Design for Free

There was this recent news item about an architect, Mr Hafiz Contractor offering to design 19 railway stations for free for the Indian Railways. The minister announced this with much fanfare. The article also mentions their call to architects inviting them to do pro-bono work for them.

This raises so many questions, in so many levels.

Why should Indian Railways, with the kind of money at their disposal, call for pro-bono work from designers?

What does the architect gain by doing design for free? Does it help the profession or destroy it?

Why are professional bodies of architecture and design, silent over such a move?

Is this the only way in which qualified designers can engage with Railways? If not, what should be the methodology?

When there’s a need for better facilities, new graphics, signage or furniture, will there be another call for ‘pro-bono’ designers?

Designers need to come together to discuss this threadbare. The government of India can be the biggest buyer of Indian design talent.

Young designers are often left with no option but to do free design work.

It starts with designing a wedding card for a friend. Then there’s the NGO that does good work and has no money to pay for design. Or a corporate bigwig whose project will look good in your portfolio, even if you do this for free. Then there’s a design competition you so badly want to win. Or a small business that needs to be educated on the benefits of design.

It grows into other areas too. A free lecture at a university. Or a pro-bono jury member. Advisory roles that don’t pay. Fancy titles for free consultation.

It’s time we decide what to do about free design work. It’s high time we get together to free the design profession from this menace.

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Design and Rights

The Design community in India is agog on social media since yesterday. Christian Dior, no less, has been accused of copying a surface print design, designed and executed by People Tree, a design studio based in Delhi. An outraged Orijit Sen, on his Facebook post, shows enough proof that the design has been developed by their studio, years ago in conjunction with artisans and block makers. The outfit that Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor sports on the cover of the Indian version of ELLE, has the allegedly plagiarised print in the same colour and form.

PIC Courtesy : Orijit Sen’s Timeline on FACEBOOK

Christian Dior has not yet reacted to the allegation, although the media has been quick to judge. To prove originality of concept by a small studio against a large corporation, is tedious. Then, there is the question of Design registration. The studio, may not have registered it, although they have proof of selling the print for decades. And the legal process is long and winding.

Design studios, in a country like India, find the going tough and is not geared up to fight court battles against large corporations. The fight is not just about the rights. It is also about ethics.

Design businesses are hit, both ways. It is difficult enough to convince clients who think Copyright is a ‘right to copy’. Small businesses still find it easier to pick up stuff from catalogues and make them with impunity.

PIC Courtesy : Amazon India

A quick look at the Amazon India site  today showed several small manufacturers of sports shoes using the famous ‘Swoosh’ and are blatantly selling them online.

It becomes a designer’s moral duty to educate small and big businesses to appreciate original design. While’ Design rights’ will give protection, the brazen manner by which originality is disregarded is enough cause of worry.

This is what needs to be addressed by the design community: build a constituency for good and original design. Whether it is a small shoe manufacturer or a large design brand, the immoral act of copying should be condoned at all levels. We need to build awareness about the perils of copying. That, it is both illegal and immoral to plagiarise. The design bodies representing the profession must step up and show up for doing this. Build case studies to educate and fight court cases for the professionals who are aggrieved.

And impress everyone that being original is the only right way to design.

Design & Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence has been dominating design conversations all over the world. AI has been making small and sometimes significant inroads into our lives. In India, it is still in a nascent stage but we are staring at it already. It remains to be seen, however, as to how many designers in India are working on this. The sooner we get into it, the better.

I am hoping that Indian designers will make a huge contribution in AI. We can handle chaos like no one can and AI needs more people who can survive in chaotic conditions.

For now, AI is still chaotic.

The signs are all there. We seem to correct auto-correct more than auto-correct corrects us, while inputting on our phones. Traffic prompts by Google does not take into account cattle on the roads, religious processions or wedding baarats. Families in India use one id, on one desktop, resulting in a variety of queries that baffle any algorithm. Our driving styles on pot-holed roads will defy any driverless car.

Come to think of it, our designers should be able to contribute to any AI project better than our counterparts elsewhere. To do that, designers should develop better empathy for situations. They already have a keen sense of seeing a pattern in the chaos. We are better prepared to expect the unexpected. For a nation this size, Big Data is always a norm.

Businesses will benefit using Indian designers and the design fraternity in India will find the opportunity to deal with Artificial Intelligence a welcome change from dealing with Natural stupidity!

Agenda for India Design Council

Sudhir Sharma, designer, design publisher, member of the India Design Council, has asked for ideas for the functioning of the India Design Council. He has asked for specific action points.

 

I had put together a list for the IDC, in 2011. Here is my updated list:

Design promotion is the major role that the India Design Council will play. Some of these immediate activities could include:

  • Promoting the India Design Mark. This needs to be immediately looked at, making it more coveted.
  • Promote the India Design Mark to businesses and industries and show them the advantages of getting the mark. Persuade them to apply for the same. Enroll design ambassadors for promoting this.
  • Designers should be taken into confidence and making ADI, pan India should be supported, as it will help address the design community through one agency. A Chartered Society of Design has to be set up, if ADI does not rise to the occasion. This would involve developing a professional code of ethics and processes.
  • Gain the confidence of designers and form action committees that will contribute to the growth of promotional activities.
  • Lobby with the government in the importance of the profession. Suggest setting up Ministry of Design. There should be a Design department in each ministry, otherwise. Everything should be designed, before tenders for manufacturing or implementing is invited. Impress upon the DIPP, the need for supporting the initiative.
  • Prepare a database of designers and collect case-studies of prototypical projects that can be showcased on the website of India Design Council. This can be a useful resource for all stake-holders. These have to be curated well and should go beyond ‘Design for Industry’ or business.
  • Leverage the web and social media for promoting IDC and creating goodwill. Web-based events can be organized as well.
  • Design Talks by the experienced and the start-ups across all the major cities.  This and similar events can help build visibility. This can grow into a ” Design Festival”.
  • A sustained activity on publications has to be started immediately. This could involve a regular column in the newspapers, basic information on design for potential students, publishing research papers, etc., This can grow to become an excellent resource for Indian and foreign universities.
  • A periodical on the activities can also be made. This can be in the form of a magazine that can generate its own ad revenues.

Certain long-term plans should be set in motion as well which will bear results later. These could be:

  • Good design competitions can be conducted amongst the design community for a variety of categories. This can be taken up also for essential areas like health, sanitation, sustainability, etc., This can also be a revenue stream for the Council. (see Core77 Design Awards)
  • Include institutional members and businesses as stake-holders, through CII, ASSOCHAM, and FICCI. This can result in getting moral and financial support.
  • Felicitating design achievements. This has to be an on-going activity that will recognize award winners and achievers. For example: The Design Guru Awards. The Misha Black Award. Or the Index Award.
  • Work on a conceptual framework for an annual summit conference. This should be done in the scale of the “ Kyoorius Design Yatra” and should bring the best of design talent together.
  • Work with embassies in Delhi for regular bi-lateral programmes in design.
  • Lobby with government for tax concessions for the profession, especially GST related issues.
  • Begin representing the designers’ case with the government. Lobby for converting government agencies to use design.
  • Set in motion to give recognition to good design educational institutions. This has to go beyond the AICTE kind of regulatory bodies.
  • Research and recognise good design practises. Appoint people to develop code of ethics.
  • Encourage design start-ups by recognising talent, providing infrastructure, sustainable finances, tax breaks and so on.

These can be done if the team if IDC members are not top-heavy seniors. Or appoint people for tasks mentioned. The IDC needs a full-fledged executive body, without which this is not possible.

A Designer and a Gentleman

H Kumar Vyas passed away this morning. A devastating news for the design community in India. He can be truly called the first industrial designer of India. He was also responsible for putting together the first programme in industrial design at NID, Ahmeedabad. Every new programme in Design in India has its roots in the course he put together. Every design student in India owes it to him, for giving the design courses an Indian ethos.

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As a graduate who is from the early generation at NID, I had the privilege of knowing him personally. But for a short programme, he did not teach me directly at NID. But he knew me well. Well enough to recommend me for a teaching job at a design institute, while he was heading the jury. After the job interview, he called me across and asked me about PRIDE, an institution of design for small industries, I was conceptualising. I offered to show him the institution. He did not have any problem in travelling for 15 kms in an auto in Delhi with me. He saw the place, offered suggestions for improvement and decided to take an auto back on his own. No airs about travelling by an auto. No complaints about the discomfort. Ever encouraging.

Years later, I met him again at NID. He remembered every detail of my project and was keen to see how the project panned out. And in his characteristic candor, talked about the pitfalls of institution building.

I was disheartened to see his failing health, when I visited him on his birthday last year. He was frail but his mind was agile.  He tried to place me, seeing me after so many years. When he finally realized, one could see the spark in his eyes.

Design was his life. His contribution to design education was largely unacknowledged by the powers that be. That did not deter him for working tirelessly for the cause of Design. He was the thorough gentleman : a quality not seen much in the flamboyant world of design.  I personally believed that he deserved the Padmashree for his work. It’s an opportunity missed.

I salute you, Kumar. You were one of a kind. You’ll be sorely missed.

Design engendered

It’s the International Women’s Day and it is time to celebrate womanhood in all its glory. Fortunately for us in Design and especially in India, women constitute 50% of our profession, if not more. The profession sees no gender biases and many women designers are vocal, visible and successful in India.

I am writing to bring to the notice of buyers of design, about bringing gender nuances to products and communication which will make them more gender-neutral.

When we were asked to design a range of craft kits or hobby kits for children, we were asked by the client to make kits for girls. When we enquired why, we were told that crafts are a girls’ domain. To educate our client and therefore the end users, we designed a series of kits that were specifically gender-neutral.

So we did a kit where you learn to make and fly kites. Or make props for play-acting. Or making stuff to celebrate Halloween and Diwali. We had, in the process, educated our client and ensured a new set of happy customers for him.

While working on products for children was easy, working on gender-specific products for women, was not. When a client approached us to design a device for women to stand-and-pee at restrooms and other places, we were completely at sea. We realised that designing for women is not such an easy task. I remember as a student, I was discouraged by my teachers, when I wanted to design a delivery table for women. I was told that it is unfamiliar territory. The same male teacher, however, had developed a ‘pill-dispenser’ for sexually active women, which indicated safe days for coitus.

How often do we see products and spaces developed exclusively for women? By men? In a free-wheeling conversation, a fellow designer mentioned about Taj Hotels’ disastrous attempt to create a ‘Women’s only‘ floor. A nifty idea to begin with. But the spaces were designed with pink walls and flowery bedsheets and stocked with women’s magazines and cookery books. This was clearly a man’s idea of a woman’s space!

Why are women’s razors pink and curvy? Who ordained it this way? A quick image search shows all of girls’ bicycles in pink!

Why should girls’ bicycles be in pink with a flower basket in the front? Why are there more men’s toilets in public spaces? These stereotypes are still going on, mainly because of the fact that men decide for women in most such cases. While there are enough architects and designers who are women, we are yet to see the gender-neutrality getting into our psyche.

It isn’t enough celebrating successful women on every 8th of March. We need to march towards a gender-neutral society. We need to be not just inclusive. We need to focus our energies on designing exclusive products and systems and spaces that are for women and women-friendly. With a lot of empathy. And this has to be done with the sensitivity it deserves, so that design gets engendered. Otherwise, it will definitely, get endangered.

Design makes a big impact in small industries

I am just back from the National Workshop on the Design Clinic Scheme that was co-hosted by the Ministry of MSME and NID Ahmedabad. The meet was an eye-opener.

This is nothing but a big revolution. Design is steadily making inroads into the Micro, Small and Medium-scale Enterprises, all over the country. From Sikkim to Salem, from Mangalore to Morbi, seeds of design has been sown that is reaping rich dividends. Whether it is a better microscope from Ambala, a better chaff cutter from Jasdan, a new wooden tea-infuser from Gangtok and baby warmer from Pune, design is slowly and steadily making inroads into the interiors of the country.


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Pic Courtesy : National Institute of Design

It is by far, the most impactful scheme. Industry after industry, designer after designer have been sharing their experiences that makes one realise that the scheme is one of the best examples of a well-deployed government programme.

In the last 7 years of the scheme, some 200 odd projects have been implemented, besides conducting several hundred awareness seminars for a variety of industry clusters. The results are positive and the excitement palpable. It’s heartening to see small industrialists talking about the benefits of design.

And, for once, it was not designers talking to designers on the benefit of design.

Team NID and team MSME have been working in tandem to make the scheme a success. And the fact, that its been given a larger outlay and a bigger allocation shows that the canvas is getting bigger.

As the year comes to a close, it gives a warm, fuzzy, feeling to the design fraternity.