The world of design is a complex one. From helping brands differentiate their offerings to fusing with art to provoke thinking, design has always explored unchartered territories. But what goes on behind the design lab’s doors? We find out.
At the recent India Design ID 2020, a stunning piece from Italian designer Matteo Cibic’s Animagic collection challenged stereotypes. Cast in brass and crafted with white resin inlay, the Ciuco Cabinet pushed the boundaries of shape and form. A large brass donkey head sat atop a brass- and resin-lined shirt, whose buttons became handles to open and reveal a spacious cabinet within. A celebration of animal forms in andromorphous design, it was an odd mix of humour, luxury and utility. Going beyond just being furniture, the almost life-like sculptural object not only had aesthetic appeal, but also challenged conventional approach.
Good design, experts say, should combine factors like technology, ergonomics, aesthetic and function, keeping in mind consumer need, purpose and durability. Design, however, has different contexts for different people. The design of a young working mother’s bag, for instance, would be vastly different from the ergonomically-designed bag of a biker. Institutes like National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) and National Institute of Design (NID) give huge importance to these basics. “A vivid knowledge of the ecosystem, along with the user and product, is important… one must know how the designer can imagine the product usage or how a consumer might use it,” says Vandana Narang, campus director, NIFT, New Delhi.
Preetha Hussain, professor, fashion and lifestyle accessories, NIFT, New Delhi, suggests a three-pronged approach. “A three-pronged approach—cognitive, skill-based and knowledge-based—in the design process helps a designer question the status quo,” she says.
Since designing also concerns social, physical and ecological environments, Praveen Nahar, director, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, finds product design synonymous with planning. “It is the end product of a long chain of activities, which has components of human factors, improvement in design, comfort and safety,” he says. Clearly, in today’s world, a product designer has to be a multi-tasker. “A product designer is an artist, thinker, inventor, engineer, planner, builder, collaborator, visionary and strategist,” says Jeyanthi Nadesalingam, professor and dean, Sushant School of Design, Ansal University, Gurugram. “He can solve multidisciplinary problems and can suggest solutions to handle complex issues—like water scarcity, sustainability and climate change—in the world today.”
So what does it take for a piece of design to stand out? It could be the detailing, aesthetics, functionality, mass appeal or even a work breaking stereotypes and contemporising to suit modern demands. Take, for instance, Sprouts, a 40-feet-high public art installation in stainless steel, which came about as a Delhi government initiative towards the beautification of the capital more than a decade ago. Designed by artist Vibhor Sogani, it is spread over six acres of greens surrounding the AIIMS flyover in the heart of Delhi and signifies growth, development and progress. Sogani, who has been engaged in industrial design projects since 1992, depicted India as a growing nation through stainless steel, the new-age material. “Design is a meticulous and sensitive process that leads to a more evolved outcome,” says the founder-director of Sogani, a signature brand of high-end luxury lights and light installations. “Apart from Sprouts, my Fold series is a very pertinent example, which derived inspiration from the traditional Japanese paper-folding art. It became a design after my own attempts at Origami, and the beauty that these unfinished forms held. That’s one of the many reasons that a design becomes a design,” he says.
To be sure, design can be defined in many ways. “In business language, a design is essentially a plan. From the smallest objects in and around us to massive architectural structures, there is an inspiration or reason for it becoming iconic and useful. Either it is the need to find a solution or to present a larger-than-life image. So for businesses, design becomes the core of every development,” says Raj Manek, executive director and board member, Messe Frankfurt Asia Holding, which is known to hold mega trade fairs globally.
Design specifically plays a very important role for brands, as that is how they can differentiate their offerings. Ashwini Holkar Pable, strategic consultant director, India and south-east Asia, Bluemarlin, a strategic brand design agency, which has worked with brands such as Saffola, Britannia Treat, Ballantine’s, Muller Quark Yogurt, Schweppes, etc, feels the power of a design is when it connects and talks to the consumer. “Idea representation in an impactful manner and its engagement with the customer is design. Design can be a process that could lead to some disruptive business outcome,”
Pable narrates the instance when the agency was asked to reposition the Britannia Treat portfolio amongst a wider range of consumers. In response, Bluemarlin presented a new brand proposition of ‘fun in between’ that ensured the brand could address a larger and older audience while retaining its playfulness. The packaging design interpreted this with emoji personalities forming three distinct groups that the product could be clubbed under—cool, happy and naughty. The new design instantly ensured a more contemporary appeal and created opportunities for conveying the brand’s fun-loving spirit across all its variants. It also resulted in more than double sales.
Another brand intervention as stated by Kunal Sehdev, founder and chief design strategist, Kuse—a design agency, which has worked with United Colors of Benetton (UCB), Jack & Jones, Tupperware, Medusa, etc—was for Domino’s Pizza where a double-walled insulated body was introduced in pizza delivery boxes to keep the food fresh. The L-shaped opening especially made it convenient for delivery boys to access the pizzas as they have to open and close the box multiple times during the day. The packaging can also be flattened and is easy to transport. According to Pable, there are two factors that define what a good design can do for a brand: capture the personality of the product and clearly communicate the brand proposition.
Be it textile, fashion, product or interior design, the word ‘premium’ is prevalent in every domain. Sogani’s custom-made light installation Shell, for example, is an example of a premium design. Priced at approximately Rs 15 lakh, it is inspired from the conch shell and captures the essence of life and nature. “About 4,000 mirror-finished stainless steel balls were welded together to create the mesmerising light installation. The first piece took about six-eight months from conceptualisation to final form,” says Sogani.
So what makes a design premium? Research costs, designer intervention, quality control, premium retail, marketing expenses and sometimes intricate and minute detailing. Premium also refers to items that have an exceptional reputation. “Designing can be done on various levels—quality enhancement, user-friendliness, packaging, etc—and these aspects… help the product reach the status quo of premium. The premium factor is also based on market surveys and research about the product,” says Mansi Gupta, CEO and co-founder, Tjori, an online marketplace of ethnic wear for women.
Online jewellery store Voylla takes cue from traditional arts and crafts for its premium range, explains Jagrati Shringi, its co-founder and creative design head. “The premium tag is not attached at the end of the finished product, but right at the inception level. For our patola-inspired collection, which starts at Rs 5,000, we have collaborated with a textile revivalist and spent considerable hours in executing it,” she says. Diamond company Forevermark, too, creates designs with an emphasis on the elements of variety and surprise to enhance the essence of the diamonds. “We focus on specific consumer requirements and develop designs where the diamond holds central focus surrounded by meaningful details,” says Federica Imperiali, head, new product development, Forevermark.
Natasha Jain, CEO and co-founder of home décor and furniture brand Bent Chair, however, believes the word ‘premium’ is a misnomer. It’s exclusivity that matters. Bent Chair, which offers a wide range of handcrafted chairs, tables, mirrors, bookends, cushions, wall decor items, etc, maintains the exclusivity factor in its handcrafted products through form, finish, materials used and technologies deployed, she says. “Our metal reed chair has traditional form and classic contours, and can be translated into a contemporary furniture piece with indoor and outdoor use. It has a dual purpose. The classic form is sculptural in language and extremely adaptable to modern-day living,” she says.
What’s also important is to maintain a consistent brand language throughout offerings. “One must maintain their brand language across all models and products as far as possible, a signature that makes a customer relate to the brand,” says Sandeep Tewari, president, marketing, Usha International, a fast moving consumer durables brand. “It’s important for brands to evolve to keep up with the times in the form of new feel and finish. A combination of the above is the only way to stay ahead of the product design curve,” he adds.
Not all products, however, are created with that intention in mind. “Not all products go through a rigorous design process,” says Anthony Lopez, founder and principal designer, Lopez Design, a multidisciplinary branding firm in Delhi. “Some pass as MVP (minimum viable product) where the intent is to get the product out. This can be due to various reasons: government policies, to gain first-mover advantage, etc. In such cases, the product tends to fail at various levels… this is mostly because at this front, financial feasibility of the product is important. Another set of products that qualify as MDP (minimum desirable product) incorporate minimum design intervention to put a check on product cost while maintaining usability. It all boils down to the relevance and life of a product to further judge if it is worth selling or not,” he adds.
While it’s true that elements like detailing make a product premium, what’s also equally important is for a consumer to find value in it. “Certain niches, if created well, hold value and you don’t need to explain this value to the customer,” says Mukul Goyal, principal designer and director, Designwise India, a design-led company manufacturing and marketing metalware home products. Goyal makes handcrafted metalware products in brass, with human figures dominating almost all his work. Goyal, who used to make ornaments out of scrap (discarded watches, old suitcases, fish hooks, electrical appliances, etc) earlier, today creates functional and non-functional Art Deco pieces, which are supplied in 30 countries besides India. “I never look at what the consumer demands, but what I can offer. Even if a pen holder is priced at Rs 2,400, I would assume by its success that people see value in it. Those buying from a designer will consider that design as elitist. My customers look for exclusivity… I can’t create a mass product since it’s not me,” Goyal says, adding, “The cost of a product should be less than the actual price of the product… the perceived value… is very subjective. A person who is buying it may find value in it, but the other may not.”
A good example of consumer-focused approach is Kohler’s new range of bath spaces—which is available in vibrant colours such as peacock, truffle and thunder grey—tracing Indian culture. “When one decides to invest in our products, they pay for a premium product. So it’s imperative to create products that are future-proof and in line with the shift in preferences and requirements of people… the peacock colour is inspired from the national bird and is apt for modern Indian interiors,” says Mark Bickerstaffe, director, new product development in kitchen and bath, Europe and Asia Pacific, Kohler.
There are also many instances from across the world today where emerging technology is being assimilated successfully into design. “Design makes technology appetising and makes products useful and usable,” says Jay Dutta, founder and curator, DesignUp, a festival which focuses on the design agenda within tech firms. He narrates the example of New Zealand-based UX researcher Yvonne Tse who decided to make the immigration area across airports in her country more accessible to visitors. What she did was recreate the space in VR, so that visitors could relive the experience if they so wished. This was done by hacking through several prototypes and finetuning the methodology.
Design meets art
Art and design may well be called first cousins. Where one ends and the other begins, in fact, becomes a blurry line sometimes. Take, for instance, the sculpture car from the BMW Art Car Collection, which was showcased at the 2019 India Art Fair in Delhi. All the features that depict a driver’s life were painted inside out on the car with a stylised bonnet. Created by British pop artist David Hockney, the 14th BMW Art Car is a brilliant example of art meeting high-tech design.
Kohler, too, works with artists regularly to create art pieces or bring out exclusive range of vessels, and faucets and fixtures, including bathtubs, sinks, showering consoles, lighting and accessories. Barbara Barry, Bjarke Ingels, Michael Smith, Mick De Giulio and Bill Sofield are just some of the leading artists who have collaborated with the company. “These art pieces are for them to own and exhibit, but we take a sample of their work for our learning as well. In this way, we learn from them and they learn from us, making it a more inclusive process,” adds Bickerstaffe.
While an element of art in design provokes a person to think, it should also be functional for the product to sell. “It has to answer the need of the consumer… be sustainable. Functional products do not have a linear design, but have an empathetic approach,” says NIFT’s Narang. Explaining the difference between functional and fine art, India Art Fair director Jagdip Jagpal says, “Functional art may include highly crafted artistic objects that serve a specific function or utility like an antique table or shelf prized for its historic value or a creatively conceived handbag or dress. Fine art has no function or utility and is admired for its aesthetic value.”
The bottomline is that art is usually an extension of the artist, his personality, choices and style, whereas design is driven towards meeting expectations, demands and needs. “Design can be used to meet market demand, while art speaks to the audience and is an essential tool for companies to connect with consumers. The LED Expo exhibition, for instance, shows the impact of design on an everyday-use product: lights. LED lights are integrated with smart lighting functions to beautify spaces and enhance user experience. While lighting fulfils the essential need of consumers, it’s the design aesthetics that differentiate brands selling LED lighting solutions,” says Manek of Messe Frankfurt Asia.
Rohit Kapoor, founder and creative head of bespoke home décor brand Nivasa, believes product designing is slowly transforming into art. “Our Woodpecker bed is a good example of artistic renditions and design innovation in wood. Priced at Rs 3.82 lakh , it’s a customised piece for those looking at comfort, luxury and design quotient,” he says.
Design shows play an important role in brand recognition. For Goyal, design shows are great places to display products, as well as create a customer base. Other artists agree. “These events give great exposure to our products more than a shop or studio can… as the footfall is massive, one can network throughout the day,” says Preeti Gupta of Aranya Earthcraft, which creates handcrafted eco-friendly jewellery with designs inspired by nature. Gupta, who designs bronze and papier-mâché lifestyle products, finds trade fairs a great place to connect with art lovers.
For organisers of fairs, too, it’s a beneficial scenario. “We bring exhibitors and visitors under one roof to see new designs or trends. On average, we talk to about 100 firms/potential exhibitors in a day who look at using our platform to highlight offerings and products to buyers. Some firms even get in touch for launches at exhibitions to highlight the same products with new designs,” says Manek of Messe Frankfurt Asia.
There’s no denying the fact that the future of design is big. Incorporating sustainable initiatives and inspiring people to do more with less will, however, be key, says Kapoor of Nivasa.
Denim, for instance, is one of the most popular fabrics in the textile/fashion industry. The 2019 Gartex Texprocess India, a comprehensive trade show on garment and textile machinery, however, challenged this perception by displaying a car wrapped with recycled denim, a first for India. Also on display were products like keyring holder and guitar made with denim. The application of denim in other sectors apart from fashion was strongly put across to buyers and denim manufacturers, encouraging them to experiment.
In India, the fabric and textile designing industry especially is in a state of paradox. A broader social question arises when the poorest still wear and have access to handwoven fabrics which also do not cost much, while the upper-middle-class is ready to pay a premium for authentic fabrics, seeing them as dying or elusive. Saiful Islam, textile revivalist of the original Dhakai Jamdani tradition, says, “We wish to downplay signs of affluence to be part of the masses… the phenomenal success of jeans is an example of this. By definition, crafts are usable art made for everyday use, differentiated on the basis of the artisan’s skills. The poor continue to use them out of habit since it suits their identity and affordability. The affluent wear a more expensive handwoven fabric which looks similar, but is more a one-off product. Differentiation costs and the price tag goes up since beauty lies in the eyes of the consumer. The expensive crafts have research costs, designer intervention, quality checks, retail shop premiums, marketing expenses, etc, all built in. The consumer ends up paying more. In many cases, the consumer does have a choice to go to the lower end and buy from the bazaar or spend money in expensive shops and end up paying more.”
Lopez of Lopez Design believes there are directions rather than trends as far as the future of design is concerned. “Product design is moving into software interfaces to operate products. With the onset of IoT, a lot of products now tap into UX/UI for usability. For example, an app for a coffee machine. I see a shift, with all stakeholders being more inclusive… taking all factors into consideration from social, cultural, environmental and even other beings. There is also a shift towards the usage of recycled materials,” he says.
For Forevermark’s Imperiali, ‘constructed geometry’—geometric-shaped diamonds which, when looked at closely, create a sense of repetition—is the next big trend in jewellery. “Women are opting for detachable and transformable designed pieces… it gives flexibility to a single piece and widens the possibility of expression with the help of the same jewellery worn in multiple ways,” she says.