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The Case of the Missing Mainstream

Lately, in my reading and conversations, I am beginning to grow exceedingly conscious of the divide between mainstream and exploratory, self-commissioned work in graphic design in India. Prevalent and popular content seems to be heavily in favour of the latter. Blogs, books, interviews, exhibitions and chai-time conversations, are filled with references to fantastic exploratory, mostly self-initiated work by graphic designers in and from India. Don’t get me wrong—I am all for expression and adventure, but what concerns me is the narrow lens of viewing only a part of design work, and its adoration obliterating from view a more informed view of design practice in the country.

Whether it is a larger purpose to understand an emerging national identity in design, or very simply to hone one’s skills as a communication designer—the frame that we view design through must be broader. And the value of including what is referred to as mainstream design is significant. The dictionary describes ‘Mainstream’ as: the ideas, attitudes, or activities that are shared by most people and regarded as normal or conventional. My argument for the case of mainstream is not based on its impact by numbers, but more the challenges that it presents to inspire and provoke designers into action. Acknowledging this, and talking about it will only grow our understanding of design, and not dilute it.

It would be hasty to dismiss all mainstream, commissioned graphic design as generic and soul-less. Not all, but many exhibit foresight into people and cultures, and execution that seamlessly integrates into the lives of people through products, services and institutions. Design that is responsive and accountable to the challenges set forth by clients and end-users, reveals much about the world that we live and design in. The more we (designers) engage with the world around us, the more sharper our intervention. And the more we demonstrate design impact, the greater will be the understanding of and respect for design all around, clients and end-users included. Design, when employed for functionality and serving others (end-users, brands, institutions) is also a route to enquiry—about aesthetics, culture, future and more.

Many lament the lack of craftsmanship or originality in mainstream graphic design in India and choose therefore to disregard it all-together. This too is debatable. Of course there’s some uninspired and thoughtless work out there, but that is true for every professional practice in the world. There are also many examples of insightful and delightful work out there, that have come out of commissioned projects and are being consumed by thousands (if not lakhs) of people. The problem might be in using singular parameters to ‘judge’ mainstream design and hence completely missing out on some of their unique successes.

Here’s an example, from my own experience: 
If you asked me to pick my favourite insurance advert on television, I would probably draw a blank. I would probably say, they’re all the same, family-family-family, parents-children-parents-children, yada-yada-yada. In short, nothing. At the Kyoorius Designyatra (2013) I heard advertising veteran KV Sridhar, talk about replacing the son with a daughter in an insurance ad and showing her as the financial ‘support’ for ageing parents. I had seen the advert several times before, and never given it a second thought. Hearing him talk about this one simple change, suddenly made me sit up. In India, even amongst the urban educated milieu, to think of the daughter as financial support for parents, is rare. Here was an advertisement, selling insurance, but also encouraging a vast majority to rethink the way they have viewed their daughters’ contribution to the family. This is mainstream and this is impactful.

In a significant percentage of applications for internships/positions at Codesign now, I find a great deal of interest expressed in the self-initiated projects by the studio. While the enthusiasm is genuine and heartening, what may not be evident to them is the bearing that our ‘mainstream’ commissioned work has on our independent projects. Currently, Rising is the newest self-initiated platform to be launched, with the idea of developing more engaging content (as designers) for social impact. However, it is the rigour of articulation and accountability in commissioned projects, that I believe helped us build critical analysis of our internal efforts. Furthermore, accumulated applied learning of user perception and behaviour from commissioned projects, acts as a guiding element for content and design in incubated projects under Rising. Without this prior knowledge from failures and successes, the projects might have stopped short, both in terms of execution and impact, despite all the creative freedom.

Collectively, as a community we often lament the lack of a widespread understanding of graphic design in the country, forgetting that current discourse and showcases often do not extend to either the vocabulary of the everyday Indian or their experiences. The query for authenticity and identity, cannot ignore the ‘mainstream’—simply because design does not exist or evolve in isolation. Given its due space and attention, it can enable a broader, inclusive viewpoint of graphic design in India, and in turn be benefited by critical review and celebration.