In Search of an Identity
Updated: Jan 18
By: Nitin Virkar
“Design is the way a business makes itself identified” – Thomas J Watson
In 2005 I had the opportunity to interact with the salt farmers in Kutch, Gujarat. And, although Kutch is the largest producer of salt in India (almost 80%), the infrastructure and systems seemed below par. There is no remedy or relief from the effects of excessive contact with the salt and sea water. The repercussions are not just physical but physiological and sociological as well. These men and women are highly susceptible to high blood pressure, diabetes and calcification of the hands and feet, the latter bearing great heartache during cremations since they do not burn out completely and is traumatic for the families.
To add to this is the half-baked aid they receive from various quarters, which can sometimes be counter-productive. The distribution of knee-height gum boots and elbow-length gloves, as a part of relief activities in the aftermath of the 2001 Bhuj earthquake is a perfect example of this.
This solution could not have been farther than what was required.
Now let’s see the context...
During the peak season (summer), temperatures in Kutch soar to 50-Degree Celsius and these gum boots were made of rubber. The landscape is swampy and there is no way to dry the gum boots quickly (from the inside). Imagine walking on a beach with heavy boots that don’t let the sweat escape. The rubber from the gum boots eventually starts melting and peels the skin off.
In many ways, I think this was a failure of design thinking. At that juncture it was important to delve into the lifestyles and environments of the users; understand their needs, only then devising a truly beneficial solution would have been possible.
Can anyone be accountable?
As designers, we should ask a pertinent question, i.e. does this product belong here at all! Apart from its functional aspect (hygiene in this case); what is it about the product that will make these folks accept it wholeheartedly?
Christiaan Maats (Speaking at a TEDx event at the University of Groningen) mentions four criteria that can be used to critique a product / its design/application in the market.
Function – Does it operate optimally?
Emotion – The feeling that is induced by looking at the product. Is the product styling concurrent with the purpose of the product?
Personality – Correlation of the form of the product with the user’s personality, style, character. Does this person have a unique style? A unique preference for products / brands.
Cultural Identity – Is the product or the look identifiable with a certain community / their style. Will the community / a people relate to the product as belonging to them before they even buy it?
I would like to add two more parameters to this, equally important in the cost-sensitive Indian context.
Economic viability – The capacity to buy a similar product in different countries / cultures will vary. The Big Mac index comes in to play and so does purchasing power parity. The other important factor is availability of processed resources in that geography and the capability of the manufacturing facility.
Perception of cost – How expensive is the product perceptively to the consumer? Would consumers hesitate to pick it up because it appears expensive / unfamiliar? On the other hand, a person looking to buy something expensive might not buy it because it looks cheaper than what the actual value is.
Have you noticed how a refrigerator, or a cooking range appears in the context of a village home and how the homemaker tries to liven it up to match its appearance with that of the rest of the home / family sensibilities?
Concerns of the product being mass produced can be mitigated when production numbers match the number of families that will invest in such a product. The focus is always a sleek, contemporary look of the new (not necessarily modern) urban household. But 60 % of our country still lives in villages, where people own TVs, refrigerators, telephones, DTH connections and other consumer products. The result? Utter chaos of a visual language! The chaos is apparent in the manner in which developed countries perceive us, now becoming our identity. Some might even call it charming. Should we continue to feed this identity?
The question is, what is the effect this chaos has on us, as a nation? Should the product provide for only functionality or should it also give us a narrative about who it is designed for? Should it state who the product ‘belongs’ to, even before it’s purchased? If you see a car (personalised) and are asked to guess what kind of a person it belongs to, would it be possible to guess which community he / she comes from, or identify his/ her ethnicity? Do we then build a new and leveled identity, or do we cherish our diversity through everything we use in our daily lives?
The successful integration of a product with a people depends on how well it connects with consumers at all levels. In the Indian context, the average consumer is vastly divergent and yet unified.