Design for Free

There was this recent news item about an architect, Mr Hafiz Contractor offering to design 19 railway stations for free for the Indian Railways. The minister announced this with much fanfare. The article also mentions their call to architects inviting them to do pro-bono work for them.

This raises so many questions, in so many levels.

Why should Indian Railways, with the kind of money at their disposal, call for pro-bono work from designers?

What does the architect gain by doing design for free? Does it help the profession or destroy it?

Why are professional bodies of architecture and design, silent over such a move?

Is this the only way in which qualified designers can engage with Railways? If not, what should be the methodology?

When there’s a need for better facilities, new graphics, signage or furniture, will there be another call for ‘pro-bono’ designers?

Designers need to come together to discuss this threadbare. The government of India can be the biggest buyer of Indian design talent.

Young designers are often left with no option but to do free design work.

It starts with designing a wedding card for a friend. Then there’s the NGO that does good work and has no money to pay for design. Or a corporate bigwig whose project will look good in your portfolio, even if you do this for free. Then there’s a design competition you so badly want to win. Or a small business that needs to be educated on the benefits of design.

It grows into other areas too. A free lecture at a university. Or a pro-bono jury member. Advisory roles that don’t pay. Fancy titles for free consultation.

It’s time we decide what to do about free design work. It’s high time we get together to free the design profession from this menace.

Design & Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence has been dominating design conversations all over the world. AI has been making small and sometimes significant inroads into our lives. In India, it is still in a nascent stage but we are staring at it already. It remains to be seen, however, as to how many designers in India are working on this. The sooner we get into it, the better.

I am hoping that Indian designers will make a huge contribution in AI. We can handle chaos like no one can and AI needs more people who can survive in chaotic conditions.

For now, AI is still chaotic.

The signs are all there. We seem to correct auto-correct more than auto-correct corrects us, while inputting on our phones. Traffic prompts by Google does not take into account cattle on the roads, religious processions or wedding baarats. Families in India use one id, on one desktop, resulting in a variety of queries that baffle any algorithm. Our driving styles on pot-holed roads will defy any driverless car.

Come to think of it, our designers should be able to contribute to any AI project better than our counterparts elsewhere. To do that, designers should develop better empathy for situations. They already have a keen sense of seeing a pattern in the chaos. We are better prepared to expect the unexpected. For a nation this size, Big Data is always a norm.

Businesses will benefit using Indian designers and the design fraternity in India will find the opportunity to deal with Artificial Intelligence a welcome change from dealing with Natural stupidity!

Design engendered

It’s the International Women’s Day and it is time to celebrate womanhood in all its glory. Fortunately for us in Design and especially in India, women constitute 50% of our profession, if not more. The profession sees no gender biases and many women designers are vocal, visible and successful in India.

I am writing to bring to the notice of buyers of design, about bringing gender nuances to products and communication which will make them more gender-neutral.

When we were asked to design a range of craft kits or hobby kits for children, we were asked by the client to make kits for girls. When we enquired why, we were told that crafts are a girls’ domain. To educate our client and therefore the end users, we designed a series of kits that were specifically gender-neutral.

So we did a kit where you learn to make and fly kites. Or make props for play-acting. Or making stuff to celebrate Halloween and Diwali. We had, in the process, educated our client and ensured a new set of happy customers for him.

While working on products for children was easy, working on gender-specific products for women, was not. When a client approached us to design a device for women to stand-and-pee at restrooms and other places, we were completely at sea. We realised that designing for women is not such an easy task. I remember as a student, I was discouraged by my teachers, when I wanted to design a delivery table for women. I was told that it is unfamiliar territory. The same male teacher, however, had developed a ‘pill-dispenser’ for sexually active women, which indicated safe days for coitus.

How often do we see products and spaces developed exclusively for women? By men? In a free-wheeling conversation, a fellow designer mentioned about Taj Hotels’ disastrous attempt to create a ‘Women’s only‘ floor. A nifty idea to begin with. But the spaces were designed with pink walls and flowery bedsheets and stocked with women’s magazines and cookery books. This was clearly a man’s idea of a woman’s space!

Why are women’s razors pink and curvy? Who ordained it this way? A quick image search shows all of girls’ bicycles in pink!

Why should girls’ bicycles be in pink with a flower basket in the front? Why are there more men’s toilets in public spaces? These stereotypes are still going on, mainly because of the fact that men decide for women in most such cases. While there are enough architects and designers who are women, we are yet to see the gender-neutrality getting into our psyche.

It isn’t enough celebrating successful women on every 8th of March. We need to march towards a gender-neutral society. We need to be not just inclusive. We need to focus our energies on designing exclusive products and systems and spaces that are for women and women-friendly. With a lot of empathy. And this has to be done with the sensitivity it deserves, so that design gets engendered. Otherwise, it will definitely, get endangered.

Design Thinking gets a new evangelist

The Business Standard’s columnist, Subir Roy, today wrote an incisive column, asking the business folks and the PM to ‘ forget – Make in India and try Design Thinking’. Will the PM and the business tycoons listen to the newest design evangelist, please? shot 2015-04-08 at 5.12.49 PM

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.

Demand Good Design

Demand good design!

By  A Balasubramaniam

Today is World Industrial Design Day. (29th June).

How does it change anything for you? Let’s say, by now you have brushed your teeth, put on a kettle, had a cup of tea and showered. That means you have been touched by the work of an industrial designer. The toothbrush, the kettle, the coffee mug, the shower, the lounge chair have all been designed by industrial designers. But the moot point is this: did you have a good experience? Did the toothbrush seem worth the price? Did the kettle safely dispense hot water? Did the cistern flush properly, saving water? Did the shower work well? Is the chair ergonomical to read broadsheet newspapers? If not, there is a design problem.

Design and designers influence the way we live, work and play. They work to make the whole experience worthwhile. They deal with form, function, safety, maintenance, graphics, packaging, colour and aesthetics of products and systems.

Designers are trained to make a product functionally better, aesthetically appealing, easy-to-manufacture and considerate to the environment. In short, it makes a product a delight to own and use.

When was the last time you were delighted by design? In India, very often, one feels let down by bad design. Have you ever wondered why an alarm did not go off in the morning as set? Or a toothbrush packaging that is difficult to tear open? Low slung Japanese cars always get stuck in the monsoon onslaught on Indian roads. Chairs in a conference room which are not comfortable for long hours. Door handles that don’t turn properly is a regular irritant.  All of us have mobile phones with features we hardly use. Washing machines have no programmes for chunnis, turbans and 9-yard sarees.  Public buses and trains that are difficult to climb for the elderly and the differently-abled. Bank ATMs that are too difficult to decipher is a common complaint. Toys that are unsafe for children are a common concern. The list can go on.

So why does this happen? Often times, the designers are called upon only when things go wrong. Businesses look at design as an unnecessary expense that add to the costs. Price of a product is still more appealing than safety features. And the lowest quoted contractor gets to build the park bench or the bus stand.

Companies do not realize that bad design works out to be more expensive in the long run. Brands lose their sheen, re-calls are expensive and bad word spread faster than good word.

How do designers work for a better product experience? By empathizing with the user. By applying design thinking, designers work towards creating better products and systems. Designers have been trained to be people-centric, business driven, eco-friendly and responsible.

Why do Indian businesses get away with bad design? Because, we still do not demand better design from our industries. Consumers are used to badly designed products everywhere around us.  We need to grow to expect better design. We need to build a constituency that appreciates good design. Lets demand quality and safety. Lets surround ourselves with good-looking products. Lets educate ourselves about making products sustainable. Lets put a premium on delight of ownership. When customers grow to expect that, businesses would have no choice but to cater to customer demands. And will begin to look at design as an integral part of the product cycle. An investment that is required for a good business.

Till that happens, World Industrial Design Day will only be a celebration of a select few.

A Balasubramaniam is a trained product designer who founded January Design. He is an early graduate of NID, Ahmedabad in Industrial Design. He can be reached at