Sunday, August 12, 2007

Design Concepts & Concerns Blog: An interactive platform for the DCC course at NID, India

Image: Fire as a Metaphor for Design

The Design Methods course provided the limited framework for discourse on design theory at NID and in the mid seventies the course went through its first metamorphosis with the appearance of the environmental agenda into the Foundation Programme being introduced by the then coordinator and teacher Mohan Bhandari and this layer has persisted over the years. I started teaching this course in 1982 soon after Mohan Bhandari left NID and by then I had started bringing in my own convictions to this course in some tentative way at first and later with a more definite value orientation that is reflected in my own engagement with design research and practise over these years in the crafts, bamboo and small industry perspectives and later in the domain of digital design all informed by the context that is India. The case material and the concepts being developed caused me to change the name of this course to Design Concepts and Concerns (DCC) in the mid nineties. In this period we also embraced systems design philosophies that came to be accepted at the senior years of the industrial design programmes at NID and its intellectual bearings came from the works of Stafford Beer and Gui Bonsiepe besides Buckminister Fuller and Victor Papanek. Bonsiepe’s books and documentations of the work in Argentina and Brazil continued the thought processes started at the hfg Ulm and brought a new perspective that of the difference between design in the West and that of the Periphery and its associated social and economic implications.

Image: Profile of the Designer

For me the Design Concepts and Concerns (DCC) course became a platform to revisit the domain of theory each year after several fresh and new experiences in research and practise during that year since all NID faculty are expected to teach, research and practise within the Institutional studio and professional practise framework. Design Concepts and Concerns (DCC) is about Finding, Knowing, Doing and Feeling, the last word of the quartet being the most important in my opinion. Which is why the name of my course was changed from Design Methodology that was used in the sixties to suggest that design was a scientific discipline and later on it was called Design Process to suggest that it was steeped in good management but now we understand that t is neither Science nor management and it certainly is not Art. I changed the name of my course without official sanction several years ago since NID gave a great deal of latitude to its teachers to experiment and evolve their courses as they too developed a better understanding of their subject. I am grateful for this liberty as a teacher but bemoan the fact that many colleagues do not read enough and pursue an intellectual debate to argue these positions nor do they understand these ideas fully nor support these views from a form of apathy that seems to permeate our intellectual landscape. My model for the “Profile of the Emerging Designer” that I use in my class to sensitise design students to the range of possible professional profiles was first published in 1994 at a seminar on design education at the IDC in Mumbai provided a framework to look at all design professions from this tetrahedral view of the skills and knowledge base of a design professional. (Ranjan 1994)

No one is comfortable when we talk about ourselves as designers in India and the role that we should, could, or would play as a designer in the Indian context. It is the context that gives us the shakes. We get perplexed at the sheer size and complexity and cannot see where to begin or we see the opportunities for our special skills at the comfortable and special end of the economy where about two percent of our population lives and push away our sense of guilt when someone asks us about the other 98 percent and our contribution to these people or even the middle 60 percent of India. However all our students know that design as we are discussing it in the DCC class is about looking, knowing and doing what needs to be done, however uncomfortable. Doing it thoughtfully, skillfully and with a great degree of empathy for the user. The value orientation in this class is deliberate and the model of the designer as a tetrahedron of vertices with Finding, Knowing and Doing as its base and the most important quadrant, in my view is the apex, which is that of Feeling. This is what we bring to our students each year and throughout their stay at NID.

Redesign of the DCC Course: Introducing the Macro-Micro design strategy
For the Foundation class of 2001 we were compelled to innovate our teaching strategy because our city of Ahmedbad was seriously affected by the continuous bouts of rioting that prevented the usual movement of students into the field for user centered studies. Therefore we decided to look at macro economic issues as our point of reference for this particular course in design thinking. The results wee startling to say the least. The “Concept Mela”, a sort of concept sharing exposition, which the students put up at the end of the course shared visualisations and explorations that the seven groups of students had created and each was the proposed framework for a sector specific initiative for design action in India. These explorations were informed by a series of brain storming sessions and the usual lectures and coupled group assignments that followed the structure that this course has been known for at the NID. This time however the young students were in the process of transforming India from a resource poor country to a self confident and successful economy that it can be since nobody told them that this was not possible, the skeptics were missing. They were told to research the various macro parameters and use the NID faculty and senior students as their immediate source of expert consultants. The groups formed went through a progression of assignments at building models of the economy with a view to discover structural relationships and functional proximities between related industries and economic sectors. Five groups looked at the same issues and discussed these with great enthusiasm and captured the major attributes of these sectors and their interrelationships by a process of brainstorming and discussion. The thus identified parameters were arranged using Post-it stickers into intermediate structures and based on a consensus within the team and amongst the consultants that they chose to involve.

The resultant structures were represented the form of presentation posters, each using a suitable metaphor for organising the elements. The five groups had five different models but several aspects of these overlapped and some models were more amenable to further manipulations than the others. However at this stage all the students were highly motivated and demonstrated a very high degree of clarity about these macro economic parameters and their impact on the National economy and its related issues and contexts. One group proposed a Ministry of Design and divided the economy into basic producers (primary), processors (secondary) and services. The representation was in the form of a city road map with a downtown circle that had the three forks, one for each category, which got further divided into a branching diagram that accommodated all the individual sectors identified by the group.

Another group selected to depict the economy as a Venn diagram with here major areas of economy, ecology and society with the interstices of these accommodating the critical sectors that needed inputs across these areas. Yet another interesting strategy was to look at the interrelationships between a few key-driving parameters and this was represented as an interactive wheel where the outer circle defined the individual sectors where design could and should play a critical role, and these numbered 230 in all.

Design Initiatives: Sector Specific Strategies
The efforts of the students and the resultant flow of ideas was further supplemented by a series of lectures by the author on the institutional frameworks that were needed to make this initiative a reality in India. I shared the work done for the two institutes dealing with crafts sector and the bamboo sector with the students and asked them to identify specific opportunities that they could locate for immediate action in the Indian context. The teams were further divided into seven and this time the students were permitted to join teams that they could align themselves with on a personal interest and ideology basis. The result was startling and the motivation levels kept these students active in groups on an almost round the clock basis in a seemingly inextinguishable flow of energy and creativity. Each group created panels that described the issues visually and built models to share their vision of the proposed framework for action, each in a small panel based exhibit that could be taken to the public. This time we invited the public into our campus, and over two days of intense interactions, the students got a great deal of feedback and critique from a large number of visitors. Seven sectors were selected from a larger list of possible choices and the Institutional frameworks developed to address these are as follows:

1. Badal (Monsoon Clouds)
Proposed as a Non Governmental Organisation (NGO), the metaphor of the monsoon clouds is used to describe a process for strengthening micro-enterprises through the use of research, assimilation, refinement and delivery of know how to the micro-entrepreneurs just as the clouds perform a function of delivering rain to the people. This is way of understanding self-employment strategies of some successful people in one part of India and to be able to share these with the others in need.

2. Udaan (Flight of the Spirit)
A strategy for the empowerment, modernisation and for Information Technology enabling of rural India with a deep understanding of the needs of this particular community or groups of such communities distributed all over the country, each in their own environment and unique cultural and linguistic space.

3 Aavriti (A Platform for Change)
The child and its activities are the focus of this initiative. The design opportunities area of toys, games and active education are addressed in this framework. India does not have a single agency that is capable of embracing the design needs of children although they form almost 60 percent of the total population.

4. EDD (Education Design Developments)
The proposed network of designers would work towards improving the quality of education in India. The design needs of the education sector are both complex and fund starved at the same time. The use of the web and face to face strategies form the basis of this design scenario that could build a network of designers with teachers, students and other interested specialist contributors.

5. SEEDS (School of Ecological Design Studies)
This organisation fosters a holistic approach to issues of environment through education, research and action strategies that are unique to the problems of India. The belief system embedded in this proposal assumes progress through a two way learning process in building contemporary design solutions and in learning from the traditional wisdom of an established society.

6. Green Dots (Design Organisation for Sustainable Transport Systems)
Transportation strategies that do not damage that environment need to be innovated and made acceptable to our society if the quality of life in our cities and villages is to improve. This strategy includes the use of novel solutions and sustained information campaigns to build acceptable models with the involvement of people.

7. IID (Institute of Interface Design)
To supplement India’s software engineering strengths there is a need for the capacity to make products that are usable and appropriate for a wide section of indigenous users and for export needs. The proposed framework and associated scenarios fill a real need for value added approaches to enhance the interface design capabilities of our existing software industry.

This effort gave us a glimpse of concepts that were both necessary and achievable. The next stage in this course led to the development of scenarios by each student of one sub-opportunity that they individually felt could help precipitate the necessary investments or action in the sector of their choice. The fact that these explorations reached concrete action plans with well-defined objectives and a visual expression of the possible scenarios made it easy for visitors, senior students and faculty to engage in a deep discussion on the merits and risks of each specific approach. This is the hallmark of design thinking and action that is rooted in the domain of the visual scenario that can locate the discourse at the macro level and at the micro level simultaneously. The future of design too lies somewhere along this path and we can and must find new roles for design in the production of images that can inform decision processes, some of which are so complex that they need many iterations and political mediations to resolve in an amicable manner. Most importantly these design processes need the involvement and partnership of a multitude of stakeholders and such visualisations make the concepts, decisions and issues available for visual review in a transparent and understandable manner that fosters long term partnership needed to achieve the lofty results. Design at this level has the ingredients to create the avalanche effect, a great positive mobilisation, an overwhelming quantity of something hopefully new and beneficial, with a very small designerly effort.

Since this batch we started selecting a major theme each year and offering these as challenges to the batch of students through which they could experience the design journey of inploration and exploration using the tools and processes that were introduced during the course. Some of these themes, a few examples listed here , were introduced in the various courses of which some have been briefly documented at my website at these links below while the others will be added as time permits.

Theme : Globalistaion and Impact on Indian economy – Link: Documentation of the course in 2004
Theme : Khadi as a way of life for India and the World – Link: Documentation of the course in 2003

Theme : Child friendly services
Theme : Services across sectors
Theme : Food, Clothing, Finance and Entertainment as design opportunities
Theme : Creative Industries of the Future
Theme : Design Institutes for the States and Regions of India

The various concepts and concerns that inform design action as well as the theory of design have been expanded upon at other links here as well as on my blog called “Design for India” which will be updated with contemporary concerns and reflections in the days ahead.

Design Theory links:
Prof. M P Ranjan’s website and Design Theory links below
What is Design?
What is a Design Opportunity?
What is Design Knowledge?
What is a Designer's Profile?
Levels of Design
What is Design: Fire Metaphor

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