Design in Developing Societies

Design, Designers, Policy

Design in Developing Societies: Problems of Relevance

Chatterjee, Ashoke

We have gathered in this ancient city to seek a role for the designer in the last quarter of the 20th century. Our hosts tell us that design in Ireland takes place “in an old country where the tension between recent industrial development and pastoral traditions is set in an environment whose beauty and integrity still survive.” How easily could one transpose this description to my own country at the other end of the globe. The beauty and integrity of one of man’s most ancient design traditions survive in India amidst the struggle to guarantee for our citizens a square meal or two each day, adequate clothing, shelter, relevant education and opportunities for employment. As for the majority of mankind. These are still dreams for most of my countrymen. Yet the only reason we exist as India’s National Institute of Design is the faith that our new profession may prove capable of bringing these dreams to more rapid fulfillment.

It is a tribute to the vision of this Council that while the majority of its membership represents industrially advanced economies. ICSID has recognized that the real test of industrial design will lie in the quality of its contribution to the development process. This recognition comes at a time when few developing lands have yet felt or articulated the need for design as a motive force in their economic improvement. Therefore as India’s Minister of Industry has pointed out in his message of greeting to this distinguished gathering, ICSID is at the threshold of a great opportunity to bring the service of industrial design to bear on the development efforts which are going to determine the course of history in the last quarter of our century. It is in this context that India’s experience may be of interest and of use, both to designers in advanced economies who are seeking to learn how best their profession can assist the developing world, and to our colleagues in the development task throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America who have yet to organize design education within their economies.

The Beginnings
In a culture with an unbroken history of 3000 years and one in which product and graphic forms have in the past achieved such perfection and played such an immensely important role in human development, it takes a measure of audacity to speak of design as a profession new to India. The experience which I share with you this morning concerns the period following our independence in 1947. In the early years of this period, rapid changes were taking place in economic and social objectives, in production processes and within the Indian environment. New technologies were. beginning to enter the remotest corners of our sub-continent. It was a change in kind, and not merely in degree. The integral understanding of form and function that was the foundation of India’s traditional production process now began to fragment and decay. It was in this setting that in the late 1950’s, the Government of India invited Charles and Ray Eames to recommend a programme of design to serve as an aid to small industry. In their recommendations, from which the National Institute of Design was born, the Eames called for “a sober investigation into those values and qualities that Indians hold important to a good life and that there be a scrutiny of the elements that go to make up a standard of living.” The Institute, in Eames’ words, must generate “an alert and impatient national conscience that is concerned with the quality and ultimate values of the environment.” Looking back on the enormous problems which preoccupied India’s planners in the first years after independence, it is fortunate indeed that there were at that time minds sufficiently aware that the nature of the development process demanded such a reinvestigation of the postulates and resources that determine a design structure and philosophy. They under-stood that design, to retain its relevance to Indian culture, would have to renew its ancient perceptions and wisdom. In this process, many outer forms and objects, the fragments of which had become imitative and which no longer sustained the social ethos, would need to be discarded.

To assist this process of renewal and discovery, the National Institute of Design was established in 1961 by the Government of India as an autonomous national institution for research, service and training in industrial design and visual communication. It was to be concerned with providing as comprehensively as possible a multi-disciplinary approach to design, to satisfy the complex problems of India’s changing environment. The Institute spent its first years in faculty development. The future teachers of design in India were selected from backgrounds in applied art, engineering and architecture as well as from international design schools. Advance Level Programmes were tailor-made to these backgrounds by trainers from overseas who came to NID and later extended. Their assistance through facilities made available to our trainees at design institutions and studios in Europe and the United States. Simultaneously, with this long process of faculty development, other graduates of NID’s training courses set out to establish themselves as India’s first industrial designers. The creation of physical resources for a teaching institute was naturally a parallel activity. with the development of human resources, and was greatly assisted by the assistance we received from the Indian Government, the State of Gujarat, our city of Ahmedabad and the Ford Foundation.


NID’s experience in faculty development and post-graduate programmes pointed to the need for more broad-based and basic training. Nine years after its founding. the Institute commenced its under-graduate Professional Education Programme, in 1970, drawing in students immediately after secondary school for a programme which extends across 5.1/2 years. A unique contribution by NID has been the integration of real life, professional situations within this design curriculum. The stress on the reality of the market place has distinguished NID’s experiment in design education, and in Indian education. This experiment has been a challenge to the caliber of NID students and faculty and it is this participation in the real which world is enabling us today to seek greater relevance in the Indian context through sustained experimentation. Since 1976. Graduates of this programme have begun to move out as the vanguard of a new cadre of fully trained Indian designers.

In 1969 another centre for design education commenced in Bombay at the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology with senior faculty and graduates of NID. This was the Industrial Design Centre (IDC) which has established post-graduate design courses to provide an extension to engineering learning at the IIT, The educational programme developed at NID was adapted at IDC to suit the requirements of engineering students. It is now being expanded with inputs of visual communication and environmental design. These pioneering attempts at NID and IDC have helped to create the beginning -of a national awareness of the industrial designer and of what he can do, and the two institutions are working mutually to reinforce their training programmes.

The Challenges
Design education has a yet merely touched the surface of Indian requirements. Although design is a real need in our society, it is not yet a sufficiently felt need. Those who most need design seem least aware of its significance. But we are already at the point when those who have been made aware of the design imperative are throwing ‘questions and challenges which, at this early stage in our history, demand s reappraisal of the disciplines and curricula which we imported from the West to transplant into our ancient and problematic soil. How effectively we respond to these challenges will in my view determine not only what happens to the design profession in India during the next few decades. It could also greatly influence the growth and progress of design in neighboring countries and throughout the developing world. It is important the fore that through ICSID our experience and our problems, our successes and our and our failures, should be shared by the international design community. Indian design represents a unique problem and a unique opportunity. If we can define our role in designing the future of 600 million people, the majority of whom are still denied the basic elements of a decent life, surely these answers would be valid reference points for ICSID and for many other societies which may now have embarked upon the same process which some 20 years ago led to the establishment of a National Institute of Design in India and to the important experiments in design education which have taken place in my country since that time.

The challenge to our curriculum and methods of teaching comes surprisingly enough from areas in which we have been able to make some of our most effective contributions. Let me give you a few examples of what I mean. The problems of traditional craft are major areas of concern for NID. Since the beginning of this century, the pressures of industrialization have wrought havoc on the economic, social and cultural status of the crafts in Indian society. Since independence, official support to craft traditions has sought to link their revival with new marketing opportunities outside the village community. Thus. NID’s involvement began with assisting the development of craft exports. This has brought us face to face not only with the extraordinary problems of adapting old traditions to new markets far removed from Indian needs, and light years away from the traditionally self-sufficient village economy, but it has also made us aware of the urgent need to protect the integrity of the crafts, and to help restore to the craftsman a measure of his self-worth, so battered by the influence at urban markets flooded with plastic imitations of foreign products and life-styles, of souvenirs for emporia, catering to tourist demands and to the whims of overseas buyers on whose interest and support so many Indian crafts are now almost totally dependent. In this confusion, there is a real danger that the industrial designer may become yet another factor for destruction and loss of identity. As relative newcomers in a design environment vastly older than any-thing we acquired from the Bauhaus and its successors, NID is learning that our main task may well be to act, as ICSID recognizes we must, as communicators between peoples and institutions. In the Indian context, the discipline of relating ‘ function and need to materials and processes enables the industrial designer to act as a channel through-which the crafts can once again be returned to people. And not as colorful trash for a quick tourist dollar, but as functionally beautiful forms which serve real needs both in our society and in the export markets where India is attempting to establish a foot-hold.

In the process we are finding that the disciplines which we borrowed from this part of the world can be of relevance to our society only when w re able to adapt them to serve the needs of a predominantly rural society. Over the recent past, India’s small communities of industrial designers have been al-most totally preoccupied with the requirements of urban markets. Here the competitive demands and access to high-level technology provide situations which closely resemble design challenges in the most advanced countries. While we cannot and do not minimize the legitimate demands of the industrial sector, it is apparent that the future of our economy will depend upon the success which attends efforts to generate small-scale nod rural industry, to create employment opportunities for more than 480 million pairs of hands in the rural sector and by so doing to help stem the headlong rush from rural India to urban India and the horrors which are its inevitable result.

Our first attempt to find these answers has taken place in an area not far from our home city, in a part of India which is drought or flood-prone and which has very little arable land and irrigation, and little in the way of surviving craft activities. We have begun to work within a community of about 200 villages and populations of 85000 people. We are part of a team which includes managers, teachers, technicians, bankers, craftsmen and scientists. The objective of our effort is to make the villagers self-reliant and capable of resisting exploitation. We hope that the participation of the designer can help link education to economic opportunity, a link which has been tragically missing all these years and which has converted so much of education in our country to irrelevance and contempt. The activities we gave undertaken so far include weaving wool and cotton products, wool spinning, leather tanning and fabrication of leather products. Our designers are learning to put their hand to problems of rural banking, animal husbandry, horticultural production and marketing. We are learning that there can be no watertight division of skills and labor if we are to render effective service to our rural clients, and that design is indeed the total environment. Attempts are made to get school teachers to work with us and thus to involve the design project in the total learning of the village community. The village itself is the school, and in it the designer is both pupil and teacher. In another equally deprived area, we may soon be working on a team which will subject our communication skills to an unusual test. It is an attempt to see whether we can assist a tribal community which is fast losing its cultural roots, to communicate with itself once again and to regain its confidence and identity, which alone can shield it from continued exploitation. Once again, we will be learning much more than we can teach: our skills of audio-visual documentation and design can be useful only as a support to oral and social traditions far richer and more complex than any design technology we can place at the service of this.

Designing a Future
Experience does not suggest that our curriculum is irrelevant in these challenging circumstances. Far from it: we have been greatly heartened and encouraged by the fact that the designer’s problem-solving methodology can be of direct relevance and utility to the solution of basic concerns, and that problem-solving is greatly enhanced with a trained designer on the team. In another example, NID was recently asked to project the future of our city of Ahmedabad into the year 2000. This was a daunting task for an institute without any pretensions to futurology. We suggested to the Government of India’s Department of Science & Technology that we be allowed to study what has happened to our city over the past 25 years and to seek from the past guidelines to assist projections into the next twenty-five years. Our objective was to see whether design as we know it could have influenced Ahmedabad for the better: would the city have been in any way a more viable place had the design profession been in existence when Indian planning commenced soon after independence in 1947 P The data which our students and faculty have gathered through this exercise has been astonishing. We have not yet been able to recommend design solutions but we have been able to highlight the enormous gap which exists in our city, between the views of the past sod present, held by planners and administrators on one hand, and by Ahmedabad’s citizens on the other. It was design methodology and a design investigation which revealed this critical gap in communication between planners and people. And we are perhaps a little wiser now as designers for urban environments. We know that if we are to help improve the future of a city, we must commence by assisting a more ration-al dialogue between planners and those whom plans are intended to benefit. It is only this that can bring about a true awareness of real problems and, therefore, of correct design priorities.

An Indian Idiom
It will be clear from what I have said that NID’s basic task is to create an Indian idiom of industrial design and visual communication: design disciplines relevant to the needs of a huge economy which embraces every stage of industrial development. The solutions to our problems of relevance lie less with developing new curricula tailor-made to India, than with the constant exposure and testing of our teaching and learning methods to the realities of Indian fields, streets and work-places, Our concepts of classroom, course, teacher and student have to be capable of withstanding constant redefinition. This is our basic challenge: not whether industrial design is relevant to India. but how best to put it to work in our conditions. The future of Indian design will depend very greatly on NID’s ability to find a rational approach to these matters of relevance. The difficulties are enormous. In our country, much at education is still locked within the rigidities which-we have inherited from Macaulay and 19th-century Britain. We are seeking students and faculty who can rise above this inheritance and flourish within a framework which is constantly changing and is not always predictable. There are other difficulties. We teach product design using reference and teaching materials identical to those used in design schools of the West. We have not yet been able to fund a systematic documentation for teaching of product forms which have been developed in India through the centuries: furniture, utensils. architecture, textiles, garments, toys. If we continue this way, design as we teach it may stress the needs of westernized, affluent communities in urban India, increasing their own-alienation from Indian society and accelerating rather than arresting the drift away from the re-discovery of our roots and values for which NID was founded. In visual communication, we face a similar dilemma: no documentation exists for design education in Indian traditions of symbology, colour, form, and calligraphy – all the elements which our society has used to communicate with such power for several thousand years into the present day. All of this is still outside the scope of the Indian designer’s formal education. We realize that it is not our purpose to bring s new design culture to India, but rather to reinforce, reawaken and quicken an ancient tradition and

attitude which is in total harmony with the contemporary view of design not as luxury or art, but rather as the human environment. To achieve this, we have much to do to relate teaching materials to our own environment.

A Quest for Priorities
Equally important will be the degree of wisdom which attends our choice of design problems for demonstration and solution inside our educational framework. We must learn to choose our clientele with great care. Like most educational institutions, we face problems of severe financial stringency. It is, therefore, a great temptation to choose as clients the large industrial houses whose consultancy fees allow some margin toward our educational expenditure. But real needs, and therefore our real clients, are often unable to cover even basic expenses. So the choices are difficult ones: does our textile designer work for a giant mill, or for a small group of weavers in a distant village? Should the product designer turn his attention to a new range of office equipment or to the untapped resources of cane and bamboo in the remote north-east of India? As our services come into demand in a national scarcity of design talent, how best can we foster the spirit of humility and ser-vice which is essential to the future of a truly Indian design movement? How can we encourage our students to take on careers in areas of need which may not offer high financial rewards? There are other questions to answer. How best can we evaluate our past design solutions and current curricula in terms of present needs? How will current needs be affected by the rapid technological changes which are taking place in our country through such innovations as satellite communications and the computer? What is the balance we must strike in an economy which is equally concerned with space technology as with improving the centuries old bullock-cart? In vast areas of activity relatively untouched by our experience over the last sixteen years, such as agriculture and education aids, how and where do we commence? Can the experience of the developed world help us to leap-frog experimental stages into immediate areas of relevant work? How can we as designers stimulate participation in our society, and not accelerate the alienation and drift which has become the hallmark of our industrialization? Is there a lesson at all that other countries can take from India before commencing their own programmes of design education?

It is with these questions that we join your deliberations today and it is in seeking these answers that we in India invite your participation and experience. While the direction in which NID must travel is clear, the route ahead of us is uncharted. The activity which has won for the institute I have the honor to represent ICSID’s first award for design in developing countries is token of our earnest. At this point we have more questions than answers to share with you. Yet our experience in design in developing society over the.past sixteen years is unique and unparalleled. We place it unreservedly at the service of ICSID’s objective today of reviewing progress and of taking fresh bearings. The fact that this great Congress is being held to discuss these issues indicates dramatically that the similarities between design in our various societies are far greater than the differences.

You have asked for our ideas and we offer you these specific proposals:

  • NID is now engaged in forecasting India’s design’ requirements over the period of our Sixth Five Year Plan which ends in 1984. The needs we foresee include many areas in which we. require assistance in terms of data and training opportunities. These include design for education, water usage and conservation. low-cost energy resources. Design far public health, for the handicapped and for disaster relief. The Indian situation in these sectors varies in many important respects from conditions in advanced societies. Yet your experience will help us move ahead mote rapidly and to adapt existing know-ledge to our realities.
  • In many of these areas, an information bank is imperative to help us draw quickly on documented experience. The development of teaching aids is one such example. There is vast design experience available outside our country. How best can we tap it?
  • Much of our work concerns assistance to the small-scale and craft sectors. Our ancient craft traditions are in urgent need to keep abreast of progress in design technology, materials and finishes which is taking place in the hand-craft sector overseas. This is particularly vital to successful export marketing of our crafts. Areas of such need are furniture systems. metal-ware for domestic use, hand-blown glass, leather and the treatment and fabrication of cane and bamboo. We need your experience in the development of educational aids. in experiments with new building materials and with recycling of waste. We have functioned all these years without adequate support of ergonomic facilities, which we are attempting to improve. We need assistance to do so. We need to strengthen cur work in animated films by keeping abreast of new developments and particularly of advances in low-cost technology and the use of animated films for education and industrial training.In all these areas we need to draw on your experience. We suggest that ICSID make available a number of Fellowships for graduate students and far design teachers from the developing world who could work in these areas of need that I have mentioned, and bring back to India and elsewhere the technology which our designers need to supplement their own experience. ICSID should also provide grants which would enable us to bring to our countries, for training purposes, designers proficient in these spheres on short-term assignments. An ICSID capital fund to provide such ‘seed’ expenditure would be of great assistance to institutes like ours which are constantly handicapped in seeking such technical help due to chronic foreign exchange difficulties. (I may add here in parenthesis that our annual membership subscription to ICSID is equivalent to our entire budget for research and for fellowships.)
  • In turn we offer you our own experience of 16 years in design for development. We are open to suggestions as to how best our facilities can be made available to other lands. Inter-design programmes in India, in some of the areas which I have discussed would be one immediate way. Sharing our documented material could be another.
  • NID would be happy to consider providing facilities for faculty training to assist design schools in other lands. Here our unique experience may be of particular importance and relevance to their needs.

Finally we invite you to consider India as a venue for ICSID’s activities. Our tradition of hospitality is as old as our tradition of design. I need hardly say how welcome you would be, or how important it now seems that a gathering of this kind should take place within an environment which reflects the development priorities which ICSID is pledged to assist.

Address delivered at the UNIDO-ICSID Conference held in Ireland in January, 1979


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