Design Education in India

Design, Designers, Education/Learning, Policy, Skilling, Training, Professional Devt.

Design Education in India: The Continuity of Change Vol. 002, 2019

Chatterjee, Ashoke



Each encounter with design students and practitioners these days acts as a reminder that design education is going places I have never been. The vocabulary used with such ease, and their assumption that I can follow it, makes me long for the bad old days when few understood why design should be taught or practiced. In those days, one searched for terms that could hasten understanding, as even ‘design process’ was considered obscure. Since then the language of design has been transformed by accelerating technology and the inter-disciplinary demands of a new age. The IT-inspired jargon is easy enough: digital design, design for digital experience, new media design, interface design, human/computer interaction and interactive design are examples. These now form streams of education along with others newcomers: accessory design, design for retail experience, smart design, sustainable design, green design, universal design (to guarantee equality of access), and even social design — which, come to think of it, is what all design should be about anyway. Much of this language would have been Greek to those struggling to establish the design profession through Indian education back in the ’60s and ’70s. And if all that is not enough, the fashion industry has decided that India needs ‘lifestyle’. The result: ‘designer’ has moved from noun to adjective, quickly challenging an earlier and cherished belief that design is about caring and service. A decade into a new century, these changes demand an understanding that extends beyond grappling with words.

What has changed?
The importance of language in education is, of course, profound. Changes in design vocabulary also reflect accelerating emphasis on interdisciplinary links for both learning and practice, and on the partnerships that have become essential in a more complex environment. For old-timers, some of this can be baffling. A notice displayed outside a university campus advertises a quick course on “Traditional and design process in India” (sic). What could that be? The Sunday paper carried an ad from another institution promoting a degree course of 18-months in “fashion communication”. What on earth, I wonder again. The other day a PG design student came for advice on a project that would conclude her studies. I discovered that her project would in no way test her design abilities, and yet it would lead to a design degree. It would focus instead on social mobilization skills for which, as far as I could gather, her institution had provided no training. None of this seemed to trouble her. Was I missing something — or was it the student, her teachers, as well as her institution?

When I joined NID in 1975, it took a school-leaver over five years to reach the proficiency required for a Diploma. At the post-graduate level, the minimum requirement was two full years. The products of that system today lead the profession, while today’s trend is toward compressed schedules and faster turnover. So should the system change that produced the role models, or the attitudes that are changing the system? There are no simple answers, and perhaps my doubt is misplaced. Design education in India has for fifty years been going places where few have ventured. The road map educators now use may be therefore be more relevant than speculating on destinations wrapped in mist.

Then & Now
Tracing the history of design education in India most often begins with the 1958 India Report1 by Charles and Ray Eames and the subsequent creation of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad in 1961. Yet its roots go deeper. The introduction of schools of fine art, engineering and architecture in the late 19th and early 20th century reflected the Arts & Crafts movement of William Morris which became the foundation for design education in Britain. The swadeshi movement, impelled by the ideas of Tagore and Gandhi, gave India its first design revolution and the first outlines of an Indian education that could be grounded in tradition while directed at the future. The contribution of NID and others was the adaptation of curricula developed at the Bahaus in pre-war Germany (and then at Ulm in Switzerland) to Indian need. The past fifty years have seen design education expand beyond Ahmedabad, first to the Industrial Design Centre at IIT (Powai) and then to serious institutions elsewhere, as well as through fashion institutions preoccupied with ‘lifestyle’. (The recent proliferation of ‘design tuition’ bucket shops at every urban corner is symbolic of design’s arrival as well as of current risks).

The emergence of design as a prized profession contrasts with the incomprehension that greeted the first batch of NID design graduates in 1975. In that protected market, design graduates of NID and soon from IDC were seeking jobs in a marketplace that understood designers to be either engineers or artists. The concept of an interdisciplinary profession specializing in generalization seemed absurd. Copying rather than problem-solving was an accepted understanding of ‘design’. Today there are queues at every design campus for entry into a lucrative and often media-driven activity. This spread has been accompanied by transformations in technology, the jettisoning of older ideologies, and accelerating competition. Even in those early years, placement efforts revealed that design gains acceptance first wherever competition rules. The first design career opportunities for young Indian professionals emerged where competition was pushing the envelope. Exporters of engineering products, advertising agencies, and crafts threatened by mass the machine were the earliest design clients for young professionals. Indeed, it is competition that has made design an imperative beyond argument, putting a decisive end to what was once a “Why design? We can copy” syndrome.

A report card
India’s design capabilities are totally globally respected, and its teaching institutions are ranked with the best. These reputations may reflect the success of India’s initial pattern of design education more strongly than current trends and short-cuts. Yet the original system demanded time, as well as dedicated teachers with students of patience and stamina. Today’s generation is in a hurry, both in academe and industry. So, fifty years on, what benchmarks can be used to assess the progress of design education in India’s development? Do the transformations themselves constitute its report card, with an A+ for effort and at least a B for performance?

Despite incredible transformations and remarkable achievements, the challenge is daunting. Supply of designers lags well behind demand, even at a time of global slowdown. IT and the computer have transformed both education and practice. The need for numbers confronts the model of education established by pioneering institutions, where a high teacher-to-student ratio was a hard-won non-negotiable for quality. Accelerated demand now risks the threat of degree and diploma factories, with an accent on skill and quick turnover to fill positions vacant in industry. Yet if the environment is becoming more diverse and inter-disciplinary, will quicker turnovers in design schools provide the conceptual and analytical abilities needed to resolve increasingly complex needs? NID once admitted less than 30 students per year into an undergraduate programme of 5 years with a high student/teacher ratio. Its teachers were practicing professionals who dedicated lives, careers and earnings to the cause of a new profession. They had students who asked for more, not less, time to learn and qualify. That system worked: products of the 70s and 80s are today’s design leaders with world-class credentials. Today’s pressures and standards can make earlier commitments of teachers and students seem wildly impractical. NID has three campuses and some 900 students at both graduate and undergraduate levels. Some will spend only 18 months before qualifying for a design diploma, of which only 12 are spent on campus.

Challenges of scale are thus transforming the original concept of Indian design education as a process of learning and experience in which both time and the student-teacher relationship were fundaments of quality. That relationship has also been transformed as the computer opens new ways of learning, and the education task is increasingly seen as that of mentor and guide rather than that of demonstrator and guru. Or is that a facile assumption? Can anything replace the time and dialogue needed for analysis, exploration and experiment? Can internet surfing ever replaced apprenticeship with a practicing master? What might design education retain from its past as it moves into a new millennium that needs numbers no less than quality?

Scale is not the only challenge as Indian capitalism masquerades as its new socialism. The ‘designer’ adjective challenges the service ethic that brought the profession to India as a force for social transformation. That adjective and the fashion industry which created it dominate both the marketplace and public imagination. Its preoccupation with promoting an image of modernization that is dressed in the garb, hair and skin tones of New York and Paris constitutes a colonialism that Indian design has happily absorbed rather than countering it with alternatives of relevance and dignity. The future of design is thus also about the future of India.

Indian design education: the unacknowledged revolution
Today’s educators can be reminded that design education in India helped introduce several revolutionary concepts. The first was the decision by NID’s founders to buck the university system. They established an approach and curricula for professional education outside the grip of a rigid and obsolete university system. NID introduced a demanding curriculum that rejected exams and percentage marks for both admission and learning. It replaced these with creativity, professionalism, market experience and continuous evaluation. A second innovation was to attract young people into the design profession straight after school, and thus to encourage an openness to knowledge and learning before minds could be trapped by rigid systems of higher education. NID was among the first experiments of this kind anywhere in the world, and that too from within a ‘Government’ environment. While the Institute paid a huge price (in teacher’s salaries, government grants and ‘recognition’) for offending the orthodox, the outcome is there for all to see. A third revolution was to introduce the concept of professional education — learning through hands-on experience of real-life problems, with the marketplace of actual clients brought directly into the classroom and studio by practicing professionals. Designers emerged as not just graduates but as young professionals with a body of work of proven, marketable quality. In this, NID and other design schools have made a phenomenally important contribution to educational reform and to the promotion of inter-disciplinary attitudes. Today these approaches are recognized as essential well beyond design education. The recent national debates stimulated by the Yash Pal Committee and Minister Kapil Sibal’s efforts at reform underline the visionary and pioneering quality of India’s experiment with design education. That quality is still undervalued, even within its own community, as pressures continue for ‘deemed university status’ — the very trap from which NID’s founders had set it free more than fifty years ago.

The stress on inter-disciplinary teamwork as essential to design practice — the designer functioning within a team, never solo — has been a common denominator throughout. It came with the integration of Indian experience into a curriculum borrowed from the West. It drew on older establishments of architecture, engineering and art (which had helped produce India’s first industrial designers and the ‘commercial artists’ who were the first expressions of Indian graphic design), as well as on experience in Europe and North America following the Bauhaus and Ulm experiments. It focused on three broad streams: product design (products made by machine and by hand, furniture design, ceramic design), textile design (for both mill and hand production) and communication design. The latter sought to sharpen and strengthen what was known as commercial (or applied) art with the technology and science of graphics, photography, film-making, and printing. Colleges of engineering and architecture offered partners and links that developed as design education extended its reach through professional practice, later moving directly into these institutions. The Industrial Design Centre (IDC) at IIT Powai, IIT Delhi and New Delhi’s School of Architecture were trailblazers.

Past forward
Did the past anticipate the astonishing changes that have taken place in India during the years since 1961, and perhaps more dramatically in the past two decades? Were today’s needs and challenges within the imagination of India’s design education pioneers? Looking back in order to look forward can be a challenge at many levels, raising question after question. Has the original concept of design education lost relevance with the pace of technical and market change? Can teachers and students of design leap-frog the intense interaction that was once seemed so necessary for inter-disciplinary problem-solving? What does this demand of educators who may no longer have the opportunity to mentor students through several cycles of practical experience? Or possess the same willingness for personal sacrifice? Does design education need to shift toward design training, with an emphasis on skills rather than concepts, and the ability to access knowledge through surfing the net? And what about the crisis of poverty and identity that brought design education into India in the first place? When will design finally emerge as India’s instrument of genuine change and empowerment? Can it resist rather than promote the mindless mimicry of irrelevance and of bad taste, dressed as modernization and imported from elsewhere? Will Indian design ever return to service, and redefine ‘lifestyle’ the way Gandhi once did?

In fact, the decades of change do indeed underline the relevance of the vision that pioneered design education in India, echoed in the mission set out in at least three milestones: the 1958 India Report of Charles and Ray Eames, the Thapar Review Committee Report on NID (1973), and the Ahmedabad Declaration on Industrial Design for Development (1979) that emerged from the first UN conference on design held in that city as a tribute to its design pioneers. Each of these articulations anticipated the speed of market change, the importance of inter-disciplining teamwork, of education that built minds capable of brave and strategic choices, and above all of design as a force for human development and confidence. All three documents are also uncomfortable reminders, in pre-occupations with shining design, of the balance that is still required if the design profession is to serve the needs of many Indias. Who then is to define and prioritize those needs?

Design’s jury
The revolution in education fostered by the Indian experiment would suggest that the first place in which to seek future directions is the market. What is the impact on teaching quality of the past decade or more? What is industry’s expectation today of a design teacher? Are design graduates delivering the service their clients require after emerging from compressed schedules, new disciplines, and very different classroom situations and transformed teacher-student relationships? Is there a need for the original intensive programme to be retained as one option among many? Where and how are design teachers to be created to match the rush of design students? Is there a need for distinct streams of teacher training that can meet the demand for numbers as well as retain the importance of thought and guidance in nurturing quality? Is there a need for a better distinction between education that creates enlightened problem-solvers and training that can provide skills and numbers?

One looks for answers to the stakeholders most directly impacted by 50 years of design education. The first are clients of design, at every level of Indian industry. How have their needs evolved? How well are Indian designers delivering in a hugely competitive market, in which design is often the cutting edge for survival and growth? Some feedback may already be available in the fora where designers and organized industry meet. Design awards and a National Design Council are among these opportunities. Yet it is unlikely that the needs of smaller enterprises, of the craft sector (the largest Indian employer after agriculture), or of teachers, doctors and farmers are ever heard at such gatherings. While India may be an agrarian economy, agriculture has never been in the forefront of design practice. Although the craft sector has become a rich area of design expression. There are still no systems available to bring artisans and designers together in a sustained, long-term relationship. Unlike the scintillating career prospects that are being demonstrated in engineering, media and fashion, the social challenge remains the elephant in the room.

After industry, we need to hear from users. How would the Indian consumer rate the designer’s contribution to her life? Which consumers should one talk to —- those with ‘footfall’ in the shopping malls with their overwhelming influence on current perceptions? Or the millions daily endangered by pollution, adulteration and unaffordable prices? Despite a growing consumer movement, the Indian consumer and the Indian designer do not share a space for dialogue.

Practicing designers may be the most critical members of a national design jury. An encouraging indicator is their increasing engagement in education. As stakeholders, they have the decided advantage of perspective. Many have emerged from the old, intensive school of design education yet live each day with current realities. Not a few have the vision and idealism of their teachers as well as a thoroughly practical wisdom. With one foot in the real world and another in education, design graduates are an immediate and informed resource for understanding where design education has brought us, and where it needs to go. Their experience may be the best bridge on the past-forward road, the one best equipped to envision the future.

Design for need
Dialogue on design education that can embrace these three stakeholder groups — industry, consumers, design professionals — must also take into account those still missing from the table: agriculture and the social sector. A major failure within India’s design movement is the comparative neglect — in education, application and career opportunity — of design service to these sectors that unquestionably represent the largest areas of Indian need. There have been brilliant demonstrations of what design can do for livelihood generation, craft transformation, women’s empowerment, education, health, lifting the quality of life of Indian children, and in design for conservation and cultural identity. A limitation has been that these opportunities vest largely with NGOs still new to marketing as a discipline, and therefore to design. Few have either the experience or the resources to absorb design services optimally. Government departments, while awakening to design, are usually incapable of providing careers that can survive red tape and corruption. Some international donors have emerged as important clients for social design – setting standards of remuneration in the social sector that have little relevance when service must move to Indian clients working on Indian budgets.

Making a career of design service in the social sectors can thus be very difficult. Support systems familiar in organized industry do not exist, despite the indications of what can and should be done. An incredibly rich source has been put together by the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), which has combed the Indian hinterland for innovative approaches at solving major problems. A wealth of creative solutions has been harvested, awaiting design entrepreneurship. Incubation of ideas and efforts at NID and elsewhere add to this potential through recent demonstrations such as Kranthi Vistakula’s development of climate sensitive fabrics transformed into garments that can deal with India’s temperature extremes. The question is how to take ideas into successfully manufactured products, marketed at affordable prices. Answers are emerging and they point to partnerships that can bring design innovation and management together in the profit-making enterprises geared to basic needs. At Stanford University, Prof B Banerjee looked at India’s horrifying rates of child mortality, sent his students to Bihar and elsewhere, and focused on the need for infant incubators that could reduce the enormous loss of life between rural locations and distant medical services. The result: an incubator that can function on pedal power, reducing incubator costs from Rs4 lakhs to Rs400.

The classroom and the lota
Moving from idea to delivery therefore requires management systems driven by a concept of interdisciplinary design, based on real needs (not only the acknowledged ones), as well as on an ethic of equity and empowerment. A real effort to transform the social sector into India’s engine of design relevance is awaited. It is here that design is yet to make the difference that was promised in the India Report. If so much has changed, the original vision of design as a force that can lift the quality of Indian life is as powerful today as it was six decades ago. There can be little doubt that the classroom must be the laboratory for defining what constitutes a quality of life for India in a new millennium. It is there that attitudes, taste and the ability to choose intelligently can be moulded and made as important as skills and technologies. The hope has not and cannot change that the designers of tomorrow will help deliver “the dignity, service and love” 1 that made the lota the supreme symbol of industrial design to a visiting genius in 1958, and the inspiration for a national design movement that has followed.

Endnote References:

  1. Charles Eames and his wife Ray were among the most influential designers of the 20th century. A chance encounter with Pupul Jayakar at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1955 brought the Eames to India at the invitation of the Ministry of Commerce & Industry. Their India Report inspired the creation of NID and has become a classic in design literature with its celebration of the lota as an icon of all that design should be.
  2. Charles and Ray Eames, India Report, 1958


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