Opinion Series: I is for Inspirational India

I is for Inspirational India by Jonathan Ford, Pearlfisher



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The Dieline has kindly asked me to write an occasional piece and I thought a lot about what might compliment the vast body of great packaging design work that it already presents. As a global reference point there's some great work there including some projects completed for our clients around the world. 

These projects have taken us to some fantastic and inspiring places and brands along the way. And, subsequently, having had the pleasure of visiting these foreign cultures it's made me realize as a designer just how protected we - in the UK and America - are from seeing how brands present themselves in those markets, the vastly different retail behavior and how people of different cultures interact with brands and the local visual codes. 

All of these factors and more present a real challenge to the brand designer, who can only begin to address them properly if they get out from behind their Mac and go and experience the culture for real. In future posts I'll attempt to convey learnings from the other BRIC countries as well as from some other special places that we've also visited.

India has got to be one of the most sensory overwhelming places I've ever visited. In the four trips made there, I’ve come away knowing that I haven't even scratched the surface. On a recent 'in depth' project visit to Mumbai I spent just a week talking to people, visiting their homes, and listening to and seeing how they relate to brands and the ever-changing demographic in one of the world’s most ancient but also most modern, vibrant and diverse democracies. It blew my mind – and inspired me in a whole new way.


It is quite incredible to compare the antiseptic retail world of the west with a country where the vast majority of selling brands is done through ‘unorganized trade’. In India, over 90% of all consumer packaged goods are sold in small kiosks and corner shops that line many inner city roads. Here, the brands sit jostling for sale in no organized shelf space, crammed in, hanging from above, piled on top of each other, often sold in in smaller, single-serve portions for affordability reasons. And when you consider how big India is and how many millions of kiosks there are in the country you realize the power of the individual sale and human relationships when you can buy the same product from several kiosks all crammed together in a run of maybe just 50 meters.

What hope then for an Asian design brief written by strategists and answered by designers who never get out and experience these cultural attitudes? A (literally) flying visit to a particular country, market or store or hiring someone to e-mail back digital snaps is not the answer. You can only ever begin to get to a solution if you take the time to see it, live it and fully appreciate it first hand. 

I'm talking about seeking real inspiration and, in the words of Paul Smith, ‘you can find inspiration in anything’. You just have to look closely, see, listen, smell, touch and ‘hoover’ up as much as possible and at some point something will become clear. I had tea with a family of six in their – what would be considered by Western standards very basic - home. Listening to the mother talk about how she takes pride in the family all having clean hair and how she achieves it with no running water, you realize how resourceful and creative people can be with very little. And, with this thought in mind, I once again walk out onto the streets of Mumbai and see it littered with plastic bottles and packaging that can’t be reused, turned into fuel or have some kind of easy second-life value. Designers need to be aware of not just their lack of empathy with the markets they create for but also their impact on and contribution to these markets; both good and bad.


Bollywood is a phenomenon of modern global cinema. One look at a Bollywood film will dazzle you with drama, music, dance, movement, joy, laughter, sadness and romance. Its the epitome of a modern vibrant culture that absorbs modern media and yet makes it their own. And it is this fresh pair of eyes on a traditional subject that could steer great creativity in a brand design context as long as we allow ourselves to be open to the intoxicating and inspiring creative value of a foreign culture.

Jonathan Ford - Creative Partner & Co-founder Pearlfisher


Jonathan leads the overall creative direction of Pearlfisher, and has built up a global reputation for design excellence and effectiveness from the Pearlfisher studios in New York and London. He is fervent about the value that fearless thinking, great ideas and design can bring to brands and in short, believes that great design, sells. 

Pearlfisher was co-founded by Jonathan in 1992 and is still an independent design company, working with iconic and challenger brands around the world including The Coca Cola Company, Cadbury, Kraft, InverHouse, Jamie Oliver, Green & Black's, Innocent Smoothies, NUDE, Fortnum & Mason and  Unilever.