Design Across Borders

As a fresh export from India to Italy, being a design student in Milan has brought me many realizations on how these two cultures approach problems through design.

Europe is renowned for its design practice, specifically in visual or graphic design. Movements like the Dada, Bauhaus and Neue Grafik (among others) are turning points in the face of design practice and have shaped how graphics are used and propagated today. 

These movements were so influential that the first design university in India, National Institute of Design or NID, took inspiration from the Bauhaus movement. It shaped their course structure and evaluation methods. NID is arguably the most reputed and sought-after design institute in all of India with graduates that have made their mark in history since the institute’s inception in 1960.

Similar to the manner in which the Bauhaus was located first in Weimar and then in Berlin, the NID moved from the capital of Delhi to Ahmedabad to avoid political interference. It is important to notice that the institute was under the Ministry of Industry and Trade rather than the Ministry of Education, the reason being that design was considered an essential service for India’s industrial development. Precisely due to this decision, the subjects taught at the institute were oriented toward the Indian diaspora.

“Instead of transplanting the academic culture and curriculum of foreign universities, design educators of international repute were invited to the school and young faculty from India were sent to great design institutions abroad, to be exposed to ideas that might be made relevant to the Indian context”

Bauhaus and the Origin of Design Education in India

A spread from River of Stories by Orijit Sen (1994)

Above are some works by notable alumni of NID in graphic design and the applied arts. Orijit Sen is a graphic artist, writer and designer who published one of the first graphic novels in the subcontinent. The book, River of Stories talks about the lives affected by the construction of the Narmada River Dam Project. It is a socio-cultural commentary on capitalism.

In Italy, the visuals that are anti-establishment, or political manifestos in a way, are very different. The designers approach the message with a sense of strength, and with an idea that they can actually create change. Whereas in India, the artist uses the emotional appeal of the victims to draw sympathy to the issue. Although this was back in the 1990s.

Today, the design education situation might be very different. A student doing her Masters In Visual Design at NID had this to say:

My course has subjects like Introduction to Design, Fundamentals of Visual Design, Science & Liberal Arts, Design Process, Image Making, Typography, Production Process. They teach us topics surrounding design and focus more on how we think and respond to briefs rather than the technical aspect. We are not taught the softwares from the Adobe Creative Cloud. Coming from a fine arts background, I am learning all this myself, so that’s a bit tiresome. But otherwise, I really like my course, and I get to network with industry stalwarts!

Rahi, Masters in Visual Design, 2021-23

Comparing it with my own course of study in the same stream at SPD, Milano I can clearly point out the difference in approaches. I have subjects like Visual Design History, Typography, Identity Design, Computer software products which are very practical skills oriented; like they literally taught us how to use Adobe Photoshop, InDesign et al. As for the thinking part we’re supposed to develop it through learning about design history (Western) and noticing prima facie in our surroundings. However, this is my view on education.

In order to gain a more accurate picture, let’s compare the work done by branding firms on similar brands, one from Italy and the other from India. Studio FM (Milano) did the work for the identity system of Hamad Airport in Doha, Qatar. 

They created the way finding system for the airport, and rehashed their brand identity system too. Around the same time, Indian branding agency, Ray+Keshavan was assigned the task to create the identity systems of multiple Indian airports.

Sujata Keshavan is a graphic designer who co-founded Ray+Keshavan, a branding firm based in Bengaluru. She and her team designed the brand identities of the international airports of Hyderabad, Bengaluru, and Mumbai.

From these 2 contemporary examples in branding and identity design styles we can see that there is not a lot of difference in how the design systems turned out. Both these agencies might have had different starting points, different things they considered, but in the end, the root of how an identity system is created stays integral in both these examples. 

Thus, we can assume a great convergence of styles in the post-2000 era. Every designer around the world has the resource of millions of creative assets to see, learn from, and draw inspiration for their designs. Everyone is on a more level playing field as the Internet has showcased all kinds of ideas.

It certainly is a great time to be alive as a designer, and I feel very grateful to be able to have studied it, in more cultures than one.

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