Design and its importance in Indian commerce
ICD
23 June 2015

Divya M Chandramouli of Smart CEO interviewed Itu on what design thinking is and what the next big thing in design is going to be.

Design consultant, Itu Chaudhuri, says good design furthers an objective or addresses an existing problem by providing a solution. Itu Chaudhuri, of Itu Chaudhuri Design, studied architecture and switched to graphic design to follow his passion. Lettering, typography and a love for Indian classical music have remained his lifelong obsessions, next only to thinking about design and its interface with our society.

Itu Chaudhuri Design, run along with his partner Lisa Rath, has played a part in Indian design through design consulting that provides insightful solutions. Recent clients include the Indian Premier League, Dr Reddy’s, Nestlé R&D, the Yash Birla group company Birla Edutech, among others.

Chaudhuri shares with The Smart CEO his views on design and its importance in Indian commerce.

How would you describe good design?

That is a very wide question, with a wide answer. Good design furthers an objective in a planned, deliberate way. Objectives are problems that need to be solved, or to create an opportunity, or some combination of both.

In the western world, ‘design thinking’ and ‘managing creativity’ have become part and parcel of management strategy today. Companies like Coca-cola, McDonald’s and Jet Blue have a Head of Design to manage all kinds of design communications at every step of an interaction with a consumer. Your thoughts?

For starters, ‘design thinking’ and ‘managing creativity’ is not quite the same thing. The companies you’ve named probably deal with the issue of design management in rather different ways.

Design management can cover the spectrum from efficiency at one end (let us say, the left hand side) to change at the other end (let us call it the right hand side). Efficiency, at the extreme left includes buying design well and running it to influence a successful outcome - money well spent. At the extreme right is using design to seed, provoke, or direct change in the way the business is run, in terms of the way it relates to its operations, to customers or even to society or the world. This is also the end, where disruptive change or innovation enters.

Between the extremes, there is plenty of room. Management can, for example, view design as a competitive resource, like finance or human beings, and work on ways to manage those optimally. Some would argue that this itself is not a point on the spectrum but a whole approach by itself. It is an evolving area, yet to acquire stable terminology.

In common with all these points on the spectrum, is ‘design thinking’. I like Adam Kallish’s phrase ‘design methods’ which asserts the value of the designer’s mental toolkit to think broadly and flexibly in a manner distinctive from business managers trained in traditional ways.

Are Indian organisations doing enough to encourage out-of-the-box thinking in all design spheres (including product design)? More importantly, are they willing to pay for it? Is there a mandate from the top for better designs?

Most Indian businesses are still at the stage where they are learning to consume design, and are thus well before the stage where it reflects on what the best use of it is. You could call it design 1.0, if we are talking about the direct use of design outside creating communications or advertising or even branding.

Product design is the most promising of these and some companies are waking up to this. The willingness to pay gets a lot of moans from designers and is a function of two things. The first is obviously the economy as a broad support, as it forces companies to think about competitiveness in new ways. A less obvious one is the willingness and ability of designers to first seek, then find, and eventually capture value in the client’s business, and then marry his (or others’) knowledge to that problem.

In other words, there is more money, in the long term, in problem finding and framing, than in problem handling. Every time a designer does that, funds will flow. But, it is not available on a plate with fries and cola. A lot of work is needed to find out how to create and communicate value. Whenever this is done replicably, a design specialisation forms around it. Branding, as a named discipline, is one such.

Can design really change the way consumers connect with a brand?

Consider Apple. It brings together tangible and intangible benefits, and is successful in embedding both into products. It believes in being disruptively innovative rather than relying on incremental efficiencies. It enters and disrupts industries by demonstrating products built on entirely new assumptions and altering the meaning of the product and what customers expect from it.

Take for instance its iPod, which is an example of not just great product design, but the design and building of an ecosystem. iTunes offers a way to view digitisation as an opportunity. As a choice, not a threat. It allows music producers to become publishers, lets publishers build markets on its infrastructure and guarantees a supply of music to the iPod—a classic razor and blade business model. The ecosystem expands to applications (apps) and serves the iPhone and the iPad transparently. That is design thinking too.

Its products provide an experience that communicates the brand powerfully, reducing the dependence on advertising. Even opening a pack is an experience that speaks to the consumer. Just ask the punters who stay up all night, waiting to be the first to buy an iPad. Or witness its net sales, growing 10 times in the last eight years, making it a more valuable company than Microsoft.

Airtel recently launched a new logo. What calls for a change in design? As in, when do corporate identities need to ‘rebrand’ themselves?

Companies rebrand themselves because they have changed the way they want to connect with their customers, employees, investors or the media. Change comes in two shapes. One, when the company changes from within (new direction, focus or even new management) -you could call this inside out. The second kind, outside-in change is often because the markets the company addresses have changed and now views them less favourably. Of course, if the outside-in change in identity does not become inside out eventually, it tends to fail.

Less frequently, it is because the identity is weak or confusing, impractical, or out-of-date, or because a merger/demerger or some legal change has taken place.

In your opinion, what has been the most successful exercise in design in India in the last decade?

Everyone’s favourite example of a sweeping change is the TATA Nano and how it has been conceived as a business and a product. The possibility that it is to be distributed as knocked down toolkits to large assemblers who can value-add and even co-brand the car is revolutionary thinking—even if it is only theoretical or floated for discussion. A sort of open source car, imagine!

I have always admired the picnic plates that have replaced paper plates in and around Delhi. There are two forms of these. In one, compressed leaves are die-pressed into shaped plates and katoris; the leaves are stitched together with twigs from the same plant. They are the ultimate in design, sustainable or otherwise cheap, 100 per cent degradable, with a negative carbon footprint (I am speculating here). They are strong enough (being press-formed) to hold your upma and manage to not let chutney leak. In the second form are plates made from discarded tetra-pack material. The aluminum side faces the food, so it is highly cleanable and dust free; the plates are strong, just perfect for their purpose.

The best thing about these is that they were never made into heros or poster boys, just quietly introduced by the market, because they work so well for all the people involved.

What is going to be the next big thing in the world of design?

Its takeover by non-designers or people who are not trained in design, but think broadly about design and, like designers, are credited with doing, show a willingness to take leaps into the unproven and ‘fall forward’. This change has been visible for two decades or so; expect acceleration, coming soon to a studio near you.

 
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