DesignYatra conference highlights the divide

While this year’s Kyoorius DesignYatra in Goa delivered the expected mix of inspiration and insight, India’s biggest design conference also offered something else: a critique of our economic system

Arunachalam Muruganantham and one of his machines for making low cost sanitary towels

While this year’s Kyoorius DesignYatra in Goa delivered the expected mix of inspiration and insight, India’s biggest design conference also offered something else: a critique of our economic system

The DesignYatra is now in its eighth year. CR has been fortunate enough to attend most of those and has seen the event blossom into one of the best curated and best organised conferences on the design calendar. Some 1400 professional and student designers, mostly from India and the Middle East, soaked up three days of top level speakers, including Google Lab’s Robert Wong, Nic Roope of Poke, Microsoft principle design manager Rodney Edwards, Wolff Olins CEO Karl Heiselman, type designer and typographer Paul Barnes and, rounding things off, the marvellous Marian Bantjes. The organisers have also addressed an imbalance from previous years in making sure that there were plenty of Indian speakers this time, including Hanif Kureshi of Wieden + Kennedy New Delhi, Josy Paul of BBDO and Ambrish Arora of Lotus.

This year’s theme was The Divide: nowhere was this better illustrated than by the contrast between two presentations on the second day. The charming Bill Lunderman, a veteran of the US corporate design world and now VP global design at Colgate Palmolive, entertained with his revelations about the design process within a major US company. Lunderman told the story of the Colgate Wisp, a disposable toothbrush launched in 2009.

He was followed some time later by Arunachalam Muruganantham who earned an impassioned standing ovation for his quite remarkable story. Muruganantham has made it his mission to bring affordable sanitary towels to India’s poor and, in the process, provide many of them with the means to make a living. The figures vary, but somewhere between just five and 20% of Indian women use some form of sanitary towel or tampon. Most make do with rags, leaves or even ashes resulting in high levels of infection. Most Indian men are, unsurprisingly, completely unaware of this – Muruganantham only found out when he saw his wife hiding a rag behind her back and asked her what she was doing.

Whereas most people would be briefly appalled but then go on with their lives, Muruganantham, who has no professional training, dropped out of school at a young age and comes from a small village in southern India, decided to act. With material from a local cotton mill, he fashioned his own rudimentary sanitary towel and asked his wife to test it – with disastrous consequences. Undeterred, he carried on his research, eventually discovering that the secret was to use cellulose derived from a pine tree.

Students at a local medical college were asked to test his designs and provide feedback. This caused further problems – his mother and wife, horrified by the piles of used prototypes in their home and rumours that Muruganantham was having affairs with the college girls, both left him. Eventually he was even drummed out of his village. But he carried on, even testing his towel designs himself by wearing a football bladder filled with animal blood, fixed to a tube and tied around his waist. Now Muruganantham runs a scheme that provides groups of women across 14 states in India with low cost machines with which they can manufacture effective sanitary towels that are sold from around 2p each, winning him the praise of his country’s president (more here and here).

Women workers with one of Muruganantham sanitary towel-making machines

Compare this with what is going on at Colgate Palmolive and many other US corporations. ‘Innovation’ is not a device for responding to need or want per se but primarily for increasing revenue and market share. In an effective system with its priorities in the right place, one would follow the other. The ludicrous Wisp is a revealing case study in how that may not be the case. Colgate Palmolive looked at a market it already had a presence in and tried to work out a way to make more money from it (fair enough). People only brush their teeth two or three times a day, how can we increase that? Create a product to use in-between those regular brushings and run an advertising campaign that subtly suggests that if you’re not doing that, there’s something wrong with you.

In a case study film that Lunderman showed at the conference, the agency Y&R proudly trumpeted that it created a need for something that didn’t exist before (!). It is precisely this kind of ‘normalisation’ of invented behaviours resulting in overconsumption (in this case of a one-use plastic stick that comes in a throwaway plastic box) that advertising’s critics complain of (see last year’s Think of Me As Evil report). A product is created, and a ‘need’ for that product artificially created alongside it.

Another case study film on the marketing of the Wisp, this time from Big Fuel, reveals how the full arsenal aof modern marketing was brought to bear on the product’s launch

Meanwhile, a few thousand miles away, Muruganantham is attempting, virtually on his own (although there are similar projects in operation), to tackle a massive social problem which, with the right product at the right place, could actually be a huge commercial opportunity.

Across India, there are a growing number of design-led schemes attempting to find local solutions to local problems (another speaker at DesignYatra was Mansukhbhai Prajapati whose MittiCool company makes a fridge using traditional techniques that requires no electricity, for example). It’s still capitalism, but capitalism that seems to have its priorities in the right place.

More on this year’s Kyoorius DesignYatra here

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