|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?
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
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
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
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.
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?
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
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