Goa is not at its best in September. It’s pouring down: steamy, stormy and wet. Tourists don’t come to Goa in September – designers do.
The Kyoorius Design Yatra, now in its third year, is a conference for India’s burgeoning creative community – graphic designers, advertising creatives and students. Over a thousand of them gathered in Goa, many no doubt drawn by the prospect of seeing some of the familiar stars of the design conference circuit, but others keen to see how the many Indian firms presenting would match up.
As we have written about in these pages before, the now-familiar conference model, with its star names delivering the standard ‘here’s my work’ spiel leaves something to be desired. To their credit, the organisers had tried to theme their event, urging the speakers, of which I was one, to address the idea of ‘convergence’. This is another of those hard-to-pin-down terms – like integration – that people tend to mould in their own image. Were we to talk about the convergence of styles? Of thought? Of sectors or skills? No-one was entirely sure. Many of the speakers coped with this conundrum by simply ignoring the idea entirely. But themes did emerge.
Firstly, a ‘convergence’ or perhaps more accurately a ‘confusion’ of roles. While advertising is well-established, graphic design is in its infancy in India. The profession has only existed in its own right for perhaps five years. A recent survey claimed that there are 1200 firms in India with annual revenues of over $20 million but only around 80 of them had a professionally designed identity. In the public sector, professional design is virtually unknown. Ad agencies, anxious to extend their influence within client organisations, have been giving away design services for free, hoping to make the cost back from media buying. While the commercial case for advertising is clear to clients, graphic design has been metaphorically and literally devalued.
In the questions that followed each presentation, delegates seemed anxious for definitions – can ad agencies do design? Should they be specialists or generalists? Indian firms present, such as Pune’s Elephant Design and CoDesign of Delhi, seemed prepared to tackle anything and everything. Wally Olins argued strenuously that, as far as identity projects are concerned, ad agencies lack the skills and thoroughness that his Saffron studio (recently opened in Mumbai) would apply – defining a long-term positioning for an organi-sation that is rooted in everything that it does, from the way its staff talk to customers to its buildings and products, rather than tactical execu-tions to solve short-term communications problems.
Erik Kessels challenged this in his presentation by showing KesselsKramer’s I Amsterdam identity while Paul Belford of This Is Real Art talked about the overlap between design and advertising, his frustrations with design’s lack of ideas and advertising’s lack of aesthetic quality and his firm’s attempts to steer a course between the two. Before a review of past work, deconstructed for the audience, Belford showed a film on Paul Rand followed by another on Helmut Krone. His point: designer Rand was a great ideas man while adman Krone was a great designer. Convergence, you see.
My own take on this, when questioned later, was that the term ‘graphic designer’ is rapidly losing meaning, or at least is morphing into something very different. When ‘graphic designers’ are making films, doing illustrations, taking photographs and writing computer programmes, what is it that defines them? Technology gives us options, in terms of what we work on, how we work on it and who we work on it with. And when you have options you have fluidity – so that individuals and organisations are free to change course as they see fit, working at once in one medium and then another as the fancy and the opportunities take them. It seems there’s as much ‘divergence’ as ‘convergence’ going on in a profession on which digital technology has had a similarly disruptive influence as it has wielded in the media.
And then we have convergence in terms of relationships – between author and audience and between an organisation and its customers or users. Nicolas Roope of Poke showed how, in the digital space, communication is two-way and on very much more equal terms than in times of yore. Online communications asks its users to engage with it and take part rather than just ‘talking at’ people. The new dynamic was made obvious to me when planning for an update of our cr Blog. We used to carry a strapline that read “news and views on visual communications from the writers of Creative Review”. In future it will read “from the writers and readers of Creative Review”.
Inevitably, we kept coming back to the notion of an ‘Indian design’ aesthetic – what is it? Does such a concept make any sense in a country as diverse as India? Here convergence rears its head in the form of Indian conglomerates demanding location-neutral identities – subsuming their roots under a kind of universal global style. As confidence increases and being Indian becomes an asset this will change, but how to inject an Indian identity without resorting to kitsch? We saw some mixed attempts at this, mainly for hotel chains.
The presentations from Pentagram’s Scher and from Kenya Hara suggested a model for Indian designers. Here were two people whose work is utterly rooted in their locality, cultural traditions and personal experiences. Unwittingly or not, Scher’s work speaks of New York – it’s bold and strong, energetic and, at times, strident. Hara’s work is subtle and beautiful, understated and elegant, like so much in Japan. Neither is overtly ‘American’ or ‘Japanese’, but are nevertheless embedded in their respective cultures. Hara talked of 1000 years of Japanese tradition informing his work but it is unarguably modern and of the now. Here, it seems, could be a model for India, whose cultural traditions are every bit as rich as those of Japan. An aesthetic that allows for the expression of personal, local experience without resorting to the visual language of the airport gift shop.
Understandably, for a country undergoing rapid economic growth and the unleashing of enormous pent up consumer demand, most of the presentations focused on visual communications’ role in the service of commerce. There was little sense that Indian designers are involved in tackling public sector issues. Talking to some of them in the breaks I discovered that this is not for want of trying. There is awareness that, for example, the chaotic state of India’s roads or the significant public health challenges it faces could benefit enormously from the involvement of the creative community but, as yet, the formidable Indian bureaucracy remains unconvinced or, in the face of so many pressing problems, lacks the funds to commission such projects.
But one presentation did tackle the role that advertising and design can play in tackling perhaps the most urgent issue of all – climate change. Harsh Purohit of Cognito Advertising talked powerfully and persuasively on why all those in the room needed to confront this issue – both for themselves and on behalf of their clients. “This is an opportunity for the Indian design community in the same way that y2k was for the Indian it industry,” he argued. “The East is where living in harmony with the environment is inherent. We possess this knowledge.”
Purohit appealed to the naked self-interest of delegates – “all this means shitloads of work for you guys” – as well as to their higher ideals in explaining the repercussions of sustainable development in India. Redesigning greener products, introducing ‘closed loop’ production methods, attending to the needs of the burgeoning Corporate Social Responsibility sector – all would involve work for design studios and advertising agencies. If the Indian creative community could come together to tackle climate change, it would represent the most significant incidence of convergence that we had heard about all week.