Kothari manages innovation strategy for brands, products and intercultural interactions. He initiated the Pune Design Festival, an event promoting Pune as a design hub in India, and is an internationally recognised speaker on design.

He introduced trends research workshops to Indian industry in Mumbai in 2006 in collaboration with Style-Vision, France, and facilitated a roundtable conference series, Insight India, in London in 2006 and in Copenhagen in 2007.

Belinda Stening, Curve editor, spoke the Manoj Kothari about India’s National Design Policy and the design scene in India.

How progressive is the Indian government’s new design policy?

Design is still not a ‘priority’. Declaring a design policy is just an indication that it’s becoming a priority. Design was important many decades back when erstwhile prime minister Pandit Nehru thought of calling Charles and Ray Eames to facilitate setting up a design institution in India. Meanwhile, industry and consumers have not been geared up to understand and consume innovation.

Liberalisation in recent years has, however, fueled both the manufacturer and the buyer. So, now, government is responding rather reactively. They have seen the success of the IT sector. My understanding is that a slow but sure response from Indian government is in the works.

What were the main drivers behind the creation of a National Design Policy for India?

Vast under use of the resources in the traditional handicraft sector, lobbying by NGOs, the voices of some intellectuals, the rise and rise of the SME sector contributing to the country’s industrial competitiveness, and research and development outsourcing. There is also a new breed of ministers who are extremely learned and aware (at least some of them).

Which groups or industries have been the most active in lobbying the Indian government?

The groups that have been most vocal are NID (National Institute of Design), spearheaded by Dr Darli O’Koshy, who is also an executive board member with ICSID; the Industrial Design Center in Mumbai, a group consisting of practising designers in India; DesignIndia and the Confederation of Indian Industries.

How has the rapid growth of China’s manufacturing industry impacted on India?

China is the king of manufacturing, beyond doubt. There are concerns about quality and reliability, and language problems are an issue. Consumers and small traders know that if they are buying Chinese goods, at half the cost, there is no warranty – it’s at their own risk.

So people are now taking a fresh look at Indian products. Companies, on the other hand, are interested in doing research and development in India and manufacturing in China, which is a win-win situation, I feel.

How will a National Design Policy assist a business like Onio?

If the word ‘design’ has more visibility it is a direct promotion for companies like Onio. More sensitivity towards better design will benefit all in the value chain. Pune, for example, is being promoted as a hub of design in India. We believe that cluster visibility is a strong phenomenon.

Is the design industry in India geographically focused in specific areas of the country? Can you explain where it is located and why?

Bangalore, Delhi and Pune – all areas of industrial concentration – are the hubs of industrial design. Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Chennai and Mumbai rank second in terms of activity. So, activity is ‘city specific’ and not as ‘region specific’ as we would have liked.

Pune is an industrial hub, so has more companies focused on industrial design and graphic design, while Bangalore-based companies focus on furniture, lifestyle, retail and interaction design because of the booming IT industry there. Delhi is our capital so there is a lot of exhibition design activity there.

India has its own brands. What are the biggest brands and the brands with most potential to expand, within India and for export?

Titan watches, Tata cars and trucks, Reva electric cars, Hawkins pressure cookers, TI Cycles, Tanishq jewellery and Onida TV all have huge potential for growth.

What do you think the Indian consumer is looking for in products?

They are looking for contextuality, authenticity, more features, less intimidating styling, affordability and world-class standards. What they are not looking for is highly minimalist design; products picked up from western markets and dropped into the Indian market without due consideration; super-cheap products without quality; or luxury products without service or sales support in India.

What do you think the global consumer will look for in an Indian product?

The global consumer wants a spoonful of India and not a cup filled to the brim. India offers a saturated palette of everything: motifs, colours, tastes, textures, philosophy, poetry, and more. A global consumer just wants to sip it from the edge, not jump into it. That is a critical call, where design research helps define what market research leaves out.

Is there an identifiable Indian design style?

That’s my favourite topic. Indian design style hangs in between traditional ornamental abstraction and modern European minimalist design. Playing safe and using bold, gold and ornamental elements and symmetric compositions are important elements
of Indian design.

India is a 5000-year-old civilisation influenced by Hindu, Mughal, Jainist, Buddhist, Sikh and British ideas. There are about 325 different languages in India. The Indian market is complex and diverse and designers need to understand this when designing products for this market.

For example, the State Bank of India was recently modernised. People in some regions of India are used to sitting on the floor, so the sofa seating that was provided was alien to them. 

The Indian consumer cannot adapt to change quickly. Family and society speak louder in India than in other cultures, and society resists individuals standing out.

In Indian culture, collective wisdom is sought when purchasing a product. For example, if a family member wants to buy an iPod, then friends, brothers, sisters and parents need to be consulted. So, the decision-making process is very different and complex.

Indians have been living with symbols for many centuries – they are not brand focused. They believe in longevity and think things should last forever, so products need to be physically robust. Indians think beyond the visible and material: the end of life is not about money; the end is something else. 


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