Thursday, September 27, 2007

Demystifying the act of design thinking and visualisation.

Image: A preliminary sketch by architect Louis I. Kahn for the IIMA Building project in Ahmedabad. "Plan Sketches early revision Nov. 14 1962", IIMA campus & buildings, Ahmedabad, India

Demystifying the act of design thinking and visualisation in the DCC course.
In 2003, exactly four years ago, I made the following submission to the PhD-Design discussion list to explain my understanding of design thinking at that stage in the context of the discussions that were taking place on a list populated by as many as 1200 professors and scholars of design research and theory. When I look back at this submission I do not find much that I would change today since my views have not changed much but my understanding of design has undergone a massive change in the same time.

Today when we were discussion with our post graduate batch of students working on the articulation and expression of design opportunities dealing with “Sustainability” in their core areas of – Learning, Food, Health, Mobility and Play – I found that the students required a thread of ideas about design imagination and visualisation to hang on to, when they went about their task of trying to figure out how designers thought and how they would then share these thoughts with their colleagues and to other stake-holders who may play a major role in the implementation of that design concept that was on offer. Their imagination that was triggered by their perception of the possibilities and limitations needed to be shown in some way for a transfer of the concept to be effected. It is only when the core of the concept is made visible or in some way tangible would their peers and partners carry the same degree of conviction that they themselves may have as a result of their internal-to-themselves-thoughts, a result of “inploration” (a new design word – see link) that is a product of sustained thought and cumulative insights.

Image: "Partial site plan and elevation sketches, early version", IIMA campus & buildings, Ahmedabad, India

The drawings and sketches made by architect Louis I. Kahn while working with NID on the design of the Indian Institute of Management’s campus in Ahmedabad in the early 60’s is used as an example of progressive visualisations that were made in the design process – from vague and tentative expressions (doodles) to definite and decisive form and proportions (measured drawings) – all done as new information and feedback would have come in from the client (Vikram Sarabhai is mentioned in one sketch) and from his own imagination and conviction as revised from time to time. A description of all images is given in the notes below.

The students were required to explore some selected concepts and meet experts and users and develop insights which would inform their further moves and build their own layers of conviction as they moved towards a solution, all with a number of variations and alternatives that unfold as the development work progresses. These positions based on conviction would be used to take decisions and to evaluate and choose the one alternative that eventually would represent the final synthesis that would be chosen individually or collectively with other stake-holders. I am quoting below the post that was made on the PhD-Design list to explain the process of design visualisation and its role in design synthesis and decision making.

Image: Plan Sketch sixth version with library in diagonal square, IIMA campus & buildings, Ahmedabad, India

Image: First floor plan - twelfth version 1969., IIMA campus & buildings, Ahmedabad, India

I quote (note there is a nested quote below which is part of the PhD-Design submission):

Creativity vs Design Visualisation: Looking Inside vs. Looking Outside

Prof. M P Ranjan - 20 September 2003 (A very long post: Not for the light-hearted))

Creativity for me has been a very ambiguous target and much of the published references having raised more questions than helped provide answers to many pressing questions that come to ones mind. However there is such a large body of literature on the subject and it is interesting to see that there are as many sceptics as there are the believers in search of the final truth in this matter.

I have all but stopped using the term “creativity” because of the numerous myths that surround the term in the domains of art, music and literature and nowadays in a large section of management writings and in science break-through as well. However I am as yet unable to find a simple, compelling and fitting explanation of the phenomenon of creativity that is not prescriptive or aimed at the uninitiated others in search of that “elusive leap of imagination” or “flight of fantasy” that I can use with my students effectively.

From a design education perspective I have found it to be far more fruitful to focus on the external models created by a profession, particularly in those tangible traces of external manifestations that are used by designers when grappling with a solution for a complex design problem, at the macro level of the total system or at the micro level of part detailing, that are being attempted in the process of design synthesis. For me It has been more interesting to try and watch the process of design synthesis through these external manifestations and to try and discover the very fuzzy initial processes through the evidence provided by the external traces of early models (external) that led to the comprehension of some major new pattern or breakthrough in the course of the design exploration and iteration. This may be a more fruitful course of investigation in the understanding of the phenomenon of innovation and creativity and perhaps the field of Cognitive Psychology will provide some of the answers that we seek in the years ahead.

Several years ago I therefore abandoned the search for a description of creativity processes while dealing with my students in the design methodology class (now called “Design Concepts and Concerns”) and I shifted my attention to the series of external models that are generated by various professionals from a number of fields of art and design. To make my views on the subject available to my students I offered a set of class notes and created a lecture with supporting visuals from the works of great architects and artists. We had with us a remarkable set of original drawings and pre-visualisation sketches created by the architect Louis I. Kahn who worked with my Institute (NID) as the local architects to design and execute the campus for the Indian Institute of Management. These are now published in the book “Complete Works of Louis I. Kahn” (* see reference below). I used these and other available pre-visualisation images of progressive external models to argue against the single great moment of break-through and in favour of this progressive external manifestation that facilitated the right and left-brain interaction in the process of design synthesis. My paper that was created as class notes in 1997 to support a visual lecture is quoted below. (Since it has not been published outside NID so far, reproduce it here to facilitate this discussion).

Class Notes and Lecture on Drawing for Visualisation
AEP Bridge Semester
National Institute of Design
Paldi, Ahmedabad - 380 007.

16 October 1997
Design Visualisation

M P Ranjan

Design is a responsible and creative activity that aims to understand human needs and aspirations in order to generate effective alternate solutions that can resolve these needs. By its very nature the process of design deals with extremely complex interrelationships of issues and concerns of the user, the environment and the well being of society in social, technological and economic realms. The designer is therefore in the arena of generating scenarios and specifications and offering these for selection and decision within the framework of professional contributions offered to a wide variety of clients. The nature and complexity of different design tasks may vary to a great extent. Some tasks are technologically complex but most design tasks deal with other realms of complexity in the social, economic or psychological dimensions of users and the community that supports the conduct and performance of the task.

Design has therefore moved from being an individual enterprise to that of being a team effort with a variety of members being drawn from a large number of diverse disciplines, the selection depending on the nature of the task and our current understanding of the same.

Professional design has the further complexity of being conducted in an extremely competitive business and economic landscape where the demands of time and quality are stringent and is accompanied by a very high degree of risk. These pressures have mandated a number of critical changes in the processes that designers and their collaborators employ in the conduct of the design programme. Design has borrowed work strategies from all formal disciplines where effective approaches and methodologies have been innovated and developed through experience and research. The morphology of the design task has therefore become a complex set of iterations that revisit the stages of defining and redefining the task leading to improved understanding of the task itself. In this process several alternate scenarios are developed and examined critically and this may lead to restatement of the very problem itself.

Design thinking is distinctly different from scientific and management thinking styles in that the designer and the design team are willing to cope with a great deal of ambiguity while the boundaries of the design opportunity are gradually brought into sharp focus. The process of refining the understanding of the design task and that of generating alternate solutions or scenarios follow one another in fairly quick cycles and are mediated by interactions with real users in many cases. The user centered ideology adopted by designers in recent years has necessitated the creation of several new stages in the design process. Early concepts and prototypes are shared with users with the use of preliminary visualisations that are specially conceived to permit user participation or facilitate user observation to develop insights into potential problems that are not perceptible in the normal course of concept development. It is the attitude of the designer that is put to critical test in such cases where it is very easy to slip into the mode that the "designer knows best" which is in the final analysis counter productive. The designers visualisation skills and cognitive capabilities are needed to create new and unique solutions, but the evaluation of each of these is done through user mediated processes that have proved to be most effective.

The designer is then called upon to innovate appropriate representations of the design concept in whole or in part so that individual or groups of users can interact with these representations and provide fresh insights into both the nature of the problem and the suitability of the solution. Here the challenge is to discover and use appropriate tools and media that are best suited to the process of visualisation and the process of evaluation. The tools and media need to be selected with care so as to afford fluent representation of complex relationships or geometries, form and content, structure and context that is required by the particular design task.

Traditionally the use of a variety of types of drawings were the preferred modes of visualisation used by sculptors, artists, architects and designers. However in recent times many examples of direct modelling in soft materials have been explored where drawing would limit or inhibit the perception of new and unique possibilities. Preferred styles of visualisation of individual designers may also emerge from their professional habits, degree of skill with the tools of their trade and the cognitive modelling capabilities of the individual. Each design discipline or design school may advocate certain standards for the design students or practitioners from their group. Trade practices in particular industries may also set demands for certain standard specifications to be followed by the designer in the manner in which the design concepts are delivered to the client for further action and decision. Many of these standardised methods of representation reflect the communication and documentation norms of the industry or trade in question. Notwithstanding these trade practices and norms the individual designer is always at liberty to explore their personal repertory of media and skills in the early stages of design visualisation when the emerging images of the external models are primarily intended to capture the fleeting cognitive maps and scenarios that are being iteratively explored by the designer.

Such early external visualisations are barely recognisable as coherent images to a casual observer, however for the designer they are of great significance since this is perhaps the first stage of the dialogue between the left and right hemispheres of their brain that is facilitated by the external model, however rudimentary. These early visualisations take many forms and these depend on the media that the designer may choose to employ at various stages of their work and these may be deliberately varied as a result of experience or in an effort to open up new and unusual possibilities in response to the challenges of the design task. These external manifestations may be barely discernible doodles or smudges that for the designer represent a rapidly executed trace of the cognitive model that is being continuously refined, modified and developed in the designers mind. While sketching and doodling are used extensively by the designer for this early stage of visualisation there are a number of other media that are used.

One characteristic of the media that is in common is that it is very fluid and has soft features as if to reflect the fuzzy nature of the cognitive model at this early stage of design exploration and development. These external traces and markings on paper or soft materials provide the designer with the multilevel and intermodal dialogue between the two brain hemispheres that is critical for creative reinterpretations of possibilities and for pattern recognition of complex new relationships that may have been studied in isolated instances but that needs to fall together in the process of design synthesis. Design decisions are made as a sequence of choices exercised by the designer at the time of articulation of the external model.

The design visualisation progresses by the designer creating a series of images or models, each an embodiment of a particular set of characteristics as determined by the data available, the analysis of the task and the user or as perceived by the designer at that particular point of time in the design process. This very act of articulation brings new insights and may shift the direction of exploration or launch the designer into a search for a particular detail that may be critical in making the overall concept to be either viable or interesting. Thus the designer moves from the general to the particular, from the macro to the micro level of observation of the cognitive model that is constantly being refined and elaborated without freezing on any one specific alternative. Usually the designer defers decision on specific attributes and leaves some difficult details in an ambiguous state in a deliberate effort to obtain clarity of the larger patterns and relationships of the solution before solving particular structural, formal or production problems.

In the user centered design ideology adopted by many designers and by several design led companies, the early prototypes and external models are prepared expressly with the intention that they be shared by groups of users in a variety if real use settings so that they can provide critical insights into the strengths and weaknesses of a particular design solution. Numerous iterations are made, each exploring one or more dimensions of the design opportunity and these are documented so that the design team can develop a conviction about the particular directions to be taken in each case.

These external models begin as very abstract and fuzzy representations and these are gradually refined and elaborated till more concrete models replace earlier representations. These models, when drawing and sketching are used as a route for visualisation, grow out of thumbnail sketches, doodles, scale drawings, orthographic drawings, breadboard models for details of construction or performance of mechanisms, scale models and renderings for form review, full scale mock-ups and fabricated prototypes where ever possible.

It may be useful to look at a few examples of such visualisation in action. Let us look at a potter as a metaphor for the process of early visualisation. An artist, designer or studio potter, working at the wheel and making the model of the clay pot works with clay in a series of iterations to produce one particular pot. A lump of prepared clay is centered on the potters wheel and the material is turned at a suitable speed. The potter applies her hands to the rotating clay and observes the transformation of the form with each application of pressure. The form of the pot emerges as a result of her subtle manipulations. The feedback to the potter is not merely a visual appreciation of its form, but with the eyes closed, she can feel the shape and size of the emerging pot, at one point too tall and at another too wide, leading to a corrective pressure on the tips of her fingers or at the base of her palm.

Each application of pressure and the result thereof is a result of years of fine training and experience and each pot is a unique expression of a design intention that is revealed to the designer in the progressive iteration of its making. The designer would have had the chance to see, feel and evaluate numerous intermediate stages before a design and aesthetic decision is frozen in the shape of the finished pot. If the making of a pot is taken as a metaphor for the early stage of design visualisation, then we see that a very flexible medium is manipulated through numerous iterations before the designer moves on to another approach or attempt to resolve the various conflicting variables of the task at hand. The cognitive model held by the designer too gets enriched through each iteration.

Each new "pot" adds to the designers experience of the various scenarios that were explored and it helps form some deep bonds with preferred directions especially if these are confirmed by the interactions with users who are able to see for the first time the "products" of the designers cognitive explorations. In this process the cognitive model gets progressively detailed and is far more complex and detailed than any representation. The designers’ cognitive model is rich in detail and is instantly recalled under varying circumstances of the user and environmental conditions. The designer sees the solution by day and by night, feels the air flow around its contours and can sense the soft feel of the flexible material of a handle even if it is only in the mind at this stage.
The designer lives with the changing model through numerous refinements and critiques from users and colleagues. In team mediated processes it becomes critical that all members of the team are clued in to the current state of the model and their individual contributions are then directed at solving particular aspects of the design task that their special skill or expertise enable. It is important to generate these external models in a suitable media. Sketching has been used by many architects as a means of capturing complex concepts that need to be clarified and developed through numerous iterations before communicative drawings or scale models can be made. The works of architects Reima Pietila and Louis I Kahn are well documented examples of great design vision being captured through a series of fuzzy sketches leading to the articulation of some of their finest works of architecture in India and elsewhere. Kahn designed the Indian Institute of Management campus at Ahmedabad and his early sketches speak volumes of the highly refined cognitive model that he carried about in his head long before a single brick was laid at the campus in Ahmedabad. Similarly the Finish Embassy at New Delhi emerged from some very fuzzy markings and doodles in pen and ink and dry pastels from the experienced hands of Pietila. The key decisions are made in the mind's eye and the external markings at this stage are but a trace of the rich cognitive model where some critical details or proportions are expressed as a slight stress in the quality of a line of the thumbnail sketch if you can call it a sketch.

Like foot prints in the sand on a crowded beach these fleeting impressions are captured on paper (or clay) by the designer in an attempt to clarify and elaborate the form, structure, performance, content and context of the design solution, all in a single moment of design synthesis, only to be reviewed and revised as the design task progresses to its formal conclusion. For the designer these markings are very personal and memorable just as for the person strolling on the beach his very own footprints are clearly distinguished from those of all the others, which for him is mere noise. Very few design tasks are documented to retain some of these moments of breakthroughs that are achieved on the back of an envelope or through a little doodle on the corner of a large drawing that just lets all the complex variables fall neatly in place for the designer to know that the solution is near at hand. The excitement of the moment is sharp and intense particularly after many attempts were frustrated by the critical needs of the problem at hand. Sometimes the designer too is unprepared to see the radical proposal that has emerged from the subconscious just as Leonardo Da Vinci and his colleagues ignored the perfect sketch of a bicycle drawn on one of his sheets. Mankind invented or should we say reinvented the bicycle four hundred years later as a result of this oversight.

There are many dimensions to design visualisation and it is this special capacity of the designer to generate visible and tangible scenarios to complex needs that makes the profession different from the managers who also develop strategies and scenarios for action in their own way. However these are rarely expressed in visual form but in the form of feasibility reports and verbal specifications. It is then the designers task to give form and expression to these strategies and the particular embodiment of the design strategy is captured and the image produced carries with it messages of a complex nature be it fashion, reliability or meaning to a set of users or the community.

I would certainly like to hear from those who believe that the term “creativity” is useful, critical and has a clear definition that can be studied and used in the context of education. I would also like to hear from the list on the ultimate short list of books that must be added to any design library on the subject of creativity and perhaps we need to open a new thread on models and cognition in design to explore some of these issues and processes to arrive at a better understanding of this very complex and elusive phenomena.

* Reference: Heinz Ronner, Sharad Jhaveri & Alessandro Vasella, “Louis I. Kahn, Complete Works, 1935 – 1974, Institute for the History & Theory of Architecture, The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, 1980. (Pages 265 to 305 - Drawings and illustrations on the process of conceiving & building The Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, India.)

With warm regards

M P Ranjan
from my office at NID
20 September 2003 at 4.55 pm IST

end of main quote.

Notes about the drawings:
Drawings of Louis I. Kahn were originally held in the NID archive and later loaned to the Louis Kahn Foundation for the use in the publication listed above.

A host of web resources on sustainability and design:

Applying systems thinking and organizational learning to economic, environmental and social challenges.
a wonderful article for all to read

What life in a sustainable region could be like – and how design can help us get there
John Thackara on India's Design policy

open web platform to stimulate social conversation on possible sustainable futures…
to inspire a transformation in the design of human industry
explores the promise and power of design in improving the welfare of humanity

The Politics of Transportation: New thinking & world-wide collaborative problem-solving

the tools, models and ideas for building a better future lie all around us,we only need to put the pieces together

the leading media outlet dedicated to driving sustainability mainstream

weblog devoted to the future of design, towards a smarter and more sustainable future

Preventing or reducing waste through sustainable product design

Sunday, September 23, 2007

What is Sustainability? What are the Design Opportunities for India?

The issue of understanding sustainable design has had the five groups of students working very hard over the week and the weekend and we were able to complete all the presentations on saturday. Today I have been able to post on my advocasy blog called "Design for India" a note on Sustainability as a Principle for Design Action in India, take a look.

The presentations done by the students groups are shown below. The next stage would be in exploring the areas of uncertainity and the unknown by making some research moves into the field as well as into published resources using the present understanding of the group as a starting point. The purpose is to move forward and understand the finer details while getting a better grasp of the big sweeping conception of both global as well as historical perspectives that may apply to the task area and the sub-field that the groups is addressing. Sustainability is a very complex concept and it may be useful to get in touch with some of the published resources especially some good simple texts that could give one a quick entry into the concepts that are associated with this field. Based on this understanding the discussions with experts would be more fruitful. By experts we do not mean only those qualified by training or by having obtained a degree in some field, particularly a PhD! far from it, we mean that the students should try and make contact with people in the field who have a direct contact with the subject and some of them may even have a very current contact and therefore some useful insights that may be critical and contemporary and others may have had an extended contact through years of experience and would be able to give some historical perspectives as well. Others may be from the academic field and yet others may be from organisations that deal with the subject, such as the Centre for Environment Education in Ahmedabad or the Physical Research Laboratory, each with their own area of focus. Getting access to these Institutes may not be easy but with some diplomacy and a letter from NID many doors could open and individuals too could be open to share their experiences.

Presentation of the Food Group

Presentation of the Health Group

Presentation of the Play Group

Presentation of the Mobility Group

Presentation of the Learning Group

The very expressive metaphor of the ocean going ship in search of the learning experiences Click image to enlarge.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Exploring Sustainability Concepts through Models and Metaphors: Revealing Structure and Meaning in Wicked Design Problems

We started the presentation session by discussing the work of Anita Roddick and remembering her as a passionate human being who took her life and work to levels that show us what an individual can do if we were to set our minds to achieve something with feeling and commitment. Dame Anita Roddick passed away on the 10 September 2007 and has left behind a legacy that can inspire many generations of creative contributors who want to make a difference with their lives.

We also shared the paper by Prof Bruce Archer that was published in the NID Designfolio in 1985 titled “Analysing the Design Activity” where he has offered an “Information Flow Model of the Design Activity” as well as a reflection on the role of the external model in bringing an inter-modal dialogue between the Propositional and the Appositional modes of thought that are a hallmark of design thinking and action. Students are advised to look at the concepts of brainstorming, affinity diagrams, metaphors, models and structure and semiotics as applied to the process of exploration, articulation and understanding of complex design situations.

This batch of 64 students made an inspired performance over the last two days of intense brainstorming and explorations dealing with the concept of sustainability as it would apply to the assigned areas of Learning, Food, Health, Play and Mobility. All groups were composed of students from all the participating disciplines who have been distributed evenly by the selection process adopted for this assignment. Five coordinators were selected from the group of volunteers and they in turn selected one student each from each participating discipline so that all groups have the a diverse set of participants and in a uniform manner across all groups.

The Learning Group made their presentation this evening and tomorrow we have the other four groups scheduled. However we have the models on the walls at NID and there is a great deal of discussion and debate that this assignment has generated amongst design students and it is in line with our intentions as teachers of this course. Shown below are the groups with their models and metaphors and the learning and understanding shown by the students

The Learning Group

The Food Group

The Health Group

The Play Group

The Mobility Group

The presentation of the Learning Group was very stimulating and their model which is still tentative and on the black board showed a deep understanding of the issues of learning as associated with the concepts of sustainability. The metaphor was however very rich and flexible since the sailing ship on an ocean voyage has been used to support a rich set of insights that the group had discovered and prioritized as part of their search for meaning and structure in a difficult and complex space. Learning is an intangible concept and the group has done particularly well in articulating the various dimensions of the problems and opportunities and they were also candid about the areas of ignoranvce which would be researched in the next phase of their exploration while they conduct meetings woith experts in the field.

The sailing metaphor and the Learning group's brainstorming sheet are shown below.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Understanding Design Opportuniities and Modelling in Design

Image: List of focus areas for sustainability explorations and modelling
Five groups are formed to explore the theme of sustainability as it would impact several areas of human activity in India in the DCC session this time. They are formed into groups and each group would explore one activity through a series of explorations as part of this course. Starting with the selected activity each group would try and plumb their own experience and living knowledge through an iterative series of brainstorming and categorisation sessions in which they would try to make sense of the context, the influencing factors and the various attributes and features of the chosen activity keeping in mind the emphasis on the need for sustainability as a design intention.

Using this approach they would propose models and a discovered structure for the explored space and share this in the form of a visually rich model that is supported by a metaphor which is memorable while the structure provides them with a framework to make the whole situation meaningful and understandable.

The areas that have been proposed for each group are Learning, Food, Health, Play and Mobility and they can interpret the areas in their own way and make their own emphasis to make it meaningful and understandable.

This new batch of DCC students include the Transport Design students of both batches, Product Design students as well as the students of Strategic Design Management from the second year. The blackboard from the class discussion yesterday is shown here below. The focus of the discussions was to look at design and design learning as well as to explolre the many intangible attributes of design thought and action.

We used the comparison between a chess playing computer and a human player as a method of articulating a set of qualities that would distinguish one and from the other and use this juxtaposition to try and discover the core activities in design that would be truly human and at the very core of the capability that we would value in design education as it cannot be delegated to the computer. A number of websites were shared during the class and the students were requested to explore the links on both the Design Concepts and Concerns blog as well as those on the Design for India blog as part of their preparation for this course.

The group assignment is designed to be carried out in several stages and the intention is to create a platform for first hand experience of using design processes to understand complex situations and tasks and to use the collective life experience of the group to first understand the situation and the embedded opportunities as well as to discover the areas of ignorence which could be supplemented later with focussed research and meetings with experts in the assignment that follows. During this assignment the students are not expected to go outside their group since we do believew that it would be quite productive to first map out all that is already known about the subject at hand however new the topic may seem we would have a substantial degree of knowledge and convictions or beloefs which would need to be addressed before embarking on an extended rersearch activity.

The intentions of this assignment which has been described in my papers "The Avalanche Effect"(download pdf 55 kb) (which incidently was written on invitation for the issue on India but was then rejected due to lack of space by Design Issues in 2004) and in my subsequent presentation to the EAD06 Conference in Bremen in 2005 called "Creating the Unknowable: Designing the Future in Education". (download pdf 50 kb) The visual presentation for EAD06 can be downloaded here (as pdf 4.1 mb size)

I had described this course as a abstract for the submission to the EAD06 conference paper and it is reproduced here for immediate reference:
I quote... "Design has changed rapidly in recent years. So have its agenda and manifesto for education. Dealing with layers of complexity in a mandate to surge beyond the production of products and systems to include the economic, ecological, and the spiritual. This new form of design is not as sharply defined in its deliverables by the once accepted parameters of aesthetics and function of the products that it produced for the marketplace. Today it has literally jumped out of its flimsy skin to locate itself in an impossible space between a rich context and the user groups and their environment that it hopes to serve. Our attention thus shifts from the artifact to the interface and further to the effect that it has on the future itself. These concerns led to the experimental development of teaching design processes and design thinking through a modified course that has evolved over many years. The complexities at hand are daunting in a developing economy. Most forms of problem solving are placed in the hands of the specialists in all walks of life, a legacy of the entrenched scientific management tradition. The need therefore for a broad based approach to design education was perceived by the group of teachers as a critical need. The Design Methods course evolved over a ten-year period, it is now called Design Concepts and Concerns and this paper is an attempt to articulate the lessons that have been gleaned, a sort of research through design. That Design as a process of informed synthesis through the articulation of models, diagrams and scenario visualisations that could match the complexity of the real world situations became the premise for assignment design. It is the belief of the author that the power of design lies in visualising the future, the unknowable, through the process of open-ended context driven investigations in design education situations. The ability to feel, to see, to discover, to think, to build and model, communicate and to evaluate, all form the core of design learning. This course includes all these stages in a structured set of learning situations that builds deep understanding and design competence. This reflection on history will look back over the evolution of this course and share cases and findings on the validity of the assignments and processes used to teach design." Unquote. EAD06 conference Speaker and abstract: Ranjan M P

The course has evolved further and now we have two forms that are offered at NID, one of five weeks duration for the undergraduate programme and the other of two weeks duration for the postgraduate programmes.

This assignment now has the following intentions and deliverables:

To understand "Sustainability" as a concept as it would impinge on several human activities as a context for design.
Learning, Food, Health, Play and Mobility are the sub-themes taken for group exploration during this particular course.

To understand group processes in design while dealing with complexity in a reflexive situation of diverse individuals who are grappling with an ambiguous and unknown area with the intention to bring some shared perspectives that are informed by their own life experiences and value systems. These objectives would be handled by a structured set of assignments and processes while workin g in the groups.
Life experience plumbing
Exploring the known universe
Discovering the known and the unknown
Mapping issues, perspectives and opportunities
Finding structure through "Modelling"
Expressing meaning through "metaphors"

To understand design at the "Fuzzy Front End" of knowing and finding "What to Do" and "Where to Look" and not just about "How to do". (see papers by Elizabeth B.-N. Sanders here)

To understand the process of meaning production and building context awareness in design thinking and design action.

The deliverables will include a presentation of the groups explorations, the brainstorming sheets, the informal and formal shared structure showing the hierarchy and relationships within the context as explored by the group and finally an expression of the groups understanding in the form of a memorable visual metaphor that could bew shared with the class at the presentation, a "show and tell" session from which the next assignment would be launched.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Giving Design back to Society: An expanded vision for design in India

It is our intension to raise a debate about What is Design? and what could be its role in India as a part of this course at NID. Post Graduate students who have come in to study design may come in for a surprise when they see a very different picture of design being discussed in the class from what they had perhaps envisaged when the had first decided to take up their study of design at NID.

This is also due to the fact that Design itself is unfolding in many different ways and many researchers and practitioners are finding numerous new facets that were not recognised when the profession and the disciplines were founded in the last century. Having had its roots in the Industrial Revolution as a result of some serious reflection on the effects of hard nosed industrialisation the founders ofdd the Arts and Crafts movement responded to the cold inductrial products with a series of explorations into the meanings of form and aesthetics in the industrial products of the day. The search for modernism led to the establishment of the Bauhaus in Germany in 1919 and here a whole new approach to design education was pioneered by a dedicated group of architects and artists. The Foundation course in design all over the world can find its roots in the early experiments at the Bauhaus. This experiment was curtailed due to the World War II and the events in Nazi Germany and many of the teachers moved to the USA and founded the New Bauhaus.

After the War Germany was in the process of rebuilding itself and a group of visionary artists and designers set up the HfG Ulm and from 1950 to its closure in 1968 the Ulm School of Design once again explored new ground and made design history by their research and practice of design. Once again the closure of the school saw the students and teachers migrate all over the world since they were a multi-cultural group to start with and they have influenced design education across the world. The centres of design experimentation and development shifted back to the Uk and in London the RCA and the Design Couincil set up new research agendas for themselves and the field of Design Methodology was founded in the early 60's and through the 70's it spread around the world in search of a scientific basis of design. Many people subscribed to the view and participated in making design as scientific as possible and in the forefront were the thinkers from the fields of architecture, engineering as well as the fledgling field of industrial product design.

However this romance with the scientific way has now been challanged by many failures and the discovery that design could handle and deal with so called "wicked problems" where all of our known sciences failed quite badly. Areas where huiman intensions and values interacted with economics and technology it created a potent mix of complexity which no known discipline of science or management coiuld qiote cope with on their own. The need for an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approach was mooted and in the process we have discovered many new approaches to design and more are there to be found in the days ahead. The field of design research have emerged and numerous designers are now working closely with experts from other disciplines and in the process are redefining design itself.

During this course we will explore some of these issues and concepts associated with design, designing and design research and at the end we hope to have a fresh approach that is deeply understood bt the students through a journey of exploration and discovery, learning by doing, and not just by listening and reading, although we will have a good deal of that too.

Podcast: Giving Design back to Society based on a pdf show 812 kb for download here

This podcast is based on a lecture that I had delivered at the IDSA Conference in Austin Texas last year where I had shared with the largely American audience our current understanding of design and the convictions that we had arrived at through the numerous development initiatives that we have had at NID over the years.

For me it has been an exhilerating journey that started in 1969 when I first joined NID as a Post Graduate student of Furniture Design and later as a faculty member at NID having seen it evolve over these years of involvement. Like the Big Tree in the Gautam-Gira Square we have seen NID and Design evolve and we can share some of our insights while you discover some for yourself.

Goa Design Yatra 2007

I agree with many attendees of Design Yatra 2007, when they say that the
Design Yatra was indeed a great point for designers to
interact, and renew their gusto for design. I also
agree that the speakers Neville Brody, stefan
Seigmaster, Kyle Cooper, Michael johnson were
inspiring to the effect, that we sat upright ready to
run back to our respective studios to "start a
revolution" or "take a year's vacation".
In addition to the above stated nods I too did not
miss any Indian Speaker.
Two words for them - Boring and Un Inspired
with an exception of perhaps, Piyush Pandey. though he
needs to stop harping about Fevicol.
there is no doubt that it was a great job. But for
people who haven't heard Piyush before it's the same
presentation he offers almost every time he is invited
to speak to a rather advertising unaware crowd.
every talk Starts and ends with Fevicol, it was a
minor relief that he added Hutch at all and as a peace
offering showed us 1 piece of work from another
advertising professional, with no due credit.
he was however a relief from the worse and rather
boring Indian design speakers before and after him.

Indian Designers who are invited to make presentations
have attended talks in the past by many many other
International design professionals. And they know that
I or them as an audience are ready to fall in love at
first sight, willing to be romanced until they stop
talking, with no pre conceived notions. And they must
in all surity know that if you don't grab me by the
balls in the first three minutes, the romance is over.

I don't claim to be a good speaker and a lot of more
successful designers declined from speaking because
they knew they couldn't.
But when agreeing to Present it is imperative to
prepare for a "presentation Talk" not a lecture in
design school . Hear yourself and talk to us. Not talk
to yourself about yourself and hope to hear from us.
If you don't have any wow factor to your work and/or
gab, its a waste of everyone's time.

Which is perhaps why Piyush was far more grabbing than
the rest of Indian Speakers. he wasn't talking about
anything new. he just spoke as if he was in his living
room having a private presentation and if he can talk
about centuries old work and still get claps, he cant
be that bad.

I also disagree that the Kyoorius team did a great job
of the event.
I think it was tacky and mediocre.
I did not attend last year but heard from good sources
that it was great and in retrospect, greater. More
Interactive, smaller but focussed postive energy.
Kyoorius, i feel got too ambitious and greedy after
last year's success.
1700 people to be handled with foolish infrastructure.
with 1200 paying Rs. 12,000 each. Some five speakers
dropped out last minute. And I am not quite sure if
they had confirmed at all. I have not heard of
International Speakers cancelling at the last minute
ever. Once confirmed, It is on their calendar and they
arrive as planned. And 5 of them together is a bit too
much to believe. I reckon it was because they weren't
being paid to talk, as neville Brody happen to let
slip out.
The Photo show was a laugh and a complete waste of
space and exhibitors' money. Should we tell Kyoorius,
there is something called a curator?
They made this whole note about displaying
Photographer's work as if it was the greatest exhibit
India had ever seen and then show us 20 panels of been
there seen that images. For a whole day we could barely hear the Design speakers.
They were hoping 1700 people
would be able to hear the talks along with god's voice
with 2 speakers on either side.
The awards show was a joke. They did not show the work
which won. The wrong spellings on the award slides
were an unforgivable error, And as a little know fact,
they also regretfully claimed later at night that
they FORGOT to announce the Best of the Show award,
which incidentally was won by Codesign/Rajesh Dahiya.

Many of you have and will say "atleast they made an
effort". I am quite tired with people who are happy
"with just an effort".
I am a designer and almost everyone reading this is
too. We work hard, striving for perfection or atleast
trying to. And "an effort" is just not good enough! I
don't know about the rest I certainly do appreciate
what quality is. Unconfirmed and cancelling speakers,
Stinky loos with no water, a littered beach and
venue, A ridiculous trade exhibit. Horribly organised,
gatecrashed after math DESIGN FORUM party, with 1400
times 2 people, is not my idea of a super fabulous-tic

The speakers apparently were not paid to speak or so
said Neville Brody. The whole show was sponsored by
atleast 20 companies. The tacky giveaways were velvet
covered pencils, ghastly paper boxes, with worse
giveaways inside them, again with no sense of any
curation or design. All of which i readily left
behind. Saddened with the waste that was so tackily
put together. It may be a huge design yatra, but what
a littered and environment UNfriendly yatra it was.
Plastic glasses and Thermacol plates, with five
garbage bins.
And I am not going to apologise for saying this but
if Kyoorius has the gumption to organise a seminar for
2000 design students and professionals such as this,
It better be a clean, well thought out, designed, and
tight event.
Oh yes I forgive the part where the venue was sunk in
water the day and they couldn;t organise the food or
the water or the photo stall in time. but the above
mentioned catastrophes have nothing to do with that.

Rajesh Kejariwal is not a designer, he is a patron, I
reckon, at the least. But mostly he is a hardcore
business man, He sees business sense in getting
designers together because he sees business
opportunity to make good money in our need for that
exposure and for a forum.
Don't get me wrong, I see nothing wrong in the
intention and the business sense, But a designers
forum cannot be treated like another pragati maidan
mela. I put my profession on a pedestal and I am proud
of it. I expect others to treat it so. Aren't we the
ones who are here to make and appreciate a change ;
For our environment, for presentation, for our causes,
for our lifestyles, for our ever renewing values and
perhaps also for our country. Shouldn't we be
responsible for all of the above. And if Kyoorious is
our mediator should it not believe in the same?

And If Kyoorius is the one mirroring an example for
our habits, beliefs, presentation, design aesthetics
and functions and more so to the international world,
then we are undoubtedly doomed.

I certainly don't believe we need validity from
International designers and companies any more. But
more than them to show to ourselves that we don't care
about presentation be it a talk or an event is an
insult to our intelligence.

As a mediator and Design forum organiser Kyoorius did
just that, by being too ambitious and less giving.
The event was ofcourse monetarily very profitable to

I might come across as being petty, And believe me I
have checked myself many times since I returned and I
don't think so. I and all others paid for this
'event'. An "event" counts in TOTALITY not in bits and
pieces. When we pay for something we expect service
and not too ambitious but within Indian standards
(which incidentally is no less capable) , if not more.
Just as it is expected of us. I would like to believe
that we have become a more responsible generation of
professionals than before. I also don't think we need
validity from designers abroad, I think there are
hundreds of great Indian designers, less experienced
and more. Inspiration, Aspiration, different and
revolutionary ideas yes, but not validity. We do have
to work harder to get good work out a lot more than
designers abroad, but that too will and can be dealt
with in due course of time and knowledge.

30,000 Rupees later, I don't know about you, But I
feel a bit gypped. and if it wasn't for the The
saving factors - 4 inspiring speakers, old and new
friends and colleagues, Alcohol and most importantly
Goa; I would have certainly regretted even bothering
to go.

2500 you say next year? I shudder to think of what may
3 more design gurus Confirmed you say? I wouldn't bet
on that.
We'll have to wait and see about those confirmations.

And I am hoping Kyoorius does not assault us with
mediocrity and greed again.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Podcast for design education: A trial by Prof M P Ranjan

Bamboo Architecture: A Trial Podcast by Prof. M P Ranjan: Duration 9.45 minutes
Spend some time and see the other related podcasts which have been fed by YouTube based on the key words that I have provided.
Bamboo Architecture Traditions Structures

This is a small podcast that I created using iMovie and GarageBand on a Mac in my office. The voice over was recorded using the onboard microphone and with all the office noise which has to be corrected. The timing is a bit off but the whole thing works and now I am testing it for show on a blog via YouTube.

I propopse to make my lectures in this manner and test the use in my classes at NID for which I have to get myself a more powerful Mac and some new software that can handle the size and quality which I propose to make.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Models – making meaning, making sense

As our last batch of students (Future of Retail in India) struggled to model and structure the material generated from their brain storming, I began wondering what are the characteristics of good models and what does the process of building them really entail.

Over the years we have worked with many groups of students as they wrestle with the information – it always takes many cycles of doing and redoing, many conversations, disagreements, many cups of chai, late nights and intermittent enthusiasm and despair. Finally it gets done, remarkably or flat – but the learning is always staggering.

This group laboured more than most and so I began questioning what more do they need to know so that they can get a grip on the task.

One of the challenges of being a designer is having to work in unfamiliar areas where one has no background knowledge. One of the ways to overcome this is to model what we know about the subject area through a process of gathering data, structuring the data in several ways, synthesizing and representing it with structure and form. It becomes evident through this process that the mode of structuring the information has bearing on the content and the point of view. While this process helps map the boundaries of the subject area and the relationships between entities within, it also reveals the areas of ignorance and directions for further investigation. In time, it becomes second nature for designers to launch into such a search when confronted with unexplored territory. The assignment is intended for students to experience and apply this process.

Students work in teams. This is an exercise in collaborative meaning making. Increasingly this is also a characteristic of design work. Design tasks that address complex 'wicked' problems call for designers to work in multidisciplinary teams.The experience of developing a shared understanding through the process of building models is a valuable lesson in team work.

Each group was also having its own set of 'team' problems – varying levels of commitment, vocal leaders, silent bystanders, cliques and sub plots, rigidly held positions, resistance to admitting mistakes, communication failure,and so on.

The goal of building a model is seldom to just organize the information and get it all down there. It is really about building a tool, a navigation tool or creating the compass for way finding. So getting it all down – visible in one view, is invaluable because then there is the team's shared understanding of the subject space expressed as an artifact that can be seen and shared with others, expanded, altered, built upon. Good models, while mapping what is also carry the suggestion of what could be. Through emphasis and suppression, inclusion and omission models hold in their belly a point of view.

So what can we share about how good models might be built? New methods will always be built as you go along – this is my bag of tricks

  • Assume Autonomy – so you are at once empowered and responsible, to take charge, obtain information, take decisions, act

  • Yield to the collaborative process – include diverse voices, co-create, 'none of us is smarter than all of us' (Japanese proverb)

  • Listen consciously – drop your defenses, have an open 'don't know' mind, let go old ideas and respond afresh to what is actually there. Question.

  • Get in touch with your core values – they are our organizing principles and will evoke what is of value in the context under consideration, which in turn will be the organizing principles for your structure.

As teachers, i believe we may need to describe at the outset in more detail the sequence of assignments that will follow so that students are clear about the big picture, and do not feel, like some do, that they are marching to a drum beat but to where they do not know.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Future of Retail in India: Some proposals and models at the end of the DCC class

Image: Home Electronics group doing classification>

The three groups worked hard and had a great deal of confusion in their transactions and in what they had to deliver. Finally the three groups came up with an agreed format for presentation and based on this they completed the structure that captured the various macro-micro dimensions of the design situation across each of the three assigned groups namely – Fresh Food, Provisions and Home Electronics – all dealing with looking at the Future of Retail in each of these commodities.

Image: Detail of Food Group structure model

Image: Provisions Group making their presentation

Image: Future of Retail: Fresh Food group

Image: Future of Retail: Provisions group

Image: Future of Retail: Home Electronics group

The groups have then taken on the assignment of building individual scenarios within their groups domain but each would find an area of opportunity that they personally see as both viable as well as necessary. This submission will be digital and be based on an analog image on A3 size paper that is scanned for submission along with a brief description of the design opportunity that is stated in a few words.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Future of Retail in India: Categorisation of brainstorming information and model building

Image: The Iceberg Factor in Design Understanding
The "Iceberg Factor Model" was introduced to the students to make them aware of the complexity that comes into a design task when one takes into consideration the tangible and the huge set of intangibles that may at first seem to be ourside the scope of the traditional approaches to design. However when one looks at the flow of influences across all the identified sectors it is quite clear that in most complex situations these intangibles would indeed create a number of interesting points of reference along which the design team could differentiate their offering based on the discovered emphasis.

The three groups dealing with "Future of Retail in India" across the identified product categories of "Fresh Food", Provisions" and "Home Electronics" had a good deal of confusion in the ways that they could organise all the ideas that they had found in their brainstorming exercise. This confusion was reflected in their models and all groups were asked to take their models and meet at least five experts each by visiting the field situations and trying to clarify their data structure as well as the metaphor that they had arrived at in the review process.

Fresh Food Retail Group and their models

Retail of Provisions Group and their models

Retail of Home Electronics Group and their models

Some insights that were gained during the difficulties that were faced in the categorisation and modelling stage were discussed in class and each of the groups made presentations of their models to the rest of the class. The "Provisions" group would be given a chance to present their model in the next round of discussions which continued with vigour today as it did over the last two days of hard work.

Students are introduced to the process of clarifying concepts from the field and from their own prior knowledge base before venturing forth to do field research through direct observations and interviews to get a feel of the local reality context. The lecture by Prof Elizabeth Tunstall of the University of Chicage about anthro-design processes was a source of inspiration for the teams. The podcast can be seen at this link below.
Dori's lecture: Podcast on Research Methods
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.