Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Decoding DCC

Image: Preliminary Presentation in NID Gandhinagar Foyer. Panoramic pics by Ayan Ghosh

I am attending Design Concepts and Concerns (DCC) a second time after 2004, when I joined the National Institute of Design. In 2004 I had a different maturity level and undertook the course from a student perspective, but now I see DCC from a larger holistic context, the reason why I am attending DCC 2008. On the first day (July 14th) Ranjan introduced the course to the five batches of new students of Lifestyle Accessory Design, Apparel Design and Merchandising, New Media, Toy and Game Design and Strategic Design Management and clarified their doubts on the objective, and content of the course.

On the first day among many issues that Ranjan touched upon while introducing DCC, one was regarding scratching the surface of information around us to understand and investigate an agenda from a holistic point of view, rather than forming opinions based on superficial data which we "believe" is true. I would like to comment on this aspect and elaborate it further. The view points are entirely my own understanding and is open to criticism and debate.

We take information for granted, which is acquired through a vertical thinking system of learning, received, or I would say imitated from school, family and culture, which is based on previously transferred knowledge gained through a system of error identification and elimination process, thereby aimed at the most convenient mode of survival.

Much of the information we know around us is a concocter of myths and stereotypes. On one hand stereotypes are important because they allow us to make quick decisions, and no matter how much we try to avoid them, they are unavoidable aspects of the cultural coding system, especially in India, which being a high context culture, much of information is implicitly recorded and understood.

For example our names carry so much information about us, which may not be true at an individual level, but that will be immediately used by the society around us to compartmentalize us and put us in some kind of established memory pattern, so that we are easier to recall later.

For example, if I say my name is Ayan Ghosh, it immediately establishes my ethnic identity of being a Bengali, and a Hindu one. This has been built up historically by other people whose surname were also Ghosh, like Aurobindo and Amitava, and who were all ethnically Bengali, and religiously Hindu. Being a Bengali will next stereotype me as being from Bengal, or more narrowed down, from Calcutta. Being from Calcutta will lead to a next level of stereotyping with historical, political and cultural associations with Calcutta, like communism, fish cuisine, and football. This process keeps continuing.

However, when stereotypes are assessed individually, it is easy to see that in most cases they are nothing more than myths. I might be from Gujarat, a socialist, a vegetarian and a chess player and still be a Bengali, but this idiosyncrasy will stay only with me. This is mainly because we form stereotypes based on our direct personal experience with only a very small fraction of the larger entity. We do not form a stereotype of a community after interacting with thousands of people from that community.

Even if we don’t want, our brain will start grouping patterns, and it is very difficult to change each persons’ personal stereotypes no matter how much of that might be a myth in reality. This happens mainly because change is seen as a threat to survival, and the risk involved in diverting from an established survival pattern. The information we carry in many cases needs referencing and collaboration to validate its authenticity, because in most cases we do not personally experience them. For example I didn’t see India getting independence on 15th August 1947, but I believe in it through a system of historical validation by people who personally experienced it, which doesn’t make the incident a myth, but a real event of consequence.

The roots of these myths are formed through information around us. Information is experienced through all our five senses, which maintains our consciousness, and thereby confirms our existence. They are therefore crucial in building an absolute sense of reality around us. Everything around us is information, and the brain through a process of systematic and complex codification understands this information.

Every code has an encoding and decoding system, which we have learnt through a stimulus-response process of imitation, repetition and error. This selection and rejection process leads each individual being subject to a different set of individual codes, and this results in all of us developing our own unique belief systems.

A belief system is what balances the meanings and proportions of rationality, humanism, ethics, morals, aesthetics and other abstract values within us. They are so rigid that challenging them proves severely detrimental to our emotional sanity and cognition stability. That does not mean that they shouldn’t be challenged, provided there is absolute conviction in the purpose for the change. Changing belief systems reshapes our entire perception of reality. However reality itself is immensely ambiguous, which is formed through our individual and communal understanding and pursuit of an absolute truth.

Image: Preliminary Presentation in the NID Gandhinagar Foyer

For example Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the solar system was the established truth, which was perceived as real, and therefore the prevalent belief system for thousands of years till the arrival of the Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus in the 16th century. Copernicus's new and blasphemous heliocentric theory was published in the book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) during the year of his death (1543), though he had arrived at his theory several decades earlier. It redefined the notion of reality altogether and today, after 450 years it is an established truth. In Copernicus’s case, and later Galileo’s, they faced persecution, which was a result of severe cognition dissonance faced in accepting a new theory by the church and the junta. However, we saw how truth was determined not by an absolute value but entirely by the belief systems of the majority of the population, which is not constant, and subject to changes and challenges. The same challenge to established truth values took place when Charles Darwin published his seminal book, the Origin of Species in 1859, denouncing biblical creationism and proclaiming evolution through a process of natural selection.

Similarly, in approaching a design problem we must break, or at least suspend those prevalent belief systems within us. While countering design problems, we tend to carry a baggage of stereotypes, caricatures, prejudices and myths, which leads to a pre-conceived direction of thinking, which if followed might lead to disasters in the long run.

This reminds me of Sherlock Holmes explaining Watson the process of detection while solving a crime case. Holmes says he looks for clues first, not a suspect. He then observes, analyses, introspects and articulates on the findings to narrow down on the possible scenarios and finally identify the most likely suspect, which is reached through a process of elimination of the least likely scenarios. He compares this process with how Scotland Yard goes about by identifying a likely suspect first and then looking for clues, which will implicate the unfortunate suspect to the crime, which in many cases leads to the real culprit being overlooked.

Therefore it is important that we approach design thinking through a process of analyzing, reasoning, observation, introspection and articulation and remain as objective as possible in our approach. This also means that we need to suspend our system of vertical thinking as well, to allow us to laterally spread our thought processes through visualization and imagination.

For me, standing on a visually flat world and arguing it is round, like what Galileo did, is nothing but a brilliant example of the lateral thought processes. He did it, because he had the imagination to visualize the world from space, much before Yuri Gagarin went up in 1961. However, by suspending the vertical system I do not mean ignoring it completely. Off course, Galileo had the rational conviction to back his idea.

The vertical thinking pattern is necessary to generate quick information based on previous knowledge, but to find new insights we should also look laterally, and seek solutions not only through arguments but also through an alternative way of looking at things, and most crucially, through imagination, which should be the strongest skill set of any designer. Only through such a system would be able to translate each problem into opportunity areas. Gagarin witnessed one thing, which Galileo didn’t imagine, which was expressed in the following quote:
The Earth is blue. How wonderful. It is amazing.

I guess at a macro level design is ultimately aimed at creating, sustaining or increasing convenience and efficiency. Not necessarily only in humans, but also in the animal kingdom and environmentally. As a result, each design intervention, which we feel is making a major difference in the convenience levels of the end users, is implicitly appreciated as a successful model. Contradicting this assumption, historically there are myriad instances where convenience in one area has led to severe inconveniences in other areas, maybe not always in the short run, but in the long run. This happened because convenience or efficiency is not a constant universal truth but is again, what the majority believes in. If the context changes, so might be the convenience of the majority.

Image: Presentation by Punjab Group

For example, the invention of the automobile and indeed one of the most significant inventions ever, the internal combustion engine in 1859 by Etienne Lenoir. It leapfrogged an era of alternative energy replacing animal, steam, wind and water energy sources with fuel energy. Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz and Henry Ford did enormous service to humanity by immediately identifying this potentiality and implementing them at a global level through mass production of automobiles and motorcycles, and perfecting the assembly lines, thereby raising new benchmarks of speed and quality.

However, a hundred years later, it is the pollution which has been created by the enormous levels of carbon dioxide emissions that has been produced in this meantime by automobiles, which is now leading to serious global warming. Within just fifty years of its invention, in 1951 Elma Wischmeir became the millionth American to die on the highway. Nowadays millions of people (between 23 to 34) are victims of road accidents caused by automobiles around the world each year. Huge amounts of metal have mined out of the earth to meet the ever-increasing supply chains. Was all this taken into consideration at the time of the discovery of the automobile, or were this seen as minor inconveniences in the attainment of the larger goal of mobility?

Image: Presentation by Kerala Group

There are many more such instances, which makes me skeptical of the real value created out of new opportunities. I feel it is very contextual and extremely relative, depending on whether we have the foresight to fully understand the consequences of its implication. I might be solving some problem in the short run, but in the long term it might have a butterfly effect which might be cataclysmic. In the case of the car, it has solved one convenience: mobility. Instead it has created havoc in multiple domains like safety, environment and resources. So where does the benefit of its invention fit in? I personally feel that each solution itself is not an end to the process but rather produces a new process itself. It is not a line but a circle, with the problem and the solution running around each other rather than being at the two ends. I feel a design solution creates a new problem or multiples of them.

Going further back, Johannes Guttenberg made the first information revolution by inventing the printing press in 1454, which created a huge global requirement for paper. Paper still forms one of the most heavily manufactured items of daily consumption worldwide, and also one of the most wasted. Although it increased literacy, record keeping and communication, it also resulted in the clearing of huge tracts of forests to supply pulp. Although it is biodegradable and recyclable, still it has created severe pressure on the tropical rainforests around the globe, endangering several species in the process.

Image: Presentation by Northeast Group

Similarly the invention of dynamite by Alfred Nobel in 1867 for the purpose of mining and blasting for road construction has become one of the great killers over the last century and a half. The cell-phone might have revolutionized telecommunications but it has also led to subsidiary rise in health risks, privacy, crime and terrorism. Computers might have revolutionized information accessibility and communication, but it has allowed the flourishing of pornography, cyber crime, hacking, internet fraud, and severe psychological, ergonomic and cognitive stresses.

Coming back to the comparison between the vertical and lateral thinking formats, for example if we reach a wall, following Aristotle’s philosophy of reductio ad absurdum, we can either break it down brick by brick to move ahead. Or according to Edward de Bono, we can dig below the wall to come out on the other side, or we can get a ladder to climb over it, or keep following the wall till we reach a gate. This ability to generate alternatives to address a problem is the most crucial aspect of a creative design professional and needs to be sharpened as a skill by regular practice.

Image: Presentation by Gujarat group

I personally feel that is what DCC initiates students into. Breaking of existing stereotypes and looking into newer insights. Learning how to value even the most exceptional cases which we might otherwise overlook in catering to the majority. In case of existing stereotypes, the onus would be understanding the reasons for its existence, and to what extent they are valid. It is a process of deconstruction, reconstruction and reorganization of our established neural networks and experiencing the difference it makes to our thinking.

The subject of food as a primary area of focus I feel is a very apt one, provided the global shortages being faced of late. Roti (bread) constitutes a basic survival icon along with kapda (cloth) and makaan (shelter), and it is so omnipresent that we generally do not think much about its massive implications in almost every other aspect of our existence. This exercise will give an insight into the various cultural associations involved with the eating habits of a place and the dynamic forces that affect them at the marco, meso, micro and maybe also the meta levels.

More posts to follow,

Ayan Ghosh

P.S: I also would like to refer to Ranjan mentioning about the role of images in the design process, which he confessed, he had reservations on its impact. As an aspiring photographer, I myself have internally and externally debated the purpose and ethics played by images at a level of addressing and solving problems. Their role seems passive since it lacks physical dynamism, but that tension is triggered by the psychological, emotional and compositional quotient the image generates, making it indeed one of the most powerful metaphors of change.

1 comment:

Abhishek Shrivastava said...

An inspiring set of paragraphs woven with facts, language and rationale. Although I might be the one reading this post when the event itself is almost an year old, but it gives me a fair idea of the course objectives, its pedagogy and nature of a participant's involvement.

Keep sharing!

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