Mumbai: Anuj Prasad smiles wryly at the bulky machine in his design studio. “This is the best of its kind in the world, made by an Israeli company,” he says. “I spent Rs30 lakh on it. It didn’t make business sense, but I wanted to use it for innovation.”
At a distance, the device looks no different from an average office printer-photocopier-scanner. A closer look reveals its more advanced capabilities. Prasad’s investment is a rapid prototyping (RP) machine, a nifty piece of equipment capable of translating computer-aided drawings into detailed, three-dimensional prototypes in a matter of hours—a task that can take several days in a factory.
Large manufacturing companies often shy away from investing in RP machines, as they are expensive to purchase and operate. Desmania Design, Prasad’s firm, is a somewhat humbler enterprise, a stand-alone industrial design studio with less than Rs5 crore in annual revenue. The investment is a telling indication of Prasad’s passion for design.
Driving design: Centre for Knowledge Societies’ Aditya Dev Sood (top) seeks to unearth nuances of local consumer behaviour, while Desmania Design founder director Anuj Prasad is confident of his ‘build it and they will come’ approach. Pradeep Gaur / Mint
An engineer with a postgraduate degree in industrial design from the National Institute of Design (NID), Prasad was one of Hewlett-Packard Co.’s first employees at its Indian design studio in the mid-1990s. The experience gave him the confidence to establish his own studio in Delhi in 1996. Optimistic and inventive, Prasad is one of India’s new design entrepreneurs, an evolving group of maverick thinkers attempting to combine the disparate strands of innovation, creativity, technology and business.
His peers include Elephant Strategy+Design, the country’s largest independent, multi-disciplinary design consultancy. Elephant’s team of 60 can turn their hands to designing corporate identities, branded retail environments, or an assortment of consumer products. The Pune-based firm was established in 1990 by a group of NID graduates. Over 20 years, they have ascended the corporate pyramid, from liaising with brand managers to advising the chief executives of some of India’s best-known brands, particularly on how to link design to business strategy.
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“Today, no design job that comes to us is plain. It will begin with: ‘This is the competitive scenario, these are the insights you need to identify for your business.’ It will always entail business and competitors,” says Ashish Deshpande, co-founder and partner at Elephant.
A few kilometres away is Design Directions, a studio founded by the husband-and-wife team of Satish and Falguni Gokhale in 1988. The compact firm of 22 designers and engineers is no mom-and-pop shop; it’s a tightly run studio providing extremely specialized design solutions, particularly to medical products manufacturers.
Gokhale says he thrives on “cross-pollinating” engineering techniques and the principles of physics between products, citing the example of a complex drug delivery system for asthma inhalers, where he has used “the principle of how bullets spin when fired. The physics is the same, but the application is different. The same principle can also be used to design a sewage treatment plant.”
Equally niche is Aditya Dev Sood’s Centre for Knowledge Societies (CKS), a firm specializing in design research, a field distinct from conventional market research, with offices in Bangalore and Delhi. “Typically, qualitative research tends to abstract data to arrive at insight. What designers need to create new products is the opposite of that—they need visual data,” he says.
All possible aspects of consumer behaviour, lifestyle and preferences are meticulously documented in multimedia formats by design researchers and reviewed jointly with clients in “concepting workshops”. Sood’s teams often work closely with the innovation units of multinational companies (MNCs), who seek to unearth nuances of local consumer behaviour.
Their projects can be diverse, ranging from researching how rural vaccines are delivered for The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to learning more about farmers to design a specific mobile phone services platform.
Desmania, Elephant, Design Directions and CKS are just a selection of design entrepreneurs; there are estimated to be at least 400 full-fledged independent design studios across India (excluding those in fashion, interior design or architecture).
Some have notable global achievements. Chandrashekhar Wyawahare’s Futuring Design won a commendation last year in Germany’s coveted “reddot” design competition, for an innovative range of stackable buckets, one of the first Indian entities to gain such recognition.
A few have attracted the attention of larger companies. Ray+Keshavan, one of India’s earliest design consultancies, sold a majority stake in the firm to The Brand Union, a global brand and design consultancy owned by communications group WPP. Sujata Keshavan, the firm’s founder, believes the partnership delivers “greater geographic reach and domain expertise” to Indian clients.
India’s largest industrial design firm rests within Tata Elxsi Ltd, a firm with interests in visual computing, animation and systems integration. The 220-strong industrial design division operates as an independent profit centre, serving overseas clients largely.
“We are not the default design agency for the Tata group,” explains Rahul Sachdev, associate manager for marketing at Tata Elxsi. Some clients, such as Hindustan Unilever Ltd’s Pureit team, compete directly with Tata group companies, in categories such as water purifiers.
Design is a vast term of reference, applicable to any man-made object, environment or service. Even the narrower definition of “product or industrial design” has broad connotations, as it straddles everything from tweaking bottle caps for a consumer goods company to conceiving new, iPod-style business models.
India’s design entrepreneurs are generally small, usually with revenues in single-digit crores and fewer than 50 employees. But the scope of their services is not trivial. They often hold the key to innovation for much bulkier companies, enabling them to sharpen their brands in an increasingly high-decibel war for consumer hearts, minds and wallets.
Established consumer goods companies are beginning to engage specialist design agencies to help interpret and distil consumer behaviour. “Packaging and product design is the fifth ‘P’ in marketing. Tata Elxsi is a very valued partner whom we consider part of our team,” affirms Vidur Vyas, vice-president of marketing at PepsiCo, who collaborated closely with Tata Elxsi to research, design and develop Aliva, a range of healthy crackers.
The best designers excel in marrying aesthetics with technology, ideally at a lower production cost. Alpha X-Ray Technologies, a Mumbai-based manufacturer of medical X-ray machines, developed a proprietary catherization lab technology and asked Design Directions to convert it into a fully finished product. Satish Gokhale’s design solution was 75% cheaper than equivalent multinational products, and quickly grabbed 60% of the market share in India.
“Design is not our strength. It’s best to leave it to the professionals. We understand hardware, electronics and electromechanical innovation. Satish got into the depth of the product to give good looks and usability at a lower cost,” says Vikram Mordani, Alpha X-Ray’s co-founder. The product’s success attracted multinational interest, and Philips bought the business from its founders in November 2008.
The design sector’s role in the corporate value chain is still evolving and remains a long way behind other creative services such as advertising. Its growth is predicated on industry’s ability to grasp its potential, and a willingness to pay for design services. “When someone decides that we must innovate in our category, then we can begin to liaise. If they haven’t reached that point, then it’s not possible,” says CKS’ Sood.
Satish Patil, a senior manager at Tata Elxsi, observes differences between Indian companies and multinationals in their design management capabilities. “MNCs have a very crisp idea of what they want. They understand design. With many Indian companies, their understanding of the brief evolved when we gave them concepts, resulting in an endless loop,” he says, although he adds that design awareness is on the rise.
Royalties on product sales are an important source of friction when payments are being decided. Indian companies in general are reluctant to pay royalties, reducing designers’ incentives to generate commercially successful innovations. Such payment mechanisms are commonplace in developed economies.
Elephant’s Deshpande contends that design professionals need to adopt a more ambitious outlook, professing that many home-grown design firms have “limited business vision”, leading to fragmentation and an “insignificant contribution to the Indian economy”. He advocates consolidation between Indian design firms “to avoid losing projects to Landor and Fitch”, two well-known global design consultancies that recently entered the Indian market.
Desmania’s Prasad, for his part, remains undaunted. He is making the biggest bet of his career by establishing an ambitious 20,000 sq. ft, purpose-built, automotive design facility in Manesar, Haryana. The studio is intended to be the first of its kind in India, and the only one capable of generating complete design solutions, including building highly confidential, full-scale prototypes.
Although very little of Desmania’s current revenues can be attributed to automotive design, Prasad is confident of his “build it and they will come” approach. “Auto design needs infrastructure, otherwise we will work only on small projects,” he argues. “Similar studios exist in Italy, Germany, the UK and the US. Then why will it not happen in India?”
This is the second of a five-part series on the growing role of product design in Indian industry.
Next: Nurturing creativity