Culture Makes Design, Design Makes Culture. Part of Design Fabric Festival branding by Shrenik Ganatra & Ninad Kale

Culture makes design, design makes culture” seems like something of an obvious statement—a truism long digested and comprehended by us design writers, design nerds, and designers in the west. But it’s something that bears signposting and repeating, as Sanket Avlani, founder of Mumbai’s Design Fabric Festival (DFF) knows only too well.

Avlani grew up in Mumbai before working at Wieden + Kennedy in London, and is passionate about promoting the design scene in the place he grew up—not least of all because he’s set up his own agency there. “As an independent design studio, one major challenge we have noticed while setting up a design practice in India is the aspect of hiring talent,” he says. “It’s a well known fact that a majority of students graduating from design colleges in India are not competent to get hired as entry-level designers, owing to the below-standard mentorship and training.”

The problem, as he sees it, is partly down to the recent wave of institutions emerging in India as a response to a new popularity in studying graphic design. These places, says Avlani, don’t adequately prepare students to “enter the real world [of problem solving].” There’s also a historic lack of ways for Indian design students to interact with real-world designers.

“The designers of my generation in particular grew up on the internet while becoming practicing designers, so most of their influences, I’m sad to say, are from the west,” says Avlani. “I think that’s pretty much the case around the world. Graphic design is fairly modern as a profession. It started in the west and is now spreading everywhere, so we’re no different from other countries.”

Avlani is a self-taught designer, but believes that however young designers learn their trade in India, their exposure is largely the same: online, and overwhelmingly western. While the idea of graphic design as an industry is fairly new in India, the advertising industry has long been established, and according to Avlani, most designers end up at ad agencies. “It’s all fairly western, and that’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing, but when the only access you have to other work is online you realize how important it is to make work that people [locally] can understand,” he says.

It was in London, where he worked as an art director at Wieden + Kennedy, that Avlani realized the gulf between European and Indian access to top design; in London, there were numerous festivals, talks, and organizations like D&AD to support and inspire designers. On his move back to Mumbai, Avlani decided it was about time he make steps to redress the imbalance, creating something that was affordable for emerging creatives yet just as galvanizing and inspiring as similar events in the west.

“When the only access you have to other work is online, you realize how important it is to make work that people [locally] can understand.”

There’s a way to disseminate the ideas of graphic design as important, relevant, and commissionable, Avlani suggests, and that became a founding idea behind creating the Design Fabric Festival. “The really big battle we have is to dissociate with the way the world knows India—that really kitschy ‘Indian art,’” he says. “We need to disrupt and reinterpret that. That’s how we can put Indian art and design onto a global stage.”

Work by Indian artist Sarah Navqi, who is speaking at Design Fabric Festival

The obstacles standing in the way of Indian design making it onto that “global stage” are manifold, as Avlani sees it. It starts with the design education system; not just for the reasons mentioned before, but for a muddling of “art” and “design,” he says. “We have students graduating out of design college as artists, but not understanding what design is, or what role they have to play as a designer,” says  Avlani. “There’s also an issue of the quality of faculty available.”

That issue, he feels, is exacerbated by the current “noise” about design as a “new market,” which businesses are taking advantage of. Across India, expensive education establishments are happy to charge significant fees without necessarily delivering thoughtful or helpful courses. Anyone can teach the right software (indeed, it’s not hard to teach yourself), but Avlani feels that design faculties should reframe how they inspire their students; they should actively seek out the best (practicing) design mentors, hold their own events, and focus on real-world training in things like how to deal with clients.

Another major challenge in India, in Avlani’s view, is a relatively narrow understanding of what graphic design means; what a graphic design studio is; why smaller brands should even engage with the discipline in the first place. He describes first setting up his agency, A Good Feeling as something that baffled a lot of people. “They weren’t used to the idea of being a full-time graphic designer,” he says of when he graduated and wanted to work in the industry full time. “It was seen as a hobby. We need to propel the value of design overall, maybe through really good examples of design, or putting on these festivals. Or just to celebrate good design and get that recognition. That’s when people will invest in good design.”

For his own studio, clients range from big-name companies like Google and Snapchat to local brands such as Asian Paints, which is “basically the biggest supporter of art and design in India,” says Avlani. He says that most design agency clients are the bigger, youth-focused multinational lifestyle brands, where smaller clients would likely be those already in the cultural sector.

Work by Berlin-based studio CATK, one of the Design Fabric Festival speakers

However, even creating Indian design for an Indian audience comes with its own set of interesting challenges that designers in many other countries don’t face. For designers to consider things like the people they’re depicting, as well as skin tones, language, and local scripts in their designs, it’s not always a straightforward a task.

“In India we’ve got approximately nine big languages,” says Avlani, who recently worked on a brief for Snapchat’s “geofilters.” He says that the sticking point that foreign agencies might not appreciate is that people using chat tools like Snapchat or Allo often “recognize English more than their mother tongue. We write Hindi in English, as the script can become a challenge. When you go south [in India] the Hindi script become less relatable, but they can read English and understand Hindi.”

For all its challenges, this is an exciting time for designers and studios in India. Clients are becoming ever more receptive to the power of good design, and designers are deciding that they should celebrate and push their own roots, rather than solely looking to the western design proliferating online. There are also some great studios coming through, such as Codesign, in Delhi for instance and Mumbai’s LocoPopo.

The barriers are gradually softening, and often come down to little more than semantics. “When we talk a lot about culture around the world, it’s very different to what we mean when we talk about culture in India,” says Avlani. “At the moment you could say there’s a confusion about our past and our present, and how [my generation is] going to take over our traditions. We have to think about where you are, who are you, and what impact you can have on society as well.”