As we do with age, dividing the passage of time into 10-year clusters, allows us to reflect on what we have achieved that warrants celebration and what we did not, as broad brushes. Critical in this process is also to reflect on the currents of change — because those will shape how we choose to proceed next — in this case in our collective twenties as the design industry in India.
In this round-up I will focus primarily on design considered as visual communication or graphic design, with a heavy bias towards professional practice. Personally, the decade before last (2000’s) constituted my formal training at design school, culminating in the second half into partnering the setting up of an independent practice. The last decade (2010s) was a phase where prolific professional practice along with self-commissioned work around design identity, community opened up my gaze on to the industry — allowing experiences, success and failures of a collective milieu to guide some of the deliberations in this piece.
The most significant and pervasive shift of the last decade is the widespread realisation that visual communication design is beneficial and significant across industries and scale. In the 2000s this was still considered as a stream that was an added luxury with no clear returns or value. Therefore commissioners of design were restricted to certain sectors with bias towards ‘lifestyle’ products and services, and those which were well-funded. In the last decade however, visual communication design has found increasing favour and moved to a must-have on most entrepreneur and organisational checklists. The spectrum covers differences in sector, scale, extending to not-for-profit sectors, and both matured & early stage businesses. Part of this has been owing to the glowing and growing inclusion of design-driven success stories in media & content tracks looking at business, technology under a broad innovation umbrella. Primarily international and aspirational, these content conduits successfully opened up the understanding of design in the context of other innovation streams; making a compelling argument to an audience which is largely non-designers. Additionally, people have been able to experience first-hand — products and services from hospitality to mobility, healthcare & others, where visual communication has been a strong player and championed as success stories. This has helped strengthen a general belief and desire for/in the potential of communication design to differentiate, connect and build value.
While the desire to utilise visual communication design saw a marked rise, its actual integration into businesses and organisations tended to be more spotty. Part of this has been due to its appreciation only as final outcome. There is a lack of understanding of how it (communication design) integrates as a process into an organisation, and what are the challenges that visual communication can take on and what not. This, on several occasions renders the most ambitious design commissions into an abstract and headless exercise — frustrating clients & designers in equal measure. Two developments towards the second half of the decade however are hopefully creating the groundwork that helps solve it in the next decade. The first, is the creation of strong design groups within organisations. Not to be confused with teams of designers housed internally to handle everyday requirements and execution — but groups mandated to discover opportunities for design, include and manage internal expectations, build focus & clarity for external design consultants, and ensure translation & continuity in execution. Most importantly, these internally incubated design groups will be able to create new processes, benchmarks and learnings that are India-specific, critical for the decade ahead.
The second is recent content being generated in India through design events (conferences, symposiums, festivals) and online journals (websites, podcasts) that brings India-centric cases and issues to the fore. This contextualisation is going to be key in the coming decade to build both confidence and critical analysis in how we apply design and in the impact it creates.
One of the most significant shifts that I believe will change how visual communication design has been considered, is the irrelevance of traditional constructs like gender, income, region etc, considered earlier as absolute mantras and used to define category codes for visual communication design in India. While symbolic references will always continue to be used to build familiarity and signal messages, there is a substantial change in how and where we draw our new symbols from. Across the decade we have seen fresher and bolder takes that defy traditional markers of premium-ness, authenticity and trust, pushing design language to explore new codes that resonate. This has been in no small measure activated by the changing landscape of users, who themselves defy codes by sheer aspiration and increased access. In the context of visual design it is important to note, because visual codes have previously been defined strongly by marketing mandates, and starting with the last few years we begin to see design redefine and challenge these.
Within the design community, identity has grown to be a primary topic of contention. Popular opinions often point to Western models adopted in pedagogy as the main reason for lack of an Indian identity in contemporary graphic design. Across the decade this has triggered multiple responses — the most visible amongst them being the rediscovery and application of traditional vernacular methods and motif in present day applications. However several of these applications have been devoid of a deeper understanding of the original meaning, context or symbology, and fail to take into account the association that they present in today’s world. This new revival-heavy lexicon however cut through the global, modern sameness and made space for alternative ways of approaching visual culture. In the next decade, one hopes that this moves to deeper query for contemporary design. The rise and proliferation of Indian type design is notable, especially for bringing design for Indic scripts into much needed focus. While the 2000s were largely utilitarian in their efforts, in the last decade type design in India has taken on the mandate of Indic scripts with new vigour and rigour. This new wave will be instrumental in helping build the contemporary design lexicon — powerful and pervasive as the carriers of words and messages. In parallel, the growing tribe of graphic designers and illustrators as authors of zines and other independent publications are paving the way for identity built through narrative and content. As we move into the new decade, the coming together of original content with explorations in form, will hopefully present a more authentic and invigorating idea of what is identity in visual communication for us in India, today.
Matching the proliferation of design requirements for the industry, has been the proliferation of design schools in India, starting with the major metros and now in smaller urban centres. Most however are at a nascent stage, and yet to provide the rigour and quality required for professional education programmes. In its absence, students turned in large numbers to the internet — primarily shadowing the work of popular designers, studios, design blogs and journals, from across the world. The average design student is still consuming ‘design ‘inspiration’ largely on social platforms. Exposure has seemingly grown exponentially, however we now know that algorithmic behaviour limits the actual range in exposure. The sameness has been growing stronger in the average profile of student work — based on what is typically trending, and tutorial-ised for quick outcomes. This is caused by under-development of basic design skills required for exploration, and the lack of critical mentorship and assessment that questions thinking and craft in a larger context. The under-development of strategic thinking & design craft eventually seeps into the industry — resulting in a worrying lack of new design leadership that forges new sustainable models and benchmarks for design practice in India. By the end of the last decade, there have been some positive changes with several practitioners getting involved in full-time or advisory capacity with educational programmes. It is undeniable that India needs many more design schools, but it is critical that these are built with focussed curriculum, academic leadership and industry inputs, that encourage a new generation of design entrepreneurs and evangelists.
The last decade has opened up a larger window for visual communication design in India, there is both a market and audience for it — bigger and more diverse than ever before. As we move into a new decade, it will be important to build dialogue within the community, focusing on pressing issues of ethics, entrepreneurship, collaboration, profitability etc — building support structures, shared resources and alternate resources for continued learning. If the last decade was about finding a seat at the table, this decade will be about how we shape the ensuing conversation. And that will be defined by how we grow and behave as a creative industry, collectively.
Written originally for a commemorative publication by Design X Design, in early 2020.