Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Design in the Real World: The time has come to reposition NID

Design in the Real World: An Open Letter to the Secretary (DIPP) Ministry of Commerce & Industry Government of India 

This open letter to the Secretary (DIPP) Ministry of Commerce & Industry Government of India was prepared in 2003 urgently for taking stock of the status of Design in India, and in particular, to take a fresh look at NID’s position in the world of Indian higher education and it is now awaiting a serious review, ten years on.

 Views expressed in this paper are personal to the author and do not represent the views of the Institutions where he has worked.

I Quote here below the full text of the “open letter” prepared in July 2003 with an additional status note at the end of this post.

An analysis of the first ever national design competition for design in corporate India which is represented by the Businessworld-NID Design Excellence Award and the winners of these awards as reported in the 30th June 2003 issue of Businessworld makes for some very interesting reading between the lines just as it raises many questions about the status of design and the National Institute of Design some fifty years after it was established in India as its first school of design. The telecast of the awards event over the NDTV 24x7 channel yesterday provides further data on the participants and the winners across the categories of corporate design that were included in the awards list for this year. Six categories were announced for the awards, all largely dealing with the generally accepted area of new product creation through Industrial Design with the exception of FMCG Packaging, which is usually considered to be in the domain of the Graphic Designer or the Marketing wing of an Advertising Agency. The other five areas were for the Best – Indian Designer, Concept, Automobile – two and four wheeler, Consumer Durable and Lifestyle Product.

The parade of award winners and the runners-up in all six categories make very interesting reading as most of them come from one fairly under-funded place called the National Institute of Design that is managed by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotions, Government of India when compared to the giants of technology and science that have been set up all over India at an enormous cost over the past fifty years or so. Let us look at the details of the awardees and see whether or not the statement above should raise some eyebrows in the corridors of power in the Government and Industry in India.

Satish Gokhale, Design Directions, Pune and winner of the Best Indian Designer Award has produced over 140 machines to reach markets in 17 countries and he is a graduate of NIDs undergraduate programme in Product Design. He is one person who has through his sustained work with industry produced wealth and value for Indian industry that could well equal or even surpass that provided by many labs and departments in numerous technological establishments in India taken together and he is indeed a deserving candidate for the first ever Best Designer Award from the Businessworld-NID Design Excellence Award. The other runners-up for the coveted Award were Dilip Chhabria an Internationally trained car-stylist and Michael Foley another graduate of NID, again from the under-graduate programme in Product Design. That makes two out of the three of the very best that the country has to offer, come from the NID fold.

The second category was for the Best Concept Design and none other than Neil Foley won it.  Yet another graduate from NIDs undergraduate programme in Product Design, Niel won hands down. Ironically all three designs short listed for the award were done by him so the count now is five of the six very best in the country came from NID and there is more to come!!

The third category was for automobile design and the winners were Tata Indica and the Kinetic Nova and these successful products are complex and multi-disciplinary efforts spread over a number of years of research and design. The Tata Indica had a core team of Industrial Designers from NID who worked along with the Telco engineers and a firm of international consultants to deliver the final product. The details of the individual contributions are for the analysis of some future historian of design, but for now we can acknowledge a definite contribution from NID through its graduates working at Telco R&D. The Kinetic success story was headed by designer Ravinder S. Patil working closely with the MD of the company, Salujja Firodia Motwani, both non-NID players. However the Kinetic story had many levels of NID involvement as disclosed by the Chairman of the company in the NDTV telecast of the Award event and this is quoted below.

The fourth category for the Best Consumer Durable all went to the multi-nationals with the winner position being taken by LG of Korea for the LG Art Cool Air-Conditioner and the runners-up were Amtrex-Hitachi Logicool i Air-Conditioner and the Phillips Diva, a dry iron for the Indian and Chinese markets designed at Phillips Design Centre at Pune. NID drew a blank in this category but let us read on.

The fifth category was the Best Lifestyle Product and the award went to Edge, the world’s slimmest watch produced by Titan Industries and the design once again is from a team led by an NID graduate from the undergraduate programme in Product Design, Michael Foley. The visionary management at Titan had placed the NID designers at the core of their product development strategy over the years and this enabled them to take on the giants of global business in this very competitive industry and carry the battle successfully into their territory as well. The runners-up in this category were Titan Fastrack from the Titan Design Studio that is a nest of NID designers from the very early stages of the company. The other contender was Carbon jewellery designed by a NIFT graduate in Accessory design under the guidance of an NID graduate Jatin Bhatt, who set up and also heads the department at NIFT and he has personally helped set the design strategy for the company who gratefully acknowledge this contribution today.

In the last category it gets even more interesting. The Award goes to John Players shirts and the design of the innovative packaging is credited to Chittaranjan Dhar, MD of ITC Apparel Business. However behind the scenes I am told by a soft voice that NID Graduate Niladri Mukherjee of Whisper Design, New Delhi had conceived the product along with the entire retail identity for the company. The other contenders for the award were Himalaya Chavanprasaha designed by none other than Sujata Kesavan, Ray & Kesavan, Bangalore yet another NID graduate from the undergraduate programme in Graphic Design. Another contender for the category was Incubis headed by NID graduate Amit Krishn Gulati for their innovative packaging for Shriram Piston and Rings for an unusual product in this category

So what is the final tally? NID designers win four of the six categories outright, In the automobile design category the NID designers are part of the company teams as acknowledged by the respective companies. That leaves out only one category of Consumer Durables which is a challenge that needs to be set right next year perhaps, and this should not be difficult for the NID designers to take on in partnership with Indian industry and this will be an eye-opener for the multinationals who are trying to set up shop in India in the emerging WTO mediated era. Further the runners up in all categories number six from NID out of a total of thirteen short-listed in all six categories.

This is an enormous success by any standard for the NID educated design community to be able to shine so brightly through their singular achievements in the just concluded Businessworld-NID Design Excellence Awards which is the first ever publically available data on design excellence in India. I had advocated over many years that NID and our Ministry should get a national assessment done by some respected management consultancy organisation to assess and articulate the real contributions of our small design community in India that has been spawned by NID. However this plea had always fallen on deaf ears but now it is indeed gratifying and significant to note that in a population of over one billion Indians and in a pool of over twenty lakh strong trained technical manpower of India, all this success is coming from a very small institution in Ahmedabad. That the NID message is a powerful one cannot be overlooked any more and the Ministry of Industry should recalibrate its assessment of the NID as an Institution of National importance and of the NID Faculty as members of an elite establishment who are both effective and worthy of parity with the IITs and IIMs of this country. This will have a great and positive impact on trying to cull out the real values that this lesson holds for all of us in trying to preserve those values that have made NID a success in spite of its being small and fairly unconventional in its educational practises and experiments over the years. The pressure that is being placed on it to expand mindlessly due to some skewed financial logic holds a real danger of it loosing the very essence of its vitality that has been nurtured over the years. We need more experiments like NID and we need to boldly take stock of what we have and set a course for the future that includes that learning from the lessons of the past.

Looking back at the string of NID successes over the years and at the particularly sharp distinction in this very significant national award one begins to wonder where all the investment into science and technology establishments have gone when it comes to the creation of cutting edge products for the competitive marketplace being addressed by corporate India today. Why do we not see enough products of excellence in the marketplace coming from the great technological and scientific giants set up all over the country at investments running into thousands of crores of Rupees of Government funding (One crore = 10 million). My answer to this question is that they too need to learn to use Design as an integral part of their work in the creation of new technologies and in directing science initiatives that are based on need and not on some whims of administrators or on some other esoteric pursuits. This will help bridge the gap that we see in the lab to land efforts of many technology-alone players we see all over the country.  Even today as we read this so much more investments are pouring into the science and technology sectors and design and design education establishments are being undermined at the centre and at the periphery in India due to some mistaken notion that they, the former will deliver great results, while it is the latter who is now actually taking the cake in the Businessworld Awards of 2003, almost all of it to boot. This award is the first time that we have public data on the fact that Design, and of the kind championed at NID (not fashion or styling – both of which have their role to play and they attract enormous media coverage), can deliver results that India cannot afford to ignore.

The area in which I have been personally working now for over twenty-five years too suffers the same dilemma when it comes to funding from the government kitty. Our work at NID has demonstrated in a succinct manner that Bamboo holds the promise for the creation of millions of jobs and a ten thousand crore industry in India that is sustainable but we still have difficulty obtaining funding for our research and development initiatives in this very sector. The Government of India that has finally set up a National Bamboo Mission is working overtime to exclude Design through an unhealthy emphasis on science and technology alone through their channels in DST and TIFAC and one wonders when the design scene in India will change for the better. The Government practises Design by public tender, which is perhaps the worst way to do any design task, and the other method that is often used is “Design by Committee” so that nobody is responsible for the fiasco that follows. Design is sorely needed in all the sectors of our economy and the NID message must inform these initiatives if excellence and effectiveness with limited resources are our goals.

Is there a message in these awards for the scientific and technological establishments represented by the IITs and the DST, the CSIR labs of India and the numerous educational and research establishments in corporate and the government sectors when it comes to the creation of new products for a competitive economy? Does the Ministry of Industry realise the value that has been produced at the National Institute of Design over the years? Yes indeed, they all need to adopt design as an active partner in all their initiatives if any success is to be achieved in the near future.

In this extremely clear scenario that is emerging from the above analysis, one wonders why the NID has been left to literally languish due to lack of official supports when compared to the NIFTs that are under the Ministry of Textiles and the IITs and IIMs that are under the Ministry of Human Resources Development and the numerous scientific research establishments that are under the Department of Science and Technology and the CSIR etc all of which are far better funded than NID. Besides the absence of adequate funding on the magnitude of the sister organisations in fashion, technology and management, the NID faculty too are also at a continuing disadvantage, where its faculty are still not paid an appropriate salary scale or have the benefit of any incentive system that has parity with these organisations, a matter that is on demand from the NID faculty as a long outstanding dispute that is being ignored by the establishment due to the small size of the Institute in a democratic country like India where might is usually right. That the salary scale offered by the Fourth Pay Commission was accepted as an interim measure after much delay and this has been used by the Ministry and the officials that be to ignore this legitimate demand, and the matter has not been corrected for over twenty years now. It is under silent protest that the NID faculty had accepted that skewed interim measure and the call for parity with the IIMs and the IITs are a legitimate demand of the NID faculty that should be taken up at the highest levels of Government, particularly in the light of the demonstrated excellence of the NID contribution over the years in all sectors of the Indian economy. These demonstrations have been there all along as a silent achievement of a dedicated team of designers from the NID fold and the time has now come to recognise and reposition the Institute along with the best in the country, which I believe we are.

The proof of this excellence is held in the impassioned comment by Shri H K Firodia, Chairman, Kinetic Auto Ltd., Pune when he spoke at the Businesworld-NID Design Excellence Awards ceremony where he thanked NID and its graduates for the sustained help that had been rendered to his company in the form of high quality indigenous product design services over the past twenty five years while they were competing with others in the auto industry who chose the route of design transfer from overseas. He said “..thank you NID and the Arun Khannas and Pradeep Sinhas of NID for placing my company where it is today..”.

As a member of the faculty of NID for almost thirty years now this comes as no surprise but it is gratifying to finally see due recognition coming our way from this very public event.

The magazine goes on to examine the global reach of Indian design and in this too NID graduates are featured. Uday Dandavate of Sonic Rim, USA calls for deep research into user-centered design research to identify the key features of a future product as against the usual tendency of our industry of investing in a massive advertising or market research which cannot help define the market potential of a future product that does not as yet exist. There are many areas and categories of critical design action that were not covered by the Businesworld-NID Design Excellence Awards this year. That design is a critical resource in as many as 230 sectors of the Indian economy is a looming fact and both Government and our Industry alike do not as yet understand this fully. This Businessworld initiative we do hope will change perceptions about the role of design in India that is not delayed too long. However this is a great beginning and I do hope that in the years ahead other sectors of design excellence too will be recognised and celebrated, particularly the enormous work that still needs to be done in the social and economic sectors that lie far outside the scope of the corporate world as it is narrowly defined today. This will then usher in the age of Design in the Real World, and the pun is intended.

The Ministry of Industry should take cognisance of the message that we read from the awards under analysis and initiate measures to take stock of the potential and promise of the spread of design in India by numerous initiatives that may be needed and also take up the matter of setting right the parity issue between NID and the IITs and IIMs so that design will get its rightful position in the educational space as well as in the National economy in the years ahead. The NID faculty have waited patiently for all these years for due recognition and I hope that this wait is not in vain.


Since 2003 there have been a few significant developments concerning the status of design in India but much still needs to be done. In 2007 the National Design Policy was announced and after a couple of years the India Design Council was set up by the Government of India to promote the use of design by industry and Government. The India Design Council has launched the India Design Mark which has dine two rounds so far. The Government of India and the Union Cabinet has drafted a note towards the recognition of the National Institute of Design as an Institute of National Importance and the Bill is now awaiting approval by the Indian Parliament. The Government of India has announced plans to set up four new NID’s in four regions of India, however all this is taking place within a closed circle of officers and players and very little is available in public space about the nature of the plans and by way of access to feasibility reports and budget provisions etc. We do hope that this will change soon and a more vigorous support will be forthcoming form the Government of India for the cause of design in the real world and that the much needed sectors of agriculture, education, rural development and healthcare are given their due share of design attention just as 230 sectors of our economy have been starved of this all these years due to lack of Governmental attention and apathy in general. The time is ripe now and we must change all this and bring a balance to the substantial investments that would need to flow into design and design promotion and design use when seen in the context of the huge investments made by Government into science and technology as well as by all ministries of Government  in areas of critical need and we must bring an increased involvement of design in the industry and business sectors as well if we are to remain globally competitive and to break b]new ground and harvest value on the way forward from here. We have over fifty years of design action on the ground that has yet to be mapped and assessed for what it is worth and we must take this task up in real earnest and I am sure that the country will be surprised by the findings of a detailed analysis when it s eventually conducted and presented. This data should help reposition the NID and the time is now.



  1. Ranjan, your letter addresses a much needed evaluation of design activity in India. As I have not practiced as a designer in the truest sense of the establishment, I am speaking from out of the fray – to read your compiled report brings a sense of achievement and pride coupled with a sense of this not being a real victory – are we the best because there are not enough others to compete with? Your letter cries to attention the real need for Design to be recognized formally as a pertinent field for growth in the industry and more so in the much deprived areas of many neglected environments. It is overwhelming to note that much has been achieved by the outstanding contributions by our graduates in the corporate field. With reference to the inception of NID and the letter from Sharada Prasad to Eames and in particular the response of a graduate that more avenues could become available with a degree, I would like to note: the growth of the individual designer and his security for living and earning cannot happen unless we progress as a society. I have this unforgettable image of a guy standing in a ditch with a crowbar holding a cellphone in his hand. There must be ways to extend design to better everyday living environments as well. We do not have pavements, workable garbage disposal systems or public toilets. This rather unhealthy advent of technology and communication over environmental concerns and basic respect for human life is a fundamental problem in India. As you have pointed out, many of these answers can come from creative thinking and design and not from the engineering and management sectors. From your summation, for me the question - Why are there not more design schools? - is the most glaring. Almost every other institutional head I have met in the past ten years – be it film, language, primary school and places of cultural exchange like Dakshin Chitra want creative education. The usefulness of products alongside their aesthetics is inseparable was fundamental to what we learned and at the risk of sounding naive - if we can be useful as designers, I do not see how we cannot be accepted as an important part of the structure of our society. Much applause for your consistent and highly informed efforts!

    1. Dear Sujata, Yes, we can feel proud of our achievements and each day I come across unheralded ones that have been offered to Indian society by one or other of our NID graduates and its alumni. In the early years many NID students did not bother to graduate and they went on to join their roles as designers in our society since jobs were non-existant they followed their interest paths and found occupations for themselves that they forged by creating new opportunities for themselves and many offered services as 'free-lancers' for want of a better term and they survived and even thrived with the skills and passion that they had found within the design education that they had experienced.

      This needs to be documented and the stories shared with a wider audience so that these individuals can indeed become the role models of a future creative society here in India. NID is a very small Institute when compared to the other major Indian universities and also the huge network of the IIT's which have started offering design programmes at many of their centres. But here design is still a sub-set of technology and not a core driver and leader as it should be in my view. Design can set that agenda for science and technology if it is allowed to play this leadership role and here we do need the recognition of its importance from both government and industry and this is still far from realised in Indian society today.

      Perhaps the management of the design institute is wrongly placed in the hands of the babus at the DIPP which has a limited agenda of bringing some inputs to Indian industry and design on the other hand is needed by every single sector where use by industry is but a small fraction if the total need. What the experiences of recent years has shown us is that when coordination between ministries is needed as in environmental clearances for major mining, infrastructure and technology licensing that needs to be done by the Indian Government there was a need to have a major platform for inter-ministerial consultations and these were talken up by a platform called the Group of Ministers at the Cabinet level (GOM) as a strategy. Design too may need such a governance system if it is to play a deeper role in our society.

      How else will the much needed funding be channeled into early stage research that is needed to find and resolve design opportunities in healthcare, education, agriculture, rural development, micro-finance services and numerous other areas of need that are not getting the design attention that is needed today. The Ministries of Railways, Civil Aviation, Security Services and all the others need design investments that are missing and these are being addressed by the process of "design by tender" where somehow we hope that some individual entrepreneur will take the risk and develop a solution for our critical need that is now unmet. We need to find another way forward and investments in design research and setting a development oriented agenda for the new design institutes is another way so that they create a new breed of designer that can serve India's deep felt needs in the years ahead. I have now uploaded all my papers and books on the Academia.edu website and these are now easily accessible in an organised manner and more can be done to spread the idea of design. We can start by telling the stories of indian designers and the vast range of experiences that they have had over the past fifty years or so and this will be a promising direction for sure.

      Prof M P Ranjan
      from my Mac at home
      28 May 2013 at 7.25 am IST
      web archive at Academia.edu: http://cept.academia.edu/RanjanMP

  2. Dear Ranjan, Is there any one story you would like me to develop just as a trial? It would be nice to read or refer to any one compilation as there is a lot of reading material on your sites to navigate.

    1. Dear Sujatha, I was thinking on the lines of finding some design action near one that is also of personal interest and then build a sensitive story that can capture the elation and the frustrations that accompany the design journey here in India. There are many design companies that have been exploring particular approaches and serving their clients over an extended period of time, but these do not get the attention that they deserve since we are all looking for block busters and not at the everyday service of design that keeps our society moving forward in many ways that are not even noticed unless these are articulated and reflected upon in some articulate manner so that from this will emerge an understanding of the philosophy that informed the action in the first place.

  3. Dear Ranjan,

    I am happy to read your note. I was hoping the meaning of "success" would be questioned when I wrote back to you on facebook. It is mostly equated with power, money,fame and popularity when the measure of some of the actions that truly advance are not given credit. Whenever you find the time to illustrate the kernel of what you wish to communicate, I can do a bit of work on it. I like to tell stories that reach out in a simple way without leaving out the underlying complexities. I wrote out the possibilities of a magazine as it clears, at least for me, what is really involved. I feel it would give less freedom to explore and impose other financial constraints, make the outcome semi-commercial and someone has to shepherd the entire production. But there must be a way to reach out to the audience you have in mind, in a simpler way. The other thought, is to develop a series of small books/pamphlets, each with an individual story. This way, we can keep working on a story at a time while working on others. It also divides the areas of interest which makes it easier for people to pick up per topic. Little books are less daunting to read or buy! Since you have such vast experience with publishing, I am sure you will know best. Personally, I would be interested in how to engage people with your concerns, making practical a new idea and creating awareness of the constraints and difficulties the designer/developer has faced. If it is working with bamboo you have in mind, do let me know which article I should start with. I would also like to know, if at all you feel I could develop something, who your target audience is? Other designers, industrialists, educators, school going/college going students, government bodies, bodies interested in creating new vocations are some that come to mind. Warm wishes, sujatha


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