Blurring the divide in India

Debbie Millman invites the event’s most prolific tweeters on stage to share their experience at Designyatra.

By Sagarika Sundaram

It’s refreshing to attend a conference in India where the front row seats don’t have a ‘VIP’ notice tacked to them. The theme of this year’s Kyoorius Designyatra, a design conference in Goa, is ‘The Divide’. Having attended the conference as a student in its first two years, I crossed one kind of divide in returning as a professional this year.

I’ve grown up with Designyatra, so it’s exciting to see my friends return as speakers or to launch projects. Satya Rajpurohit, a former classmate of mine who founded the Indian Type Foundry, launched his new typeface Engrez Sans at the event. The designers behind the event’s bold and bright identity design used the typeface in their work.

Rajesh Kejriwal, who launched Designyatra in 2006 said “the conference is what you make of it. Last year, we had 22 people who made connections that took them outside India for placements and projects. That kind of thing makes me proud. I wish more people would juice these three days.” 

The organisers, who drew up a solid lineup of names for the event, imaginatively blurred the divide between speaker and audience. An unmoderated Twitter feed projected on screen allowed people up on stage to respond quickly to audience questions and comments, making Q&A sessions really fun. People felt good being empowered with a direct line of communication to speakers. @Xische tweeted, “Watching people (us included) light up when spotting their tweet on the big screen is funny.”

A few sharp and critical tweets set off murmurs asking to moderate the feed, but Rajesh firmly disagreed. “Why would I do that? It’s great this way”. Robert Wong of Google Creative Lab agreed. He believes that expressing an opinion, however critical, with a name and photo attached is exercising our right to free speech. “Hiding behind anonymity is the worst.”

Of those speakers who took the time to tailor their thoughts to the theme of “The Divide,” a number flipped it, framing division as unity. Robert Wong spoke about design’s power to bring people together through stories. Ambrish Arora of Lotus used constraints as design elements. He asked us, “Can we be integrators?”

Designers in India are largely a privileged set. Most parents can’t support their children though an expensive design education that does not guarantee a job. It is important to enrich the country’s design discourse by including stories from different economic backgrounds. Blurring yet another divide, Designyatra brought us two leading rural entrepreneurs this year. Mansukhbhai Prajapati, who invented Mitticool, a clay refrigerator that runs without electricity, shared his business story with soul and passion.

Arunachalam Muruganathan had the crowd roaring as he explained how he shed blood, sweat and tears to design a revolutionary low-cost sanitary napkin. Muruganathan challenged us with a strong question unlikely to arise in agency-life – “What will you die for?”

In another session, Nik Roope of Poke philosophically pointed to the stage as a divide, a separator between speaker and attendee, idol and fan. The organisers of Designyatra undoubtedly seek to bridge this divide, so it’s a bit odd to see a glaring red rope cutting across the back of the room separating a student section from the rest of the audience. Someone explained that apparently it had been requested by a group of senior Indian designers who were bothered by students mobbing them at earlier Designyatras.

As a former designer-mobber myself, it would delight my heart to see a student uprising walk past the barrier and squat in the vast space between the stage and front row. It would make these stimulating three days feel more intimate and friendly than they already do.

This piece was written during a design writing workshop held at Kyoorius Designyatra by Creative Review and the British CouncilStay tuned for more thinking and coverage from our time in Goa.

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