A reflective essay on using
design as a tool to initiate social
MA Graphic Design
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
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Edinburgh College of Art.
We are surrounded by design which directs our
lives, to choose one thing over another or value
something more than the other (Ilyin, 2006). As
more aspects of design become part of the main-
stream, the responsibility of shaping our visual
culture falls on graphic designers as they are the
ones packaging content. Looking back, my aim of
doing a Masters was to enable myself to become
a content maker instead of merely supplying the
packaging for messages that promote consumer-
ist culture. The responsibility of communication
designers is to deliver messages effectively, but as
Kalman (1998, p.8) says, “What do you communi-
cate-Burger King or something meaningful?”.
The premise of my design research has always
been contemporary India. The challenge lay in
focussing on a topic or issue that was of signifi-
cance to me, relevant to the rest of the country
(India), and ideally a global audience as well. Initially
I explored contemporary Indian visual culture and
attempted to identify visual trends-particularly in the
field of graphic design. However, graphic design is a
language or a means of communication, not an end
product and I wanted to identify issues concern-
ing vernacular culture to create engaging content.
I decided to change my research method and
explored ethnographic techniques. The variety of
people that make up the Indian subcontinent bring
together the influences and inspiration of many
different cultures and this culture has been evolving
constantly for hundreds of years (Cooper, Gillow,
1996). Choosing one aspect of this vast cultural
pool that could hold a varied audience’s interest
was not an easy task.
Language and culture are part of the world’s
‘ethnosphere’, and our ethnosphere is degrading
rapidly at the cost of development (Davis, 2007).
The aim of this project is to initiate dialogue about
the loss of traditional culture and linguistic diversity
and encourage people to become active partici-
pants in the preservation and evolution of their
culture.This essay is a reflection on my attempt to
work as a design anthropologist to introduce new
perspectives on the cultural complexities that exist
in contemporary India; mapping the process from
research to the final execution.
Figure 1: Clockwise from top left; Geetika Alok, Englishes
[online image]. Shirin (2012) The Hinglish Project [website],
Hand painted type (2012) Painter Kafeel [digital font].
As a country, India is extremely diverse with tradi-
tional crafts and visual culture changing drastically
across states. As digital technology gains popular-
ity, there are emerging trends in communication
design across cities such as the use of clean
vector lines in typography (figure: 1). The inten-
tion behind doing a comparative study of recent
typographic projects was to evaluate where I
placed my personal design aesthetic. In my studio
practice I was experimenting with analogue and
digital print techniques that took inspiration from
traditional handmade crafts (figure: 2). The aim
was to avoid following trends and or succumbing
to western aesthetic styles without resorting to
Along with my studio work I conducted an eth-
nographic experiment where I asked friends and
colleagues from varied international backgrounds
to share their opinions on what they visualised as
contemporary India (figure: 3). While most were
expected cliches of traffic stopping cows and Bol-
lywood, there were some unexpected responses
such as the country or IT experts, corruption and
good education. The common thread across the
various responses was the contrasts that people
perceived. The aim of the experiment was to find
trends or metaphors that could be classified as
quintessentially Indian, however this proved to be
Attempting to quantify ‘India’ was proving to
be impossible and unnecessary. The country’s
diversity and extreme contrasts were what made it
unique. Having come to this conclusion I reevalu-
ated my research and considered issues that
would introduce the cultural complexities that exist
in India today. Since the primary audience of my
project was the community in Edinburgh, I wanted
to introduce a fresh perspective that moved away
from the idea of India as an ancient exotic land.
The loss of vernacular culture and tradition at the
cost of globalization is an issue that many identify
with. I chose to focus my project on the signifi-
cance of linguistic diversity and multilingualism
as a character trait of contemporary India. Many
believe that Indians are losing touch with regional
languages because English has established itself
as the country’s lingua franca (Satpathy, 2012).
Others are of the opinion that India’s multilingual-
ism is not recognized or celebrated (Bhattacharya,
2009). I set out to explore and critically evaluate
the issue using ethnographic research techniques
as well as literary reviews.
Figure 2: Pushpi Bagchi (2012) India Contemporary
[letterpress and stop motion animation].
I have often been asked, how do you say ____ in
Indian? India has over a hundred spoken languages
and hundreds of dialects and there is no singular
language called ‘Indian’. There are twenty-two
official languages as listed in the constitution.
Language, regionalism and preservation of culture
are politically charged topics in India today. There
are several aspects surrounding this issue; there
are many who feel that the predominance of the
English language in the country is at the cost
of losing the vernacular linguistic diversity with
much negative press on English becoming the
country’s unofficial national language (Joseph,
2011). I wanted to contest this opinion since most
educated Indian’s are multilingual with English
being one of many spoken languages and fluency
in the English language was not at the price of
losing the vernacular. In a country with such
strong attachment to tradition and culture could
the loss of local languages be truly imminent? Yet
one cannot discount the importance of knowing
English as it is the Indian language of commerce
and proficiency in English leads to opportunities
I conducted six interviews of Indian post graduate
students in Edinburgh to discuss the loss of
linguistic diversity and the significance of language
as part of a person’s cultural identity. While the
opinions were varied, most felt that Indians were
unlikely to lose touch with their mother tongues
as the language is often deep rooted in familial
values and there is an emotional attachment
to local languages. For a language to exist, it
must be spoken and spoken languages evolve,
the intermingling of different Indian languages
in everyday conversation and slang offers an
interesting alternative to the dominant use of
English. Perhaps by allowing languages to freely
evolve is one method of insuring their existence.
Having identified an issue, the next challenge lay
in communicating the complexities that surround
the topic in a succinct way. The parameters for the
final product were that it had to be an exhibition
piece and would have to engage a primarily
international audience since the Degree Show is
part of the Edinburgh Arts Festival.
Drishti Bommais (evil eye doll) are masks that
can be seen all across Southern India. Hung
outside houses or painted on trucks, these masks
are believed to ward off negative energy. Using
them as a metaphor I created a mask for each
of the twenty-two official Indian languages to
ward off the negative attention on the loss of
local languages and establish their presence
(figure: 4). The masks also act as talismans to
remind the viewer to safeguard the vernacular
and linguistic diversity for future generations.
Using the metaphor of masks helped visualise
the concept and create graphic images that would
engage an audience. The design of each mask
was inspired by the aesthetic styles of traditional
crafts of the geographic region the language was
most spoken in. The construction of a selection
of masks was done in collaboration with Amanda
Mattes, a recent graduate in MFA Performance
Costume. The masks were created using materials
and techniques inspired by traditional Indian crafts
(figure: 5 and 6). The masks have been used for
a poster series that introduce different points of
view about the state of India’s linguistic diversity.
Five of the masks (Gujarati, Bodo, Bengali,
Kannada and Malayalam) were chosen based on
geographic location to cover different linguistic
regions and a sixth mask represented Sanskrit, the
classical language of India that has very limited
use in contemporary vernacular but is still listed
as an official language because of its cultural
Figure 5 & 6: Pushpi Bagchi, (2013) Masks [digital
photographs of handcrafted masks].
Why a poster? Since the platform for the project
was a curated exhibition a method of com-
munication that would engage the audience in
a short time was required. The poster is one of
many organisation tools that aims to shape public
opinion, the benefit of it when designed well
is fast, impactful communication. According to
Poynor (2012), activist posters these days cannot
merely be emphatic displays as they risk appearing
dogmatic. I would agree with his opinion as the
audiences’ aesthetic sensibility today is quite de-
veloped and restrained but persuasive images pos-
sibly work more effectively (figure: 7). The objec-
tive of the poster campaign is to communicate my
thesis research using a visual style that is inspired
by my cultural roots but bridges craft and contem-
porary graphic design. The visual inspiration for the
poster designs was lithographic Indian film posters
from the 1950s and 1960s (figure: 8). The graphic
style of these posters are striking but restrained in
terms or overall colour palette and typography.
The layout of the posters have a clear hierarchal
format (figure: 9) and an interactive element of a
quick response code (QR code) for a viewer who
would want additional, in depth information on the
subject. The intention of graphic messages is to
attract attention and encapsulate an issue that will
Figure 7: Michael Thompson (2011) Freestylee [online image].
inspire an audience (Poynor, 2012). The inclusion of
an interactive online element also allows for easy
sharing of information which in turn helps publicize
the issue. While the QR codes add another dimen-
sion to a printed poster, there was a concern that it
was not an inclusive element. To access the code,
the viewer must have a smart phone or e-reader
and a QR code scanner installed in it. The project
is intended to be widely accessible and to extend
access of the ‘additional information’ to a wider au-
dience I edited and redesigned my research to short
printed publications that will be available for viewers
to read. When any form of art limits itself to certain
sections of society it assists in the maintenance of
social and economic divisions (Poynor, 2013).
Figure 8: Malayalam Film Poster [online image].
“Content makers can expect much more exacting
assessment than those who simply supply the
packaging”, (Kalman, 1998). While this essay is
a reflection of my Masters thesis, the true test
of its success will be at the Degree Show. While
the response so far from my mentor, tutors and
peers has been positive- they are a sympathetic
audience who intrinsically appreciate the visual
metaphors and aesthetic styling. My thesis
project can be considered a work in progress.
One possible direction, the most obvious one
would be to complete the physical construction
of all twenty-two masks and create an exhibition
piece that is a complete collection. The masks
are also a metaphor that can translate to other
languages and other countries, extending
the project to a large series that speak of
preservation of linguistic diversity and vernacular
culture the world over. The other option would
be to assess the success or failure of the project
based on the response of the viewers at the
degree show and reevaluate the step forward.
While this project may not have a commercial
value, it does succeed in bringing attention to a
topic that is of relevance and does so in a manner
that is not intrusive but rather aims to make the
viewer reflect on their personal opinion.
Figure 9: Pushpi Bagchi (2013) Information Hierarchy [digital
By presenting various points of view, the audience
is made to speculate on their stand on the loss of
linguistic diversity and what they value in terms of
culture and identity. It is not change or technology
that threatens the integrity of the enthnosphere
but power and domination. There are people who
consider ‘ethnicide’ integral to development. Then
again do we want to live in a monochromatic
world with a homogenous culture or embrace
diversity? (Davis, 2007). Do we continue to
dwell on the dominance of the English language
over local tongues or focus our attention on the
preservation and evolution of the vernacular by
finding new and innovative ways to communicate
and celebrates our rich diverse heritage and make
it relevant today and for future generations to
Figure 1: Alok, G (Date unknown) Englishes [online
image] available from http://www.geetikaalok.com/index.
php?/projects/englishes/, Shirin (2012) The Hinglish
Project [website] available from http://thehinglishproject.
com/. Hand painted type (2012) Painter Kafeel [digital
font] available from http://www.handpaintedtype.com/.
Figure 2: Bagchi, P (2012) India Contemporary
Figure 3: Bagchi, P (2012) Ethnographic Research
Figure 4: Bagchi, P (2012) 22 Tongues [personal
Figure 5: Bagchi, P (2013) Sanskrit Mask work in
progress [personal image].
Figure 6: Bagchi, P (2013) Masks [personal image].
Figure 7: Thompsoni, M (2011) Freestylee [online
image] available at http://observatory.designobserver.com/
Figure 8: Malayalam Film Poster [online image]
available at http://pazhayathu.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/
Figure 9: Bagchi, P (2013) Information Hierarchy
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