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Identity, Design & Life

To consider identity in design, is to consider the role of design in life itself. A product of function and use, design is in many ways a tangible reflection of time. Therefore the story of identity in design is also, a story of our times.

Opening spread of the Design section from D&AD Annual 2014. By Codesign.

We begin this telling, in an India of the past which was in great measure self-contained, and discovering nationhood. Growing within were its own symbols, visual messages, illustrated narratives — perhaps not yet called graphic design — but often living through the realms of art, tradition, commerce and politics. Think of the charkha, the spinning wheel as a symbol at the centre of the Swadeshi movement; luscious hand-painted signs in absence of cheaper reproduction; the art of Nandalal Bose in the iconic Bengali language primer Sahaj Path. Some of these were so naturally embedded in the everyday of their times, they became indistinguishable as a piece of art or design. They became natural extensions of the world we lived in. Identity in design has always been around, we just didn’t call it out.

Fast forward, and a whole new world

Post-economic liberalisation in the 1990s, India opened up to a whole new world, and a new vocabulary beckoned through a barrage of ‘foreign’ brands. These brands offered a new picture of modernity and newer kinds of aspiration. Then, I suspect, began the move towards vocabularies in communication and visual design which did not necessarily stem from the traditional or indigenous visual lexicon.

For Indian brands this threw up a challenge to match this picture of modernity: first with products and subsequently with image-making and communication. Global brands brought with them a new set of aspirational icons in design: German precision, American machismo, Swiss boldness, and so on. These set up new ideals for consumption and expression, and as we competed with and accepted these in equal measure, they began to get assimilated into the mainstream and become the mainstay of commercial visual design. This mainstay became most visible in the pan-Indian communication aesthetic, filtering down to vernacular visual language in lesser degrees.

A renewed urgency to define the Indian identity in design. Why now?

The language of design does not evolve in isolation. Whether a response, a protest, a question or an affirmation — it is always linked closely to the spirit of our times. The resurgent interest in Indian identity in design comes at a time where home-grown businesses, brands and individuals have proven their mettle and found acclaim on larger international platforms across sectors. Both internally, and in the world’s view of India, there’s a palpable shift in expectation and imagination of what we can achieve. This boldness is characterised by a re-appraisal of ‘Indian-ness’, where it is looked at as a source of further meaning, and deeper connection in the production and consumption of design.

Indian-ness and such. Moving ahead

In common musing on Indian identity in design, it seems to me that we look back most often into the visual vocabulary of our past. In a country that resides simultaneously across histories and time, this is natural. But it cannot constitute the entirety of our identity in design today. It is at best nostalgia, or history in snatches. Devoid of context, symbols turn into mere decoration.

My discomfort with drawing an Indian design identity exclusively from the past, is the fact that our traditional aesthetics, narratives and creative traditions, are essentially regional or localised. They don’t necessarily extend to a national or pan-Indian identity. Considering narrow slices of visual ephemera creates over-simplified visual stereotypes; it ignores the real richness that lies in the diversity of our traditional aesthetic milieu, and it ignores the importance of context.

History is one part of our identity, not the entirety. Identity is a work in progress; growing, evolving and responsive. The Indian identity in design needs a broader view, one that is not boxed in, but marked instead by its openness. In a world that is hyper-connected and hybrid, identity in design too must be amenable to assimilation without traditional labels. If the way we live and think has progressed beyond borders, so must our view of identity. Visual markers alone, do not make an identity. Identity is also intent, context, and content.

In India, deliberations on identity are commonly from an outside-in perspective, largely concerned with differentiation and how the world looks at us. But identity, I believe, can be a far more powerful thought, if we start to look at it from the inside out. If we were to invest deeply and truthfully into intent, into the context and content of design, we could bring identity to life with far greater purpose.

First published in Indian Design Platform — Issue 002