Design on Track

Tucked away in the recently tabled Railway budget of 2012 , between paragraphs on Disaster management and Housekeeping is a significant proposal that will bring a cheer to designers and rail-users alike. The minister has proposed setting up of the “ Rail Design Centre” at NID, Ahmedabad  to leverage design for improving the facilities at railway stations and the trains.

An idea that is both timely and note-worthy. For the first time, the government recognises the need to improve passenger facilities through design intervention.

This is will hopefully, signal the end of passenger woes.

The whole user experience needs an overhaul, not just improvisations. It begins with the form that is difficult to fill, queues that extend out  of the shelters during rush hours, signages that do not guide the passengers properly  at the station and announcement boards that are more stylish than substantive.

Ever traveled with an elderly, a child or a differently-abled person on a train? You don’t need to be convinced that the trains need to be redesigned to be made more inclusive. High steps, sliding doors, unergonomical heights of taps and dustbins, all signify that things have been designed for the non-existent average person.

Berths that are a tad short for the above-average, windows that get stuck in monsoons, bathrooms that flood the whole compartment, lunch packets that are difficult to open, tables that are too far from the seat, plastic covers that don’t work during the sweaty Indian summers, this list can go on.

Anyone who has traveled in the trains would agree that Design has a large role to play to improve the overall user experience and NID is more than suited to do the job. For, far too long, the Indian railways have relied on engineers to design the bogies, advertisers to design the communication and bureaucrats to decide on passenger facilities. This is now a tacit recognition by the Indian Railways of the professional designer, who has a definite role to play.

This is a dream opportunity for the design community. Every student who went through NID’s education programme would probably have in his portfolio, a hypothetical project of a better design of the railway’s facilties. During my time at NID, I have seen students developed better trolleys for luggage’s, berths that fold easily, eating plates that contain well and don’t spill, better designed reservation forms and a folding mug for the toilets. All these and more can now be dusted and brought to life, as and when the proposed centre becomes operational. It will also be an opportunity for all the vendors who supply to the Indian railways and the good word on design will spread.

There is another significance.

The government departments are suddenly sitting up and taking notice of design. The Handloom and handicrafts ministries are already investing in design. The MSME ministry has set aside Rs 77 Crores to promote design as a driver to manufacture better products made by the small and medium-scale enterprises with their ‘ Design Clinic scheme’.

There are so many other sectors of the government that can now think in terms of investing in design. The agriculture ministry can set up design centres to make better implements and products. The health ministry can easily use ‘design thinking’ to make better healthcare services. The rural development ministry can easily use design to really develop the rural areas of our country. The education ministry can put their money to good use by leveraging design in education. This is just the beginning, but design has this power to transcend barriers and solve problems across all the sectors of the economy.

In a recently concluded design conference, the international product designer Karim Rashid said that ‎”If India does not establish some brands soon, it will be too late since all the imports will just take over the country. It was a shame that the hotel I stayed at in New Delhi had Italian lighting, Italian furniture, German sinks, German faucets, French products,” (as quoted in The Economist.) If Karim Rashid had not stayed in a star hotel and spent a night in an Indian train, he would have realized that designers in India need to spend more time in addressing the problems of the people and would have had a different take on Indian design.

And as for the Indian Railways, it is doing well by putting design on track.



  1. I sincerely hope we designers don’t muck this up. Last time some design students worked on designing a new water bottle for the railways. Didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. From a purely build point of view, the railways have mastered the art of solid products. We need to understand the engineering and the reasons for this before embarking on our form freak outs. Detailed user analysis is critical and n short cuts in the design process will lead to some really great products for the railways and for design to truly shine in the indian landscape.


  2. Dear Bala

    What a wonderful post and how timely it is. I too was thrilled to hear the Railway Minister read out the Budget Speech in the Parliament and I wonder how many of the Parliamentarians paid heed to the 2 minutes of fame for Design and for NID perhaps in the history of modern India. It is never too late and your extremely optimistic note can get partners and I do hope that it does.

    The design profession in India needs to act on concert and place concrete proposals before government and industry for action and investments across the use of design in as many as 230 sectors of our economy which are in desperate need for design and unfortunately they are still unaware of that need partly because of the apathy of our leadership and our inability to communicate in a coherent manner while addressing areas of national need and opportunity for action in the field. The established forums such as the India Design Council are harking about “Good Design” and not addressing these critical areas since they are not easily seen as what industry and business can de in India today. Much of design effort that would be needed are in the alternate areas of social and public needs and these are the ones that industry has little interest in since the profit motive does not match the wealth creation as a value proposition. We will need to crack this lacunae. The India Design Forum where Karim Rashid made his now famous words about Indian design are the same areas that Indian industry and government seem to be clamoring for it seems and this kind of design was described by Sir Christopher Conford as design with a capital “D”. This gets all the attention in our media and on page three of all news magazines as well. However the design with the lower-case “d”, the small “d”, which is all but ignored and this is perhaps where we will need to place our collective attention.

    In any case, Dinesh Trivedi did a huge service to NID and to the design movement in India and it is indeed up to the profession to take charge and do what is needed in which we will need to mobilise government and other partners if it is to happen at all in this decade or the next few – hopefully draw attention to quality and relevance and not just “jugaad”, which we seem to celebrate in India, with a “chalta hai” attitude.

    Prof M P Ranjan
    from my iMac at home on the NID campus
    22 March 2012 at 11.35 am IST


    1. Isn’t this similar to what was done by RBI – and designing of the new currency?The talk was heavy about user experience but looking at the final output – one can see that the design does not have the ‘user’ in mind at all. The one rupee and 5 rupee coins, the 100 and 500 rupees note… even wonders where is the ‘design’? Isn’t there some confusion about the issue?


  3. It is good to hear about the Rail Design Centre. I hope we have better and comfortable trains to travel. I agree to Alka Misra to quite an extent. The new currency designs did not excite me as well. Moreover, I have something to share. My parents are blind. They could identify currency earlier because of the difference in weights and sizes. But, they do not have this option now. For example, One rupee and the two rupee coins are almost similar. I hope, in future, we have designs that center more on the user.


  4. I really hope NID doesn’t ruin it, like they have ruined recent projects, the currency being one. I like your optimistic note, but much of the 77 crore being allotted to MSME (Design Clinic Scheme at NID) is going into people’s pockets. Lets hope for the best.


  5. I remember something about urging industrial design awareness in India when I.K.Gujral as the prime minister had visited NID when I was a student. We did think at that time that something would evolve from it, but sadly, Gujral went and it all fell silent! This announcement by Dinesh Trivedi is welcome indeed; but now, Dinesh Trivedi is no more there in the hot seat! I know (through personal friends of Mr Trivedi) that he was a man who really wanted to change things in the railways. Now, I wonder if this centre will indeed come up or not! If it does, as Amit Seth has said earlier, I too hope that it is taken up seriously by all those who get an opportunity to work on it and create something really good. It should be user-centric, solidly engineered design that is inclusive and proves the validity of a uniquely Indian design proposition, which can become a model for other nations to emulate as well. If NID treats it as just another funding source for itself, I think it will defeat the purpose. Professionals should be invited to partake in the project along with the students. Thanks, Bala, for the article!


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