Designing tangible products for the price sensitive market is not only challenging but impactful as well because you have an opportunity to empower & enrich lives through your vision and creativity !
Harikrishnan KM, our next pathbreaker, Industrial Designer at Foxconn, designs new concepts and products for clients, primarily focusing on mobile phones, wearables, hearables, EVs and other IOT products.
Harikrishnan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his initial foray into the world of automotive design and subsequently transitioning to the design of feature phones and smartphones at Lava, an Indian mobile phone company.
For students, the field of design is incredibly diverse and vast. Moreover, nothing beats the feeling of seeing the products you designed being used by the masses.
Harikrishnan, can you take us through your early years?
I was born and brought up in Kannur, northern part of Kerala. I did my entire schooling at Kendriya Vidyalaya in the same town.
Right from my childhood, I was very much into drawing and scribbling. The walls of my home became my first canvas. My parents worked in Govt. /Public sectors. Though they were not into any creative field, they encouraged me from the beginning and enrolled me in art classes from childhood itself. I used to participate in various art & drawing competitions in and around my town.
I remember seeing a malayalam movie and wanting to become an architect- it was a cool profession for the child in me.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
I did my Bachelor of Architecture (BArch) from NIT Calicut (2009-14) and post-graduation in Master of Design in Industrial Design (M.Des) from IIT Delhi (2014-16).
What were some of the influences that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Growing up, I had huge interests in automobiles. This was fueled by auto magazines which my uncle used to read.
When I was a kid, I used to keep a scrapbook having cutouts of all the newly released bikes and cars from the newspaper. Hence, post schooling, I wanted to become a mechanical engineer and get into the design & engineering of automobiles. Back then, neither my parents nor I had any idea that automotive design is a separate field.
However, luckily the universe had other plans! I appeared for the AIEEE exams. I did not score well in the engineering entrance, but got through the architecture part.
Though my parents were clueless about the career prospects of being an architect, being creatively driven, I decided to take up architecture. I got enrolled for BArch at NIT Calicut. The 5 years at NIT Calicut laid the foundation for my design career ahead.
During my 4th year, I learned about the CEED exam from my seniors at college and how one could pursue a career in design. This was a major turning point in my life.
Two things were running parallel – I was in the closing rounds of placements during the final year of BArch and had cleared the CEED & GATE exams and interview at IISC Bangalore and IIT Delhi for pursuing M.Des.
I had a choice to make. BArch was an intense course. Even though I enjoyed the creative part of designing spaces, I did not envision myself to be an architect and had grown interested in the design of automobiles & products, which we use on a daily basis.
I decided to pursue my post-graduation in Industrial Design. I was not inclined technically and wanted to pursue core design. Hence, I chose IIT Delhi, since the course structure at IISC Bangalore, back then, was very much engineering & technically driven.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path.
The two years at IIT Delhi gave good exposure for the budding designer in me. While the degree was in Industrial Design, it was quite open-ended and interdisciplinary. We had the choice to pursue the design field of our interest and do projects/internships.
I was passionate about automotive design & got a wonderful opportunity to learn from the automotive Interior Design experts at Maruti Suzuki during a yearlong workshop. My design was chosen and we built a 1:1 scale clay model of the interior of a vehicle and displayed it at Auto Expo ’16, New Delhi. I am deeply indebted to my mentor at Maruti, Mr. Shailendra Petwal, for his valuable lessons at improving my design skills and for his sheer patience.
I was offered an internship with the Maruti Suzuki Interior Design team. This was a dream come true! Though my classmates were being placed as UX designers, I was one of the very few who stuck to core Industrial Design and wanted to pursue a career in it, but was not placed yet for a job. I knew my parents had their concerns regarding my future, but thankfully, they did not put pressure on me.
So, just after completing my post-graduation, before I had to start my internship at Maruti, I got placed at Lava International Ltd. as an Industrial Designer.
I had a choice to make, again. This was a tough one. Lava was setting up their design team in India and had prospects of sending the team to China for training at their Shenzhen R&D facility. Though I got the internship of my dreams at Maruti, it did not guarantee any job.
I finally decided to start my career at Lava. I am thankful to my girlfriend then (currently wife) for supporting my decision.
Though Lava is an Indian company, since China had a better ecosystem surrounding electronics, they had started their first R&D centre in Shenzhen. Post joining Lava, along with the entire Indian R&D team, I was at this centre for about a year. Through the mentorship of our Chinese colleagues, we were learning the foundations as well as contributing towards creating products for Indian, African & other Asian markets. We started off with design of feature phones and later transitioned to designing smartphones.
We would work closely with the product-marketing team, who brings us insights regarding the requirements from the market. The industrial design (ID) team goes through this data, understands & empathizes with the user and comes up with persona, moodboards, etc. These are the tools to streamline the design process.
Parallelly, the mechanical design (MD) team, with the help from the hardware team, releases a rough stack or PCBA, which becomes the skeleton over which the industrial design team creates the unique concepts through ideation, sketching, 2D & 3D renders.ID team releases the initial concepts while the MD team checks for technical feasibility and makes changes to the stack if required.
Once the final concepts are made, they are transformed into tangible mockups, mainly for aesthetic evaluation, and presented to the stakeholders. The selected concepts go ahead for various stages of pre-production and finally mass production (MP) and into the market. The whole process is not linear and requires a lot of team work, going back and forth.
At Lava, we got to design the first products in the country following the ‘Design in India’ initiative of the government.
During the latter part of my stint at Lava, I got to lead the ID team and mentor designers under me. It was a good opportunity within a short span in my career.
How did you get your first break?
I kick started my career at Lava International, just after post-graduation, as an Industrial Designer.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Though I had some idea of how the automotive design industry functions, through my workshop with Maruti Suzuki, I was in for a surprise.
There was a lot of unlearning to do, since it was a different sector compared to automotive. My work at Lava was in the design of mobile phones and related accessories. My Chinese colleagues and mentors at Lava’s R&D facility in Shenzhen were supportive and helped polish my design skills for the real world.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I was at Lava International for 5 years and am currently working at Bharat FIH (Foxconn), Chennai as Lead Industrial Designer.
Foxconn, based out of Taiwan, is a global leader in EMS (Electronics Manufacturing Services) and the largest one in the country.
I am part of Foxconn’s first R&D facility in India, which would help in establishing ODM (Original Design Manufacturer) capabilities for the company while leveraging the ‘Design in India’ and ‘Make in India’ move from the government.
My role is to design new concepts & products for our clients, working in tandem with other departments like Mechanical, Hardware & Software Design. We are into the design of mobile phones, wearables, hearables, EVs and other IOT products.
What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?
An Industrial Designer is someone who would bridge the gap between the needs of the marketing/product team and the requirements from the engineering team, through aesthetic and practical design solutions.
Rowena Reed Kostellow once said, “Pure unadulterated beauty should be the goal of civilization”. I truly believe in this. As an Industrial Designer, my role is to empathize with the end user through research. A designer should have strong skills to express ideas through sketching, 3D modeling and rendering. A worldview of what’s the latest in tech & design, and social media is your ally in this regard. It is a good habit to take inspiration from other related fields of design like architecture, interior, fashion, etc- understanding of colour,material & finish (CMF). Finally, one should have a good understanding of design for manufacturing.
These days, online platforms provide a venue for upgrading one’s skills. Skills are acquired and mastered through practice alone. One should understand his/her forte, be it sketching or digital design, and develop it through practice.
What’s a typical day like?
My day starts with checking the emails and To-Do list for the week and adding new tasks to the schedule. I work very closely with the product team & mechanical design team on ongoing projects. Some days I need to visit our factory and check the physical samples which are in various stages of design.
What is it you love about this job?
The thing that hooked me onto Industrial design is how tangible it is. You get to physically experience the products you design.
It’s a great feeling when you see the products you designed being used by the masses.
How does your work benefit society?
Throughout my career, luckily, I have designed products mainly for the lower bracket of the pyramid, ie. for the price sensitive end user or the common man.
I believe that these products have empowered & enriched their lives- my small contribution to society.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
There are many ! However, I would like to mention two of them.
The first one – Prime X: India’s first ‘Designed in India’ feature phone for the masses. This was a project which put Lava on the map and was a huge commercial success.
The second one – GE Vscan Extend handheld Ultrasonic apparatus.
In collaboration with GE Healthcare, we designed Pixel V2+, a Smartphone Interface Device for the GE Vscan Extend Handheld Ultrasound, a Point of Care & Emergency Portable Ultrasound. It has positively impacted the lives of patients and health workers alike.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I would encourage students to take risks. You are young. Be passionate but practical, because in the end you need to earn your living too. Be curious.
It’s a good practice to develop your skills in other domains eg. Business, finance etc. Make good & meaningful connections among your colleagues and learn from them.
Finally, when you work at an organization, do not be carried away by your passion for a certain sketch/design/project, it is finally a business decision- a decision to impact the lives of the end user and the company positively.
I believe that throughout life one remains a student. It’s about being curious, observant and a listener.
I intend to learn more about existing & emerging fields of design and would like to dip my leg in the vast ocean and make meaningful contributions.
Steve Jobs once said, “Stay Hungry. Stay foolish”. This drives me.