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Indian Psyche & Jugaad

The Gabbar & Mogambo to Modern Design in India.

Here’s a conversation that you wouldn’t miss as a design student in India.

What do you do, beta (child)?
I’m a Designer.
What? Fashion?
No no. A Product Designer. (Lets take the example of a Product Designer)
What products do you design?
It could be anything. Depends on the kind of market I go into. I could design a mobile phone, or a chair, or even those spectacles you’re wearing.
So you’re an engineer.
No… But I would have to work along with engineers.
My son’s an engineer. At IBM. Something like that?
Not really. But in a way, yes. Engineers help with the technicalities, designers concentrate on the appearance and functionality, very broadly speaking.
Oh… Okay. But is there any scope? Any money in this?

The Mindset

The above conversation (and that last sentence in particular) clearly outlines India’s approach to pretty much every occupation there is. Does it pay you? Because who really cares if you enjoy what you do? Having fun won’t fill your stomach (as the old saying goes).

Not many Indians grasp what designers do. We’re either glorified artists or craftsmen. In fact, anyone who isn’t either a doctor or an engineer or a chartered accountant, has pretty much no stature.
This sense of being superior because you pursue a reputed occupation (or even are from a reputed college) tends find itself eating away at our tiny design community too. The Indian lust for money (and stature) tends to leave us creatives penniless, because we’re passionate about what we do. Not why we do it.

This isn’t a nation of risk takers. “Get settled, or get eaten” is the Indian twist to the process of natural selection. It’s socially more acceptable to be employed, even if it’s with minimal wage, than have a flexible job. Anyone with a non-conventional job will instantly recognize that grimacing face that their relatives make when they express their interest in pursuing acting/photography/designing (pretty much the holy trinity of cringe-worthy professions).
And when you’re stuck in a deadbeat job, the only goals you set are to get promoted, or to get rich. Stature is everything to the Indian adult. So many people swear by doing an MBA after graduating in their field, that the government had to enfranchise the Indian Institute of Management.
Stature is everything to the Indian adult… and we seem to have developed a fast-track formula for it. No points for guessing, but a career in Design doesn’t feature in that formula, because design isn’t in demand here yet. And it’s safer to cater to something that’s in demand than create a demand in something that is yet to pick up.
It’s strange, because frankly, we hold a lot of creative potential. Most of it comes out as a result of our laziness or thrifty nature (read further, you’ll get what I mean), but still… Think about it. In a way, it’s embedded in our culture. And maybe we should be taking our creative potential more seriously.

If you don’t speak Hindi, you’re probably wondering what the cover photo is about. It reads ‘Jugaad’ (Hindi for cheap innovation. Also what I was referring to in my previous paragraph.) Jugaad captures the essence of the Indian mentality to make do with what one has, rather than investing in something that’s more need appropriate. It’s an attitude that justifies the choice of a quick/cheap fix to a problem over an elegant/timeless solution.

Wait. Until now I was using jugaad to describe our design potential.
Now what does jugaad have to do with India’s lack of sensitivity towards our field? You’d be surprised. Jugaad isn’t an approach as much as it’s a behavioral trait. A part of our human nature. So it tends to creep up on all our decisions and perceptions. That’s why people have no qualms making an engineer practice product design, or making a person with basic drawing skills design a logo or brochure. Jugaad says that you can “make do” with the stuff at your disposal. (Maybe that’s why we hold doctors and engineers in high regard. Not many professions can really replace them overnight.)

Before I start talking about how I feel about Jugaad, it’s imperative to understand that Jugaad is perceived differently by non-designers, & consecutively, by designers. To a layperson (not just Indian), the idea of problem solving is somewhat a god-given ability. Like folding a piece of paper and putting under the leg of rickety furniture. So when I tell them designing is all about problem solving, they can’t place it as a profession. What occupation ISN’T about problem solving? A Doctor solves problems, a Carpenter solves problems.

You see… Everyone gets the concept behind “problem solving”,
but not the concept behind “Design”.

You see. Everyone understands the concept behind “problem solving”, but not the concept behind “Design”. The need was to simplify the term “Design” so people could understand it.
The word Jugaad was somewhat callously introduced into this definition in the interest of simplicity, in most cases oversimplifying the entire profession. Much like calling an airline pilot a chauffeur.
Jugaad… We ended up using a word that translates to “frugal, shortcut approach to problem solving” to describe something as grand as Design.

So using the term Jugaad to describe Design to laypeople doesn’t quite serve the purpose as much as it gives them an unsavoury impression of what we do, and takes the beauty out of Design; thus corrupting it.
Where things took a turn for the worse is when designers themselves started making a meme out of Jugaad. Giving it a sort of cult word status. (They’ve printed t-shirts too. I’m not kidding.)
Truth be told, I personally don’t even see Jugaad featuring into the definition of Design. They both seem to contradict each other…
And that’s where I come into this picture with my moral crusade. To help us designers understand why no one understands design, and we’re voluntarily and yet unknowingly digging our own idiomatic grave.

Jugaad… The what, why, and how.

Jugaad is a colloquial Hindi word that can mean an innovative fix or a simple work-around, used for solutions that bend rules or create new things using meagre resources.
Image Source —

Jugaad exemplifies India’s most allegedly noteworthy step in introducing design to the masses. Why? Because we’re thrifty. We’re penny-wise.
Every scrap of garbage has an alternative purpose. We don’t believe in wasting. Or in unnecessary spending.
Why splurge on a seemingly effective solution when there’s a cheap and ingenious alternative?

Jugaad essentially rises from a creative spark. An idea by chance.
Another way to describe jugaad would be the reverse of Form follows Function, so basically Function follows Form. Being able to create function associations between products having particular forms. As an example, in the 1980–90s, people noticed that cassettes could be rewound with a pencil. The hexagonal cross section seemed perfect. The association between the two was definitely clever, but the person who thought of it wasn’t necessarily a designer. Another example is that of a coin. The coin is essentially currency. It was designed to represent a monetary unit. However, it is also the first thing we go to when we have to make a decision. Toss a coin… Heads or tails. OR once, while on a vacation, I used a coin to unscrew something when I couldn’t find a screwdriver. Not something the coin was made for, but a functional association made through form.

“Jugaad is (crudely) the reverse of Form Follows Function

Everyone has ideas. The inner problem-solver in them. Ranging from something as painfully simple as cupping your hands around your phone to increase the speaker volume, to more complex ideas like using an electric iron to make toast. Jugaad, is nothing but a lifehack. An idea by chance. An idea that comes to you at an instant; without warning, without procedure, without conceptualization.
Everyone can practice jugaad. You don’t need to graduate to do so.
That just makes the problem worse for design and designers alike. A layperson doesn’t see design beyond an elaborate (& expensive) lifehack. The word ‘designer’ is just an adjective that people put in front of words like ‘shoes’ or ‘bags’, or ‘lingerie’. They are oblivious to the process, and hence to design culture.
(Even after five years of design schooling, my relatives think I “draw” for a living. They still expect me to make caricatures of their two children.)

“The word ‘designer’ is just an adjective that laypeople put in front
of words like ‘shoes’ or ‘bags’, or ‘lingerie’…”

Modern Design in India

Design in India dates itself back to 1961 when the National Institute of Design was founded. It is only now that design as a profession is actually kicking off, with firms cropping up in various metropolitan cities.

To the layman, even today, there are just two disciplines within design.
Fashion, and Interiors. Graphic Design means nothing more than web design, and animation doesn’t mean more than cartoon making.
Needless to say, it’s still difficult for laypersons to comprehend the complexity of something like Industrial Design.
Super-Companies that truly respect design, like Google, Apple; have made it a bit easier. A lot of companies (Indian ones) embraced design in order to emulate and consecutively compete with the west.

Modern Design when interpreted by designers, no matter in which country, always comes down to the ‘process’, which is Innovation through Research, Conceptualization, Validation, Production.

What I find worrisome is that Jugaad is actively classified as India’s contribution to Design Thinking.
Wait! Isn’t that a good thing?!
Simply because Jugaad is detrimental to Design Thinking.
Jugaad doesn’t follow a design process.
Jugaad is essentially a lifehack, or a shortcut.
Jugaad in a manner of speaking, aims at achieving maximum output out of minimal input. This basically reduces the amount of effort we put into the act of creation.
Design should look effortless, not be effortless.

Jugaad ≠ Green Design

There’s no doubt that Jugaad can have brilliant outcomes. But think of Jugaad as a performance enhancing steroid, as opposed to actual training, skill and talent, which is the Design Process. ImageSource —

There’s a common misconception that environmentally sustainable design, or green design and jugaad are the same thing.
Well… It IS confusing, because they both essentially give a new purpose to an old product. Recycling, if you’re looking for a more concise description.

Where they differ, absolutely, is in everything except the end result. This includes the thought process, the longevity and nature of the solution, the constraints, and occasionally, the problem area.

Image Source —

The image to the left is one of the most concrete examples of jugaad. In fact, look at the cover image. The ‘A’ in Jugaad is a PET Bottle turned into a slipper. Don’t get me wrong. It is absolutely possible to approach this sort of solution through green design, but it’s a completely different path that we take. Here’s what the difference is between those two approaches…

Green Design aims at addressing the need to recycle a non-biodegradable plastic bottle and give it new purpose. On the other hand, Jugaad aims at addressing the need to provide a cheap (almost free), barely acceptable alternative to footwear.

One approach asks to have an ecologically sustainable outlook and address the needs of the environment. The other appeals to a human’s thrifty nature (explaining why we Indians do it so much, we had to invent a word for it).

The Bigger Picture…

Why don’t we have a problem with jugaad? Why is there a book published on jugaad? And based on the success of the book, a website dedicated to the grandeur of India’s contribution to innovation… a Hindi word for shortcut.

Something I saw, ironically, on Facebook itself.! Image Source —

In five years of my being in the design field, I never really had a problem with jugaad until just recently. It’s like those things that aren’t a problem until they start directly affecting you.

You’ve probably heard people say stuff about social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, that if you’re not paying for it, YOU’RE the product.
That’s pretty much the same case with a job within the industry. An employee offers a service, right? And the industry is expected to pay for that service. Hence the industry ‘buys’ you. But that’s how we explain a job or an occupation.
How then, would you explain an internship? A scenario where an employer needs you to perform a set of tasks to the best of your ability, but for a lower price, and a temporary time period?
That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The employer achieves maximum output (getting work done) with minimal input (lowered fees, temporary contract).
An internship is a “jugaadu” alternative to a full-time profession. It’s literally an occupational one-night-stand. A commitment-less, short-term solution to a problem, and usually much cheaper. And the intern is the jugaad.

Internships are literally occupational one-night-stands. A commitment-less,
short-term solution to a problem, and usually
much cheaper.
And the intern is the 
Image Source —

Let’s not forget that we are still talking about the Indian scenario.
The Indian internship is usually considered an alternative to full-time employment, as opposed to companies abroad that tend to look at internships as a way of discovering new talent, and helping students gain quick experience and growth. Now I don’t mean to generalize, but I’ve seen my share of firms that rely SOLELY on interns to do all their design work. Some of these companies literally have NO in-house designers, and depend completely on freelancers and interns to get their work done.

My question is, why would a client require your services, pay you for them, but not want to have you in-house as an employed designer?
The answer is because they usually don’t think they need to invest in a dedicated designer. Either an engineer is called to do the work a designer does (in the case of industrial design), or the employers do it themselves (visual design), using whatever Photoshop or PowerPoint (I know, right?) knowledge they have. Design is still not considered a vital profession, and the Jugaad mentality just reinforces the mindset that design intervention is hardly required, and if it is… only on a temporary basis.
So if you’re wondering why your B-listed design college doesn’t have campus placements yet? There’s your answer.

Most of my colleagues have had very unsatisfactory internships for the aforementioned reason. Jugaad as a mentality doesn’t sound all that pretty now, does it? Regardless of anything I’ve said above, you must remember that you shouldn’t let this mentality diminish your self-worth as a designer. Credibility is an important card to have up your sleeve, but unfortunately that’s only acquired if you’ve either done your Post Graduation, or have international experience. Now if you’re like me, who’s got neither, you’ve got to project self-confidence because college-initiated internships are usually the kinds that can highly affect your graduation process. Which means most of the time we’re really desperate, and that just tends to corrupt the entire experience. So yes, we need to remember that they usually need us more than we need them. Hopefully that’ll help take that jugaad instinct out of the areas of design where they aren’t required; and if that somehow teaches you about what a vicious cycle jugaad can be, then my job here is done!

Last Thoughts…

Throughout the course of this article (that’s slowly turned into a rant), I’ve come off as some anti-jugaad activist. Now don’t get me wrong. Jugaad isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jugaad can also be good, if used in the correct place. Using jugaad as a work-around for green design usually leads to some wonderful solutions (although with misguided intentions, most of the time). Moreover, thinking on your feet and being resourceful are most definitely two major assets in any designer’s arsenal. But jugaad always has a time and place. Like in Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility”… sorry, I’ve always wanted to quote that somewhere; but back to the topic. Jugaad thinking can be productive, but the practice of jugaad should ideally be reserved for emergencies, where they’re required the most.

And how do you know when to practice jugaad? Well, I’m not going to answer ALL your questions, now am I?!


I started my career in design being impressionable. I thought that since everybody raved about how cool jugaad is, it really must be awesome. So I supported it. After a while, however, I realized I just used jugaad to justify my laziness. Also, I hadn’t really defined Jugaad properly. I just used whatever half-baked definition I had to my advantage, because it was convenient for me. It’s probably the same case for you too. Hopefully this post has at least altered the way you perceive this practice. Pragmatism is a much better virtue than a herd mentality.
Thanks for going through this article! I’m Sarang Sheth. An Indian Industrial Designer with an absolute passion for all kinds of music.
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