The search for a voice

Designer Michael Johnson of johnson banks, looks back at his recent visit to India, where he found a design scene that is beginning to reflect the country’s unique and rich visual language…

Designer Michael Johnson of johnson banks, looks back at his recent visit to India, where he found a design scene that is beginning to reflect the country’s unique and rich visual language…

On my first ever trip to India, I managed to embarrass myself before I’d even landed. As the plane banked and approached the runway, I noticed multiple blue rectangles on the ground and thought ‘wow, that’s a lot of swimming pools’.

Those ‘pools’, I soon discovered, were the blue tarpaulin roofs of the slums by the airport, protection against the imminent monsoon. Before stepping off the plane I already felt like a colonial plonker, and shame has stopped me retelling the story until now.

(Pictured above: Shruthi Venkataraman’s ‘dipped in colour’ design for Kulture shop)

My tarp/pool story is typical of the experience of the firang (foreign) designer, flying in with his/her stock speech, clear views on everything from typeface choice, logo design and precious little knowledge of Indian culture and design, other than replayed sketches from ‘Goodness Gracious Me’.

On that first trip, I was bombarded with questions from students on how they could learn to design ‘more like me’. What they really meant was ‘how could they make their designs look more western?’ – I put that down to a kind of emerging market insecurity and assumed it wouldn’t be long before Indian design found its voice.

But it’s taken longer than I expected. Seven years after my tarp shame, I’ve just finished judging an Indian design scheme, and whilst there were many pieces that could and should hold their own in award schemes worldwide, much of the work could have been done, well, anywhere. None of the shortlisted work was in any of the local Indian languages, and only a small proportion seemed to pick up on vernacular design.

It seems, to a semi-outsider such as myself, that by looking West, Indian design has slightly lost its own identity, settling on something more mid-Atlantic instead.

Exacerbating the problem, the country now has its fair share of international consultancies working across the country or the region. Yet put much of the product of this work – from Airtel, to Apollo, to Tata DoCoMo and Pakistani telecoms brand Mobilink – on a powerpoint slide and there’s little or no sense of place. All we really see is a nod to international design trends, proof that design blogs are being studied slightly too closely and precious few attempts to lead, only to follow.

The paradox is that every firang designer, on those fleeting dashes from airport to podium and back again, is struck by India’s uniquely rich visual language. Not the outdoor advertising, which is almost universally awful, but the hand-painted walls, lorries and the indigenous craft tradition.

I’m not, of course, lobbying for every next Indian multinational to adopt logos based on truck type (although, wouldn’t that be something?) but it’s great to see that some of this is at least being recorded on site such as – a tradition being curated, recorded and celebrated.


(Also from

Of course there’s an inherent tension in pointing out the everyday vernacular in Indian cities. I understand why designers might want to run away from what’s around them, take a break from ‘Horn OK Please’…

(Horn Not Ok PLease design by Jas Charanjiva)

…look further afield and adopt a little more ‘Horn Not OK Please’. If every international company that rang us in London said “we really love that cute Underground map of yours and my cousin has a really great ‘Mind the gap’ t-shirt we want you to emulate” then yes, we might start to get a little tetchy too. Yet, I would argue, there’s no harm in accepting what’s there and turning it to your advantage, rather than endlessly attempting to be the next Vignelli or Olins, may they both rest in peace.

Thankfully, my most recent trip has given me the time and space to look a little harder and there’s clear evidence of a genuine design voice emerging.

(EK Painter Suhail)

(Ek Devanagari)

Take Ek Type‘s determination to navigate a well-kerned route through India’s multiple languages and supply consistent typographic solutions that can speak in a multitude of ways.

(Posters by Hanif Kureishi)

Or Hanif Kureishi‘s personal work (other than Hand Painted Type), such as his street art posters, using basic printing on newsprint, making no attempt to look slick, corporate or remotely western.

(Kohinoor Gujarati)

Indian Type Foundry‘s ‘Kohinoor’ typeface makes me wish I had an Indian client asking for Gujarati, just so I could use it.

Related to Kureishi is Kulture shop, providing an ever-changing window into the emerging graphic art of India, and is perhaps the closest glimpse yet into what’s to come.

With curated collections, artist collaborations and a genuine sense of India ‘now’ this feels like an early and successful attempt to pick up on India 21st graphic art – perhaps emulating British shows like Pick Me Up – but delivering in a markedly Mumbai manner, not Hoxton hipster. (And immaculately branded and packaged too).

Fast forward a decade and I can see Kulture shops in every major Indian city (and London, New York and Tokyo too).

With luck, soon WhiteCrow won’t have to supply local inflexions of international brands for very much longer, and simply do their own work. With more luck, the relaunched Royal Enfield brand will be just the first of series of ‘Made In India’ designs that triumph at home, then abroad.

In an ironic twist, when visiting Kulture shop I picked up a charming illustrated book by Sameer Kulavoor, dedicated to those ubiquitous blue tarpaulins and their ever-shifting role, from packaging and refugee camps to water-proofing the homes of the richest, and the poorest.

A piece simply celebrating this omnipresent material, and the multiple uses of it. A design happy to be honestly, uniquely Indian, not with one eye abroad.

And that, in my view, is exactly as it should be.


Michael Johnson, johnson banks, was in Pune and Mumbai doing a series of FYIdays for Kyoorius and chairing the second Kyoorius Design Awards.

This post was featured on the johnson banks ‘Throught for the Week’ blog at

Follow johnson banks on twitter @johnsonbanks and on Facebook.


UPDATE – Here are some responses from Facebook so far…

  • What is nice is that great designers from west are now ready to look at beyond their own horizons. It is one thing to be fascinated by what you have..and quite another to want to buy what you dont have. Indian culture with its heritage in colours and motifs and crafts is perhaps a fascination for a firang designer, but doesnt make a cut when it comes to selling to its own people. Most examples that you have quoted are meant and will be popular examples of Indian Design amongst the foreigners (firangs). You will not find these applied to or even appreciated by commissioners here. These are taken for granted and do not offer a distinction that is needed in the market place. professional Indian designers on the other hand have learnt this quick and like everything else are looking outwards to make it work in the markets. They understand DESIGN, they are working on it and are getting ready to serve what multinational designers serve. Indian design is far more complex in its obviously has the heritage and tradition covered, but it also includes what you are working with..;)

  • I think graphic design in India is too nascent to have a voice of its own. As a practising designer, I do sometimes feel the pressure to produce something rooted in values that are distinctly Indian. To explore a language or an idiom that is regional. But on the other hand, as a designer I’m here to solve a problem effectively. I’m not an artist trying to express myself. I’m working for a real client with real needs. And whilst designing I do not want to be conscious of any influence regional or otherwise. Of-course, I am wary of my immediate surroundings and respect them but I won’t mindlessly ape them. For many designers of my generation, MTV and their ilk plundered our organic kitsch tradition and barraged it into our impressionable minds turning it into a cliche that we retch at today.

  • umd

    “ scene that is beginning to reflect the country’s unique and rich visual language. there’s clear evidence of a genuine design voice emerging.”


    I am afraid Johnson, the genuine Indianness and visual culture were always been there and it is continuing to grow. whatever examples you are illustrating above is an add on only.

    Probably you have not got enough time to explore. Look at our vintage movies posters, match boxes, Diwali fire cracker packaging. Calligraphic works of Late Prof. RK Joshi and now, Achut Palav.

    Look at the classic Satyajit Ray film posters.

    Rasna and Frooty the cold drinks, Amul butter,

    and Sanjay Patel’s graphic novel Ramayana, examples are plenty and it is growing.

    My graphic point was the required Indianness in graphic design was always there and ofcourse it is changing as we know the world is changing or we call it globalization of chicken tikka masala. :)


  • Michael‘s article is generating some interesting conversations that I have been stewing over for some time.
    “Design is a funny word”
    “Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.
    Complete quote

    I really love this conversation, it seems to be embodying the quote above- in the sense we’re all looking at design in many different ways. (I hope there will be more to come)

    As a designer, and a curator, the emerging Indian identity in design is something I am very interested in. I also do look at design as a way to communicate the zeitgeist. I am excited to see design in India redefined in its own visual language, from within. By re-imagining what is already present (fading in many cases), reflecting both the traditional and the modern, in a new light to invigorate the public and offer another view of the changing world around us.
    If you look at some of the things designers are doing – given examples of Codesign – Project Rising – and even if commercially – their Royal Enfield work.

    Sameers Taad-patri (blue book) that picks on an everyday aspect that is so indian, so Bombay – even Michael refers to the taad patris – blue plastic sheets.
    Tara Books – their books combine traditional art form with modern design

    Student initiated redesign of Mumbai Railway map
    Alok Nanda choclate packaging design for Filter

    And some of Kulture Shop’s other works delver a little deeper into this emerging Indian/graphic perspective.
    Tiffin Towers
    Modern Insight
    Dont Mess With Me

    (These are just a few examples)

    I feel, Indian designers are now becoming more confident in their identity within a global perspective which is what i feel Michael’s article was highlighting on a wider scale…There are also braver commissioners out there and an equally aware audience that is not entirely new to visual commentary, and accepting cultural relevance of design in their lifestyle.

    I think we are in the infancy of a much larger discussion that requires positive input, open discussions, time to unravel, grow and mature. We really do need local and global design though leaders to help us take the conversations forward in meaningful manner. Listening to all sides from NID, Kyoorius and other bodies

  • There’s so may ways to look at this—insider/outsider, old/new, local/global—that it’s a bit of a struggle to take a stand on this. I’d start by agreeing with UMD that the search for Indian identity in design is not a new phenomena. But the dialogue around it has become much more visible and active in the past few years. With a significant increase in design-focussed events, documentation, writing and other platforms in India, we are beginning to discover and share new approaches. And mostly, to realise is that there is no one way. Because there is no one India :)

    The India in design, or at least in my perception and limited practice of it, comes from the context. And an intent that is informed of the context. An oversimplified explanation of this would mean, that we drop all preconceived notions of what we know to be true—socially, culturally, traditionally—and look at the context afresh. “Is a teenager in peri-urban India all that different from one in Mumbai? I would pay a premium for hand-crafted, my seventy year old father is distrustful of the same.” Our answers come from this new astonishing knowledge, and helps build work that works for those that it concerns. If tradition has meaning in this rendition of design, it finds a rightful place. Or else we create our own response to today.

    Thank you Michael for sparking this particular conversation!

  • Sujatha Shankar Kumar

    If we look at the examples given by Michael Johnson, the four symbols of Airtel, Apollo tyres, Mobilink and Tata Docomo all belong to larger players. Like everything else, making money and market forces drive the outcome. They are also international firms that designed the logos. As you come down the list, the examples that are more free form and capture the spirit of India mostly do not involve big budgets. The truck driver does not depend on his graphic to make his money. The illustrated books may only sell a smaller quantity to a discerning audience.

    A symbol is nothing but a symptom. These “non-Indian” outcomes can be seen as an ailment but for the commissioning firms, in this there is success. Even in the furthest hill towns, kids proudly wear caps that say Nike. People rush in lines to the latest Starbucks. Big firms want surety and they will capitalize only on this mass-appeal of a western looking icon. Design is merely responding to need. Perhaps if some firm is willing to be brave enough to break the obvious requirement and plunge into a new ideology that embraces India, this can start a new wave. But it’s usually hard to mimic something out of the ordinary (Apple or Rajnikanth). And it’s possible that mainstream graphics will never embrace the quixotic exotic India.