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Dabbawallas: Innovation Contained and Coded

Works That Work is a new international design magazine that looks beyond mere portfolios – a magazine dedicated to inspiration and observation, to conditions and contexts, a kind of National Geographic of design. Here’s the original edit of my article which appeared in their inaugural issue – which I researched in Mumbai across numerous train trips, cycle chases and hub hunt-downs.

Mumbai’s committed contingent of 5000 dabbawallas deliver over 350 000 lunches per day to office workers across the megacity. Typically the lunches are collected and returned to clients’ homes in stacked metal lunchboxes which lend this collection of culinary couriers their name: dabba = tiffin, container, walla = worker. Each tiffin enters a journey to and from the office, during which it will pass through the hands of at least 12 dabbawallas across an elaborate zoning system. Somewhere in the middle – away from the fast paced delivery antics – a home-cooked lunch is enjoyed.

Most discussions on dabbawallas start with their innovative system – but in designerly fashion, let’s start with the end user. Those who engage the services of dabbawallas tend to be middle class office workers who embrace the Indian preference and pride in ghar ka khana (home cooked food). Most of them reach work by train, which means they leave home early and may be boarding chaotically packed carriages – making carrying their own tiffin a challenge. Add to this the status of arriving at work unencumbered. The dabbawalla system provides a welcome solution by collecting meals, lovingly prepared at home, then getting them to and from the office. Lunching clients have diverse dietary preferences – Muslims, Hindus, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists and more join diabetics and dieters – enhancing the need for precision delivery of the correct meal to its rightful recipient.

One such discerning diner was a Parsi banker working in Mumbai in the 1880s, who employed a young errand boy to deliver his lunch. Others, envious of his promptly delivered, freshly made, home-cooked lunches soon requested the services of the delivery boy. The boy was Mahadeo Havaji Bacche from Pune who is credited with founding the Mumbai dabbawallas. Unable to keep up with demand, he enlisted others from his village in Pune and close-by. This location-based connectedness continues to enrich the signature camaraderie of dabbawallas to this day. Bacche’s understanding of client needs, fellow workers’ capabilities and Mumbai’s specific transport context allowed him to leverage local factors to build a service which was able to grow from his initial team of 100 to the 5000+ dabbawallas that keep Mumbai office workers fuelled and fed today.

Tiffins are often carried overhead onto trains – efficient yet challenging given the bustling nature of Mumbai stations

So it might sound fairly straightforward – delivering lunch boxes from people’s homes to their places of work and back again. However the challenge for dabbawallas is to do so at scale within a lean business model, negotiating time-bound trains and dense urban environments while grouping deliveries to similar locations for efficient delivery. For this they employ a hub and spoke distribution approach. Lunches are usually collected from individual homes by foot or by bicycle around 9-10am. Once you cotton on to this, you’ll be surprised how often you spot dabbawallas on bicycles laden with tiffins around Mumbai during their morning or afternoon deliveries. From the morning collection, the tiffins are taken to a local sorting hub where they are grouped according to those heading into the city on the same train line. They’re often carried overhead on large metal trays – a tricky task when having to board urban trains, which only stop briefly. At the other end they enter another hub where they are sorted again according to neighbourhood destinations. From here the tiffins continue their journey by bicycle or trolley with the final delivery usually being done on foot. Keep in mind that individual dabbawallas only serve on a specific part of the tiffin’s passage. It’s the smooth running of all the hub and spoke locations which ensure its delivery across an average 60-70km travelled by each tiffin. A senior dabbawalla quips “It’s like a cricket team. Team work is essential” – an analogy which resonates amongst the cricket-loving nation that is India. Worth noting is that some downtown office buildings, where the service is popular, keep one of their multiple elevators free over lunchtime – specifically for the respected dabbawallas and their appetite-appeasing deliveries.

The dabbawalla’s coding system employs letters, numbers, colours and symbols which signal each tiffin’s delivery path.

The localised efficiency of the dabbawalla system has been hailed by business and design schools worldwide. Forbes Magazine awarded it a Sigma Six rating in 2002, deeming that less than one mistake is made in every 6 million deliveries – that’s 12 million dispatches if you count both directions. So how does is this accuracy ensured by a workforce which has traditionally possessed low literacy? Historically the dabbawallas developed their own code utilising numbers, letters, colours and symbols applied to the tiffins so that they can be sorted systematically at key points of the journey. (It’s not dissimilar to the notion of packet-switching by which digital data is transmitted via shared networks like the internet.) At larger hub points, a dabbawalla is stationed with the dedicated task of spotting potential mix-ups and redirecting misplaced lunchboxes back on their correct trajectory.

With an annual turnover surpassing Rs 400 million, the dabbawallas have a surprisingly flat hierarchy. They are united by a workers’ association which is headed by former dabbawallas who are often found sitting cross-legged amongst workers as they take their lunch breaks at various hubs. With monthly tiffin deliveries being priced on weight, size and distance (around Rs 300 – 500 per month), each of the 800 teams splits their share evenly between members, regardless of their seniority. After maintenance costs have been paid for bicycles and other tools of the trade plus a fee to the workers’ association, each dabbawalla takes home around Rs 6000 per month. The association is in good health – supporting the families of deceased workers and donating to various food distribution charities. It also supplements its income through the provision of cooked meal services.

Dabbawallas wear a signature Gandhi cap – a uniting visual feature in chaotic rail and road contexts.

The dabbawallas present a united workforce. High levels of trust are cultivated, with new hires being introduced by referral. Most workers sport a white kurta pajama set – though the iconic Gandhi cap is a more prescriptive requirement and make them easy to spot in a crowd. They take lunch together at their respective hubs, from their own tiffins, where spirits run high. The edict by their founder that “Work is Worship” seems prevalent in the pride shown by dabbawallas in the diligent service they provide. Acknowledgement that teamwork is the essence of their enterprise is implicit in their humble approach, which celebrates teamwork over individuals.

This united dedication to a collective pursuit of excellence has served the dabbawallas well in the face of potential disruptions of service such as riots, monsoon floods and the multitude of state and religious holidays which pepper the Indian calendar. However the 1974 railway strikes halted their service temporarily due to the interruption of a core part of their delivery model. “Commitment to excellence is what drives our growth. That and the fact that the stomach is never in recession,” beams the head of the workers’ association. In fact the service continues to achieve 5-6% annual growth and adapts to evolving lifestyles by offering SMS bookings and delivering lunches from diet centers.

As I ride with a group a dabbawallas by train on their return journey, I’m amazed that after a long day of fast paced, heavy labour, that they still have the inclination to discuss ways they could improve the performance and efficiency of their sector. With thousands of satisfied customers, strong solidarity amongst workers and a delivery system ingeniously built on local conditions – you might well ask if the best innovations are home cooked and home grown?

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Mumbai Markings Enhance Service Design
Celebrating Street Level Ingenuity
Sustainable Solutions from Mumbai Streets


Edible Branding Reaches Millions in India


I continue to get amped when the works of my former design students collide with my favoured intersection of communication, culture and creativity. While speaking at TYPO SF last month in California, I was alerted to an appetising development which I had missed from earlier this year, by fellow speaker, Peter Bil’ak. Fedra Hindi, the typeface he collaborated on with my former student Satya Rajpurohit, was used on a campaign ingeniously printed on rotis (Indian flatbread served at most meals) which were dished out at the Kumbh Mela, – attended by 80 million Hindu pilgrims across 55 days. No, that is not a typo. India’s Kumbh Mela is the world’s largest congregation.


Unilever approached Ogilvy in Mumbai to advertise its Lifebuoy soap at the Kumbh Mela. Young creative, Vipul Slvi, came up with an idea to promote the soap – and hygiene at large – at an opportune moment during this year’s epic gathering. Teaming up with 100 kitchens across the festival, rotis were branded with the message Lifebuoy se haath dhoye kya? “Have you washed your hands with Lifebouy today?” – providing a savvy and sustainable advertising avenue while creating a friendly nudge around effective hygiene behaviours in general.

Here’s the somewhat schmaltzy coverage clip from Ogilvy – though I’d say you had to be amongst the crowd to dig the real flavour of this innovative campaign.

Images via The Economic Times

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Digitising Indian Ink
Typocentric: Bazaar
Hindi-Hybrid Font-Fusion


Taped Crusader Pushes Perspectives

Inviting New Yorkers to view their city from a more playful perspective, Aakash Nihalani has been creating street art which encourages dimensional disruptions since 2007. Through his impermanent interventions he seeks to “highlight the unexpected contours and elegant geometry of the city itself.” He’s currently developing a new series of works, in less urban environments, as the Lisa de Kooning Artist in Residence.

Aakash’s signature fluorescent isometric idiosyncrasies emerged when he was taping up his thesis show at NYU. He noticed the shadow of a pedestal which he decided to outline with tape. This observation led to further adhesive explorations, including fusing tape and cardboard, which Aakash eventually took to the street.

Check this fab clip on Aakash’s Stop sign piece in progress: Stop, Pop & Roll

“I kinda like the inevitable destruction. Making sure things last is a cumbersome task.”
– Aakash Nihalani, on It’s Nice That

Aakash’s works in New Delhi from late 2011

Images for Aakash’s Lacoste LIVE camapaign, shot by Mark Hunter

The Lacoste LIVE 2012 Spring/Summer campaign features Aakash, on the streets of New York, in their Unconventional Talents series
More recently Aakash has been producing works as the Lisa de Kooning Artist in Residence. From here he continues to explore and accentuate frozen moments while playing with our perspective preconceptions:

Note-worthy: Aakash’s lively take on Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog was actually shot from above, against a New York pavement:

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Random Specific Musings from the Ramayana
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All images, with permission, from Aakash Nihalani


Quick-pic Tuesdays: Street Level Branding

Subji Display

My favourite vegetable seller from time spent living in Ahmedabad, India

“A charismatic brand can be defined as any product, service or company for which people believe there’s no substitute.” – Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap

Countless businesses struggle to attain brand cornerstones like authenticity, distinctiveness, clarity, social engagement, trust and delight. Seems they could take lessons from this street vendor – frugally committed to getting it right.
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Quick-pic Tuesdays: Daily Needs
Sustainable Solutions from Mumbai Streets
Random Specific images on Flickr


Hindi-Hybrid Font-Fusion

Being a fan of both travel and typography, I was delighted to see the two artfully brought together in a campaign for Incredible !ndia via the Indian Ministry of Tourism. Who would have thought a government ministry would be dabbling in free fonts for foreigners? The Hinglish Project was masterminded by Shirin Johari of Mudra Communications – playfully showcasing an expertly crafted hybrid of Hindi’s Devanagari script and English’s Roman script, based on the phonetic sounds they share.

Welcome to India. To make our country a little more familiar to you we present The Hinglish Project… It aims to demystify individual letters and its script and make India more approachable. – The Hinglish Project website


The site goes on to showcase Hinglish Project merchandise in the form of booklets, maps, cushions, coasters, postcards t-shirts, bags, etc. Best of all you can play around with writing your own messages and even download the font for free.

I hit Shirin up for some randomly specific insights.

S P E C I F I C :

How did the Hinglish Project idea evolve?
I’d been toying with the idea of combining scripts from two different languages for a while and late last year I began putting this experiment in my mind to paper. I got into the challenge of pulling it off across the entire alphabet then having it perform as a functioning typeface. I was drawn to the idea that it could teach visitors something new while making Hindi seem less intimidating. I liked the idea that folks could customise their own messages which led on to the interactive nature of the project. And for me, it’s also a high if I can put a smile on someone’s face while they’re at it.

What was the most difficult part of making a hybrid typeface?
This was a huge learning process in typography for me. I had to get my head around devising a specific grid, an x-height, ascenders and descenders and all that typographic specific-ness. My former colleague, typographer Hanif Kureshi, helped me get on top of some key concepts. I was also cross-checking with linguistic specialists to maintain correct or very close corresponding phonetic sounds – so had to keep changing designs to suit their input. Despite the challenges, it was a rewarding process to go through the journey from my original doodles to a functioning font.
R A N D O M :

Any insight on influences from your childhood?
As a child I wanted to be a scientist and invent things that would change the world after hearing a list of patents by a famous scientist that my teacher read to us. That didn’t quite work out, so well – what stayed was the desire to create something new and helpful.

Given The Hinglish Project is for Incredible !ndia – have you got any must-do tips for visitors?

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Overlap: Intersections of Desi & Diasporic
Digistising Indian Ink


Stitched, Sealed, Delivered

When you are posed with sending a parcel from India you don’t have to look far for help. Outside most local post offices sit men ready to package your goods in white cotton, all set for postage – the humble parcel-walla, at your service. Earlier this year in Ahmedabad we presented them with a whimsical challenge: to bundle a typical, large chai-walla’s teapot to be dispatched back home to New Zealand. To spice things up a bit, we wanted it swathed in an indigo-dyed, Gujarati block-printed cotton.

From his street-side perch, our parcel-walla took on the task with the same consideration and care I have seen him commit to a number of my previous packages (mainly the odd decorated rickshaw mudflap). With earnest dedication he applied his skills to bind and bundle, stitch and secure our unwieldy kettle.

Just as he was finished, an elephant swung by to see what all the fuss was about.

And fittingly, a roaming chai-walla turned up to offer us tea – with a teapot very similar to the one we’d just popped in the post.

Our parcel-walla has been working from the pavement outside the Mirzapur Post Office, alongside his father, for 15 years.

His son happened to be there that day too. When I asked if he would also take up the trade, they proudly told me, no – that he would gain further education than either of them. He mentioned to me that he is keen on becoming a police-man – though I think he may also have a future as a millinery model.

Back home in New Zealand, it’s time to put the kettle on…
Related posts:
Same, Same but Different
Bollywood Poster-wallas
Walla: Pavement Purveyors on Flickr


Quick-pic Tuesdays: Small Fry

In my ongoing search of micro-supply for low-income households, I spotted this slick idea by a street stall in Mumbai. They repackage cooking oil into small packets – perfect for a day’s use. This makes a huge difference for those on irregular incomes who’s budgets are focused on immediate requirements. Even small-fry deserve choices.
Related posts:
Quick-pic Tuesdays: Daily Needs
Sustainable Solutions from Mumbai Streets
Random Specific images on Flickr


Quick-Pic Tuesdays: After Hours Needs

Enjoy Box
An aptly named slot machine I spotted in Bologna a few years back – dispensing cigarette papers, lighters & condoms. Little necessities for a good night out?
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Quick-pic Tuesdays: Daily Needs
Indo-Italian Moves
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Quick-pic Tuesdays: Daily Needs

A few weeks back I watched a small trader at Dharavi, carefully set up his stall to feature a limited range of goods – perfectly portioned for the daily needs of a household. This practice is common at street stalls in India where nudging micro-sales, in the context of resource constraint, yields better returns than vying for bulk purchase.

Sometimes just enough is the most enticing proposition.

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Quick-pic Tuesdays: Single Serve
Quick-pic Tuesdays: Waste Not, Want Not


Horn Please: Embellishment Central

Bombay continues to provide me with spicy new discoveries on every visit and this last trip was no exception. I stumbled on Wadi Bunder, a dense residential slum area peppered with truck decorators who were painting, welding, riveting, hanging, carving – anything to sweeten the deal on humble cargo trucks.

Truck painting in action at the hand of Battu Varma, who has been using trucks as his canvas since he was 15 years old

Diamonds are a truck’s best friend

Trunk line door panels

Welding custom truck body fittings

Carved panels adorn various parts of trucks – both interior and exterior

Hanging items accentuate a truck’s movement while delighting the eye

Various painters in action at Wadi Bunder

Telling it like it is
Related posts:
Painted National Pride
Overlap: Intersections of the Desi & Diasporic
Random Specific Indian Street Art Collection on Flickr
And if Indian truck decoration is your thing – check out my London-based, Indian-born buddy Kangan Arora,with her posts from further North.

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