What on earth are designers doing?

Today is Earth Day.

It’s a good enough time as any to reflect on the role of Design and designers. Are designers being trained in doing the right thing or are we contributing to the problem, by being blissfully unaware of the problems we are creating?

Almost the world over, designers this week woke up to this new $400 product that does what a human hand can do. See the video.

When a client comes to you to design a product that will end up filling the landfills more than being a useful contraption, will you do it? Does design fee come before the earth? Are we conscious enough to take a call on this?

Like any other profession, design apparently has a dark-side too. Designers are often called upon to design redundant products. Washing machines that use enormous amounts of water, dish-washers that have entire assemblies replaced instead of being repaired, Mobile phones with permanent batteries that seep into the soil when discarded, lifestyle products that are so attractive that make people buy them ,even when you don’t need them, Biscuits and bread packaging that use materials that don’t bio-degrade, Jeans and t-shirts that use precious resources for creating effects to look fashionable, the list goes on.

Well-meaning, intelligent designers are actually contributing to the growing ecological problems and seem to be completely oblivious of the issues.

Two case studies in India, highlights responsible design. Daily Dump is helping people compost kitchen waste using their composting systems. They have leveraged their design skills to improve the system and help the earth a little in the bargain. DLight, a company that manufactures solar-powered lamps that help families who are off the grid.

Pic Courtesy : Dlight

Another heartening news this week was about the Govt of India asking NID for ideas to use up all the discarded notes that were demonetised. That we have people in the government who are using design to come up with recycling ideas, is itself note-worthy.

Designers have a responsibility not to use ‘Eco-friendly’ as a cliché, and must stop indulging in ‘green-washing’.

When a client asks you to design products that use precious resources like water and clean air or electricity, do you resist?

Do you specify materials that are good for the earth?

Is the product repairable easily?

Are you suggesting solutions that can leverage local resources more than importing others at a cost?

Is your product important enough or is it ‘just another one’?

Are you over-packaging your products? Can that be changed?

Can your products effect behavioural changes that will create a better future?

If not, what on earth are you doing as a designer?

Design’s healing touch

Mihir Shah, an entrepreneur based in Philadelphia, was one of the speakers at the recently held Pune Design Festival. He presented to the predominantly design audience a new device for detecting breast cancer early amongst your loved ones. Mihir‘s device called iBreastexam is non-invasive, portable and easy to use in the privacy of one’s home or office and can therefore, help detect early signs of breast cancer. Mihir’s story is not just about entrepreneurial success. It is also about Design’s contribution in the health care sector: The sector that so desperately needs design inputs in India and abroad.

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Designers in India, early on, have contributed to the health care sector. When the first of the corporate hospitals, Apollo Hospitals, set up shop in Madras, senior NID faculty, Dashrath Patel was invited to design it’s interiors. Dashrath chose to do up the walls of the rooms in pleasant colours, instead of white. He also added that each room will have an original painting by an artist. His logic was that the environment should be pleasing enough for a patient to heal. Design can help contribute in faster healing.

An idea, that is confirmed by the Manchester‘s cancer centre that has given it’s architecture a healing touch. Tree-lined exteriors, comfortable seating areas and natural lighting all contribute in making the environment pleasant and is dubbed as a ‘home away from home’ that fosters healing to the patients suffering from cancer. This establishes the fact that design can have a serious role to play in the healing process.

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PIc Courtesy : indianartndesign.com

Just like environments, design of medical products need to be designed with the empathy it deserves. When I had a fall in the recent past, I realised that X-ray machines are so badly designed for patients with a hip fracture. Transporting the patients in ambulances that are make-shift trucks is another practice that is hardly noticed. Stretchers don’t fit, transfer of patients are done manually and all equipments are designed for more disasters.

Satish Gokhale, product designer and owner of Design Directions, a studio based in Pune, has several successful products to his credit. He has ventured into medical product design early on and has worked with various organisations that manufacture diagnostic equipments. From ambidextorous ultra-sound machines to instant blood analyser, his firm has brought style and sophistication to products that are used on suffering patients.

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Pic Courtesy : designdirections.net

Investing on healthcare is a state subject. Governments need to understand that investing in design goes a long way, not only in the healing process but also saves precious funds that would otherwise go into fire-fighting epidemics. One such initiative was recently reported in the Washington Post. Incubis Design, a firm in Delhi run by Amit Krishn Gulati and Sabyasachi Paldas, had along with Tilak Lodh, designed and supervised execution of the prototype clinics that will soon dot the landscape in Delhi. The team has made inroads into the sector that is bound to benefit with this design intervention. It gives shape to an idea that makes sense: socially and financially.

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Pic Courtesy: Amit Krishn Gulati

The article in Post also talks about a fantastic new product Swastya Slate, that enables a quick diagnosis of a patient’s well being and makes the para-medical professional to take action. Developed in USA by Kanav Kahol, for developing countries, this product is presently being used in Jammu & Kashmir and Delhi and is the result of systems thinking by designers, technologists and health care professionals.

There’s a surprising lot of work being done by Indians, here and abroad, on developing products and systems for the healthcare sector that will benefit the massive populations. My firm, January Design, also has to it’s credit a systems project of designing hospital trolleys. The project resulted in making all trolleys into modular sections that will help both the manufacturer and the client hospital.

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But, governments are slow to recognise the benefits and worse, do not find it fit, to pay for design. Governments must be convinced of Design’s contribution to the health sector, so as to make them invest in design exercises that will bring succour to the millions.  Patient-care systems, medical products and public healthcare facilities are woefully inadequate and badly designed. There is a malady in successive governments, of spending on fighting epidemics than pro-actively investing in better products and systems and a healthy environment. Design can be the prescription to bring about the much-needed change.

It’s time to wish the government to get well soon.

Women in Design

Today is International Women’s Day.

Women have a way of bringing new nuances to whatever they do. It’s the same in Design. Women designers have brought such richness to the profession in India, that they deserve a mention here.

I was attending the much-admired Pune Design Festival, a few days ago and couldn’t help noticing that the number of women presenters were too few in comparison to male presenters. While lamenting the idea, I couldn’t help noticing that of the lot, two presentations that moved the entire audience for a standing ovation, were made by women.

Kiran Bir Sethi’s ‘ Design For Change’ has brought the sticky idea of using the power of design to empower school children. It has been done with such finesse and detailing that is characteristic of women.141030_800x600

Swati Ramanathan’s Janagraha made a presentation on designing of roads and related systems, that was equally mind-blogging. Using systems thinking, she goes about solving Bangalore city’s vexed problems, which no man would dare getting into. In the process, she takes on the municipality, the road-making mafia, the city’s dwellers, the successive governments, only to emerge successful and triumphant.

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The power of women’s thinking is something, we have not leveraged enough in design. In my professional life, I have been influenced by many women and their work. Fortunately for me, my profession has a lot of women, who bring about an influence in my work, that is distinct and different. I want to mention a few, whose work I have admired.

Nilam Iyer, one of my early teachers in Design, who introduced the idea of using product design, to better the quality of life of artisans. She used design as a means to bring change. She also drilled into me, the uncompromising need for precision and quality.

Nilam Iyer

Rashmi Korjan, who partnered with Grishma Dave to start the first-ever, all-women, design firm has also influenced my professional attitude. She helped me tackle everything with humour, a life skill that is so required to survive in the profession. And when she went after the government with Vision First, I learnt how to be tenacious.

Jaya Jaitley, President of the Dastkari Haat Samiti, with whom I have done several design projects, has also influenced my work. I learnt another life-skill from her: grace. To be graceful in giving people their due.

Jaya and me

Women have a way of influencing you with new ideas and pioneering new concepts. Aditi Ranjan is the true-blue design educator. Neelam Chhiber introduced the idea of social entrepreneurship, through Design. Poonam Bir Kasturi believed in the power of the common man to usher change. Her Daily dump is  good example of Design democracy. Jyoti Thapa influenced the media and business, through graphic design. Kripa Ananthan, got into automobile design to design the toughest cars in the market. Sujata Keshavan Guha, was audacious enough to go global with her work. Akila Seshasayee challenged the status quo, when it came to graphic design.  Suhasini Paul is pioneering the profession of Toy Design. Ragini Brar is a pioneer in educating children through 3D animation.

Maria José Barney, Carol Wills, Jolly Rohatgi, Julie George, all believers of Design, nurture the design projects, although they are not designers themselves.

Many, many women have taken to teaching design and continuing to inspire the students. Many toil in remote villages to give artisans the power of design.

So many to acknowledge, so many to thank for.

Thanks to all the women in my profession. You are all so integral and important to the profession’s advancement. You bring joy!

Design in the Boardroom

 

It was a sign of the times.

It was an event on Design, hosted by the hugely popular business newspaper Economic Times in India.

In that just concluded ET Design Summit 2015, in Mumbai, Mr Navroze Godrej, was quoted as saying ‘ Design should be elevated to the Boardroom level, if business is to make design really work at senior level.’ Noble thought that. Navroze is singularly qualified to say this. He is the new generation Godrej in the Board of Godrej & Boyce, who is also a qualified industrial designer from IIT Institute of Design, Chicago. He is also credited with introducing disruptive innovation in the company by setting up an Innovation centre at Godrej.

As a fellow designer, I am happy that he is using his position of power to create Design awareness. Navroze is in the board, because he is a Godrej and an heir apparent to the group of companies. He can also be the poster boy for the Boardroom designer, a new spin-off to the design professional in India.

Another designer who is using her design skills to design strategy instead of stuff is Ashni Biyani, director in the Future Group board, that is led by her famous father, Kishore Biyani.

Ashni has even better credentials. After she graduated in Textiles Design from Srishti School of Art & Design, Bangalore, she did design courses in Parsons and then a management qualification from Stanford, only to come back and join the Future group, the big dad of retailing in India. She is being credited with single-handedly bringing design-led thinking to the group that owns brands like Big Bazaar, Nilgiris and Central.  Ashni is known to influence the entire group into Design thinking and helps strategising the business.

Suddenly, Design is being looked upon as the Holy Grail that will bring succour to the businesses in India. Vishal Sikka, CEO of Infosys and an ex-SAP man, seems to have ordained all the 5000-plus staff in Infosys to go through a programme on Design Thinking. That  his ex-company SAP’s Hasso Plattner also supports the d* school in Stanford, shows where Mr Sikka’s influence comes from. He claims that, “..design thinking, a creative and systematic approach to problem-solving by placing the user at the centre of the experience, has helped the business win five large deals.” Sikka should be made the patron saint of design thinking.

In what can be termed as an industry-first, he has roped in design professionals to help his sales team to write and design sales pitches.

IMG_20150602_114207405This augurs very well for the Design profession. Designers can now find new avenues in businesses, because of their singularly important skill on design thinking.

Godrej and Biyani have found their way into the board room, more because they have the chosen surnames and not because that they are designers. But, seemingly, they are leveraging their position of power to spread the cause of Design thinking. When they move on to higher positions, they would be keen to use professional designers, who may not be family.

Long time ago, in 2011, Time magazine had waxed eloquent about the Indian CEO. I had written a post on this, pitching for Designers as CEOs, which was received very well.

I quote:

“What I find interesting is the attributes that Indians have that is apparently tailor-made for operating in the chaotic world today: Multi culturalism, ability to work under complex constraints, working with meagre or depleting resources and speaking the global business language : English.

With all these qualities and the ability to come up with beautiful attractive, cost-effective solutions, applying design thinking, makes the Indian designer ready and primed for the post of the global CEO.”

I am happy to see that a beginning has been made. Designers entering the board room, will definitely make an impact in businesses and the sooner the businesses learn that, the better.

Designers are going to give their MBA counter-parts in businesses something to think about.

 

 

 

 

 

Road Safety by Design

The passing away of the Union Minister Mr Gopinath Munde on Delhi roads, this morning is the big news today on social media and will probably occupy the mind-space and the media-space for the next few days. While condoling the tragic end, I could not help noticing that even VIPs, including Union ministers are not safe on Indian roads.

India has the dubious distinction of being one of the worst countries for road safety. According to one report, in 2010, India had the highest number of road accidents in the world. Even if the situation has improved marginally, it is not good enough till we have no accidents. As per a WHO report, quoted in the MINT, “India accounts for about 10% of road crash fatalities worldwide. In terms of absolute numbers more people die in road crashes in India than anywhere else in the world.”

All of us have known someone in our circle going through a road accident.

Can this madness be stopped?

As a designer, I believe this is the wickedest problem to solve.

We need to redesign our vehicles, making them safer. Indian-made cars have ash-trays even in basic models and air-bags are optional.  We need better control of traffic. We need to have good quality roads. Above all, we need more communicative signs and posters to communicate to every driver on the road the perils of reckless driving, like this one seen on the hilly terrains of Garhwal.

Pic Courtesy: http://www.40kmph.com

Google has looked at the problem in the systemic way, it is so known for and has built a driver-less car and has tested it on the roads. If implemented, this could lead to safer roads, although some critics have reacted to the associated privacy issues. Look at this way. At least you will be alive to complain!

Designers have also worked on better bike helmets, tackling a menace head-on! Jeff Woolf has just won the 2014 Invention award for a bike helmet that ‘folds to the size of a text-book’, so that it’s easy to carry .

bike helmet

Pic of Morpher by Ralph Smith

Closer home, National Innovation Foundation has documented and awarded good ideas for road-safety proposed by school children, but has not progressed beyond the ideation stage.

But the situation is urgent. Designers need to rise to the challenge and put their heads together for tackling this problem.

We need this to save precious lives.

The many faces of ‘Design Evangelism’ in India

I was invited  this week, by a private university in Gurgaon, to address their Engineering faculty and students on the subject of ‘Design & Innovation’. Another opportunity I quickly utilised, to spread the message of design.

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India’s design-aware population is really small. Considering the fact that a few hundred designers graduate and set out into the profession, to cater to a billion-plus population, you get an idea about how difficult it is to make inroads and make a difference by design. Early on in my career, I understood the need for creating design awareness amongst potential industries which I thought can be converted to buy design services. Whenever and wherever, an opportunity presented itself, I utilsed it to educate potential clients.

NID, my alma mater, had taken this role of design evangelism, quite seriously.  The senior faculty were educating people on design inside the campus and outside. I caught the bug, too and has been one of the foot soldiers that contributed to this movement.

This habit has helped me personally and professionally.

It helped me in my role as a design educator. It also helped in creating a huge, design-aware, constituency.

While this constituency is growing, a lot of evangelism is visible and effective in India, today. In new formats as well. A book on design was recently launched in Delhi’s Max Muelller Bhavan, called : DEKHO. It presented work done by a few professional designers in India. What is delightful is that this is a private initiative by a design company, CODESIGN that decided to spread the good word on design. The design firm is quite involved about its role as a design evangelist. Besides the book, they also organise a quaint design event called the UNBOX festival, that is fast gaining international attention. Rajesh & Mohor Dahiya, the designers who run CODESIGN, are graduates of NID and are quite fired up about the cause of design.

529588_10151388081742169_69242332_nPicture Courtesy : CODESIGN

If festivals are the way to promote the cause of design then, the private initiative of Transasia Papers’ Rajesh Kejriwal deserves mention for their annual design festival : Kyoorius Design Yatra. Held every year in picturesque Goa, in India, this festival brings the Indian and international speakers to an eager audience and sells the idea of good graphic design to design firms and design users. It is also hugely popular with the student designers.

Another altruistic effort in showcasing Indian design to a global audience is Ruchita Madhok’s blog : Perch.  Along with Aditya Palsule, they have created a blog that not only feature design events and projects, they also critique Indian design, the way  no one ever does. The blog has managed to catch the attention of the design community, in India and abroad.

But in the forefront of blogging on design is M P Ranjan. A design thinker and a much-respected designer by his peers and students the world over, his blog not only documents design events in India, it is almost always the first stop for a global audience that is keen to understand the Indian design story.  He takes his role of a design educator so seriously, that he does not miss any opportunity to educate. Ranjan’s writings manages to inspire designers of all hues and promotes the message of Indian design to all cocerned.

THis post will not be complete without mentioning Sudhir Sharma. He is one person who has managed to promote the cause of  Indian design, almost single-handedly. Sudhir Sharma is an alumnus of NID who has grabbed every opportunity to promote design in national and international forums. He also set up POOL magazine that celebrates Indian design in all its myriad forms. The magazine is fast becoming the repertoire for Indian design efforts.

POOL28-cover.jpg.pagespeed.ce.M7E3yx29b_These are people I am aware of. There must be many more who do their bit of evangelisation. Speaking to school students, speaking to industry associations, addressing special interest groups and influencing them. There is also an urgent need for more designers to join this movement.

When there is a constituency that is aware about design, the whole society benefits from the merits of good design.

Design pays

There was an interesting nugget of design-related news this week that made one’s eye pop. It was about a young design grad of my alma mater NID Ahmedabad, who managed a mind-boggling annual salary package of INR 38 lakhs in the campus placement. Of course, he was picked up by TOSHIBA for its overseas posting. Even then, a starting salary of US $ 70,000 per annum is not something to sneeze at.

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One swallow does not make a summer, though and it is early days to say if this will be  a trend. But it does raise some important pointers.

To begin with, the professional education programme is finally being given it’s due by the industry and the graduates are finally being sought after. That’s good news. For far too long, generations of designers have been either panned or given the short-end with regards paying for design. While the industries have believed in using design, they did that at the cost of using designers, by paying a pittance.

I do not know if this means that the average expectation levels of the students of design will go up dramatically. That could be bad news for design firms and industries trying to recruit fresh graduates. Already there is a murmur in the community about how un-affordable NID designers have become an this may escalate.

This may also see a whole lot of graduates competing for higher and higher pay-packets. When money is the incentive, then everything else becomes secondary. Will we still see someone like a Sandeep Sangaru working with bamboo artisans or would they now be compelled to opt for fancy pay packets? Will we see a Neelam Chhibber, who set up a large design-led foundation for crafts? Or a Kiran Bir Sethi, who transformed the world by educating the children about the design process? Or a Meghna Ajit, who set up a co-operative for craftspersons,? Or a Parthiv Shah, who set up a media organisation that celebrates culture? Or a Gargi Sen  who set up a foundation for documentary film makers or a Poonam Bir Kasturi, who is working on leveraging household waste and doing something about the earth? All these are graduates of NID,  who measured success by what they did than what they earned.

We do need designers to make nice, new products for Toshiba. But we also need designers to make life better, safer and sustainable. And that comes from working on projects for health, crafts, grassroot innovations and other social sectors that do not give anyone fancy salaries.

Will social design be relegated to the sidelines and commercial, made-for-profits design rule? Maybe not.

The best thing about NID of yore was that there were students of all hues. For every wannabe-corporate warrior, there was a bare-foot designer. For every student who wanted to make money, there was one that wanted to make sense.

I sincerely hope today’s NID is just as multi-coloured.