© Ruchita Madhok, 2012

In 2002 a quiet revolution occurred in Indian design: the ‘Design in India’ Yahoo e-group was born. It was the original online community for Indian designers and academicians and the first time that people across generations and geography could interact in a single space. A decade later and email seems old-fashioned when the options to interact are endless: blogs, micro-publishing platforms, social networks and social sharing tools make it easier than ever before to reach out to your compadres and clients. Despite the convenience of cyber connections however, Indian designers are doing one curious thing in 2012 than they have ever done before: they’re travelling long distances to meet each other in person.

The last year has seen an explosive growth in the number of design conferences being organised in India and an equally explosive growth in the number of people attending them. The big daddy of them all, Kyoorius Designyatra has close to 1300 delegates attending this year and is one of the largest design gatherings in the world. The Unbox Festival and India Design Forum in early 2012 saw considerable participation across a range of city-wide events in New Delhi while more modest conferences like the Pune Design Festival reached out to design students in India’s largest university city. Professionals, design academics, students and aficionados, all of whom could easily connect over digital media have made an effort to be a part of the developing conference scene. So what is it that brings them out to Goa to an event like Kyoorius Designyatra?

These days – or so the saying goes – all you need to be a designer, is a desk and a computer. While cyber platforms allow designers the chance to explore new work and initiate exchange, they can isolate people from simple human contact. Pooja Jagdeesh, Design Director at The Brand Union, Bangalore says that the reason she attends the “Yatra” every year is “to meet people”. I ask her if the destination is a draw but she says, ” you know, you can spend years working as a designer at your desk, and never meet anyone. At some point, you have to get out and just meet other people…it could be anywhere.”

Indeed, Designyatra is a social event and often occupies a key spot on a designer’s agenda. It’s well known for its networking events and parties and many people make the trip to meet each other in a relaxed environment, away from deadlines and clients. Parties though, aren’t enough reason for the ever under-appreciated designer to spend ten or twenty thousand rupees on a conference fee, so I asked Rajesh Kejriwal about how, as the man behind Designyatra, he gets brings the crowds in year after year. “We have to call in the star designers – the celebrities,” he says frankly. “If we don’t call them, we won’t get the confirmations. Without the confirmations, we can’t book anything.” Rohit Iyer, a television producer and first time delegate validates Kejriwal’s sentiment, ” One of the reasons I’m here is to listen to some of the speakers. I was curious about Designyatra and why everyone makes such a fuss about it, but everyone always talks about the amazing speakers here.”

Festivals like Designyatra and Unbox go to great lengths to programme their events around a specific idea or theme and the speakers’ list is the keystone that holds the doorway open. To a great extent the kind of audience that participates in each event responds specifically to the agenda at hand and there are many designers who would attend one and not the other. For them, the deal breaker is usually the theme. A senior designer whom I spoke to earlier at the Pune Design Festival in March was quite clear, ” I’m not a Designyatra kind of person. I prefer the more serious and honest discussion here in Pune. People here want to talk about stuff that matters.”

Whether people attend design conferences to socialise, meet their heroes or participate in wider conversations about design, it’s plain to see that the Internet does not provide an alternative to personal interaction. If anything, social media and online publishing have encouraged designers to seek each other out in more meaningful ways, to cut through the clutter of work and discover the people behind the portfolios. Sure, you could watch an online video of a design legend deliver a talk, but where else can you share a cup of chai afterwards? For the real stuff, theres nothing to beat actually being there.


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