• Turian Labs

Design First: India


 (Innovative staircase design for elders to rest while climbing by shenzhen jinwei innovation design company)


As India lost plot of ‘Make in India’, even after China losing the ‘Factory of the World’ tag, focus on ‘design’ is a natural outcome. Design, and not ‘R&D’ alone, is the new trump card that can help India leap ahead. Apart from the external benefits, there are a host of internal reasons, why India must pick up the slogan ‘Design First’. But wait, ‘Design’ — is it different from ‘R&D’ or is it just about making things beautiful? And who is NOT a designer, by the way? There is a whole lot of fuss and fudge around this powerful narrative, ‘Design’, moving the global economy currently. Here is an effort to sketch an outline to a new goal, India must carve for itself.

What is design and how is it relevant for India today?

Before we address Design First for India, we need to know what ‘design’ are we talking of? From engineering design of the ISRO’s rockets to policy design and from artful products on the shelf, to the system of yoga, everything seems to be design. So what’s the new proposition? Don’t we have a design ecosystem already in place - from the ancient to the ultra modern?

The design we are speaking of is a term that emanated out of a need to make mass-manufactured products better for human consumption. In the non-industrialised society, our craftsmen were designers for making things that we could consume without a hitch. Later, the science of crafting products (as industrial design), transformed into a whole new method for corporate innovation, policy design and solving some tough problems of the world and came to be known as Design Thinking. Classically trained designers, who studied at design schools are now at loggerheads with others who didn’t study it formally but practice this in their own way. But both the groups agree that to make our life better as a user, as a society, as a country, we need to put more thought into things we produce collectively. Question now is no longer ‘if’ India can match the developed world, but it is about doing it right every step. The very definition of ‘developed’ country is undergoing disruptive changes and this is the time we need sense making, that we expect design, to provide answers on.

India 2030 & Design

Before we look at India 2030, let’s take a look at how the global economy is shaping up ahead. With rise and fall of global offshoring, rising sentiments of nationalism (and hence ‘right shoring’), we have come a full circle or rather an upward helix (as the new technology and business landscape together suggests). We are no longer craving for just cheaper labor, oblivious of workers rights and wellbeing, but also looking for transparency and ethical practices in supply chains.

On the global front, India is set to increase in its assertiveness with several recent steps in foreign policies indicating the shift (i.e. Malaysia and Turkey) and the rising kitty of LOCs to the countries in Indian ocean. India’s soft power is also on the rise from bollywood movies making big abroad (i.e. Dangal) to Indian acquisitions of global brands (i.e. Ssangyong) and Indians moving in leadership roles in global corporates (Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella etc.).

If we look at 2030 scenario, we are looking at doubling the middle class to 300mn households which will constitute 80% of the country’s population, responsible for 75% of the consumption. India will also live in a disrupted demographics with rising life expectancy (current 70 years), reducing gender disparity, rising demographic dividend, more senior people remaining available for mainstream work and ready to consume as the young. Wicked problems of climate change, air pollution, water contamination and scarcity are starting to stare in the face and would need bold moves on part of the country’s leadership. This rapid lava of change will shift a lot of geo-political and social equations not only in India but across the world. A method into madness is needed even to evolve a cogent political thought across the spectrum. Design, the verb, is a potent method, which starts with deep empathy with the stakeholder and ecosystem before creatively carving out a new synthesis for the problem. Design, is the springboard to take the leap from.

So with this background, here are some answers to what can ‘design’ do for India today and tomorrow?


  1. Using design for channeling the technology disruptions


Indian government just announced Rs. 8000 Cr (USD 1.2 Billion) for the development of quantum computing infrastructure in India. In the late 90’s we moved into liberalisation of economy and embraced the culture of global consumption. We had the ready products and solutions being consumed elsewhere, served to us with some discounted features and price as a third world country. The country moved quickly into the service economy with the boom in IT and the middle class started feeling the first taste of wealth. Global cut-and-paste of flyovers to airports adorned our landscape. Now that people are done with the bland globalised palette, the Indian inside them is asking for an ‘Indian’ flourish. Recent airports are a testimony to the changing landscape. But even before this quest for ‘relevance’ take root, we are thrown into a typhoon of rapidly changing technology landscape. Setting regulatory framework for blockchain transactions, drones, quantum computing in various sectors, tackling cyber threats, making space tech work for us, tackling genetic edit guidelines for food and human race etc have taken priority while ‘design’ is probably now just an accessory that goes with everything and not the ‘key modifier’. Design as a process, applied to technology policies and applications can build a sound foundation from the first principals, which will save the country from the guffaws of the past i.e. Indian government’s dating with global technologies companies like Microsoft, Facebook, Google etc. and one fine day realising that data needs to be localised.

2. Fighting the Chinese juggernaut with design

China is moving fast from ‘cheap factory’ to high-tech manufacturing center of the world. Global innovation stories are now equally Chinese and not just emanating out of the west. Number of patents filed in 2017 by China stood at 1.38mn (ahead of the USA) compared to meagre 46K from India. We are all familiar with the success of Tiktok and Xiomi. Despite being a software capital, India still relies on Google, Facebook and WhatsApp while China has figured out their own (Wechat, Baidu, Weibo etc.). Where is Indian innovation?

Innovation, as a word, is now a key motivator for startups. Everyone claims it but do not really know, how? Design methods provide innovation process the necessary arsenal to make it tangible, systematic and make it truly collaborative. Design Thinking as a process is an ‘ego killer’ and that is an important part for building consensus on core issues. Using Design Thinking as a front end for wider engagement before the ‘design begins’ is a great structure to follow.

Design First push can help focus the startup energies in the right direction where they can be nudged to bring more ‘play’ into the offerings, take more risk and walk the whole nine yards to make the product/service desirable.

3. Restoring ‘empathy’ as a core value in public life that India was once known for

A badly designed product and service hurts every user. Badly designed experience leaves scars that, at times, take a life-time to fill. For the moment, let’s say that India does not need ‘design’. What India needs is a renewed assertion of love and care in products and services around us. What we lost in colonial times is mutual respect and empathy. A poor country with a non-caring attitude to fellow countrymen resulted in bad roads, poor toilets, under prepared hospitals and low quality of everyday products. This was not the cultural core of India, which preached ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’ to the world (the whole world is my family). But since past few decades we have constantly gained in wealth. We do see better public infrastructure falling in place. We travel better, we eat better and we communicate better now as the country has taken a few giant steps. But still several sectors lag in catching up with this love and care for fellow citizens.

4. Questioning the archaic laws around public-experience have no relevance for modern India

  • Can a toilet be really constructed on the pavement blocking the passage for the pedestrians?

  • Can a chai-stall be allowed on the sides of a road which barely have a width to accommodate one four-wheeler?

  • Can bus be allowed to stop on a road which does not have any space left for other vehicles to pass?

  • Can the commercial complexes be allowed to be constructed with barely one parking space per 1000 sq ft of saleable area and later see the parking becoming a major issue around every commercial office?

  • Should the tax authorities go around every commercial establishment with the unchecked airs of erstwhile colonial rulers or should there be an authorised and curated protocol to favour all genuine tax payers?

  • How can the entire narrative with PUBLIC be replaced with USER?

We are living under the baggage of the laws and rules crafted for wider inclusion (with all good intentions) but they are now phase lagged with the evolving socio-economic dynamics unprecedented urbanization and globalization. We need to think from first principles on many issues and design methods can be a great enabler for that.

5. Giving a social-impact goal to the newly minted design ambassadors

Beyond the rise of number of people formally trained at design colleges (could be into thousands every year, compared to a few hundred a decade back), now there is a sizeable chunk of people trained into ‘Design Thinking’ and the language of User Experience. While Design Thinking is not ‘Design’ but it surely is a strong subset of the classical connotation of design and the most important connect with the business community to connect to the esoteric paradigm of classical design. Personally, I have trained at least a thousand senior leaders into Design Thinking over the past 5 years. Many of them have been trained as trainers. Cascaded effect of trained people could be much more. My estimate is at least 300,000 professionals have been initiated into Design Thinking. One can argue about the training effectiveness from the classical lens but the point is that the seed has been sown and they can be our ambassador into wider adoption of Design First.


Another important group is UX (user interaction) and UI (user interface) designers, who directly can add to the digital transformation India is undergoing. With the advent of the ‘digital’, not only trained designers have jumped into the bandwagon of UX and UI but people from a whole lot of myriad fields are also now claiming their role in UX and UI world. I have seen people with degrees in engineering, commerce, arts etc., all putting UX designer as a designation. We live in a world today where many tool sets are readymade and just require combinatorial skill to craft a new experience. Google Material Guidelines can make anyone a good app UI designer quickly. Similarly there are plenty of tools to make quick wire-frames of apps online and also create a clickable prototypes along with semi-realistic automatic code generation. In such a situation, the role of classically trained designers is a bit of an overkill and can be limited to designing the primary set of tools for combinatorial tool-kit. However, the point here is to look at all these practitioners as extended set of Design First ambassadors.

In summary, India is undergoing a wonderful positive disintegration at the moment and Design First can stitch up a great narrative to prepare for India 2030, readying world class citizen-experiences and emerging as a global power through thought-leadership in multiple domains. First step for the government is to announce from the Red-Fort, Design First!