The Designer Ego

I spent last weekend at a little resort in the coastal village of Malpe, six kilometers from the temple town of Udupi in Karnataka. It was an impulsive decision- a weekend away from cities, computer screens and predictable Saturday nights at a bar.I went with a friend (also a graphic designer) and as we walked through the streets of Udupi and Malpe, we took in the brightly colored houses, each with names carefully painted in brushstrokes in the local script, the hand-painted advertisements on walls, the crude logos on shop fronts, children out for a ‘special occasion’ dressed far more elaborately than any child on a beach should be.

And like two designers thrown into a new environment, we chatted for hours about the aesthetic in towns, so far removed from our cities, about our assumptions of the middle class that in just a few hours, had been proven wrong, about design the way we know it and its relevance to the people we were surrounded by at that point- locals who were probably employed at the fisheries and government offices we’d walked past, devotees who thronged the famous Udupi Krishna Temple, waiters who’d travelled across the country to a little village hotel making Rs. 7000 a month.

As we sat at the hotel restaurant taking in the view and the cool evening breeze, the hotel manager approached us, asking what had brought us to Malpe, enquiring about what we did for a living.

And as often happens when I tell anyone I’m a designer, he sat down at our table and spoke about a project he needed a graphic designer for. Design is important, he said, in this industry. (hospitality) You need to have a good-looking card, good brochures, he said, only then will someone go to your website. …If it’s an impressive site, they might make a booking. He was starting a new venture, he said. He needed a logo. He couldn’t afford someone too expensive, but he was willing to pay ‘well.’ He spoke to us for a while about his new venture, and then I asked, What’s ‘well’? What’s not too expensive? Rs. 2000, he said, maybe even 3000.

Snap.

My friend and I shared a quick amused smile. While we excused ourselves from the project with work and time commitments, I was appalled. How are people willing to pay so little for good design, I wondered. And when he asked if there was anyone we knew who’d do it, I realized no one I knew would do it for less than ten times what he was willing to pay. I didn’t think about it further at that point. My ego was bruised. I wanted to yell about the value of design and the time and thought that would go into crafting a good logo.

The next night, on the long drive back to Bangalore, I thought about it a little more. The manager paid his staff Rs. 7000 for sixteen hour days, thirty days a month. Compared to that, I could see why he thought Rs.3000 for what he thought would be just a few hours of work was decent pay. And I realized I was expecting someone to see value in something and pay for something he didn’t entirely understand.

Graphic design in India, the profession as we know it today, is relatively new. Trained designers have invested in formal design education and expect remuneration equal to that of our counterparts in other countries. We work for people who can afford us, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we leave out a massive chunk of our country. The large number of people who can’t afford to pay a designer’s fee. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why design is growing slowly in big cities, but not so much in smaller ones. It’s people who’ve taught themselves how to use software, DTP operators at small print shops who become graphic designers for the rest of the country. Which accounts, at some level for the kind of design we see in small towns- Crude, from the point of view of a trained designer, affordable and practical from the point of view of a local businessman.

It makes me wonder whether maybe, our egos come in the way of the growth of design. Whether maybe, owing to our education and our conviction in the importance of design to society, we’ve excluded a large part of the country from our little design-clique. We expect everyone to see the value we see in what we do and unquestioningly, pay for it… but have we really gone out there to try and prove it?

I’ve only been working in the industry for a year, and what I say might be a generalization. If any of you have worked for clients in Tier 2 and 3 cities in India, I’d love to know a little about your experiences with them and would really appreciate it if you shared them here, or if you preferred, over e-mail.

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11 thoughts on “The Designer Ego

  1. Very well written. There is a whole world out there that we just ignore. It’s not classy enough, it won’t pay enough, it will not win me any awards! But, that is where the true heart of India beats, in the SME’s who are struggling to get things going, who want a better future for themselves, and more importantly, for their children. It is they who will lead the resurgence of India, if there ever is to be one. Not the Urban rich, not the Rural poor, not even the wannabes in big towns. It’s the little guy willing to pull himself up by his boot strings, or sandal straps, that will determine the future this country takes.

  2. Thank you for responding Vikram.. It’s been bothering me a fair amount off late, how much conversation about design seems restricted to the bigger cities and a certain kind of people. Visual communication, which is what graphic design is all about, needs to extend beyond the urban.. the rich.. and needs possibly, to be more inclusive.

  3. I like the fact that you compared the wages, something to think about for sure. But then again Graphic Design is I feel being stereotyped by limiting it to identity, website and so on. It will be nice to think about not only extending boundaries in terms of industry scale but also the kind of design we do and the interventions that Graphic Design is capable of making. We might just end up adding value to businesses. Just a thought. Keep writing 🙂

  4. I think if graphic designers want to be taken seriously, we need to start doing impactive work; work that speaks for itself and holds unquestionable value in society. If we continue to make brochures and business cards for the huge chunk of our careers, I don’t blame people for not ‘getting’ it. Pardon me folks, but maybe we all need to grow a pair and occasionally invest our expertise in something that really matters. Brochure boycott!

  5. Hey Malika, I agree, graphic design in the sense that most people practice it, is often limited to identity and web design.. The point I was trying to make is that in order to make people believe that design is capable of bringing value to them, we need to start making inroads into sections of society that at the moment, don’t see enough good graphic design to understand the value of it..

  6. Reuben, that we need to start doing work that has an impact goes without saying. What I’m trying to address is work for whom.. Right now, owing largely to the clients that can afford professional designers, the work is limited to big cities which excludes a very large part of our country.

    It’s no so much the brochures that bother me..and I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘Brochure Boycott. Sometimes, seemingly irrelevant pieces of design can serve the purpose they’re designed to serve effectively 🙂

  7. I agree…I knew you didn’t touch on that topic…was just an afterthought. In order for designers to do something about things is important to know how! and that training according to me still lacks. And yes I agree that sometimes what needs to be done needs to be done 🙂 we all need to pay bills. Its a capitalist world after all and there is no way of working out of it.

  8. An e-mail response to the post (Thank you Aashim Tyagi)

    I think a distinction needs to be made between the corporate graphic design ( us “city” designers) engage in and the trickled down, cobbled up version the DTP operator running a tiny set up in a small town. The DTP Op or the small town designer may lack the finesse in their designs but it is hardly their fault.

    1. Education – Design education in the country is non-existant. Barring a few, hard to get into schools, most of the curriculum centers around using design tools purely so one can eke out a living. These are the “real world” design skills, basic layouts, business cards, pre-press and out. The inquiry into form, history, context of design is at best superficial in most school. Heck, even at J.J for the BFA show prominence is given to the mock ad campaigns! And we are talking about highly skilled, intelligent design students here. Most “design education” catering to kids not able to either afford an expensive education or not having the highly formed art skills to get into the bigger schools (whatever that means) is teaching someone to make a brochure and a card so they can go get a job.

    2. Technology – Ironically, what we have lost out is our own design culture of the skilled hand painters, sign makers, letterpresses, silk screens. These businesses required highly skilled craftsmen and protégés who would train for years before starting their businesses or taking over. Computers and modern printers have made things faster and easier and driven these guys out. But it’s this obsession with speed that is the culprit rather than computers. No longer do people have patience to sit and craft out a design. A person running a business is interested in taking in as many jobs and banging it out. Forget small towns, how many times have we let design out knowing very well that it is shoddy but being told that “boss, yeh art nahi hai, just send it out”. Technology is beautiful, if only we can learn to slow it down.

    3. Economies – The reason someone can still offer Rs 3,000 for a logo in a small town is well besides that he may not really understand the “process of design” but can you really blame him? Three thousand bucks is still a decent amount int he context of small town economy. The living costs are drastically lower than the cities. For him to offer 3K is an act of intent that he does want to pay well and expects good work. I reckon, if you get him raise it to around 7 and throw in a few freebies you’ve got a decent gig 😉

    4.Policy – The lack of a cohesive central design policy is the root of this mess we are in. Being a young and a primarily an agricultural economy, I can understand why design has not been a priority. I do believe that it will change as we transition into a service industry based economy, then design will play a more central role. Right now though they simply do not care, look at the state of our government websites, sign ages at official buildings, the new crop of government based program identities. It is a horrible horrible mes, simply because no one cares as it does not affect the way things are run, but it is changing…

    Sadly the one person leading that change is Narendra Modi, his new slick PR machinery has been re-designing his image slowly but surely and effectively. If you haven’t already google his campaigns, blog, twitter and what have you’s its effective and a powerful work of cohesive design. Taking his example State govt’s want a slick makeover to attract businesses, this will lead to better design education infra in the future and design won’t be simply seen as a commodity but as a real cultural force.

    5. Us – So where does all this it put us designers and our responsibilities? As you mentioned the first thing to do is put the bruised ego aside and ask ourselves “Why am I really doing what I do?” Do we really consider the cultural impact we have on a society as designers or it is simply, my job is to do xyz and that’s that. I personally see a lot of superficiality in our profession (not only in India) I think it takes a lot more effort to dig deeper and figure out if we see ourselves as islan or part of a bigger conversation. It also means that we should be willing to sacrifice a little, our time and money. Individually and also the companies we work for.

    When I first started working in Bombay, I’d also get bothered by the ugly sign ages and crap design at small shops. I suggested to our design team in the office how about we take one pro-bono job every two months and do a proper re branding and the works for any of the small busineses who wont be able to afford us otherwise. The idea was shelved because we would have lost money and worse, people did scam ads and design work using some of these very small companies to enter awards. So yeah, responsibility can only come if we see ourselves part of the same picture. As one of my fav designers and an inspiration said, “them=us”.

    I guess we tumble along this path, I do take up small design and now even photo jobs which dont pay much or at all because I feel I can add to it or help it become better. Obviously individually we won’t be able to make much of a difference but I am optimistic because of some of the reasons I mentioned above. I also hope that more designers would dig deepr than the superfical trendy surface of things and see themselves part of a bigger culture. Then perhaps, we can make it better.

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