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India's design history can be looked through many different lenses

depending on the purpose of understanding it. Here the intent of

documenting Product Design history is to:
1) Get a glimpse of the vast expanse that is India's inherent art,
craft, design and architectural past that might often be overlooked
when Design History is understood from a global context.
2) Understand the socio-political and economic influences that have
either accelerated or impeded the manufacture and use of products
that have its roots in principles of traditional as well as western
design, through the eyes of academicians and industrial
3) To put together India's history in making products, which have had
an impact on the lives of her citizens and possibly a global reach as

Indian Product Design in the global sense of the word is a fairly

recent phenomenon which is generally agreed to have come into being
since the early 70's with initial first set of designers from the
National Institute of Design (then known as the National Design
Institute) Ahmedabad and later with the Industrial Design Centre in
the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai.

Before launching into the narrative of post-colonial and postindustrial revolution Indian Product design and manufacture, it is
necessary to understand India's past in product design, briefly.
Pre-Industrial Revolution:
India has strong moorings in a unified format of what is now
separately called in the western world as: art, craft, architecture
and design, manuscripts refer to it as Kala. The kind of products
that have originated in India before the Industrial Revolution for
2000 years has largely been out of local innovations and products
that have been born from iteration and evolution rather than short
bursts of innovation or design revolution.
Masons, painters, illustrators, stone and clay workers, wood-workers
and metal-smiths, often made the early products. The craft of making
these were largely passed down from generation to generation via
various guilds.
The Industrial Revolution brought about the first shift in paradigm
in manufacturing processes by bringing the shift from hand made
products by a few skilled experts to semi-automated to automated
industries that began making a set of products for a larger number of
people in a shorter span of time, for lower costs. The revolution
occurred largely in Western Europe and North America, as a result
they have been the beneficiaries of it and its aftermath, as compared
to countries that have been farther, geographically.

The result of mechanization led to the Arts and Crafts movement, the
proponents of which felt that the ugliness in machine produced goods
is a direct result of the removal of people who could work well with
their hands, though its impact was short, it paved way for newer and
alternative ideologies for products that could be produced by

The debates and effects of the revolution was felt in India who had
by then been colonized by the East India Company, through teachings
at various arts and crafts schools in Madras (Chennai), Bombay
(Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkata) who began during the 1850's.
These were the schools for industrial art or applied art, though they
were empty of inherent Indian skill-sets and literature regarding it.
Thus began a slow decay of guild systems and the practice of unified
concepts of Kala in India due Macaulay's educational system, which
was based upon the British model. Many Indian post-colonial
historians and designers believe that this is how we have nurtured
our differences and distinctions between design, craft and art.

Rabindranath Tagore at his Visvabharati University in Santiniketan

experimented in trying to revive education in terms of literature,
poetry, performing arts, crafts, apparel and even spaces where
traditional design methodology could prosper. The concept of working
by doing in was received more universally through Mahatma Gandhi's
'Nai Taalim', which embraced self-sufficiency in all walks of life
and led to small localized production systems based on man-power and
small machines-the charkha, the Indian spinning wheel, being one of
the most iconic examples of this country's resolve. Some of the major
industries began during this time.

With a move to improve India's economic standing a lot of emphasis
was given for the promotion of Indian crafts-people via various
agencies. However from a global understanding of the word product
design some of the initial products, that made what is the Indian
market today, came from a few private companies and industries that
had begun prospering during the late 1800's. In the form of Tata Iron
and Steel Company (TISCO) at Sakchi Bihar in 1907, some of the early
bolstering of Indian industrial products had begun. After many
hurdles in 1942 the Birla group formed Hindustan Motors Limited in
Calcutta and Walchand Hirachand formed Premier Automobiles with
products such has pistons, electric bulbs etc. India's post-war
industries and hence their products are a direct result of
traditional merchant communities taking interest and investing into
her expansion on a global scale.
One of the major government policies that have had its impact on
India's industrial design history is the division of industries in
terms of public and private sector, through a series of Industry
Policy Resolutions in 1948 and 1956. Coupled with the elaborate
matrix of licenses and regulations that were required to set up and

run businesses in India between 1947 and 1990, the infrastructure for
a planned economy eventually led to the culling down of Indian made
Product or industrial design education and the profession itself was
an indirect outcome to create an industrial infrastructure for the
development of resources on a national scale. During the 60's the
profession became familiar, albeit to the ears of a few. The design
movement thus began through the then Prime minister inviting Le
Corbusier to plan and design Chandigrah and Charles and Ray Eames to
research about India's inherent potential and nature to initiate
design. This is well captured in the "The India Report". In the
seventies the corporate world as well as many NGOs began to receive
its first set of design graduates, who faced many challenges in an
unfamiliar territory that had yet not seen an economy that had been
initiated or sustained using design methodologies. During this era in
particular the term economic development was critically re-thought
due to its latent relationship with social justice. Thus many Western
models of design methodologies came to be questioned, as the ecosystems were incredibly different. This is the time period, which
began the movement for Design to participate in "Real World " issues,
using appropriate technologies and the birth of the "Barefoot
Post 1990:
As only Government sponsored industries were doing well before the
1990's. This coupled with the fact that private industries were still
working within the domain of the licence raj, made for an extremely
inflexible framework for the profession of design, even though the
opportunities were many.
An open market:
The new government with P.V Narashimha Rao and Manmohan Singh
spearheading the liberalization brought forth ample socio-economic
reforms and the initiation of many smaller Indian industries and
ultimately an open market in a global sense. For the first time an
effort was made to catch up with the technologically advanced
countries, efforts gave rise to a boost in homegrown technologies,
with international standards and competitors in mind. The moment
corporate sectors began recognizing the capabilities of a designer; a
shift began, where in design was intervening in hi-tech areas and not
just the grass-roots level.
Ground realities:
In an open market, a number of Indian companies had more equipped
competitors. Success stories are few and far between. Even more
obscure are products that are essentially Indian by design and that
which succeeded in the market and sufficiently so to have an impact
in day-to-day life.
With the advent of the PCs and the Internet, small design firms began
emerging handling projects focusing on product concept, production
and marketing. The networking that was done was both national and
international. Recent advances through digitization allowed for
really low manpower and yet high output, albeit India still has a lot
to catch up in terms of a gap in prototyping technologies.
A Global sense:

With the beginning of integrated devices, product design definitions

have slowly started evolving as tangible products are becoming more
and more like information processors. Thus the emergence of smart
devices have led to more ancillary branches like interaction and user
experience design, which in essence still has origins in product
design. Due to the prevalence of two different extremes, the global
village versus the real village, the practice of design is also
becoming slowly dual in nature. Where one impacts aggressively with a
non-culture specific agenda and the other deals with issues such as
limited access to new technologies and lack of infrastructure and
wherewithal for a smooth transition from local to a glocal village.

An excerpt from Prof H. Kumar Vyas would be apt for the reader
regarding the evolution and revolutions that have moulded Indian
Product Design:
" In the final analysis, the days when industrial design could be
looked at in splendid isolation as a singular and internationally
common phenomenon, are long past. The history of a people's culture
and their socio-political aspirations have acquired the same
importance for the designer as the factors of economic development
and technology transfer. Once this is accepted as the premise, a
whole new world of design challenges must open up, particularly in
the economically disadvantaged nations.
The future of the industrial design profession, and the education of
industrial designers-in India and in other countries in a similar
situation-largely depends on how these challenges are met. As the
trend indicates, industry and the government have begun to show
unmistakable awareness of the designers' roles in all three levels of
As seen from:

The Designer and the Socio-Technology of Small Production

Author(s): H. Kumar Vyas
Source: Journal of Design History, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1991), pp. 187-210

1) Design in Search of Roots: An Indian
Experience -Uday Athavankar
2) The Designer and the Socio-Technology of Small Production
Author(s): H. Kumar Vyas
Source: Journal of Design History, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1991), pp. 187-210
3) Design: Art and Craft as a United Concept
Author(s): H. Kumar Vyas

Source: India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4, DESIGN: TRADITION AND CHANGE (
December 1984), pp. 91-94
4) Design History: An Alternative Approach
Author(s): H. Kumar Vyas
Source: Design Issues, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Autumn, 2006), pp. 27-34
5) Design the International Movement With Indian Parallel
Author(s): H. Kumar Vyas

Prof Athvankar
Prof Athvankar began his career as a trained architect from the JJ School of Architecture, Mumbai. After
graduating he began work in Architects Combine a firm, where he worked for 4 years (Dec 1969). He
worked with Kamu Iyer who focused heavily on insights, discussions and debates related to the field of
design philosophy, architecture and technology.
In September 1969, a colleague informed him regarding a new department-The School of Design in IIT
that would be involved in training students in Design. Being someone who frequented Jehangir art
gallery and who kept abreast with the art movement, design history and Bauhaus. With the
premonition that the School of Design might be something akin to the Indian Bauhaus he came to IIT.
The department was being spear headed then by Prof Sudhakar Nadkarni. The space then consisted of
a single floor, which was constructed typically like an engineering department. The year was 1970 and
was rebelling against regressive forces that were violently shaping global policies on one hand and the
really young people using incredibly unconventional methods to protest and shape a newer future.
His entry was formalized by Prof V N Adarkar, Charles Correa and then began in 1970. Because Prof
Athvankar joined IDC at its nascent stage, many policies were experimented with when it came to
teaching methods, technologies that could be exposed. Initially Bauhaus and HfG Ulm were thought as
ideals for the system of education. But India had many cultural aspects and many problems that were
really India-centric in nature. This led the faculty to conceive of a program that was tailored for the
Indian demographic.
He drew inspiration from such books as Small is beautiful by E F Schumacher, which dealt heavily
with appropriate technology and context based problem solutions. There was a lot of political
discourse, which aimed at development with social justice at its focal point.
One such example is the redesign of the Ghamela making it easier for the construction worker to carry
material with reduced effort.
Students were motivated and encouraged to work in projects that involved collaborating with NGOs to
make product solutions for the benefit of the society.
One of the first games that Prof Athvankar was involved with is, the Edugame-which was made to
teach agriculture and rural development policies through the game. It won the award in the Edugame
International Competition held at Israel.
Up till then due to the License Raj, it was very difficult for the first generation of designers to make an
impact in a choked industrial environment. It was only during the early 80s with the opening up of the
market and then later in the 90s, as an influx of global products flooded the market, the need for
competitive products that were of Indian origin rose very quickly, as result the need for young
designers was felt in emerging industries.
During this time there was considerable progress in design methodology to map methods to
understand what people need and how to go about solving problems related to systematic thinking.
People like Edward de Bono and Christopher Alexander were instrumental in a lot of work in this area.
In IIT Chicago, he immersed himself in the areas of cognitive sciences; IIT Chicago had a lot of courses
related to cognitive psychology, which formalized his understanding of Gestalt principles, which
caused him to veer away from the computer sciences. Prof Brook was the mentor over there, which
introduced him to the works of Eleanor Rosch and categorization theory, which he introduced in IDC
when he came back. Because the work is incredibly tedious, he chose gamification as tool to make it
easier for the students to digest. From Roschs work with natural objects, he extended it to man-made
objects through Product Semantics. Along with Ludwig Wittgenstein and George Lakoffs work, he
finely tuned and taught the course on Product semantics.
In 2005 Prof Athvankar got a UNESCO funded project creating toys-games in India. Due to Chinas
dominance in manufacturing and production abilities then, it did not seem like a wise move to invest
time in making toys, he then applied his earlier learning of game design and cognitive science to
create games which can be fun but based on design thinking and learning.
Game design is interesting, as a game doesnt inherently solve a real life problem. Here he tried
analyzing problems and devise solutions through design methodology. He developed the course
through teaching and formulated many principles and executed several games made by the students
through the modules, through game design companies like Funskool. He used game design as a
platform for better education and affordable learning practices through fun. As a lot of games executed
and produced still cost a lot of money, he came up with the concept of designing, zero-cost games,
albeit there is a lacuna in marketing these zero-cost games.

IDC has always sought collaboration with NGOs and manufacturing industries. This has it is moorings
in the philosophy of learning by doing, to sharpen design and systematic thinking abilities to solve
real-world problems.
Prof Athvankars first project, as an industrial designer in IDC was the redesign of the Postbox.
The old parrot post box had many complaints like rusting, access issues and vandalism.
This project involved several ergonomic studies, people watching or ethnographic studies and user
research. The project had several pitfalls, as cutting across the red tape became the biggest hurdle
during the 70s License Raj. This indecisiveness was resolved when IDC was finally commissioned to
prototype the post-boxes. One of these was installed in front of the then PM Indira Gandhi. It so
happened that she came to IIT for the 1972 convocation where she came across the post box yet again
in the IDC exhibition space. She immediately asked for the manufacturing and installation of these
postboxes. The project had many interesting insights: Initially brass locks were used which were often
picked and sold for scrap value. Thus it became a necessity to have an internal lock. But
manufacturing through various vendors often caused harsh distortions in the original design.
Wansons Boilers: These boilers were simply activated using a singles switch. Over the years various
functionalities resulted in a complicated control panel. Prof Athvankar was given the job of increasing
its usability along with its aesthetic appeal. The success of this project encouraged Wanson to
commission a new design for the boiler house as well.
Another project that Prof Athvankar handled was the Catering device for NELCO, which is used for a
large number of people.
With the open market came new systems for development, one such was C-DOT, which involved low
cost rural telephone exchanges. C-DOT was one of the early technocratic institutions that had fasttrack executions
ASAN-NCR ATM: The company wanted to understand the challenges in India when it came to using the
ATM. An example being, poor-low literate people really appreciate ATM systems as the machine never
gets angry or bears prejudices against low-literate people. This company was willing to gamble and
select a non-conventional model to explore changes across cultural difference. One of the main users
was Kotak.
Samsung had a project where Prof Athvankar and his students came up with interesting use-cases for
the fridges, which were eventually implemented by Samsung.
Another observation is regarding the variance in terms of learning curves across different age groups
in India. He mentions how though the fellow passenger was able to manage many problem solving
activities over the phone while travelling even though he was low-literate, through deciphering the
The meaning of product design has also changed over the years; from 1970 the focus was in using
design for solving social problems in a developing country or third world problems. This changed
between the 80s and 90s as the open market made design solutions techno-centric in nature, which
brought about a shift from developing countries to emerging market . Which changed recently with
Indias integration with the global market. As software became an integral part of products and
services, product design and its meaning evolved, with embedded technology newer definitions are
required in design education, else we are falling behind compared to other countries.
Prof Athvankar feels design process and the language attached to it have slowly become more casual.
The word user slowly gets replaced with stakeholder. Psychological aspects are brought into the
focus. User also becomes a player. What was once product form and semantics with a science
behind has become look and feel.
Some of the people who have had influence on Prof Athvankars work are Prof Kohei Sugiura-his work
ethic and discipline is incredibly inspiring. Prof CK Prahlad is particularly inspirational as he brought the
focus back to the bottom of the pyramid and Indias unmet needs. Another inspiration through reading
is Rama Bijapurkar and her analysis of the Indian society.
Arthur Pulos was inspirational and provided a lot of confidence in the late 70s and early 80s. An
American designer , he came to India during UNDP program. He was a staunch proponent of by the
designer for the designer movement.
Sam Petroda from C-DOT is another figure that was influential in the way he got work done and his
positive energy was contagious. He is another proponent for Indian design and technology.
One of the major contentions for Prof Athvankar has been the inability of product designers and
architects to bring out the Indianness in products. A Marathi play called Mulgi Zaali Ho! It is a girl
child! where the sets were barely there and the people themselves were the sets sparked an idea as
to how he could bring out Indianness in both the contemporary and the traditional sense. He used
some of these principles to create a chair, which allowed squatting. He used principles and elements
from office chairs, traditional Indian clothing the principle of the age old Munda. His creation has been
the experiment in bi-cultural design. Where issues related to environment, semantics, cultural need to

be addressed simultaneously.
He says that, product design definition needs to take into account that products have become
information processors. And eventually will be without tangible hardware like-mobile applications. Yet
these satisfy the basic criteria of product design problems in terms of need, users and design methods.
This he says is something we still are not looking at intently in both design process as well as design
education and are thus lagging behind. He questions the need for separation of terms product design
and interaction design.
He now keeps himself occupied by creating games that can be used as a tool for data gathering.
Giving newer insights into decision-making, thus creating more finely tuned products.