Why India finally cares about design

Kyoorius' Chaitanya Rele on how the recession transformed a misunderstood career choice into an industry brimming with excitement.

I am not a designer. I didn't study it - I didn't have the chance to. And this was the trend for many of us in India about 15 years ago. Growing up amongst a commotion of doctors and engineers, design just wasn't an acceptable choice. Career options, too, were limited - making those rebellious, virtuoso spirits look away from India to Europe and the Americas.

Admittedly I didn't face much pressure from my parents, who are an odd lot for Indian parents, even today. I studied art in high school while my friends opted for the stereotypical commerce or computer science. But I quickly realised that there wasn't a future for me in art - I wanted to be appreciated while I was alive rather than after. This was the beginning of a series of questionable decisions that would lead me down a bumpy but gratifying career path.

I followed the aspiration of millions of Indians - and indeed a large part of the third world - in seeking a better life, a life that wasn't in India. I moved to the UK to study economics and eventually became a banker. But it wasn't a good fit. It didn't feel right, and I moved back to India shortly afterwards, looking for the answers that plague youthful minds. I wanted to do something different; something that would make people say: "Ah" - not, "Oh, you too". This, at the time, seemed like another questionable decision.

Mac love

Shortly after moving back to India, I joined a boutique design studio in Mumbai and found myself in a small community of creatives who loved the Macintosh. We were a tiny clique who had opted to defy the conventions of society and follow a career as frivolous as making pretty pictures. But this technicolour subculture outside of Excel and PowerPoint was growing. Students were looking to take the path less travelled - despite pressures from family and society.

By 2009, the misunderstood design industry was gathering momentum, and while the recession brought most industries significant hardships, it really benefited the design industry in India. Not financially of course - but it meant the talent here began to look for opportunities close to home, and those who left began to move back in search of greener pastures. It would eventually help design find its feet in a nation dominated by stereotypes.

Eager to bounce back from the recession, India started to ask bigger questions and demand more from its designers; looking inwards rather than mimicking the West. Designers were given a real opportunity to define the country's very own creative identity. India didn't have its Turner Duckworths, Wolff Olinses or Hoefler Frere-Joneses. Young designers had to step up and start from scratch. Established international studios were peeping over and looking at India as the next realistic opportunity for growth.

Today, design and design-related fields are amongst the most sought-after careers, with a recent article in The Economic Times noting that design students are being hired at 50 per cent higher pay rates at IT companies than engineering students. Cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, New Delhi and Ahmedabad remain hubs for design, but this once-zany career choice is becoming part of the mainstream. At last year's Kyoorius Student Awards, one of the award winners was from Nashik - a small town with a population of just 1.5 million.

Demand-driven design

And this growth isn't without significant demand. As domestic companies start building global brands and multinationals seek to boost sales in India, design is thriving. India is realising the need to stand out, and the market continues to open up to stiffer competition from international brands eager to adapt to India and her sometimes finicky and irrational demands.

Three years ago I gave up my career in branding to work with Kyoorius, a not-for-profit that facilitates and builds a platform for designers in India. Kyoorius was initiated by two unique individuals - a paper merchant who wanted to do things differently and an economist-turned-designer who felt it was time to give back to an industry he loved. We're working every day to provide inspiration, information and opportunities for design and designers to grow. Programmes like Kyoorius FYIday, conducted as monthly seminars or workshops that help hone skills, give value to a business that was often misunderstood.

I can safely say that design here is today more accepted, and better understood and appreciated. My grandmother, at 79 years old, recently told her friend: "He works to build businesses by making things that people will love". And that's exactly it.

Words: Chaitanya Rele

Chaitanya Rele is a brand strategist and consultant. Having previously worked at Fitch, Addikt and Saffron, he now works at Kyoorius, a not-for-profit organisation that's fuelling a design movement in India.