India Immersion Program 2015: I had no idea just how immersed I would get

by Ellie Eberts

Over the holiday break I had an incredible—dare I say life-changing—experience in Mumbai, India as a participant in ID’s India Immersion Program (IIP). What is IIP, you ask? IIP is a professional practice and cultural immersion program run each winter in partnership with Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing Co Ltd where ID students are teamed up with Godrej executives to teach them design methods and processes while simultaneously being culturally immersed in the Indian context.

The theme of this year’s IIP—the future of retail and retail experiences—is particularly relevant for Godrej and the Indian context at large as services such as Flipkart (the Indian flip traditional Indian retail paradigms on their head. Also, the sheer presence of Godrej products in the Indian market is pretty incredible—they manufacture everything from personal care products to mattresses and refrigerators to components for space rockets—to put things in perspective, over 500 million Indians use at least one Godrej product everyday, which is pretty incredible with a population of about 1.3 billion people. Are you inspired by the overwhelming sense of opportunity here? I certainly was after this introduction to the program.

Now that I’ve got the IIP context all set for you, in order to really understand the full power and weight of this experience, I ought to set you in the frame of mind of a person dropped into the Indian context for the first time. I’d gone into this experience with very few preconceptions or expectations—I knew India would be far different from anything I could ever imagine, I knew that I was going to experience such rich colors and textures that I would be left swooning on the floor (if you know me and my love of color and rich visuals, you’ll totally get this), and I knew the project would be a challenging three-and- a-half week sprint from research through to concepting.

That was about all I went into the experience with. I was mentally a clean slate. Upon getting off the plane in Mumbai things looked a little like this:

The streets were full of all kinds of vehicles—autorickshaws, cars, trucks, busses, bicycles, motorbikes—and they all had somewhere to be now which meant a lot of honking and very well-orchestrated chaos. That said, after a full day of exploring Colaba in south Mumbai and delicious street food in my belly, I easily fell asleep in that honk cacophony on the way back to the Godrej colony that night.

Now that you’re a little more acquainted with what a westerner’s first induction into the Indian context is like, let me get to the meat of the IIP experience. On a team with me were Yang (MDes ’17) and Sylvia (MDes ’17) along with two Godrej counterparts— Rajat, head of retail strategy and customer experience for Godrej Interio’s B2C furniture division, and Neha who has been with the Godrej Innovation Centre since its inception about 5 years ago. We were tasked specifically with understanding what future lifestyle & luxury retail experiences might look like for Godrej—we set out to reframe what luxury and aspirations might look like beyond the things we spend money on to denote life stage or status.

Conducting research in the Indian context was challenging in some situations—like when our apparent lack of knowledge of Hindi came into play or the street noise was so loud that transcribing the interview after the fact was like deciphering hieroglyphics. And sometimes situations like this called for a little cutting chai on the side of the road and stepping back to build rapport as a team.

The real challenges came when analyzing the output of our research and pushing towards insights. Imagine for a second that you’re in Rajat’s shoes: you’ve always worked in the marketing & business worlds—where research is often used as validation of the known—and for the first time you’re going through the loopy, amorphous design process where a clear output isn’t always visible. Yang, Sylvia and I would get questions like

“Are we doing the right thing?” or “Is this going to get us to the right answer?” or “When do we get away from all this abstraction?”

And each time we had to step back, empathize with where our Godrej counterpart was coming from, and break down where we were and where we were headed—often it was about providing perspective and showing examples from our own work to ground our discussion the design process. In response to questions like “Is this going to get us to the right answer?” we explained that it’s not about the right answer, but rather about exploring opportunities and unarticulated needs.

But sometimes, and I’m not gonna lie, I would start to ask myself “ARE we doing the right thing? Is Rajat going to think we’re crazy at the end? Is the Godrej GMC (heads of 14 different business units) going to laugh us out of the room at our final presentation?” and the only way to quiet these questions was to silently repeat to myself “this all feels right, just trust the process... trust the process...” But you can’t always blindly trust the process, there’s another ingredient there that cannot be undermined when things simply don’t feel right—it’s intuition and instinct. It’s not one hundred percent methods and frameworks, but also the instinct and intuition that guide the use of them appropriately.

Imparting this lesson of instinct and intuition often meant I was pushed to verbalize my thought process and talk through it to provide clarity on the question of “why are we going through this particular exercise?” IIP was a truly incredible exercise in being able to articulate what we actually do and what design is really about. We couldn’t just rely on “because I’m a designer and I said so” but really dig deep to the value of design to answer the “why?” questions.

So you’re probably wondering how it all ended up. And while I can’t give specific details about the concept we created for Godrej, I can say that on the last day after the presentation Rajat said, nearly verbatim,

“it’s incredible that this is what came out of three and a half weeks of this crazy process. I now understand its value.”

Getting buy-in to the design process was probably the most rewarding part of the time I spent working during IIP.

In addition to immersing our Godrej counterparts in the design process, we also got an opportunity to be immersed in the incredibly rich Indian context—and to tell the truth, I could not get enough of it.


India is pretty incredible. If you’re ever presented with the opportunity, IIP or otherwise, GO. You’ll thank me.