August 22, 2014

The Search for a Voice

By Michael Johnson

On my first ever trip to India, I managed to embarrass myself before I’d even landed. As the plane banked and approached the runway, I noticed multiple blue rectangles on the ground and thought ‘wow, that’s a lot of swimming pools’.


Those ‘pools’, I soon discovered, were the blue tarpaulin roofs of the slums by the airport, protection against the imminent monsoon. Before stepping off the plane I already felt like a colonial plonker, and shame has stopped me retelling the story until now.

My tarp/pool story is typical of the experience of the firang (foreign) designer, flying in with his/her stock speech, clear views on everything from typeface choice, logo design and precious little knowledge of Indian culture and design, other than replayed sketches from ‘Goodness Gracious Me’.

On that first trip, I was bombarded with questions from students on how they could learn to design ‘more like me’. What they really meant was ‘how could they make their designs look more western?’ – I put that down to a kind of emerging market insecurity and assumed it wouldn’t be long before Indian design found its voice.

But it’s taken longer than I expected. Seven years after my tarp shame, I’ve just finished judging an Indian design scheme, and whilst there were many pieces that could and should hold their own in award schemes worldwide, much of the work could have been done, well, anywhere. None of the shortlisted work was in any of the local Indian languages, and only a small proportion seemed to pick up on vernacular design.



It seems, to a semi-outsider such as myself, that by looking West, Indian design has slightly lost its own identity, settling on something more mid-atlantic instead.

Exacerbating the problem, the country now has its fair share of international consultancies working across the country or the region. Yet put much of the product of this work – from Airtel, to Apollo, to Tata DoCoMo and Pakistani telecoms brand Mobilink – on a powerpoint slide and there’s little or no sense of place. All we really see is a nod to international design trends, proof that design blogs are being studied slightly too closely and precious few attempts to lead, only to follow.

The paradox is that every firang designer, on those fleeting dashes from airport to podium and back again, is struck by India’s uniquely rich visual language. Not the outdoor advertising, which is almost universally awful, but the hand-painted walls, lorries and the indigenous craft tradition.

I’m not, of course, lobbying for every next Indian multinational to adopt logos based on truck type (although, wouldn’t that be something?) but it’s great to see that some of this is at least being recorded on sites such as – a tradition being curated, recorded and celebrated.

Of course there’s an inherent tension in pointing out the everyday vernacular in Indian cities. I understand why designers might want to run away from what’s around them, take a break from ‘Horn OK Please’, look further afield and adopt a little more ‘Horn Not OK Please’. If every international company that rang us in London said “we really love that cute Underground map of yours and my cousin has a really great ‘Mind the gap’ t-shirt we want you to emulate” then yes, we might start to get a little tetchy too. Yet, I would argue, there’s no harm in accepting what’s there and turning it to your advantage, rather than endlessly attempting to be the next Vignelli or Olins, may they both rest in peace.

Thankfully, my most recent trip has given me the time and space to look a little harder and there’s clear evidence of a genuine design voice emerging.

Take Ek Type’s determination to navigate a well-kerned route through India’s multiple languages and supply consistent typographic solutions that can speak in a multitude of ways. Or Hanif Kureshi’s work, such as his street art posters, using basic printing on newsprint, making no attempt to look slick, corporate or remotely western. Indian Type Foundry’s ‘Kohinoor’ typeface makes me wish I had an Indian client asking for Gujarati, just so I could use it.

EK Painter Suhail


Ek Painter Suhali from HandPaintedType, design and digitization a collaboration between Hanif Kureishi and Ek Type Ek Devanagari

Ek Devanagari typeface designed by Ek Type 

Related to Kureshi is Kulture shop, providing an ever-changing window into the emerging graphic art of India, and is perhaps the closest glimpse yet into what’s to come. With curated collections, artist collaborations and a genuine sense of India ‘now’ this feels like an early and successful attempt to pick up on India’s 21st century graphic art – perhaps emulating British shows like Pick Me Up – but delivering in a markedly Mumbai manner, not Hoxton hipster. (And immaculately branded and packaged too). Fast forward a decade and I can see Kulture shops in every major Indian city, and London, New York and Tokyo too.

With luck, soon WhiteCrow won’t have to supply local inflexions of international brands for very much longer, and simply do their own work. With luck, the relaunched Royal Enfield brand will be just the first of series of ‘Made In India’ designs that triumph at home, then abroad.

BLUED - book 1BLUED - book 3BLUED book by Sameer Kulavoor 

In an ironic twist, when visiting Kulture shop I picked up a charming illustrated book by Sameer Kulavoor, dedicated to those ubiquitous blue tarpaulins and their ever-shifting role, from packaging and refugee camps to water-proofing the homes of the richest, and the poorest.

A piece simply celebrating this omnipresent material, and the multiple uses of it.

A design happy to be honestly, uniquely Indian, not with one eye abroad. And that, in my view, is exactly as it should be.

Michael Johnson, johnson banks, was in Pune and Mumbai doing a series of Kyoorius FYIdays and chairing the second Kyoorius Design AwardsThis piece was first published in the 21st issue of Kyoorius Magazine. 

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