What is Indian Design?

An interview by Dinah Bindiya, a student at Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam, Netherlands

I hope you can tell me more about the design culture of India, in special Graphic Design. What is typical India? Are there maybe some fonts that are used often in India? Do Indians use more often illustrations or photography? What does a design need to have to be typical Indian?
First of all, I would say there is no “typically Indian” design and I hope I am not a “typical Indian designer” since I don’t know what that is.  India is a huge country and there are more languages here than all of Europe combined, so Indian design is more diverse than even European design. The diversity doesn’t stop at languages, but also scripts, of which I think there are 20 unique scripts in India, most of which I can’t read. This cultural diversity brings in different perspectives and design is richer for that reason.

However, there are 2 general kinds of designers in India and they both have their stereotypes. One, the uneducated, usually self proclaimed “designer” who typically work with Corel Draw on a PC and design anything from business cards and flyers to websites. They are known as DTPs (Desktop Printers) whose work typically consists of 5-7 different typefaces in a single layout and very bright colors and over the top illustrations, boxes, circles and other distracting devices. Their USP is fast and cheap, but they have no real understanding of typography, color, balance and the principles of design and yet you can see their work everywhere. Its usually very colorful, and over-the-top with graphics and extra information crammed in. They tend to use clip art and low-res photography downloaded from the internet. They are thriving due to the kind of prices and turn-around-periods they promise clients and their goal is volume. They end up mimicking what’s already seen all over. They only focus on “beauty” and visual appeal and of course their sense of beauty is highly subjective— and tends to be gaudy and shiny to try and attract attention. However since everything on the streets tend to be gaudy and shiny, it often loses impact in the crowd of shine. These designers typically use local languages in their graphics and their target is the lower end of he social hierarchy.

The other category of designer has usually studied design or fine art at a university or college. They are more versed with the rules and principles of design. They typically are very “west-focussed” and like their design to be visually strong and bold, and yet have an underlying concept. They work with both illustrations and photography and usually on a mac. Their aim is quality and not volume. Designers who have a design education, tend to look at concept more and by and large their design aesthetics is more “western” and they predominantly use English in their designs. The target market is also more upscale.

There are many who fall between these 2 categories of designers—such as the dying breed of Bollywood hoarding painters who are great at translating an existing design to a massive scale and with a bold use of color. There is also advertising which has its own aesthetic, different from graphic design and is focussed on a mass audience.

So its very hard to answer if “Indians use more illustrations or photography”. For advertising its traditionally been more photo. Graphic design is more mixed, but Indian design hasn’t found its true visual language. Unlike Japanese or Dutch Design, it is struggling with an identity crisis, caused by colonisation. On one end is the rich Indian tradition (pre- “graphic design”) and on the other end a powerful visual culture that globalization is bringing to the everyday Indian from the west.

The only one thing that is perhaps stereotypical about “Indian graphic design” is the use of color, even though the kind and amount varies in each of the groups mentioned above.

And what can you not use and what do you have to use in a graphic design? In the Netherlands we are really conceptual, what about India? Is there often a concept in graphic design or do you make something just because it’s beautiful?
I think its again hard to generalize. The DTP guys are just going for their version of “aesthetics”. Advertising has mainly, but not completely, been about translating a foreign brand in India, so colors and typefaces usually stay the same, while the message might be different. Despite the nascency of the field of graphic design in India, the few studios I am aware of vary greatly in their use of color, typography and conceptual vs. “beautiful” design. Is beauty merely about aesthetics or is it about emotion as well? Is something not “aesthetically done” and yet moving, beautiful? These are all generalizations, there could be some variations.

Who do you think is a great designer in India?
There are a few designers I like — Kavita Chaudhary, Jaipur Rugs (Textile Designer); Preksha Baid, Y-walls (Space designer) and Kriti Monga, Turmeric Design (Graphic designer).

Do you have something else that you want to share about graphic design of India?
I think there is a huge opportunity in India for graphic designers to tap into working with traditional craftspeople to create typography and graphics that have a traditional medium but a modern message. I am interested in bridging this past-future visual language. You can see some of our initial explorations in projects like Skin Ink, The Lotus Queen and The Emperor’s Letters (book covers).

3 thoughts on “What is Indian Design?

Add yours

  1. Very interesting interview, Ishan. We unfortunately face the same problem in France : a lot of freelance designers, or even agencies work, as these DTPs, without any design awareness and only produce “beautiful” stuff.
    Hopefuly this will eventually change by “educating clients”, as you also mention in the article about Indo-Dutch collaboration.
    Keep on writing man !

  2. Thank you Jeremie. Good to get more of your thoughts and comments on French graphic design — what other aspects of it exist (whether underground, non-commercial) etc and do you see it changing a lot in recent years? What’s influencing French graphic design today? Is it fashion, music? Or is graphic design not being affected by external forces?

    In India, of course the popular culture (which includes bollywood but much more as well) is definitely having some impact on graphic design.

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