Be India, by design
Design must be indigenous. It must be developed for local conditions. But it takes time to understand and appreciate good design
On Thursday, the British automobile company MG announced the launch of Komet, a compact electric vehicle (EV) for urban India. Veteran journalist Adil Jal Darukhanawala was among those present and he shared his first impressions on social media. When asked for more of what he thought, he said it reminded him of how far design has travelled in India since the 1980s when the Indian consumer would lap up anything “foreign”.
By way of example, he says, old timers have fond memories of the Maruti 800 when it was launched. But Darukhanawala has an altogether different story to tell. Back then, cars shipped with rear view mirrors only on the driver’s side. At a press conference, he was among the motoring journalists who asked the management: “Why don’t you ship cars with rear view mirrors on both sides?”
“Each mirror costs money. And given the numbers of cars we make, all those mirrors add to expenses,” a spokesperson shot back. That, Darukhanawala says, was one of his first lessons on the tension that exists between designers and engineers under pressure to cut costs from “bean counters”. It wouldn’t be until the Government of India made it mandatory that all cars ship with rear view mirrors on both sides, that they complied. While the designer thought it important, the bean counters did not.
Such tensions between what designers think important and engineers are willing to sacrifice, is not a new one says Prof Sudhakar Nadkarni. “The output a civil engineer will come up with if asked to create an apartment building and what an architect will are altogether different,” he says. Nadkarni is former dean of Industrial Design Centre at IIT Bombay and Guwahati. “One is trained to keep costs low while the other is trained to keeps users in mind.” How do you get the both of them to collaborate is the management’s job.
Darukhanawala agrees and says he can see it all around him. His initial impressions of the MG Komet, for instance: Everything in the car’s cabin was thought through with the end-user in mind. Perhaps, it may not look as pretty on the outside as many people may want it to. “Aesthetics are the last thing on a designer’s mind,” says Prof Nadkarni. This may sound counter-intuitive because designers spend countless hours sketching, designing and refining their vision to create something that is both functional and beautiful. “I have spent years telling people design is not just about making things look beautiful,” says Prof Nadkarni. But it is desirable and good designers do all it takes to make things look beautiful. What they need are good engineers to work with to execute the vision.
Think of miniature paintings, he suggests. These are the works of a designer. Extrapolate that to electronics. While the designer thinks it up, it requires exquisite engineering skills “to put all those physical guts into small boxes and extract magical outcomes.”
Who gets it right in India, is then a natural corollary. In the automobile sector, Darukhanawala talks fondly about the Pratap Bose who was the Lead Designer at Tata Motors (now with M&M Automobiles). Back in 2011, the company was staring at a crisis. Darukhanawala’s account has it that Bose and his team couldn’t get their way through despite being one of those rare design teams at an Indian company. It took a crisis and the intervention of Cyrus Mistry, then chairman of Tata Sons, to implement what the team had in mind. The outcome was a series of blockbuster designs that the Indian market started to witness beginning 2014.
Talking about Pratap Bose, Prof Nadkarni stresses why design must be indigenous. “It must be developed for local conditions.” That is why he speaks fondly about the mixer grinders made by Sumeet that are now studied for their resilience. Refrigerator design crafted in the Western world does not work in Indian kitchens. These are lessons companies such as Voltas figured and implemented. The arrival of IKEA into India brought a new sensibility that showed how design can be showcased for smaller spaces in urban conditions.
But it takes time to understand and appreciate good design, says Prof Nadkarni. “This is like learning music, or any other form of art, riaz in the only way to master the skills. There are no short cuts.”