Innovation by Design Thinking and Doing
Anuj Prasad owns and manages his design company Desmania Design (www.desmania.com) which has grown into a leading blue-chip design house with multidisciplinary integrated design facilities. Desmania started as a design hot shop and over the years grew into a multi-disciplinary design company with over 50 team members. With a fully integrated design studio in Manesar, Gurgaon.
A design thinking advocate, innovator and entrepreneur - Anuj Prasad dons various hats. He has been a founding member of CII’s National Committee of Design. He has also been a jury member for the ‘India Design Mark’, since its inception. As a change-maker, he has been an influential speaker at many design forums. He is also on the board of several design schools.
What is your idea about design thinking and doing?
I'm sure many of you would have heard about something called design thinking, which has come in vogue in the last 10 years or so. And almost all the big companies around the globe, have taken their employees through the process of design thinking because they feel that user-centric design, you know, or user-centric approach and thought process, which is perpetuated by design thinking is something which helps a lot in business. So design thinking is nothing but focusing on the user, you know, who's your user? And what are the user needs? What are the unmet needs? How can you fulfil those needs, by a certain process, you know, and this process is pretty much common, and it could be applied on any kind of a platform. But doing is the most important thing because many, many design thinkers have acquired this knowledge through training. But the most important thing about certain practices is doing it, if you don't do it, then you don't learn it. And any practise requires doing. An architect thinks about a building, and he makes it happen through execution. So he knows more about it. A very big lawyer who probably would be charging one crore rupees for an hour of being in the court, he does it himself, you know, so, just the theory doesn't work. Doing is very important. And that is something which the real designers need to understand, and we are one of them.
Being the founder and CEO of Desmania, what is that you were looking at?
It has been a pretty long journey. For me, you know, it has been more than 25 years of design practice. And we were like one of those early start-ups, it was, in those days, we did not have start-ups, the economy had just opened up in ‘91. And we did see many opportunities, because so many companies, the corporates were keen to outsource services, and we were part of that bandwagon. The design was very new in its commercial avatar, I would say that people did not know what design was in India, because we had only two brands in everything, which was to compete with each other, and many licences from the governments were required. But when the market opened up, then design became very important, because the differentiation was happening through design. In the earlier stages, it was a very object- oriented design, which means you had to just satisfy the visual sense, which was aesthetics.
And it was very surface level, but was very exciting in those days because at least the companies were buying a design, at least and so we grew up organically, I would say because it was very tough to do in organic things in those days, you know, there were no VC funds, and we did not have any such funding thing. So it was all bootstrap business, which we did. And we never consider it as a business, it was more like something which is totally out of passion, and we have done whatever we wanted to do. So, that is how the journey started.
But over the years what has happened is that beauty in products come up in objects is something which is widespread and is taken for granted now. But what you need is a thought, which is a design thought or design thinking. And design thinking is a design, it's a problem- solving tool. You can solve much larger problems, which are system-related problems. And what we are trying to do is to get into such kind of projects where you can, you know, make design, accessible to a much larger audience. And the design creates an impact, it creates an impact on society, it creates an impact on the environment. So now for the last few years, what I've been perpetuating is that design is not just human or user-centric, but it is user plus eco-centric. We have messed up the environment in a very big way by making it very human- centric, and it's important to concurrently think about the ecosystem for which you design and designers are the best people who can conceptualise to a very nascent stage that what you design does it work for the ecosystem or the environment or ecology also, so, that is how we are going further.
Indian railways have been the lifeline to the common man. Your input in design is going to matter
Like any other government body or public sector, Indian railways have very stringent processes of buying or procuring. It must be having a lot of merit because it has evolved over so many years, but I think it has become too stringent now, and when I say stringent, it means that it doesn't mean the possibility of getting the right talent many a time. But we as designers, and as a member of the CII design committee, been advocating this for very long that government needs to design by design in a different way altogether. Design is the first touchpoint for anybody.
Now, suppose we design a whole system in say, cities like Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, where the perception is that ‘wow man’, this is a country where you must be. You can see the percolation which happens the kind of value which you add and the values that are humongous. This means investments will flow in people who will have more confidence in the country, and the implications are very far-reaching and very soft. So, perception is like anywhere in our life, when we see something and when we experience something, it creates a certain perception and design is something that does that. While doing this, it is not purely aesthetics, because it needs to solve problems. And India is a very complex country, it has so much of diversity, variety of cultural behaviour and psyche is way different in different parts of the country, the education levels are very different. So it becomes much more complex to design for India.
But yet, Indian Railways is something that connects. It's a bridge between the diversity of India. And I feel that it's a fabulous area to work for bringing this diversity into more unification while maintaining the diverse cultures. No, I don't perpetuate oneness in the country. I would say that they have to exist. They must coexist, but something which where everybody is using billions of people is being touched by Indian Railways. Can you imagine it's a system that is touched by billions of people every day? And that's so unique across the globe. There is no other country, where so many people are travelling and yet the state of railways is something which needs much to be done, which is being done.
Indian Railways invited us to showcase some designs, so we went there, it was just a pitch because we are designers, and we work with passion. We spent the time you know without really charging anything and we went there with the team. They're very excited about the whole thing that we showed them. And then they took out a tender and they said okay, you can participate partnering with some bigger company because we don't qualify for tenders.
Design is not procured separately in the Indian Railways or the cases, it's always combined with the manufacturer. Whereas ideally, it should be a separate piece, you procure design and then ask for the vendors. You select what design, tell people that, okay, this is a design which has to be made. And now please vote for it. Which is, which is much more logical also. So anyway, we did this and we made this design after doing a lot of user research, which is very important in design to understand who our user is, what is the environment? What can be done? What are the constraints, the window in which you're working? Because you can't make anything? No, you can't make a cruise ship out of Indian Railway. So, you have to think about all the constraints which are there, and we built the whole, what we showed you on the social media was only a small, very small glimpse of the which we had done, we worked on the toilets as to how it should be, how many toilets should be there, what kind of toilet should be there? How should the sleeper coach, how many births should be there? What all facilities like the usage of mobile phone, keeping the bottle with you, having food in the train, these are things which have come up now. So, we did all this work, and we submitted but, of course, we could not make it because of obvious reasons. But I thought it's good to showcase because it shows the potential of Indian designers, what they can do. And how they can change!
In Indian Railways, people travel for days. Like if you want to travel from Kerala to Delhi, at least it will take 48 hours minimum. So, being in a particular place for 48 hours, getting the benefits or facilities, which you have just said is very important. So, do you think that there should be a design-first approach, and then go for manufacturing?
Yes. See, because also what happens is when you're doing the tendering process, you know, then you're giving a common thing to all the tenders. You're seeing that this is what we want to make. And please quote for this. So you get common quotes, you know, it's the same standard for which you're quoting. Otherwise, the moment you mix design with manufacturing, somebody is doing very great design, and you know, using different kinds of material, their quote may go a little up and down. So, you cannot combine these two functions, these are two separate functions, though they get merged of use later, the early conceptualization is something that should be done separately. And that is how they can get the best results. And that can happen in all the government departments and PSUs, for example, doing Swatch Bharat and designing a toilet first and then making it. A uniform design, which goes across is much more sensible.
What do you think about design education in India? Do you think we need to do something different than what is happening now in the design education sector?
India is on a stage right now where design schools are mushrooming because education has realised that design is one big area and many, many young students are interested in pursuing this profession. So it's mushrooming. Somebody told me that twelve-hundred design schools, are right now in India. And the reason it is happening is that everybody is recognising that design is an important profession. It is being recognised as a profession. So, it is big time. I don't deny that they're getting people from across the world who are teaching students now. But still, I would think there's a little rut because I think we are in a state of industrialisation we have mushrooming of industries like the EV market or mushrooming of start-ups on EV. The same is happening with design, too many, but I think we need to do some introspection on this and look at the design education more from the industry plus social aspect.
So, it could be for the industry, it could be for the country, it could be system-driven because, in India, our systems have become old and obsolete, I think we need to change the systems by design, like the garbage management system is something which can be changed by design by using technology by using a much larger system. And designers can do it, you know, they always wanted town planners would do, they always chose the wrong people for doing it, but probably they are more relevant at that time. But now design thinking is something that can solve these larger problems.
Has the COVID situation impacted on designers?
Any kind of disaster or such situation throws two things. One is a lot of disappointment. And second is a lot of opportunities to walk. Both have happened. And it depends totally on the way you think. And the way you look at things. So the positive frame mind would always look at an opportunity to post whereas negative minded people probably would think, oh, what a disaster it is. So I think these are things that keep happening then happen all across our journey. It just keeps happening as pandemics have happened in the US and when the Spanish Flu was there, after which we had roaring 20s. Why did we have roaring 20s after the pandemic, because people were like, they had the hunger of doing things? So, I think the post-pandemic could be something like that for India and just 20 is by coincidence, and I call it probably the roaring 20s after the pandemic because there is a hunger to do things and it has given people a chance to reflect on their thought process and do some introspection and do new things. So, I feel that but as far as design is concerned, these kinds of things affect design as a business because the budget on design is something which is shrunk during this time.
Did Digital India and Make in India make a difference to Designers?
In a big way, in a very big way… So, these programmes are I think, a big flip for the designers. And I think that one is that if you see design all always follows manufacturing. China did not design anything. I have followed China since 2000. Initially, they had no clue of design, just no clue means no clue. But in 2005, I read somewhere that Shanghai mushroom with design studios and design schools and within Shanghai they had 100 design schools which came up in 2005 whereas in India, we had the design schools coming up way back from the 1960s. But we could not flourish so because we did not have the right manufacturing ecosystem, but China flourished so rapidly because the manufacturing system became so huge and the same is happening in India now. Make in India and Digital India is very, very big for designers because India's DNA is in two things, IT and spirituality. So, IT is something which we are good at and everybody believes in us, the belief in design and IT is something which is there all over the world, and digital will be a part of that, it will be a subset of the superset of it. And designers are getting massive opportunities in this area in digital design. So, it's very positive, both.
And finally, what is the future of design in India?
I think it's, it's very big. Because unlike in the developed countries there is no saturation. If a designer has to work in the developed countries, they think about luxury design, for example, or designing very elite kind of products or very niche products and only somebody is designing away typical game, or something is that. But in India, design is required everywhere. You need a design for the cities, for the urbanscapes, you need a design for mobility, you need a design for digitization, you need a design for user experience. So I think we just need it everywhere. And I'm very happy that so many designers are coming out from India, and they will be finding their space somewhere or the end, they'll be using their creativity, influence decisions in some small little way. When it gets accumulated, it becomes impactful. So, I think very bright future for design in India, I think the only thing is that the public bodies, the policymakers need to be more aware of what design means, they need to embrace design at a very early level. I think that's something where we find a gap. And that needs to be bridged.