to the world? Well, at least this was the idea percolated within the designers. Engineers would be ‘denounced’ in every discussion around ‘design and creativity’, as the ones who can only be either a good manager or at best work on more ‘engineering’ centred projects. I was surprised to hear a senior designer in a consumer durable multinational company that he never asked designers with additional engineering degrees to work on ‘form and styling projects’, because he ‘knew’ that they won’t be good at it. This discussion however does not absolve the abysmal status of engineering education, in general, in the country where out of 7,50,000 engineers graduate every year. Not one tenth of them are readily employable. The entire aura generated out of this discussion makes an engineering graduate-now-designer disgusted with the whole idea that he/she is rather CHAINED into ENGINEERING to do anything creative. My discussion is limited to the perception of engineering within the design and so called ‘creative’ community.

Now after so many years in the profession I have seen that the other side, the businesses who consume design, had a different story to tell. Many clients- especially the SMEs, usually had some concerns expressed right in our first meeting. They would invariably tell us, “Whatever you design, need to be producible. We have seen far too many designers who give us sexy renderings/images which fail on the manufacturing front and the entire project loses steam ”. And we would tell them that we were well grounded in technology & manufacturing as much as in design, so no need to worry. I have seen in past my partner & co-founder of Onio, Prakash, sorting out some of the most perplexing problems in design-to-manufacturing journey. That started right from the first assignment that we did with Godrej Security Equipments Division on home security doors. He worked with the Godrej engineers and even workmen on the shop floor to make them understand the new design and help them overcome the resistance to change. It is not that these problems only surface in heavy duty product only. We worked for almost 5 years at a stretch on ‘perfumes and cosmetics field, designing perfume bottles, crème jars and respective packaging. Problems of realisation of design were present here also. A commanding knowledge of manufacturing processes gave us an upper hand whenever we were involved with a manufacturing company. A great skill in design and similar finesse in execution are not two mutually exclusive skills as they are believed to be. Situation has not changed after so many years when now many consumer brands just ‘marketing companies’. They get all the stuff manufactured in Taiwan or China. When they call us for design intervention, the questions remain the same- “will you design be realisable? Can you solve the manufacturing issues that come up through the process”?

Engineering is not just about solving manufacturing process problems. Current education system has made the grand profession of engineering, look like a mindless-tailor of physical products and structures, which lack sense of well-being. The strength of the field that coverts SCIENCE into something usable as a product or a structure, is missing. Engineer, understands structuring, much faster than many other people. Structuring information, or structuring a product- engineers are trained to think structures. When we took up a complex brand strategy assignment, this was ‘STRUCURING SKILL’ that came handy to put several contradicting factors together to make sense. Not all the time in your daily life, you need to BREAK AWAY. We follow structures of relationships, civil laws, organisation, religion, food regimen, etc. etc. There has been some great mind or minds that put things for us in a structured manner to make life simple (barring a few who went to ridiculous extent of creating ‘Seven laws of ...’ on everything).  The man who made ‘metro’ train possible in India in record project time and with exemplary project management skills, Mr. E. Sreedharan is a civil engineer. It was a feat in the circumstances that India imposes on any project of the size of Delhi Metro. Goa’s chief minister Mr. Manohar Parrikar is an engineer from IIT Bombay. Jairam Ramesh, ex-minister from the Ministry of Environment, who did some pioneering work in his area, is also an engineer from the same college. Several chiefs of large Indian businesses have engineering degrees (it is only recently that their sons and daughters are being sent to get a MBA degree from some foreign university and more recently to Design colleges as well). There are several people I know who are heading powerful banks and financial institutions abroad, are basically engineers. Why did the banks hire engineers and not just economists or Chartered Accountants only? Because it is believed that  financial institutions need a great analytical mind who can quickly sort out an amorphous situation into a structured and predictable model. I am not proposing that all the engineers should go and do banking business or famously ‘sell soaps’. But the point being driven is that there are a few core skills engineers acquire apart from solving technology/manufacturing problems, which are of immense value across the fields and design cannot be an exception.

And towards the end, I would like to recall an inspiration that drove me to the design profession. Leonardo-da-vinci, the grand master artist, architect, biologist and machine design, weapon designer- all bundled in one, of the renaissance times. While at IIT, studying mechanical engineering, I was sitting in the library most of the time and learning of Vinci, copying his sketches multiple times and trying to understand what drove this genius to think about everything under the sun. A human mind is capable of holding several contrasting faculties of knowledge. It is the modern education that makes to tunnel-visioned and fogs the brain when it comes to contrasting streams of knowledge. Let the world be born again with more holism in knowledge.

Time has come when Design as a profession, at least in India, has to embrace engineering in its full blown dimensions. Time has come to wash the bourgeoisie mindsets of those in creative fraternity to open the eyes to a reality that ‘creativity’, at an ‘idea’ level is just worth nothing till it cast into something of a physical reality. It is time to ENGINEER the DESIGN a bit.



Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Envisioning a global Indian consumer brand

It is not too far. Omens are on the horizon. Mahindra, Tata, Godrej are only the visible names that are acquiring the marquee consumer brands across the globe. There is an entire cadre of small to medium scale Indian enterprises that have ventured out to acquire global parent companies, consumer brands, design studios and other allied service companies to further their global ambitions.
Hindustan Motors - Creator of Ambassador car,
could have created a world brand. So near yet so far.

So far, by and large, all the acquisitions made by these companies are in the careful-entry mode. Indian managers want to get a psychological entry into the space without upsetting the existing scheme of things. They are learning the rules of the game. Indian acumen & ferocity of business is yet to show up. No doubt, business has to be run as usual but the changes will come and will come slow. The brands and their key managers have been wire-fenced from the Indian influences. Being involved in one of such studies, I know that there is a fear of direct revenue loss, should things change overnight.  More than revenue loss, it is the loss of mind-share in the eyes of the global buyers. The buyer who is used to seeing certain faces and certain way of communication does not want to be a radical innovator in a purchase process. His brand loyalty also comes from the ‘interactions’ and not only from the product. However, the change is imminent and we will see some brands emerging on the global arena with a distinct Indian signature.

Indian signature does not mean just an Indian acquisition and brand being run by an Indian management. I am talking of distinct brand character that is based on deep rooted Indian ethos. Now this, may not be applicable the already existing marquee brands. But it could be a totally new kid on the block travelling the journey of a garage start-up to king of consumer brands within a span of few years.

We have seen some already popular Indian brands in the market. Tata Nano is the name of choice. Though it has not created a market for itself in India as envisaged, it has definitely carved a clear niche in the global consumer’s mind. People are aware of Nano as a car. However, Tata Nano and Chotu-Kool refrigerator made by Godrej (for bottom-of-pyramid consumers), both do not represent the ethos of Indian mind truly. ‘Frugal’ or cost effective design that has come to be associated with India is an aberration at best, to what rich Indian legacy has to offer. ABUNDANCE and not FRUGALITY is a core Indian tenet. FRUGALITY as in pragmatism and minimalism is fine. But if it means just material reduction, making the structures weaker, not accounting for the long-usage comfort, bad-aesthetics- then this is not what India stands for. Being poor, was not a choice for India. India has been a land of riches and that is what the Indian mind is currently yearning to get back to. When we talk of rich, it is about being ‘value abundance’. So when we speak of products ‘LONGEVITY’ is one of the abundance that would emerge to be one of the Indian ethos in the global brands. When VOLVO stands for SAFETY and FERRARI stands for flamboyance and speed, and Indian brand should stand for LONGEVITY. Nano, surely is not about longevity.

Next things, that is deeply Indian is ornamentation. Argument is that it is quite oriental as a value. Yes, it is oriental. But that is okay to be universal oriental value. It is Indian as well. Ornamentation is seen as ‘abundance’ in India. Ornamentation assures the Indian mind that a lot of care has been poured in materialisation. Ornamentation presupposes abstraction. And that is where it distances itself from Western realism. Focus on realism has forced the aesthetics of minimalism on the world. Indian consumers, who are lured into the land of minimalism as styling, are just tasting a new dish served to them. Soon they will get tired of it. Return to the home flavour is the human tendency. When a global Indian brand is envisaged, it will be as much about ornamentation as it will be about longevity. I use a term called ‘samagra’ (which means ‘comprehensive’ in Sanskrit). Somewhere SAMAGRA is also about multi-sensorial experience. What we get when we go to a temple- ring the bell, touch the deity, taste the prasadam, smell the ‘dhoop’- it is always a complete sensorial experience. Samagra on a broader sense points to this ‘enveloping effect’. Car companies in India are getting better at it. Ask Hyundai!

Third thing that Indian ethos stands for is surely EMPATHY. The land which gave birth to Buddha and Mahavir should be the first one to understand the pain of others. Ergonomic, Culture-aligned, Environment friendly & Universal design (inclusive design)- these are four sub-tenets of EMPATHY. These sound clichéd but keeping them in the first cone of focus is what is needed while conjuring up the new global brand. More often than not, businesses run to copy a success of an existing product, brand and thereby, end up copying only the ‘tactical’ end of the success, not the core DNA that shaped it.  EMPATHY needs to built into the core DNA of the global Indian brand. This value goes on to define the service interactions in more pronounced way, not only the product.

VERSATILITY is what is in the DNA of India. No object here is usually used for only single purpose. Idea of multiple usages is another example of ‘dematerialisation’. It saves materials & energy. So while west could have ten different spoons for different kinds of foods and connected scoop and spread devices, Indian mind would rather look at ‘two in ones’. Entire philosophy of ‘Jugaad’ is also a testimony to this virtue.

Indian consumer brands have gone miles ahead where they were ten years back. Today, walking into a VIP luggage showroom is an equal experience (if not more) compared to a Samsonite showroom. Mahindra is running full steam in the auto market while the rest of the players are cringing at the low sales in the domestic market. Aesthetics and Style quotient has gone up several notches. However, manufacturing quality of Indian brands remains a big concern still.

I would surely put the next paradigm change into global brand scenario as FIVE-SEVEN years from now. And this change will see some Indian brands rising. I want to be one of the drivers for sure J.




Monday, January 21, 2013


I have been using ‘5000 year old culture’, as a referential phrase for India, while speaking in several forums. I have not seen this phrase being used anywhere in the ‘incredible India’ campaign so far. I have been wondering why has the chronological reference not been taken into account for branding India? May be I missed seeing it. At least all the major airports of the countries I frequent, don’t have it. Wonder which other country can boast of this fact and actively promotes it? KOREA, yes, when you land on Incheon airport, at Seoul, South Korea proudly announces that their culture is also 5000 years old. When I went to Indonesia, well they were talking of way more longer.. millions of years.. neolithic ages  J. Yes, Indonesia was the land where the remains of legendary ‘Java’ man (Homo Erectus) were found (Java is not the programming  language alone, it is an island in Indonesia with an ancient cultural roots). 

But none of these countries we spoke about so far have the sense of ‘country’ or ‘city’ branding what the western countries have. In Berlin, I saw huge shops selling Berlin Souvenirs. The souvenirs, unfortunately, were nearly all, made in China (just like all the London souvenirs). However, it was a big business. At least the imagery that was being printed out on these souvenirs was consistent. It is a different point that they were also selling some ridiculous items like broken chunks of erstwhile ‘Berlin wall’.   Imagine, purchasing pieces of ‘Wagah border’ wall one day...

One of the visuals for Pune branding by Innishari
Anyway, no one brands their city like Americans do. ‘I love NY’ t-shirt has been seen in literally every major city in India. People wear it probably just to show either they or someone in their family or friend circle has been to this city. Sometimes, people wear it just because it looks ‘cool’. The graphic is bold and makes a statement. Americans can brand literally everything. India is still recuperating from its colonial penury and making a very slow progress on these things which only occur to a nation once there is some wealth. While roads and bridges are criss-crossing the country and nearly every airport is undergoing an overhaul right now, there is no thought on MESSAGING on the airport. One sees, aluminium clad walls thatched all over the country in a race to make the airports ‘world-class’. What is lost in this race is a more settled feeling of ‘permanence’ and ‘cultural signature’ of every place.  Bhutan has shown the way. Thimphu airport does not copy the architecture of these ‘modern airports’. But such cases are rare in India. Kerala was the only state which took up the state branding much ahead of the country’s brand and successfully culled out a niche of ‘God’s own country’.  Tourism soared into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Last week Indian Express reported the Pune city branding initiative by an upcoming start-up ‘Innishari’ that had created a set of modern visual narratives on Pune. This was put up in a local mall as a part of the ongoing Pune Biennale.  A series of seven visuals presented were in a mixed style- ‘realism’ and ‘abstraction’. Realism makes it understandable and abstraction makes it refreshing.  Realism connects to masses and abstraction connects to the intellectuals. Pune as a city has so far been identified only with a picture of ‘Shanivaar wada’, a rather not-so-grand a fort made by Peshwas. Beyond that Pune has little visual identity. A city that is bubbling with more than 5 million population out of which hal f of them directly connected with IT & manufacturing industry; where something unique amongst Indian cities- 300 German companies have found their home; which is the cultural and educational hub for western India, cannot be merely depicted with a picture of one fort (the restoration of which, too needs to be taken up seriously by the government)!

You go around the city and you don’t even find any poster that promotes the city. Whole city has been plastered with pictures of small and big time politicos. These posters appear not only on the designated hoardings but also on temporary structures that spring up as anybody’s guess.  Every small time politico worth his name has to put up a big hoarding congratulating some big-wig of his party on his or her birthday, or offering just a welcome note. Half of the faces put up there can be used to scare a child. City municipal council seems to ignore any sense of visual order or disorder against the political pressures. Same situation exists in several other cities. Beautiful cities of Lucknow and Cochin (where I have recently been to) show the same visual mess. This visual cancer can only be cured by a level-headed political leader who should put his foot down to save the city and ban the temporary hoardings. But along side, efforts of city branding like what Innishari has put forth, must be given space. In the eyes of a global visitor passing through the city, it will reflect the connoisseur pulse of its citizens.  This, I believe is the real DNA of Pune, a city that attracted me to it sixteen years ago!
Here is the recent press coverage of the event: