Article from the book Everyday India, co-published by Baro Market and Bombay Duck Design. Co-written with Anusha Narayanan.
I just know it will be alright.
The Trusted Shopkeeper.
You always know how to pick the right one from the market.
Because the box of Surma with a big ‘eye’ printed on it must contain the right product. Because the pastel yellow box with red ornamental borders must contain the right ladoo and kaju-katli. Because the single-colour-print takeaway menu must be from a reliable lunch home. Because the yellow Jumbo Xerox shop at the corner must be decent.
“Uncle, ek Surma dena!” (“Uncle, can I get a Surma please?”)
But which is the right one?
“Take this box – it’s the best.”, says Ashok bhai, who has run that shop for the past 10 years.
You stand there staring at the sea of sameness in front of you. You know the product you want is inside one of those same-same packs. The only difference? A small line in a negligible font size that says “Naina Surma” or “Avnee Surma” or “Muskaan Surma”. You have no idea who Naina, Avnee or Muskaan are. But in Ashokbhai, you trust.
“Take this — it is the best,” Ashokbhai says with a wide smile.
So begins your relationship with a product. Not because it caught your eye more than the other same-same, but because Ashokbhai said you should try it.
It’s like buying a watermelon. If you make eye contact, the fruit seller will happily pick a random watermelon, give it a nice pat, and say “Ekdum meetha niklega. Nahi toh wapas kar dena!” (“Take this, it will be sweet. If it’s not, you can return it.”). And you have to trust that they know best.
Maybe, after trying the Surma, the next time you visit Ashokbhai’s store you’ll say, “I didn’t like Avnee.” Ashok will probably respond with his usual wide smile, “Toh ye loh fir. (Take this then). It matches you better!”
Again, you will trust Ashok. Even though you know well that he’s probably never used Surma in his entire life.
I want it that way.
The New Old Business. Part 1.
“Let’s focus on the story. It will bring out the unique legacy of your brand.”
You have convinced Vijay, your new client, that new packaging is what he needs for his business to move forward. Here’s Vijay – he’s been ushered in as a third-generation businessman who will soon be at the helm of the family business – a famous Indian sweet shop, not surprisingly named Vijay Sweets, after his great grandfather Vijay.
Vijay and his sister are taking over the business. They grew up with sweets all around them; sweets that have been made exactly the same way for the past 125 years. They have ambitions to grow the business, beyond Colaba, beyond South Mumbai, beyond Mumbai… beyond India.
Vijay saw your branding and packaging design for an F&B startup on Instagram.
Your chemistry with Vijay seems good – a well-travelled client educated in London. Has a vision for where the business should go, and is eager to try new ideas. And the brand itself is rich with history – you don’t even have to struggle to invent a story to cue authenticity and trust. Everyone knows Vijay Sweets in Colaba.
The design work has started. A few rounds have gone by. Vijay is very invested and involved with the process and he is relatively easy to work with. He gets over-enthusiastic with his feedback on design sometimes, that’s fine – despite his many inputs, he’s not the client from hell who insists on having everything his way.
The end will be great, you think…
I want it that way.
The New Old Business. Part 2.
You’re almost there – a design solution both you and Vijay are happy with.
A great addition to your portfolio once launched, it could very well be your version of the Chobani rebrand. The design world will notice you, you think.
You know you’ve cracked the brief. You’ve fused modern design with traditional Indian. Never have you seen a sweet shop packaging anchored so steeply in culture and yet oozing with Gen Z’s bold playfulness. A brand from the past. A design for the present. A classic for the future.
But it never took off.
“Papa doesn’t want to go ahead. He’s not comfortable with it – he wants the original yellow box”, Vijay says.
“But that would make you look like all the other sweet shops? Can’t we at least change the colour?”, you persevere, while trying not to let your real emotions show. You want to keep it professional.
“Nope, he wants it to stay like that only”.
But what about the many hours spent? You say to yourself.
“I’m sorry. But since your work will not be used, can you give me a discount and I will pay you a rejection fee?”
I know what I am doing.
The Self-taught Artist / Designer.
Another order just came in for designing a take-away menu. This time it’s for Deepak, who just started a restaurant 6 shops away.
Deepak came here, because Deepak trusted someone who said, “Go to A1 Jumbo Xerox. The designer there is good.” The same someone also said, “Don’t go to AJ Jumbo Xerox.” You wonder how Deepak didn’t end up by accident at AJ Jumbo which is next to your shop, and is bigger than your shop; but looks exactly like your shop – big yellow signage in front with big type set in Arial.
The point is – you are the designer Deepak asked for, and give Deepak a good design – you must.
Not a big problem, as you have become an expert in this, having done at least 20 of these last month, and 20 the month before. You know you do something creative every time a job order comes in – try a new border, a new font, a new clipart.
You are the expert designer providing a unique service to the entire locality, and your customers love what you do. You taught yourself Photoshop by watching YouTube and now you are always busy – there’s always an invitation card, a name card, a restaurant menu, an in-store poster, or a sales leaflet to design.
Busier than many others, haan?
You are a happy creative.
This is all quite amusing.
The Cultural Observer.
You survey the design and art landscape of India. It intrigues you that when the tenets of formal graphic design, or ideas of visual branding spill over to the streets, you’re observing a juxtaposed outcome.
You’re in awe that life has gone on for decades and nothing much has changed. Same packaging. Same visuals. Sameness for everything.
You tried to make sense of it. You interviewed the sign painters. You spoke to the man who single-handedly hand-lettered thousands of Mumbai Metro construction signages. You spoke to the designer sitting inside A1 Jumbo Xerox to understand his design approach.
You turned into an investigative journalist: You tried digging deep into the origins of Surma and Henna packaging. You asked who created the first templates for political party hoardings, or who created the first exterior brand design for the Xerox shops.
You wanted to make a meaningful dissertation on how design and art influence the visual landscape of everyday India. Surely, there must be some way to intellectualise all this? Surely, we can start somewhere by saying India is a multicultural, multilingual, multi-religious nation that inspires all this vernacular design culture that permeates all our lives?
The answer you got?
“It’s like that only.”
That’s life. That’s India. It’s like this only.
Everyday India is an ongoing exhibition at 47-A Design Gallery, until August 13. It is designed and curated by the Kulavoors (Zee & Sameer), and the team at Bombay Duck Design.
“Everyday India is an illustrated documentation of printed and painted graphic design samples, designed in India for homegrown products, services and properties. It is a collection of iconic, nostalgic, familiar, unfamiliar, accidental and intentional graphic design. These designs scream for our attention from gullies to the high streets, in malls, supermarkets and kirana shops, on screens and in print. This project looks at design beyond the confines of ‘file dimensions’ and spillage of graphic art and design onto the streets, where the formal and informal meet. It is also an enquiry into where design ends and art begins and vice versa and the overlaps between the two.”
Article republished in its entirety with permission.
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