Kyoorius Designyatra 2013, just like the conference in 2012, was wonderfully inspiring and great fun- but this year, one thing was a little different- this year, Indian designers were a year older and seemed to be a little wiser and far more grounded. Amongst presentations full of beautiful design, unbelievable in their scale and execution, were a few talks that dared to make people a little uncomfortable. A few talks that dared to work themselves into the three days of happy design geekery. A few talks that seemed to say- If Create Change is the theme of this conference, we have got to talk about the things in our country that need changing.
Yes, we have daily reminders of the gross inequality of men and women in this country. Yes, the brutal attacks on women frighten us, shock us, appall us. But what are we going to do about it? What can designers do to change any of this? I don’t think any of us expected the delightful bubble the speakers created for us to be burst by discussions of rape and inequality, but I have to give it to the Kyoorius team for allowing these issues to be brought to the stage. No, it’s no pleasant. But it is something we have to talk about.
KV Sridhar of Leo Burnett spoke about something I believe in very strongly- about the responsibility of visual communicators in putting forth the kind of images we want society to reflect. He spoke of making informed, responsible choices to address gender roles and gender stereotypes in India to help create a society that treats men and women as equals. His ads for HDFC life do just that- they take a situation that most Indians think of as male territory and work a girl or a woman into it, reflecting the reality most Indian advertising seems to ignore- that women DO work. That they DO earn their own money. That marriage may not be their sole aim and priority. That they do more than stay, saree clad in a kitchen worrying about the most nutritious breakfast for their husbands and children. Leo Burnett could have stuck with themes of planning for sons’ education and daughters’ marriages, but they chose not to. They chose to create change.
Do these things make a difference? My guess is that they do. Not overnight, but over time they begin to change the way society thinks about the roles men and women play. More than instant change, they stop reinforcing stereotypes. They dare to break away from damaging thought processes that prevent us from moving forward. A few brands in India seem to be trying to do this (or so I think) Lowe Lintas’ ads for Fasttrack with their tag line ‘Move On’ try to push Indians to be more accepting of certain realities our society strongly opposes- live in relationships and homosexuality, for example. I’m not sure this was what they intended to do, but that’s the way I saw it. Seeing as the brand and the ads seem to be aimed towards urban, young India, we still have a long way to go in terms of changing society, but it’s a start.
So many times, when I was a student, I was told that design could change the world. That design could make a difference. As a graphic designer, I was always a little wary of the truth in that statement. A single poster most certainly cannot change the world. But that was when I thought I was a graphic designer- a title that lends itself to a visual of pens and pencils and Adobe Illustrator. When you think of yourself as a visual communicator, things change a little. Throwing ‘communication’ in there, which is essentially what every graphic designer does, makes you a little more confident that things can change. Communication is all about people, and what you chose to communicate and the way you communicate can change things. KV Sridhar spoke about gender inequality, but there’s far more that we can change through our communication. What if the the ‘happy Indian family’ that appears in at least half the advertising we create isn’t always a happy hetrosexual family? What if the pretty girl in an ad is dark skinned with short hair? Would a brand dare to do things like this? Would it be seen as a publicity stunt designed to provoke? Or would this slowly pave the way for alternate sexuality gaining more acceptance? Could it challenge the convention notion of beauty in this country that so many men and women struggle with? If we were consistently exposed to visuals that suggested that there were more ways to live than the ways we consider ‘acceptable’ would we open our minds to those too? And wouldn’t that make society more understanding? And people happier?
The more I work with brands, read about them and try to break them down, the more I’m intrigued by the power they have over people. The power they have to change the way people think, the way people behave. Every brand I engage with has the potential to create change. It may not be the kind of change that solves the world’s problems. But small, incremental changes can make our society a better one- a society thats treats people equally- irrespective of their gender or sexuality or the colour of their skin. These may be basic issues, but a giant part of our country still struggles with them. Every brand around us has the potential to create these changes. They just need to want to.