Idiom: Redefining Design in India

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We spoke with Sonia Manchanda (@sonia_manchanda), the co-founder and principal of Idiom, a design and consulting practice based in Bangalore, India. Idiom was the result of a merger between Esign (founded by Sonia in 1995) and Tessaract (Co-founded by Jacob Mathew in 1985) the two firms merged with the support of Kishore Biyani, CEO, Future Group in 2005. Idiom describes itself as a integrated design consultancy which ‘incubates business ideas, ideas for societal transformation and ideas on life and living’. Idiom designs businesses, strategies, brands, experiences, signage and packaging in a variety of emerging and sectors including retail, healthcare, education and media. They have grown significantly since 2006, initially starting with 30 employees to more than 100 employees currently. They have worked on a range of high profile projects such as the Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010 and recently gained a lot of attention internationally for their DREAM:IN project. We spoke to Sonia about Idiom’s current practices and where next for Idiom.  

Below is an excerpt of our conversation and we will feature the full story in our book.

Why do we do what we do?
We are constantly trying to leapfrog many stages of development by design in order to create ideas or directions that are many steps ahead of current thinking. As a country, India is recognised as leapfrogging the many steps of development and we want to prove that design is the catalyst to do that. An example of this is the ‘Seven’ project. We worked with 2 entrepreneurs to create a new business model, brand and services and in the process, created India’s first & delightful, family stopover. We were involved in business design, brand, architecture and service design of this roadside service. It is the first of its kind in India and has achieved spectacular result after the 1st month.

In India, we talk a lot about ‘Jugaad’, which is used to describe frugal innovation. This type of innovation is well known in India, but we don’t get talked about. This example is really an example of DT, which is a more holistic approach than the usual management processes by using design to help people create breakthrough ideas, which are not incremental but game changing responses. It can be taken from mind to market extremely quickly and with creativity and imagination. We prototype fast, keep room to fail fast and we found that when we follow this process, we have a 80% success rate, which is considerably higher compared to even normal venture capitalist projects. We believe that introducing design at the beginning of a project with venture capitalist support produces many opportunities.

What space is Idiom currently in?
Over the past 5-6 years, we have done a lot of work in a very short space of time. As a result, we haven’t really had time to document the process and the results of these projects. A good example is the branding and design of the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Over the last 5-6 years, we have spent time building our philosophy and practices so that the enterprises consolidates into a dynamic institution. We are enabling our younger designers to work independently and to stick around as mentors and yet, build a culture where we (the founders) are able to step back to explore and ask interesting questions. Having this space has resulted in the DREAM:IN Project.

Tell us about the DREAM:IN project.
DREAM:IN was conceived in Bangalore, India, in January 2011, in a shared process between design academics and practice, between enterprise and society. It is spreading as an ambitious plan and a massive global network of practical dreamers everywhere
(excerpt from Idiom’s online blog)

India gained her freedom 60 years ago. However, there are certain ways in which we as a nation is still not free. We are the world’s 2nd most populous country and we need to think about how we perceive individuals. We talk a lot about inclusivity but not many leaders actually understand real inclusivity. So what if we could look at the world (or India) with equal lens?

Typically most political and industry leaders use the ‘pyramid’ analogy to describe our society.  A pyramid has a top and a bottom. There is a fundamental problem with this idea of top and bottom. Most leaders will talk about the 3 strands of society, India 1, India 2 and India 3. India 1 is the leaders, the elites and the intellectual class.  India 2 being the service providers, India 3, being the very bottom. As a nation, we know how to leapfrog stages in pursuit of individual aspirations. However, we cannot assume that we know the aspirations of the different classes of people. We cannot assume that people at the bottom of the market has the same desires and aspirations as the other groups in the pyramid. Can we think more intelligently and intuitively and create the systems to understand the aspiration of these people, to shift their focus from their needs to their dreams?

The idea of the DREAM:IN project is to start people dreaming in order to better understands their real needs. DREAM:IN is an attempt to get us to think about sustainable ideas because we need to create new value and new meaning but they need to go together. In summary, the DREAM:IN Project is a radical design innovation project.

What excites you about design at the moment?
As a process design belongs to many people. This understanding of design is slowly seeping in and will draw many people to it. Although it remains difficult to explicitly charge for design thinking in India, to get rewarded for creating meaning, vs just creating form. We are beginning to get recognition and are valued for our approach. Design is what can make business sense. Design can make social sense. Design can make philosophical sense. I like the fact that when I began my practice, I wanted to see all the things that design could do, and now that I am doing it, it is a nice feeling… to spread design as a way of thinking and doing things and to constantly explore and create the Indian ‘Idiom of design’.

Where next for design?
I believe that there will be a new kind of capitalism created by design. There will be entirely new kinds of enterprise, which blend craft with technology; and blend rural with the modern. Entirely new kinds of ideas, which can arise only from individuals, rather than large corporations and aims to question conventions and the way we do things. And this new capitalization will be about people and their dreams. This is not about social enterprise that could take a top down approach the individual, society, enterprise, nations belonging to one cohesive harmonious while. Design has a significant role to play in achieving a truly creative innovation economy.

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  1. By Idiom: Redefining Design in India | Design Transitions « Idiom Live 22 Mar ’12 at 7:15 am

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