Trend Workshop for Renault Design Team 

Onio organised the Trends Workshop for Renault Design Team in June 2007. A 15 people cross-functional team drawn from various design offices of Renault, attended the workshop, lead by Manoj Kothari, the Principal Strategist for Onio.
Onio writes for Business Week on Design and Innovation in India 
Design in India: The View From Within : Manoj Kothari writes for BusinessWeek

The author, a strategist at Onio Design in Pune, says a big boom in innovation and design is coming

India has a small, busy community of professional industrial designers (around 3,000 in total). And for them, things have never been so good. While we hear from the European design professionals and interns at my design firm, Onio, how hard it is to find a decent design job elsewhere, many young designers in India find companies lining up with lucrative offers even before they graduate.

The software industry needs designers to beef up its graphical user interfaces; brick-and-mortar businesses need more traditional corporate design; and product-led companies have started turning to serious innovation and design. But while the overall mood is upbeat, the country's businesses are nonetheless sharply divided when it comes to their ability to absorb or apply real innovation. Here's a brief, personal take on the different attitudes being shown toward design in India today.

Let's begin with startups. There are two types of startups in India—and you see them in all industries. The first is spawned by the second or third generation of a well-to-do business family. These chief executives are aggressive and more attuned to a Western model of experimenting with new ideas than their elders, and they have generally experienced the power of good design.

But these guys suffer when it comes to major decisions that involve large changes or expenditure. Their boards are invariably still made up of older, more traditionally minded family members who make pushing forward a design-driven agenda less than smooth sailing.

Software for the Indian Market
The other kind of startup is usually the child of a team of technocrats who left flourishing careers to give shape to an idea—in other words, the more traditional, Silicon Valley style of company. Increasingly, entrepreneurs who were embedded in engineering want to convert that knowledge to capitalize on India's booming gadget market. These startups are more open to innovation, ideas, and expenditure than are those in the first category.

Transtrite, for instance, makes GPS-based vehicle tracking products, which are gaining popularity because of newly constructed expressways across the country. I should note here that despite the media frenzy about the Indian software industry, software products designed specifically for the Indian market are still a rarity. So this is a fledgling group, but one set to have increasing impact in the coming years.

Next are the traditionally successful companies that used to rule the Indian market with their once-great products that may now be badly dated. These are feeling the heat of competition from local companies as well as from better-designed foreign products, and are far from visionary.

Owners cling to an attitude of "We know what works for us. We know the market. Give us a design to match that foreign brand, and we'll take care of the rest, we've done it before."

Big Businesses, Old School
Part of this attitude comes from the monopoly they enjoyed in the past, and part of it comes from ignorance of the reality of innovation today. Sporadic or incremental innovation does not accomplish anything, and these companies are heading for a disaster unless they do something radical—and soon.

Then there are the established Indian business houses. These are usually a part of bigger conglomerates with multiple business lines—making and selling diverse products such as soap and software and employing designers across all their companies.
In general, all have done well in understanding the language and worth of design. I'm talking here about companies such as BlowPlast in office furniture systems, Titan in watches, Onida in consumer appliances, or VIP in luggage.

But today, some in this category are suffering from a problem of having enough insight (the starting point of design) to decide the course of innovation, but not enough to implement it within the new market realities, which are changing at a faster pace than ever before

Another Round of Mediocrity
In one meeting with a TV giant that had better remain nameless, I asked them why, when they've ruled the Indian market for so many years, they had not managed to become the Sony of India? Total silence. Even though they have a full design studio (doing reasonably good work), their products don't differ much from other international players who are putting all their financial and design might into eating the Indian pie.

Once these companies understand that they have to innovate, they don't seem ready to take the riskier step of continuing to do so. It will take another round of mediocrity and failure before they understand that engaging with higher paradigms of design is not optional. These companies have the potential to become shining icons of Indian design, but they need a visionary leader to take them there.

The fifth category is the most recent—multinationals wanting to localize innovation for the Indian market. This one comes courtesy of the booming Indian economy and signals foreign awareness of the end of the Indian consumer's love affair with foreign products.
Once upon a time, everything with an overseas label sold well. For years, foreign companies operating in India considered Indian consumers "Third World" residents who would be happy with any foreign label, and who didn't have an idea of ergonomics, style, or evolved taste.

Getting to Know You
Products that had proved unfashionable elsewhere were introduced in India, but then the Indian consumer began to catch on. Traditional segmentation and economic capacity-based studies don't wash any more. Gone are the days when Indian consumers would buy whatever was presented to them.

With many choices and plenty of information on what is available—and what constitutes world-class quality—consumers know what they are looking for. So now companies planning for a longish stay in India are seeking more local insights into the minds of their users.
One of the companies we are working with is Volkswagen, which is using a mix of market statistics, ethnographic research, and trend research to understand the dynamics of the Indian mind. They still have design studios far away from Indian soil, but there is a sign of increasing Indian involvement in their innovation process—at last.

The last category is the large public sector companies, hitherto untouched by "design." They are the legacy of pre-liberalized India and still enjoy huge support from the government in terms of money and policies.

Design here is a not a mandate. Usually it is forced by competition—one of the senior managers decides to try it out. The problem they face is that it can take a long time before the power of design is truly understood by all tiers of a hierarchy. So they continue to struggle with good design, bad design, and no design all lumped together. But these companies are becoming bigger beacons of design. They are ready to experiment.

Excitement Ahead
So where does it go from here? Well, the Indian economy is booming. Consumers are showing signs of becoming discerning mature buyers and users. Companies are ready to spend money and take risks. The government even declared a National Design Policy (though the effect on the ground will take a long time to become visible) (see, 2/14/07, "India's Designs on Innovation").

New design schools are opening every year (there are more than a dozen now). Design companies are getting their acts together to attract investors and grow (WPP invested in Bangalore-based Ray+Keshvan, Tessaract became Idiom with the help of Future Group, Onio got angel investment.)
Internationally acclaimed design houses like IDEO are on the prowl for their piece of India. Even the Italian government has seen the opportunity and is promoting the Italian design industry heavily on Indian soil. All of this points to an exciting road ahead for design in India.
There are hurdles for sure: the lack of a trained intermediate layer (design engineers and design managers) or a governing body for design practice, the lack of skilled supporting resources such as model-makers and prototyping companies, and above all, the lack of trained designers in the country may slow the big boom of innovation that can transform India. But it's coming.

Manoj Kothari is founder, director, and senior design strategist of Pune-based industrial design and branding firm Onio Design.

  |  related link
Manoj Kothari at one of the formative meetings of PDF (Pune Design Foudnation) for Pune Design Festival 

Insights from Insight India 2007 at Copenhagen 
Are luxury brands likely to succeed in India?
Do Indian consumers still look at European styling with awe? Do they always yearn for European products? What is the 'Indian' element in product design that consumers are looking for? Is sustainability a far fetched idea for Indian market?

These were some of the questions generated and discussed in the Insight India 2007, organised by Onio Design and Style-Vision of France in collaboration with Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies. It attracted people from senior management of companies like IKEA from Sweden, Henkel from Germany, Volkswagen from Germany, Symrise from France and Propeller from Sweden.

Manoj Kothari from Onio spoke on the socio-cultural insights that affect the innovation strategy for India, followed by a joint presentation of current trends along with Genevieve Flaven of Style-Vision.

Mr. Axel Olessen, the managing director of Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies did notice that the real race for Indian market is still two years away for the Scandinavian companies.

Participants were surprised at the subtle innovations appreciated by Indian market as demonstrated by Onio's case for Lexi pens. The key insights for innovation for Indian consumers as demonstrated by Onio i.e. Bold & Gold, Longevity, Collective Wisdom, Inherent Value and Quasi-static changes were well appreciated by participants in the context of design.

Business Week Report on Onio's views on National Design Policy ... han=search

India's Designs on Innovation

Compared with its Asian rivals, India has been slow to make design a priority. But a new national policy commits to doing business with style
by Nandini Lakshman

In India, design has never been a part of the business lexicon. Now, New Delhi wants to change that. This month, 40 years after setting up the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat, the Indian government finally ratified a design policy to make the discipline a national priority.

To achieve this, the new policy envisages a "platform for creative design development, design promotion and partnerships across many sectors, states, and regions for integrating design with traditional and technological resources."

Not only has the NID been deemed a university, the government wants to set up four more NIDs and make design a part of the curriculum in engineering and other educational pursuits. Finer details are still scarce, but with education as the key issue, it will bank on public-private partnerships to foster design.

Design Latecomer
So far, India has only a dozen design programs, compared with 241 in China. There are 300 design colleges in Korea, in contrast to India's 10. While China churns out 30,000 design students annually, India produces just one-third of that number. And while Asia is increasingly becoming the hotbed of design, India is nowhere on the scene.

This policy is the first sign that the government wants to rectify that. It comes at a time when both China and India—with their roaring economies—are among the most happening destinations globally. Says Sridhar Marri, head of the communication design group at Infosys Technologies, "The design-led economic transformation that we have always dreamed of in India can now be visualized on the horizon."

This initiative would put an emphasis on innovation at all levels. Even as Japanese and Korean brands consistently give their western counterparts a run for their money, Indian brands continue to dominate only in their home market. But with Indian companies increasingly displaying global aspirations, the realization that only innovation and design can set them apart from the crowd is dawning.

Crucial Differentiator
"This is a great move from the government of India to express and indicate support for India's design and innovation capabilities in the global arena," says Niti Bhan, a San Francisco-based emerging-markets strategist. "If India takes a leaf from the other Asian nations' books, they have a chance to be catapulted onto the world stage."

Until now design has never been a big concern, but more an incidental function in Indian business. But today, with stiff competition and scores of foreign brands and services invading India, design and product offerings are being touted as the only differentiators in the clutter. "The policy has the power to create an innovation ecosystem in the country," adds Marri.

Driving this system are hordes of small and midsize enterprises that are using design to make their presence felt. Drawing on the vastness of India, with all its cultural diversity, marketers are using design to make a global foray.

Making It Click
Take the case of the Lexi pen, made by a small manufacturer. It has a cap that makes a satisfying click sound when it's shut. With the click denoting the preservation of the object, the pen has been a roaring success in India. Manoj Kothari, founder of Pune-based Onio Design, which designed the product, claims his client is set to launch this product overseas, with certain tweaks. But he adds, "Most of our design has been reactionary rather than preemptive."

And such instances are few and far between, as India is struggling to develop its own Samsungs and LGs. Kothari also points out flaws in the policy—a lack of practical application pointers, for one. "The generic vision statement has a Utopian bonanza built into it. What's missing is a sustained and integrated plan for design and innovation," he says. He compares it to a patchwork of swatches from different world baskets that have been sewn together. "We are using design as a noun, but it should be also a verb for systematic innovation."

At the very least, the policy is an indication that design and innovation are topics at the tables of the nation's leaders.

Lakshman covers India business for BusinessWeek.

Back Next

  Copyright 2010 ONIO DESIGN PVT. LTD. All Rights Reserved.