New Delhi: Nick Talbot is global head of design at Tata Elxsi Ltd, which has clients such as Unilever, Jaguar Land Rover and Panasonic. In his current role, Talbot is responsible for all the design initiatives of Tata Elxsi’s industrial design division across the globe. He spoke in an interview about product design and innovation in India. Edited excerpts:

How do you think the design landscape has changed since you joined Tata Elxsi?

Even in the year or year-and-a-half that I have been here, I’ve definitely seen a big increase in the visibility of design in all its forms—digital design, industrial design, FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) across the spectrum. Design companies seem to be springing up everywhere—in Delhi, in Mumbai, Bangalore—so there seems to me pretty strong evidence that it’s growing and it wouldn’t be growing if there wasn’t some demand somewhere.

Even in a year-and-a-half a lot has happened and there are lots of initiatives from the government’s side and the private sector. Some of the examples that I like to give, if you look in the auto industry, what people like Mahindra are doing, very big steps in the quality of design of their products, which I think is already reaping them benefits in terms of sales in the market. From an India perspective, I definitely think there is a lot of movement.

In terms of the global scene, design is still being consumed and it continues to become more important. So certainly if you give it a time frame, 10 years ago the proportion of manufacturing companies or media companies that would invest really heavily in design as opposed to marketing and advertising, the sort of traditional method of making a difference to the business, that ratio has definitely shifted.

If you look at the US, even in tough times now, design is right up there on the radar. In the automotive business, it is even stronger than it ever was.

What are the factors pushing the design movement?

I think the reasons both globally and in India are broadly the same. Actually, design as a discipline is closely connected to the innovation world. So, new ways of thinking, new ways of approaching problems, new kinds of products, and the innovation part is also connected to some quite big business successes. Now there are obvious ones like social media—Facebook—but there are also physical product examples, for instance, the rise of companies like Samsung who have come up to take on Apple. If there weren’t the big success stories, then it wouldn’t have happened. It’s taken a long time, but it is beginning to prove that it will make a difference to business growth.

From the consumer’s perspective, what is there demand for?

In the technology space, there is a combination between simplicity—if you ask what people are actually after—with a level of emotional interaction. So, for example, designing an application to sit on an Android phone has become as important as the form of that phone itself. Actually, it’s a combination of those two things. But there is definitely an appetite for simplicity in everything that we do. The amount of data thrown at us everyday, the amount of things that we need to think about and juggle in our lives, has gone up in lots of ways, so simplicity is definitely a long-wait theme across all categories.

The actual experience of the product or the service should also be fluid, intuitive and ideally it should be delightful. That’s what makes people from every culture go back to something. Even opening a pack for some pasta or flour can either be really irritating and stressful or it can be really delightful, so that level, that design can meet the consumer’s expectation.

In the beauty care and household products domain, translucency is something that appeals to customers everywhere. There is a movement to the use of more sophisticated material and graphics, so the really bright colours of the 1960s—bright orange, bright blue—are slowly but surely disappearing. Evidently, sophistication in graphics and material is happening across categories.

Are companies spending more on product design?

Well, there is a very interesting dynamic here because in this case what I have seen is that there is a big difference in category. So if you look at consumer durables and automotive, the spend has definitely gone up—certainly between the range of 10% and 40%. It’s significant, but I think what’s more important is the scale and scope of the project in terms of doing new stuff as opposed to just tinkering with an existing design.

But there are other categories, like in some of the FMCG markets, where some of them buy into design, but they are looking to actually buy it very cheaply, so that spend may have gone down. And that could be because there are more players. I think this is a very specific point, but I think within India we are going through a cycle where there is growth and people are interested to be in the design business. Consequently, for clients there is lots of choice and lots of people live to make a mark or make a living. They’ll deliver an awful lot of work for not a great deal of spend. I think there are probably more people that can play easily in the FMCG space. It makes for an interesting contrast.

Are the small and medium enterprises, which form a large part of India’s corporate ecosystem, also embracing design?

Even though we are quite a big organization, and we do work with some big brands, we also deliberately do what we can to work with much smaller brands. We do work for some small companies that are trying to build a brand in the cosmetics and beauty care space. There’s this company called Ocean Herbals—basically it’s a start-up, so we help them with their brand strategy, product strategy, the graphics on the pack. From a one-man band, he’s now got a 2 crore business. Without using design, he wouldn’t have gotten that ground.

And there are other examples in the FMCG space where we will work with those kind of companies. What’s interesting is they actually get it, in a way that some much bigger companies just don’t get. The only way that they will get noticed in a crowded marketplace where broadly people are selling the same thing is using design as a differentiator. The small guys, the entrepreneurs, are often the ones that absolutely understand why we need design. So again, there is a big paradox there.

What are the challenges the industry faces?

There certainly are challenges—people deciding that they should spend, what I call, ‘proper money’ on design, is still very difficult because actually at the point of purchase design is only a promise. So for people who are risk averse it is a very big challenge, but I think as competition heats up, especially those companies that begin to think about exporting. The Indian market is to some extent a cosy place for some manufacturers. They have been used to selling more or less the same thing for about four-five years, they are still making money, in some cases, lots of money, so there is no need to invest. But those companies that are aware about the competition increasing, as this whole FDI (foreign direct investment, in retail) thing happens, as India continues to be important, then there is going to be global competition coming to India. In those categories where companies have had real competition like the automobile sector, then the Indian companies have to up their game, they have no choice but to up their game and I think we’ll see more of that.

What does the future for the design industry look like?

Whether it’s in the physical domain or in the digital or even the space between those two things, there are definitely going to be new categories, there always are. One trend that I think we will see is design being more collaborative with big business and there are going to have to be some new business models in terms of the way that design makes a living and makes its revenues. So, it’s a long-held dream in terms of risk-sharing, but then designers are getting more of an upside if a product or a service sells well. I think it will happen.

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