Oct 24, 2009

Indian Design Edge: From the Top of the Pyramid

On the 25th of October 2008, Dr. Darlie Koshy retired from the post of Executive Director of the National Institute of Design (NID), a position he held for eight years. Within the Indian Design World, this is about as high a position as one can hold, and he has literally filled that capacity to bursting with a long series of much discussed actions. His coup de grace is definitely his book, ‘Indian Design Edge: Strategic Insights for Success in the Creative Economy’, written from his ‘enviable ringside view’ of the world of design.

Following a good many years after Prof. S. Balaram’s ‘Thinking Design’ (1998), this book positions itself as the next macroscopic view of Indian Design. In Dr. Koshy’s inimitable style, it is filled with case studies, vision strategies, ‘design for-’ sub-headings and heavy doses of design evangelism. If not anything else, the book brings Indian Design out into the sunlight, in riotous jubilation and in considerable detail. It is unsurprising that Chief Secretary Shri Ajay Dua, of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, publicly acknowledged Dr. Koshy as his mentor in all things Design, at the launch of the book in Mumbai.

Beginning with ‘design for development’, and quoting the Ahmedabad Declaration of 1979, the book works its way through design history, comparisons with other Asian design achievements, ‘crafts as foundation of design innovations’ and ‘designs for grass roots innovations’. The chapter ‘change for design’ is in large part devoted to the author’s perspective of his role in shaping NID, ending with a charming classification of ‘progressive’ and ‘retrogressive’ designers: those who saw eye-to-eye with him and those who didn't. The chapters on ‘Strategic Design’, ‘Sectoral Growth by Design’, and ‘Creating GenNext Designers’ are large in their scope, and in the vigour of their arguments. One sector or topic after another is taken up, and the author’s view of the potential of design is forcefully sketched out for the unconverted.

Any glitches in this sumptuous smorgasbord are perhaps purely semantic. Delineating the ‘strategic perspective of the first national design policy’, the author begins the list with ‘Bottom of the pyramid model: design for masses, source of innovation and wealth’. This little loose end might well be the unravelling of the   edifice. It positions the designer/policy maker at the top of a pyramid of money, power and class reaching down, as it were, to those at the bottom. It also presents a view of these ‘masses’ at the bottom of the pyramid as the new frontier for design and business, where business conquistadors can ride on horses called design and discover new treasure viz., ‘innovation’ and ‘wealth’.

Case studies in a book of this stature take on the colour of advocacy, and may reasonably be held as illustrations of the book’s argument. With a foreword by Ratan Tata, the book’s first advocacy is that of the Tata Nano. The Nano is not mentioned within the text of the book, but has pride of place on the cover and the inner title page. By the author’s admission the Nano typifies his vision of what he calls ‘Design Democracy’: the key concept of his future scenario. As the wisdom of putting so many more cars on Indian roads continues to be debated across the world, the author is lucky he does not consider Sustainability a systemic tool to building that democracy, or even a part of the Indian Design Edge.

The book acknowledges that the beginnings of Indian design are in Indian Culture and Crafts, and devotes to them 16 pages in all. Relegating crafts to the status of a river of inspiration flowing into design, it ignores some of the great success stories in the Indian handloom and handicraft world. Rushing through the achievements of Industree Crafts Pvt. Ltd. it presents an inordinately long case study of KAARU. While KAARU’s veneering of corporate boardrooms, floor lamps and tables has its place within the spectrum of crafts design, it is certainly far from illustrative of crafts as a force to reckon with in the modern Indian Design world. The book alludes to crafts as ‘innovations of yesterday’ instead of a living tradition where innovations continue to take place. It looks at craft objects solely as end products, or as a resource for contemporary designers, rather than building on the belief that craftspeople and designers can come together to really build communities, empower the disenfranchised, and give us viable models of social and economic development.

It is so tempting to typecast this book because it remains remarkably consistent to its world‐view. The title ‘Strategic insights for success in the creative economy’ is in reality the book’s final statement on design, hinging on its own definitions of ‘insights’ and ‘success’, described within the framework of a ‘creative economy’. The book’s economic ideology is at the core of its argument. As India herself ever more firmly entrenches her position as a burgeoning free market capitalist economy, the book is very much the voice of the times. It presents a vast expanse of design sectors, and its future visions for them are underpinned by the idea of financial success as a touchstone for Design, continually grouping all other parameters under ‘quality of life’.

There is not much wrong with this view, except its potential for ideological hegemony. It is a view that some designers in the developed world, most famously and recently Philippe Starck, have begun to grow increasingly disenchanted with. As a developing nation, with the kind of complexity that India deals with, we see the strength of design as a role player in inclusive, sustainable growth. Designers work in this country at many different levels and function in many different ways. If the mentors of our policy makers are careful to maintain a sufficiently broad view, then India, standing as she does at the threshold of an explosive growth in design, can take the lead in being able to provide a plurality of positions from which designers can meaningfully engage with society. This planned and deliberate encouragement of diversity within the design arena could well be the Indian Design Edge.

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