Bangalore: In his quest to understand the Indian consumer, Jan Blom, a boyish looking 32-year-old from Finland, finds himself back in college.

The senior design manager at Nokia Design, a part of Nokia Oyj, moved here a few months ago, driven by a partnership between the world’s largest cellphone maker and the substantially tinier Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. The 60-seat private college here is run by a trust of six women, who canvassed door-to-door for students when they started in 1996. And, yet, it is a place that Nokia thinks might yield the next big innovation.

Trend-spotting: Nokia’s Jan Blom with the students of Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore.

Meet the “cool hunters".

Big firms are turning to such small and focused niche gro-ups in search of trends and also to better understand consumers, especially in complex, developing markets such as India and China. In the case of Nokia and Srishti, the firm hopes to get these ideas by assigning projects to students learning art, visual communication or product design.

“This school is very sensitive to picking up societal change," says Blom.

A cool hunter might talk to people about their interests or hang out at coffee bars, popular night clubs or cyber cafes to pick up the latest in social norms, icons, street fashion, music or ways of communication. Though their work remains vague and often undefined, the right finding can translate into big money by helping brands identify what is cool, what icons local consumers identify with, or sometimes even introduce new products.

No money is swapped between Nokia and Srishti; each values the exposure and ideas of the other party. Some students have protested against the arrangement, saying it restricts design to the company and exploits their talents. Nokia declined Mint’s repeated requests to sit in on a class. But Blom attempted to explain the philosophy: if street fashion or the way people talk to each other is changing, products should reflect this change.

“If you have preference for certain kind of clothing, the same things are reflected in your possessions," says Blom, in jeans and a colourful shirt, fiddling with a Nokia E65.

The trend of cool hunting—and then innovating—in India by companies also illustrates how the country is moving higher in the food chain in product research and development. Much of the demand for local design elements is because of the large market India represents. For Nokia, India is its third largest market in the world, well on its way to beating the US to move to second place behind China; two of every three Indian mobile phone users, a total which hit close to 175 million at the end of May 2007, use a Nokia phone.

But Nokia’s interest in Srishti was also triggered by the availability of design professionals here.

In many ways, Blom is a cool hunter himself, obsessed with observing and understanding Indians. On a drive through Bangalore’s tree-lined but congested roads, he points out the stickers on cars and bikes. Indians love personalizing the-ir devices such as cellphones with individualized ringtones, or cars with idols, stickers and slogans, he observes.

“In Europe, you don’t see people decorate their bikes and cars," says Blom. His son will soon start learning Hindi at school, something that Blom is excited about—perhaps in search of next-generation cool.

The Nokia tie-up with Srishti is unique because a multi-national has tied up directly with students. Other companies have set up design centres employing professionals. For example, home appliances maker Whirlpool Corp. has a design centre for Asia in Gurgaon, one of four global design centres, with satellite studios in Shanghai and New Delhi.

“Design is a competitive advantage for India," says Hari Nair, director of global consumer design in Asia for Whirlpool. Nair, who taught design for 20 years in the US, at the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Cincinnati, considers the Nokia tie-up with Shristi an appropriate blending of corporations and design education.

Geetha Narayanan, 57, founder and director of the institute, worked for three years to woo the Finnish company to her campus—a move which has divided the students, but which she strongly defends.

“It is good to get someone with business orientation. They apply stringent business yardsticks (to students’ work)," says Narayanan, who started the design school with a loan from ICICI Bank and personally scouted for the first batch of students. The school now holds an entrance test to let in students, indicating the heightened interest in design education in India. The school receives 800 applications for 60 seats, which amounts to a tough 7.5% acceptance rate.

Students at the school, which charges Rs1.25 lakh tuition fee a year, are barred from talking about the Nokia projects they are working on. So high is the secrecy that a student interviewed allowed his name to be used only after obtaining the director’s permission. Arjun Gehlot, 19, specializing in visual communication or the design of logos, graphics and visual representation of ideas, says he had signed up for two Nokia projects. “I look at it as a great opportunity as we have international designers giving us feedback," says Gehlot. “A lot of design research is also ethnography or researching people. India has a lot of culture."

Some students consider the partnership a sellout to consumer interests. “They are simply innovating to add to consumerism," says a third-year student specializing in visual communication, who requested that he not be identified. “Srishti is supposed to produce designers with a social conscience."

Narayanan says students are welcome to voice dissent. “This is a typical student comment," she says. “I give very little credence to this."