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!

National Design Guru Day

It’s something that’s long overdue. We need to recognise and celebrate the first generation of Design Gurus, who kick-started the design education in India. What better day to do this, than M P Ranjan’s birthday? Ranjan was a true believer in the power of design. And he would brag about it to anyone who cared to listen.

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Pic Courtesy : Sudhir Sharma

Some of us got together and decided that it’s time we honour our teachers, without whom we would not have any professional standing. The objective is two-fold: To honour and felicitate the role of Design gurus who taught several generations of design students and acknowledge their role. And to remember Ranjan’s birth anniversary as an event to celebrate design teachers. Ranjan was true to his role: loving and giving. He once told me, ” Never miss an opportunity to either educate or learn”. Powerful words that stuck with me.

Today we celebrate Mahendra Patel, the father of Indian Typography. He is winner of several international awards. He is also loved by students around the world for having shared his love for typography. From Baroda to Basel, Pune to Paris, Mahendrabhai has had an impact on students all over the world, where he has taught or learnt.

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For those in India’s National Capital Region, here is an opportunity to acknowledge his contribution to Indian Design education. We are felicitating him at the Sushant School of Design, Gurgaon, Delhi NCR, India and show our love and respect for the Design Guru. It is time.

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.

Padma awards for Design

Today’s list of Padma awards are out and there is no designer, still, in the list. I blogged about this, last year as well. The government finds it fit to recognise Ajay Devgn’s work as worthy of an award but not any of the design stalwarts, who used design to bring about long-lasting changes in society and the profession. To provoke a discussion on the subject, I present here, my list of Padma awards, deserving for design. This is of course, only the beginning. There may many more that I may have missed.

H Kumar Vyas, Design Educator, Ahmedabad kumarvyasH Kumar Vyas deserves a Padma award for pioneering Design education in this country and giving a distinct Indian touch to the curriculum that was launched at NID, when the design programmes began. He continues to influence and contribute to design education, through his books and research.

M P Ranjan : Design thinker, Ahmedabad

imagesRanjan’s contribution to spearheading the cause of design is well-known. He deserved this even, when he was alive, as he had the audacity to project Design thinking as a tool for solving all the country’s problems. A believer of the power of Design, he truly deserved to be recognised for his contribution.

Poonam Bir Kasturi, Daily Dump, Bangalore:

NH-dailydump_ART_GA_148659ePoonam deserves to be in this list, for making Swachch Bharat, her mission, even before the PM did. And chose to use Design thinking to develop an entire eco-system for waste management. She is a firm believer in the power of design to effect change.

David Abraham & Rakesh Thakore: Fashion Designers

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Long before NIFT was even conceived and even before fashion design became a household name, David & Rakesh, early graduates of NID, set up their studio to do path-breaking work in bringing Design to the people. They set up Abraham & Thakore and the label grew up to become the epitome of international fashion with Indian sensibilities.

Surya Vanka: UX Leader, Microsoft, Seattle

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Academically brilliant and suave, Surya deserves to be in this list for the fact that he rose in the ranks of Microsoft, to become the head of User experience, in Seattle. UX may now seem like  fashionable term, but Surya had pioneered in this much before anyone else, from India.

Geetha Narayanan: Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology, Bangalore

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Geetha’s vision to create an alternative school of thought in design education is legendary. She broke out of the NID mould of design education, yet retaining the essence of a fresh and bold new pedagogy. She has been singularly responsible for bringing a fresh load of talent to the design pool.

Kiran Bir Sethi: Design for Change, Ahmedabad, India.

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Kiran’s Design for Change is a much-written about process of empowering school children to solve their own problems. That this idea, panned out to different schools all over the world is also well-known. That she believes in the power of Design and leveraged it with school-children, make her a candidate for the award, too.

Jaya Jaitly, Dastkari Haat Samiti, New Delhi:

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Jaya Jaitly should be credited with believing in the power of design to restore and rejuvenate Indian handicrafts. Whether it is introducing typography to artisans, or teaching them colour schemes and encouraging artisans to use design to further their crafts, Jaya managed to leverage design for Craft design.

There are obviously, many more who deserve the awards. It’s high time the government woke up to recognising designer’s contribution. Next January, perhaps?