Design in the Boardroom


It was a sign of the times.

It was an event on Design, hosted by the hugely popular business newspaper Economic Times in India.

In that just concluded ET Design Summit 2015, in Mumbai, Mr Navroze Godrej, was quoted as saying ‘ Design should be elevated to the Boardroom level, if business is to make design really work at senior level.’ Noble thought that. Navroze is singularly qualified to say this. He is the new generation Godrej in the Board of Godrej & Boyce, who is also a qualified industrial designer from IIT Institute of Design, Chicago. He is also credited with introducing disruptive innovation in the company by setting up an Innovation centre at Godrej.

As a fellow designer, I am happy that he is using his position of power to create Design awareness. Navroze is in the board, because he is a Godrej and an heir apparent to the group of companies. He can also be the poster boy for the Boardroom designer, a new spin-off to the design professional in India.

Another designer who is using her design skills to design strategy instead of stuff is Ashni Biyani, director in the Future Group board, that is led by her famous father, Kishore Biyani.

Ashni has even better credentials. After she graduated in Textiles Design from Srishti School of Art & Design, Bangalore, she did design courses in Parsons and then a management qualification from Stanford, only to come back and join the Future group, the big dad of retailing in India. She is being credited with single-handedly bringing design-led thinking to the group that owns brands like Big Bazaar, Nilgiris and Central.  Ashni is known to influence the entire group into Design thinking and helps strategising the business.

Suddenly, Design is being looked upon as the Holy Grail that will bring succour to the businesses in India. Vishal Sikka, CEO of Infosys and an ex-SAP man, seems to have ordained all the 5000-plus staff in Infosys to go through a programme on Design Thinking. That  his ex-company SAP’s Hasso Plattner also supports the d* school in Stanford, shows where Mr Sikka’s influence comes from. He claims that, “ thinking, a creative and systematic approach to problem-solving by placing the user at the centre of the experience, has helped the business win five large deals.” Sikka should be made the patron saint of design thinking.

In what can be termed as an industry-first, he has roped in design professionals to help his sales team to write and design sales pitches.

IMG_20150602_114207405This augurs very well for the Design profession. Designers can now find new avenues in businesses, because of their singularly important skill on design thinking.

Godrej and Biyani have found their way into the board room, more because they have the chosen surnames and not because that they are designers. But, seemingly, they are leveraging their position of power to spread the cause of Design thinking. When they move on to higher positions, they would be keen to use professional designers, who may not be family.

Long time ago, in 2011, Time magazine had waxed eloquent about the Indian CEO. I had written a post on this, pitching for Designers as CEOs, which was received very well.

I quote:

“What I find interesting is the attributes that Indians have that is apparently tailor-made for operating in the chaotic world today: Multi culturalism, ability to work under complex constraints, working with meagre or depleting resources and speaking the global business language : English.

With all these qualities and the ability to come up with beautiful attractive, cost-effective solutions, applying design thinking, makes the Indian designer ready and primed for the post of the global CEO.”

I am happy to see that a beginning has been made. Designers entering the board room, will definitely make an impact in businesses and the sooner the businesses learn that, the better.

Designers are going to give their MBA counter-parts in businesses something to think about.






Visibility First

By A Balasubramaniam

A recent job ad on an Indian website for an ‘International Product Designer’ announced  ‘Indians and NRIs (non-resident Indian) need not apply’. After a facebook uproar and a mail from the professional designers body ADI, the ad’s words were changed to ” Expats preferred”.

This post is not about establishing bigotry.

Why will a tile manufacturing company, based out of Gurgaon, near Delhi look for expats for their design team? Is there a crisis of confidence here that the design community should look into? Are we not ‘good enough’ for an international assignment, even within India? Even if we have been trained in international institutes and worked along with global designers? Or are we ‘invisible’?

When the Delhi Metro wanted signage designers they went to London to ‘international’ designers. In 2002, Tata went to Turin, Italy to get their Tata Indica designed. The now famous example of India’s capabilities, the TATA NANO was also designed by IDEA in Italy.  Fashion has always been dominated by designers who do not belong to India. Even the government of India favours foreign designers. When the ruling DMK government in Tamil Nadu, wanted an assembly building, they appointed architects from Germany. It is almost always fashionable to advertise the names of foreign architectural firms in big ticket infrastructure projects.


I am not arguing for ‘reservation’ here, but surely, Indian design communities are being  sidelined by the established global businesses in India.

Businesses should be told about the benefits of using Indian design talent. Design Research in London would have been stumped by the fact that there are at least 15 different languages spoken in Delhi? That all signages are available in Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu. Will a German design firm understand the Dravidian Tamil legislators in white veshti and angavastram, while designing the building? Will Turin ever understand how the Indica is used as taxies and the luggage space is woefully low?

When you understand the target users, you will be able to deliver to their unique requirements. Which is why KFC in India has a vegetarian menu. And Pizza Hut serves tandoori paneer pizza to a delighted audience. Which is why Big Bazaar has the most foot-falls in retail. To understand your audience, you need designers with ‘local’ flavours who empathise with their users.

Design community in India is still being quantified. Recent calculations show that there could be about 15,000 practising designers across different design verticals. Hopefully, many are doing meaningful work that affects us all. But it is not visible enough.

NID is celebrating its 50th year of existence. Most design-related institutions in India have been set up the graduates of NID. So, in effect, this is like the golden jubilee celebrations of ‘ Design in India’. The impact of design in India must be measured. The moment has come for stock-taking. To do an introspection.

To become visible for all to stand up and take notice.