What does it mean for design to be Indian?

I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the past few days wondering about Indian graphic design and what people have to say about it. Marian Bantjes closed her talk at Designyatra 2012 saying, ‘Be Indian.’ That statement left the hall applauding and resulted in a frenzy of tweets and I thought to myself- I haven’t a clue what that means! It was something I’d wondered about in the past and I wondered about it all over again. What does it mean to be Indian? More specifically, what does it mean for an Indian designer to be Indian?

To begin with, the use of the word Indian, like its something static and set in stone, left me a little uncomfortable. India is constantly evolving. Now, faster than ever. Every day, what we know changes, what we think changes and that changes who we are. So what really is Indian today?

The question confused me, so I directed it to myself. Is my design Indian? I was born and raised in India. I was educated in India and I’ve lived here twenty three years. That makes me Indian, right? Right. My earliest graphic design inspiration was from clothing tags I collected, largely international brands. In my first year at design school, designers like Paul Rand and David Carson, illustrators like Arthur Rackham inspired me. In my second year, I taught myself typography with books by Erik Spiekermann and Robert Bringhurst. I learnt about the history of graphic design in a book by Philip Meggs. The magazines I read regularly as a student were Creative Review and Communication Arts, neither of which was Indian. Given that most of my design learning was influenced by non-Indian design, is my design really Indian?

I wondered then, and I wonder now, what does it take for design to be seen as Indian? Some people think of Indians as a people that love color and expect that to reflect in our design. Some equate Indian design with Indian motifs – elephants, lotuses, peacocks. A large part of the world still looks at Indian graphic design as truck art and calendar art.. but we’ve come a long way from there, haven’t we? India has evolved and so has our design.  A lot of India has been influenced by the West. Isn’t it natural that our design has too?

This has in no way been resolved in my mind and I’m constantly looking for more opinions. I’d love it if you shared your thoughts on the subject with me.

Also, after writing this post, I googled Indian Design and came across an interview that Ishan Khosla gave about a year and a half ago. He says, ‘I hope I am not a typical Indian designer since I don’t know what that is.’ You can read the rest of the article here


4 thoughts on “What does it mean for design to be Indian?

  1. Interesting post. I think the reason why we don’t know what is an Indian designer is because we tend to follow the west for trends and inspiration. Its time we look inwards and create something meaningful and beautiful that inspires other Indians (and others)! Then we will know exactly who we are when we say that we’re an Indian designer!

  2. According to me, actually our design sensibilities are broadly divided into 2 areas. One is traditional motif/cultural lineage based design which is very structured and the more recent design sensibilities of the British rule.
    Modern India is still waiting to find its own design sensibilities and aesthetics even today, although there have been many attempts.

  3. A similar incident when I was at NID got me thinking about this as well. A senior designer from the UK saw our work and complemented us on how ‘international’ quality it is, but where was the Indian-ness in it? I doubt that he was referring to paisleys and Warli art obviously.

    Over the years, I’ve come to believe that just as the practice of design is as much about process and voice as about visual form, our unique voice and sensibilities as modern Indians (when we allow ourselves to be in touch with them) will naturally shape the way we design.

    Applied, folk and fine art have the benefit of several centuries in India while graphic design has much ground to cover. Our generations didn’t grow up with seeing as much ‘good design’ in our immediate surroundings as designers in the West did.

    Having said that, we’re hungry and relentless in our curiosity and courage. The pace at which Design of Indian Origin has developed in the last decade alone is a sign of things to come 🙂 Compared to the West, we have so much more untapped resource and visual reference material to draw from too.

  4. I really can’t say myself. However when I read about japanese comics and eastern philosphy in ‘Understanding Comics’ by Scott McCloud, it really got me thinking because he highlighted a non-western approach and Japan is one asian country that has a thriving, distinct visual culture all its own. I think it really stems from a culture’s ideology and ways of looking at life. For example Western and predominantly christian cultures focus a lot on ‘doing’ while eastern philosophy more on ‘letting be’. Western culture places emphasis on binary opposites, but eastern cultures are more friendly towards the gray areas. Perhaps design that is birthed out of these kind of philosophies are much stronger in identity than just kitschy art. Unfortunately for now Kitschy art is part of the Indian identity, no matter how much you try to detach it because of its contrast to Western design work.

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