Indian Graphic Design?
What do we mean when we say ‘Indian’ graphic design? Is it the idea of designing for India, designing in India, or design from India?
The implications of the word Indian put next to Design are hard to gauge. With all the diversity of languages, costumes, customs, art forms, and by corollary, the popular cultures that we have in India, the idea of an Indian house style becomes almost impossible to picture beyond the cliche. The “high” design and the “low” run parallel to each other but also cross paths time and again, and it becomes hard to separate the authentic and the ‘kitsch’. The idea of authenticity itself becomes questionable, because especially in communication design, the product is often not tangible, but instead a representation of an idea. So what is this idea of India that we are, or we should be, simulating in our design?
Is it the India of the North Indian Trucks, with their elaborately detailed type and tigers and eagles? Or is it the India of the South Indian Lorries which are decked up in stylised florals? Is it the calendars of Raja Ravi Verma and others which Jyotindra Jain curated and documented? Or is it in the Kollams that KG Subrahmanyan so meticulously documented and systemised? Is it in the satirical Patachitras of Calcutta too? And the Jain manuscripts of Mandu, the Matchbox and firework factories of Sivakasi?
Is it in the romanticised past rife with cliches, and is it occupying that sweet spot between art, advertising, and design? Alan Fletcher wrote (how quaint is it that i’m quoting a British graphic designer here) that the designer’s job is to “…stroke a cliche till it purrs like a metaphor.” So maybe cliches aren’t bad at all! Our entire projects function on target audiences and user personas.
I asked this question to friends online, and got some interesting responses- from artists, designers, and people who love art/design.
What does Indian Graphic design look like, to you?
Makes sense. The idea of Indian streets as a riot of colours, almost a sensory overload, but mostly the good kind. Exuberant and expressive.
“Like Indian Food. A Blend of cultural cues…”
“Vada pao inside paani puri dipped in sambar”
Interesting. But also scary to use this as an indicator, because “Indian food” is an umbrella term. The spices and ingredients we use varies from region to region, as does the method of cooking, serving and eating. So i suppose, having a singular idea of “Indian food” is an impossible one- unless of course we’re going multi-cuisine. And by corollary, maybe Indian Graphic design can be seen as the antithesis to the homogeneity propagated by modernism.
“Devanagari Alphabets, lotuses, peacocks…”
“Surrounded by lotuses hopefully…”
Again, not sure how helpful this reliance on cliches is, or how universal this idea of Indian-ness can go, but I can understand how lotuses, peacocks and Devanagari alphabets have occupied this space in our collective consciousness as nationalist symbols.
The Lotus however, now, also stands for a certain political ideology, and I can’t fathom the implications of that on contemporary visual culture.
“You know, it’s a tough one. In the end we identify anything that is “too indian” as kitsch…”
This might have a lot more to do with cultural appropriation than we usually believe, because in the end, the “kitsch” artefacts are usually the ones where a traditional motif is taken out of context and applied anywhere and everywhere. Brilliant pieces of visual culture have lost their original significance and been reductively applied on fridge magnets to cushion covers to restaurant menus. The art of the Warli tribe, Truck painting motifs, or even pictures of certain deities are now seen through the commercially co-opted visuals that surround us. This might look “Indian” at first sight, but what is this idea of India actually even representing? The “too kitsch” problem is not about visuals that are “too Indian”; it’s got more to do with the commercially co-opted idea of Indian-ness.
THERE MUST BE MORE TO INDIAN-NESS THAN THE VISUALS?
“…raw, rustic, poised, entertaining, cinematic, exuberant…”
I love all of these words. However, while chasing adjectives, sometimes we tend to forget what we’re chasing them for. Nonetheless, if all design could be even half of all of that, the world would be a more fun place to live in?
“Like Indian Textiles, intricate, handcrafted, and natural!”
This is a tough statement to respond to, considering how there are so many layers to the idea of craft. Ideally, yes, all design should be a labour of love, and feel as natural as possible, but with design going digital, and intricacy being subjective, does this mean that a ‘minimal’ poster made digitally would be less “Indian” than a sign on a wall painted using, say, indigo and ochre?
“Vibrant and heavily visuals-based, otherwise it might get difficult to cater to multiple languages, or to the illiterate…”
Diversity and Inclusion are finally getting the acknowledgement that was long overdue in design discourse globally, but in India, it’s an entirely different story considering how as designers, a lot of us function from echo chambers which are occupied by people like us, who more or less enjoy the same privileges as us, speak the same languages as us, and consume a similar popular culture. And in this, it is that we forget to realise that one visual might not as well work across multiple cultures, linguistic and otherwise. Perhaps we don’t need to cater to multiple languages at the same time; the communication- visual and textual- directed towards a Hindi speaker might, and ideally should, be different than that directed at a Tamil speaker, and again, ideally, originate from a native speaker of the language. This, by extension, as pointed out in multiple type design conferences this year, must also apply to type design- only a person who has grown up with a script can bring out the nuances that are required to build an efficient and communicative system of typography.
Yes, certain visuals can work to communicate ‘wordlessly’, but not everyone shares the same visual literacy that we have as designers. Case studies like Lakshmi Murthy’s work at Vikalp for health communications in rural areas of India show that the idea of a universal visual literacy, including systems like Isotype symbols, are not as universal as designers, who are mostly educated in the western canon, assume.
“It should definitely not emulate truck art or matchbox art; Indian design is more flexible, like the Lota.”
“…It should be liberating for both, the designer, and the form…”
It is interesting how the Lota is brought up every now and then in discussions on Indian design; I love it for both- form and function. The Lota in design discourse is probably more of a legacy that The Eames inadvertently left us when they also left behind the blessing/curse that is a design education framework rooted so deeply in modernism that it’s almost shocking that its foundations lie in something so inherently pluralistic as the Lota.
The Eames also wished for young Indian designers to “look beyond the past” and build “the Lotas of tomorrow”. Their ideals of design looked mostly at industrial design, but if we were to apply the idea of a Lota to visual communication, which essentially is a vessel for the message, then perhaps we might as well subscribe to the idea of design being ‘neutral’. Modernist pioneers (again, the Western ones) have documented the ‘neutrality’ of their graphics and the philosophies behind them, but a closer look might reveal the binaries they functioned in, and the black-and-white idea of what “good” design was and wasn’t back then. And that, is as far from neutral, as neutrality is, to use an extreme metaphor, from the politics of the Right.
TL;DR: Maybe neutral isn’t what design should even aim to be. Maybe flexibility is something we can work on. And adaptability, and inclusion. And while we’re thinking of decolonising design, we might as well look at the “cultural imperialism” of western personalities and pedagogues in an Indian system of education.
“Nationalism is a questionable concept”
Here’s an opinion I was truly impressed by. One can turn this into a Nationalism v/s Patriotism debate of course, but that’s a discussion for another day. Coming back to design, I suppose, if you belong to India, you ARE an Indian designer. That said, maybe labels aren’t all that necessary. Your work will ultimately be defined by what the project demands. What an Indian audience would connect with may or may not be full of the symbolism that we’ve come to associate with an instantly recognizable idea of “India”. And either way, it’s okay. Why must we even box ourselves into notions of what’s Indian and what isn’t?
This is perhaps a good point to segue into the next section.
Ishan Khosla on Indian Design:
It is something that has been created with the intention of appreciating, representing or merely hinting at any aspect of the idea of India from its past, present or future. It doesn’t need to “look” or “say” that loud. It is Indian because you the designer believes that from your own perspective, experience and instinct …
The designer doesn’t need to be Indian to create “Indian” design. Its his/her version of it, who can dispute it. That is why I am against grading in design.
Also for a designer it’s not important to be Indian but to find and express one’s own voice however strange or different or non-mainstream that might feel.
This was honestly such a heartening response to get, because Ishan along with certain other contemporaries, is pushing the boundaries of “Indian Design”. Certain projects that Ishan’s done carry an “Indian-ness” which is hard to align with the cliches, and yet they’re all unquestionably Indian. Some of them align perfectly with the picturesque and stylised idea of India a-la Darjeeling Limited, while others question and reflect upon what it means to be Indian today. And most of it seems to be guided by the audience of the project.
It’s interesting how differently Taj Mahal tea and Nescafe Sunrise coffee are branded and advertised in India. Both are owned by International Conglomerates, and targeted specifically at an Indian audience, at more or less similar price points, yet we see a sharp divide in the narratives they both portray. Neither tea nor coffee is native to India, and yet both of these products feel equally at home in an Indian household regardless of the idea od “indian-ness” that is portrayed in their respective branding.
Culture is not a homogeneous entity, and nor is it shaped in its entirety by design. And since culture is not homogeneous, why should design be? Indian culture shouldn’t just be bound by traditionalist values, but be seen as the fluid, ever-expanding entity that it is. With global boundaries dissolving, we must stop holding on to the past as the sole source of culture, and acknowledge that by consuming cultures originating from different sources, we are not assimilating into those sources, but instead building up on our own culture, and expanding it.
The real problem with Indian Design is the lack of documented references, history, and case-studies; and an overall underrated concept of critique and critical discourse. Art criticism has picked up its pace in India, and it’s time that Design gets its due as well. Instead of focusing just on the commercial aspect, designers need to build a body of critical discourse for the fraternity. Once that is well documented and critiqued upon, we can set new standards on what Indian-ness could mean in design, instead of going back to the same old cliches.
Trends in design will come and go, and they will originate and be popularized at different times and places. Applying a trend to a certain context relevant to communication should not diminish its authenticity. And as long as something is relevant to an audience, be it in terms of nostalgia, or connection, or relatability, or even novelty, then it works.
Indian design should therefore, not be limited to the cliches of what has worked. It can also be what might work. Or what might fail. It is as much a Tata Nano as it is The Ambassador. And I’ve seen enough Indians driving Skodas, BMWs, and Volkswagens.