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Design in India, an Interview with Rajesh Kejriwal

India

 

Interview with Rajesh Kejriwal, CEO and founder of Designyatra and Kyoorius magazine.          

There’s a lot to say about design in India, but no one was really taking notice until Rajesh Kejriwal took the initiative and set up a not-for-profit organisation, creating a platform for the creative community and fueling a design movement in India back in 2006. The most visible initiative has been the DesignYatra conference and Kyoorius Magazine, both these initiatives have since grown to become an integral part of the design community life and are globally recognised. We spent a few hours with the man himself, discussing India’s exciting design prospects.
                             

What made you want to initiate Kyoorius and Designyatra back in 2006?

My core business activity is in creative fine papers and that’s my connection to the communication & design community. Over the years, I have become more involved and currently am a Global Director and Shareholder in Saffron Brand Consultants and Addikt Design Movement.

Back in 2003, my customers and friends working in the design industry mentioned that India was lacking a design community – the country is much more focused on architecture, interior design and the fashion industry than graphic design.

I am passionate about design and so I decided to do something about the situation – sponsoring and facilitating India’s first graphic design association, but after a year it just fell through – I guess committee’s never work. I thought why not start a not-for-profit platform for the graphic design community in India, which will educate people about the value of design as a strategic rather than just a cosmetic tool.

The first initiative was to provide a design conference and the second one was to create the design magazine. I also wanted to create a platform that would work with students and give them the exposure that Indian design schools are unable to provide them.

What is the meaning behind Kyoorius / Designyatra?

I wanted a name that combined the creativity angle from both a Hindi word and an English word. Kyoorius came from a mix of the Hindi word “Kyoon” meaning “why” and the English word “Curious”. The great takeaway was that Kyoorius is pronounced the same way as the English adjective “curious”

“Yatra” means journey in Hindi so Designyatra stands for “design journey”.

How would you describe design in India today?

Today, design in India is shaped with the arts in mind. At the time, we hadn’t started looking at design from a user-defined perspective. For instance, designers or agencies didn’t really think about the project in a broader sense where design is used as a driver for innovation and as a strategic tool to make meaningful, long lasting and user driven changes in companies, products and services. Design should employ applicable technology and platforms to drive this change. But today, we are evolving – change is part of the cycle and India is carving its own niche.

What is the Indian people’s rapport to design?  

Visually you cannot get a better place than India to grow as a creative professional. Everything in India suggests design. This country is a melting pot of heritage, culture, vibrancy and passion. The colours, forms and patterns that surround us are enveloped in an almost poetic chaos.

Indians are tuned to be creative from the day they are born. Everyday in this country, people have to design their own way from dawn to dusk because of the crowds, behaviour, infrastructure (or lack of) and potential problems that affect daily life.

But then, design in India is often equated to craft or the arts. So it’s fair to say that the larger demographic is still underexposed to the larger aspects of design of the design world we know.

What is India’s perception of leading design brands such as Apple, Audi, Armani etc.?

Indian people assess these on a superficial level. They’ll say they like Apple products or Audi cars… that these look lovely, they are nice, they have great features, but that’s about it. They don’t necessarily appreciate the thinking that goes into designing these products. Why is an iPhone’s user experience so much better than another smartphone? Why does a simple thing like closing the door of a BMW car sound so much sexier and solid than that of another car?

At the moment, we’re about 30 years behind London in this instance, but I don’t think it’ll take us 30 years to be where London is right now, such is the pace of change in India.

If I can go off track a little and talk about the Tata Nano. It was designed in India and supposed to democratise transportation in India.  Would this kind of product thinking have happened twenty years ago? I don’t think so. The Nano is a reality and a relative success today because it uses design as a strategic tool to solve a day-to-day problem i.e. to provide affordable automotive transportation to the masses.

The Nano still isn’t doing as well as expected, but it shows that India can think strategically when it comes to design and can provide products that are commercially relevant to a large audience.

What are India’s biggest assets in terms of design?

Indians are very entrepreneurial and that goes for the design community also. There are fields in which we will be brilliant and globally accepted and fields in which we may not be global players except in some cases. This is also largely driven by both the education system and the clients or rather driven by the apathy.

We have great Engineering colleges and I see a lot of designers and engineers collaborating in the future to create great products.

We will see many famous illustrators and painters blooming from India – we grow up in an environment that from the very beginning, our culture, mythology, etc all inspire illustrators and painters.

We’ve also got talent in architecture, though I think we lack talent in conceptual interior. We have proven our capabilities in IT but for us to make a mark in the digital space will take time. Especially since engineers need to understand design, more particularly, designers need to start working in collaboration with engineers and technologists – the future is in collaboration.

Are the Indian government and corporations sensitive towards the design industry? Do they see added value in design?

I don’t think the Indian government has made design a priority segment and a large reason could be that it still does not figure prominently in the GDP figures as is the case for the UK for instance, where the creative field contributes more than 2% of the GDP or the Netherlands where the creative industry is larger than the oil industry. Another reason could be that it does not contribute to export from India – yet…

However please appreciate that the UK Government did not support this industry till it matured and I see a larger support from the Indian government happening in the near future – maybe in 5 years from now. Currently its support is on the periphery with the formation of the Indian Design Council, etc.

The other issue is that the word ‘design’ is very vague. Design can mean architecture, craft, fashion design, product, etc. and its difficult to assess if the government is viewing “design” in its entire spectrum or individually.

The government does support fashion design and take small initiatives such as the CII (Confederation of Indian Industries) Design Summit or CII Design Awards or the formation of Indian Design Council. Even these events or awards are not properly curated and while the intentions are good, great and welcome – the delivery or the impact is not as much as it should be.

On the other hand, the Chinese government is doing the exact opposite. It’s very keen to support and finance Chinese design.

Up until now, China has been manufacturing for brands that aren’t Chinese, which isn’t a sustainable business model. The authorities now want their people to cultivate and instigate Chinese design that can be exported worldwide. As a result, the Chinese government is planning to open, subsidize and support up to 500 design schools within the next few years.

What are the design hubs in India?

While there could be many hubs, I would broadly say that there are four main hubs – Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi and Pune. As a barometer from a communication design perspective, DesignYatra proves this – 1100 delegates come from these four cities.

But on a much-defined perspective – Mumbai is more focused on advertising, Pune is more geared towards industrial design, Bangalore and Dehli have more diverse design activities.

Both cities have a lot of graphic designers, architects, and people who work across disciplines. Delhi and Pune are growing the fastest in recent times.

What are the latest design trends in India?

India is unfortunately becoming very Westernized. Lifestyles are changing to what you see in the U.S. Everything, including the urban landscape (the malls, flats, office complexes) are similar to what you find in the West. This saddens me because we have an amazing culture that we are not properly exploiting for our own designs.

The problem is that we first copy the West before looking at our own strengths. For instance why do we have pizza chains? Why can’t some company create a traditional Indian food chain? These things will happen but not straight away.

Who are the main design talents in India we should be looking out for?

There is a lot of young talent in India and what’s reassuring is that the young generation, although it looks towards the future, derives more pride than the elder design generation, in designing things inspired by Indian traditions and culture.

There are designers who now want to experiment. I think one of the reasons why Indian designers aren’t that well known globally is because none of them were willing to experiment as much, and neither did the clients. Things though are changing and for the better. While I cannot categorically say which design talents one should be looking for from India, I can definitely say that the Indian Design industry as a whole is in a state of rapid evolution – and there will be many Indian designers that will soon be recognized globally.

In terms of product design, Arunachalan Muruganantham or Mansukhbhai Prajapati, who spoke at our 2012 DesignYatra conference, are great examples of non-designer Indians designing based on a real life problem. Both are socio-entrepreneurs from a poor background who have solved real life problems and have actually used design in the broadest sense. Learn more about them here – designyatra.com/arunachalam-murugunantham and designyatra.com/mansukhbhai-prajapati

Which Indian design agencies or brands should look out for in the near future?

There is the country of origin effect to consider but I would love to see Indian entrepreneurs use our nations heritage and culture to create a successful global brand. Amongst our many strengths there are some that are almost obvious – Ayurveda (health and beauty) products or Yoga. And some that have tremendous potential such as the food and beverage industry – maybe soon we will see a McDosa (as Wally Olins suggested) or tea brand from India instead of coffee from the US.

There are several brands that have realised this opportunity – Omved and Kama are just two examples that are taking Indian lifestyle FMCG products to the world. Other sectors are beginning to grow as well in the automotive sector Mahindra is a brand that exists in many countries around the world and Tata will soon follow suit – entering the US with the Nano.

India is no stranger to the rest of the world – we are changing what the world knows of us – moving from Appu, the land of mystics and industrial trade vendors to consumer facing brands. Brands that are proud of their Indian origins.

What is the most inspiring piece of design you have seen so far this year?

From a brand perspective, I love the visual identity that was done for Alzheimer Nederland by StudioDumbar (studiodumbar.com) in Holland. It’s by far the most brilliant piece of work I have seen this year.

Which designers do you admire?

Massimo Vignelli, Michael Wolff, Kenya Hara and Thomas Heatherwick.

For you, what were the main learnings of this year’s Design Yatra event (The Divide, 2012)?

The biggest learning is how DesignYatra has been able to broaden its audience’s mindset regarding design. In 2006, the design topics we covered were relatively narrow and our speakers mostly talked about their work and showcased the work and that was about it.

At our 2012 event, speakers connected with the audience on a much more emotional level by covering a much broader range of design topics and by revealing themselves a lot more…by sharing life experiences, struggles, talking about what inspired them to keep working on their projects, what has humbled them and giving out advice, etc.

It makes me proud to think that our audience has grown and matured from being insecure and relatively close-minded about design, to being much more engaged by the whole experience.

People also kept telling me they wanted to see more Indian speakers at the event. They want to see more local talents being promoted, which shows people care about design in India.

The other aspect was the increase in corporate delegates – marketing, corporate communication, brand and product heads.

What exciting things do you have in the pipeline for Kyoorius and Designyatra in 2013?

Kyoorius was formed with two fundamental objectives in mind: 1) to provide a platform for the Indian design community (designers, design buyers and students) and 2) to fuel a design movement in India.

We sponsor 400 design students and 50 to 60 faculty members through DesignYatra and will keep doing so in the years to come. We intend to maintain this social aspect of our business but my team and I recently reconsidered the business model for Kyoorius and DesignYatra.

We are a not-for-profit organisation and questioned how we could keep serving the Indian design community and simultaneously become a “not-for-loss” business. We have to be sustainable to ensure that we keep raising the bar on all our deliverables year on year. After all, we are just like any other business out there. We have a product / service to sell and we have a target audience i.e. the Indian design community. It made us think of how we could create a sustainable business model that benefits our clients as well as us. Unlike companies that went looking for a community basis for their product or service, we said, lets look at our community and see what else can we do for this community.

In a months time we’ll be launching a placement division, which will help connect designers with agencies and vice versa. If an agency or a company needs a designer or if a designer is looking for work, we’ll put both parties in touch and will charge a fee for this service.

We’re also looking at launching a design award next year, but not the usual design excellence award. It’ll be a little differentiated with the intention of educating the corporate world by saying “these are the guys who do good design.”

We want to add more events to our line up. Except for the 3 months a year we dedicate to the preparation of Designyatra and the event itself, we realised that we were not connecting with the design community during the remaining 9 to 10 months. To bridge this gap, we are about to launch FYIday, which stands for, “for your info day”. FYIday will be a monthly event happening in the major Indian cities – roughly 15 or 20 of these events will happen every year.

The event will cover one specific topic with two selected speakers who will talk to a small audience of up to 125-200 people on that particular topic. The event could be about typography, editorial design, etc..

Learn more about Designyatra and Kyoorius magazine by visiting designyatra.com

 

Check out the video of Robert Wong from Google Creative Lab, one of the many speakers at this year’s Designyatra Conference,  The Divide 2012:

 

Images: courtesy of Designyatra, Kyoorius.exchange, 2012