Tender loving Design
By A Balasubramaniam
When an astronaut in the US was asked what was the most scary part of his space-mission, he said : “ The fact that everything we used in space was bought from the vendor with the lowest tender!” Government agencies and public sector in general love the ‘tendering’ process for everything. It is based on the logic that government spends the least amount of public money for any task.
But tendering is a process that is usually applied to buying stuff. Stuff that affects us all: like bus shelters, dustbins, park benches and the like. But these products need to be designed as well. Or else, how do you ensure that a bus shelter in Chirapunji is different from the one in Conjeevaram? How does one ensure that locally available processes are effectively used to build products? How does one ensure comfort, safety and convenience for the public to use? Through design, of course.
Designers ensure that products like the bus shelter for the public are effectively used. Designers ensure that these are products stand the test of public abuse as well. They make it in the best possible material for the purpose, use the best available process of manufacturing and make it for a sustainable tomorrow. Only when they are allowed to. Far too often, ‘design’ is a freebie in the tendering process. A tender for a bus shelter is decided by the costs, not by design. As a result, ‘design’ is a freebie that is used to swing the entire process of supplying shelters.
It is worse in communication products. Street signs are costed for the material and not for the task of designing the ‘way-finding’ graphics. Posters for social communication, often budget the printing costs and not the design of the layout. Same goes to everything the public use: Street furniture, park benches, childrens’ playground, train bogies, street lights, signages , maps–the list is endless. All this and more are decided on the basis of the lowest tender.
The Times of India today, in Delhi front-paged the absence of any design sense by the public authorities. ( Image courtesy : Times of India)
A foot-over bridge, meant for pedestrians to cross a road leaves them in the middle of the road. How does a project like this get approved in the first place? I suspect through the tendering process! A whole team of engineers, construction workers, administrative officers, financing personnel are all involved in a project of this scale and yet, no one saw the futility of this exercise! I am sure no designers were ever consulted to solve the problem!
How can we change this?
To begin with, the government and buyers of design services for public use should be made aware of the ‘cost’ of good design. And convince them about putting it under ‘investments’ and not ‘costs’. They should be able to hire good design talent to work on public design projects.
Then we should also convince them about the cost of bad design. Like bad roads lead to more spending on roads. Or inappropriate materials for dustbins, indirectly increases health costs. That a bad design of a shelter compounds to more bus shelters to be built, which ultimately pushes the costs upwards.
If the government is serious about proper utilization of the resources, it needs to listen to the design community.
Till then, we will all be trapped in the middle of the road!