Karl Heiselman, CEO Wolff Olins at Kyoorius Designyatra 2012

“What is your superpower?” Karl Heiselman was on stage at the Kyoorius Designyatra in Goa. Speaking about how he became the CEO of Wolff Olins, he echoed the experiences of many speakers and delegates present there, he talked about a unique quality that helps designers find solutions to the problems they are presented with everyday. The theme for this year’s Designyatra was ‘The Divide’ and the first day was devoted exclusively to digital design. Continuing a conversation that started at last year’s conference, it centered around the question of why designers in India are so uncomfortable in exploiting digital technology?

The internet and the mobile phone have revolutionized communication in India and are changing the cultural landscape of the country, but only for those who have access to technology and can afford it. Technology, or rather, the access to technology, remains one of the big issues in developing economies such as India. Those who have access to it have a clear advantage. Those who donʼt, are left out of mainstream conversations. They become invisible. In many ways new technology that builds on older ideas and heirarchies, simply reinforcing the divide between the haves and have-nots, rather than bridging it. Digital technology and the internet have empowered designers in ways unimaginable even ten years ago, but all too often this is taken for granted. Ironic then, that designers in India are not using these new digital tools to greater effect.

Speaking to fellow delegates after the first round of speakers on the Digital Day, I was left with a sense that people were impressed with the work and ideas on display but they felt it lacked substance. Robert Wong, Chief Creative Officer at Google Creative Lab was the opening speaker and his presentation was used as an example of this divide between style (or ʻchromeʼ) and substance. Those who have access to technology tend to see this chrome as its real value and take the rest for granted. This issue of access to technology was brilliantly brought forward by Arunachalam Muruganantham and Mansukhbhai Prajapati, two rural entrepreneurs who have challenged the establishment and indeed challenged the idea of what this divide is. Their message for designers is simple but important: if you want to create a bridge over the ʻdivideʼ you need to step out of the bubble that access to technology provides you. You have to look at new ways to use existing ideas and tools.

If there is one lesson then, that has come out of this yearʼs Designyatra its that designers are that bridge. Since designers are good at collaborating with people from different fields, by the very nature of what they do and how they work, they are well placed to make the unlikely connections that can create solutions for the most impossible of problems. Collaborations which help accelerate innovation were a common thread in presentations and conversations at Designyatra.

Coming back to Karlʼs question, “What is your superpower?”. For a designer it’s the power to make connections: to connect the dots between technology, ideas, people and places; and to build bridges where others would see just another impossible divide.


* This essay was written as part of the Design Writing workshop hosted by Kyoorius and organised by the British Council at Designyatra 2012 in Goa.