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Thinking, Speaking and Acting by Design

Ruma Dhingra investigates how social change and awareness can be brought about through communications design. 

In my conversation with Jatin Bhatt, Dean of School of Design, Ambedkar University, it was invaluable to understand how the meaning of design has made a huge transition in India. Bhatt explains how design has been traditionally associated with outcomes in the material form. However, there are possibilities of using design to solve problems that not do necessarily fall in the domain of client servicing but address larger and more deep rooted societal issues. Designers on the path to make a difference in much needed ways have discovered design as an energizing driver for livelihoods. Sulabh, for example, apart from providing toilets, provides dignified and respectable jobs to people who come from the lower class or classes often deemed ‘untouchable’. This simultaneously helps the larger groups in society recognize that they are adding value. This in itself, is an example of attentive social design.

Professor Dinesh Korjan took on the initiative of addressing systemic problems in public transport with a group of students and started by identifying some of the key challenges. They decided to concentrate on the local trains of Mumbai city as they form the lifeline of the city. Their findings were substantial. Each day, almost 8,00,000 (eight lakh) passengers travel in the Mumbai locals ticketless, eating up much of the revenue of Indian railways, which could otherwise go into improving the infrastructure of the system. In an effort to resolve the problem, they attempted a design exercise. They redesigned the local train tickets printing lottery numbers behind the tickets to compel people to pay their fare. While this was only a pilot, their innovative scheme is an excellent example of how simple design intervention can induce a mass behavior transformation.

Mayank Mansingh Kaul tells us how in Paris, the tourism board launched a revolutionary communication initiative in 2009, which demonstrates how design can play a subtle role in the mood of society. The Smile Paris Campaign set out to encourage locals to just “smile.” Kaul, a textile designer who has been involved in many curatorial roles was coincidentally in Paris at the time of the campaign. He recalls, “It is such a simple effort but it really stayed with me because people tried smiling even if they did not know you!” Conceptualized in order to encourage tourism in a city where people were considered cold and unfriendly, this was a simple, surprising and wonderful campaign that triggered behavior change. Mayank elaborates, “Of course, they designed posters and collaterals around it but it was a very clever way of introducing friendliness, which actually further affects how people feel in a city. If a tourist does not feel welcome in a new city then he or she is not going to come back”. Kaul compares this drive to an early example of communication design that brought about social consciousness in India in the 1980s. The growing population in India was a huge concern and each family had 4 to 5 children on an average. Doordarshan’s ad campaign “Hum Do Humare Do”, which literally translates to WE TWO, OURS TWO, became a very successful program that kept family planning on the top agenda simply by triggering a thought in people’s minds.


Hum Do Humare Do

Looking at such examples, it was imperative to ask if communication design or any kind of programmed stimulus could truly change human behavior? Are human tendencies actually malleable? Mansingh Kaul has completely different viewpoint on this. With the advent of new age technologies, he points out how a country like India that was not so tech savvy in nature is witnessing a rapid change. People from the lower income groups including drivers know how to use a computer and a smart phone. Salesmen in Indian retail brands who do not normally speak in English try and do so, as there is an urgency to mingle with the English-speaking crowd that do well in their jobs. “Sometimes maybe behavioral change is not that difficult. Right now in India I see that urgency. (There is a feeling) If you are not going to be in the line you are going to be left out. Something is always the stimulus and these are examples of social transformations by way of design.”

As a communciations studio, we feel the current pulse of the society and seek to understand the role communications design has to play in this change. With the rising access to social media, we can acknowledge that the awareness levels of people are constantly rising. Professor Jatin Bhatt notes this is relevant not just for the younger generation but the older generation as well since they are now exposed to the same kind of media as the young. The use of whatsapp and facebook amongst the older generation is increasingly rising: this is one of the key factors that has led to broadening viewpoints in this older segment of our population. Even if this is a small section, people today are becoming increasingly conscious of what is happening around them and issues that society is grappling with. While this is primarily in the form of voices on social media platforms one can forsee a day not too far away when people will actually start taking concrete steps towards the betterment of society. The idea of communication is surely inseperable, going hand in hand with these advances. This is already happening. Recently, a campaign by Snapdeal on Father’s day questioned why only women should be held responsible for looking after their babies and allowed in feeding rooms, when there is an increasing number of single and divorced fathers on the rise. An excellent piece of communication design, the campaign is a device that breaks the conception of traditional roles of men and women and puts us all on an equal footing.


Father’s day campaign by Snapdeal

Durex created an app that would provide the user the actual experience of having a baby; it cries like a baby, lets you feed the baby when it is hungry and make it fall asleep. The application only gets uninstalled if one buys a condom and scans the QR code on the pack. A television campaign aired by Airtel promptes the message of sharing and friendliness, with the line “Jo Tera Hai Vo Mera Hai”, or “What is yours is mine”. Curiously, this was parallel to the rise of startups in the Indian economic scenario, and perhaps it may be right to conclude that people, especially the younger generation are increasingly connecting with each other and sharing everything, from ideas to belongings to career goals and coming together to form strong foundations, more so by embracing communcation.


Television campaign by Airtel

Written by Ruma Dhingra

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