Design to the rescue

We are living in unusual times. The whole world is grappling to fight an invisible virus that seems to have taken over our lives. While writing this, the number of people affected is inching towards a million. While India seems to be better off, the country is a sitting duck for the pandemic: huge population, large uneducated populace, scarce resources and humbling poverty.

Designers in our country are quick to react. Individual efforts and group efforts are being taken to fight the pandemic. From the basic to the complex, products, communication and systems are being quickly developed in India.

While China reportedly built a hospital in ten days, the Indian government turned the idea on it’s head, by designing and developing railway compartments into quarantine centres, thus saving huge infrastructure costs.

While one government department was busy doing this, another department was working with app designers to tackle another problem.

An interaction design team has put together a fantastic app that points to affected people who are in the neighbourhood. Called Arogya Setu, the app connects to the mobile phone of an affected person through bluetooth and warns us. Put together in record time for the government, the designers are constrained to talk about this yet. But the app is available already for people to download, and this is sure to have international impact.


Individual efforts weren’t found wanting either.

Then, there is Bhagvanji  Sonagra and Bhavin, two engineers turned Industrial designers who have designed and developed a walk-through disinfecting kiosk that can be installed outside every building. An equivalent of the hand-wash, this unit ensures that one does not carry the infections into new places.

Meanwhile, Paul Sandip, an iconic product designer has developed a low-cost thermal scanner, that is available for manufacture. This will help quickly identify patients with high fever, at a low cost.

Laudable efforts that will go a long way in fighting Covid-19 Coronavirus. But India needs simplistic solutions too that can make large-scale impact.

Realising how masks are going to be in short-supply, renowned garment designer Anuj Sharma of the famed ‘Button Masala’, decided to teach people to use the now-famed technique, to make masks using the button masala technique. That the police in Jodhpur saw his post and made themselves these low-cost masks, says how simple and effective this design is.

Lakshmi Murthy of Jatan Sansthan, Udaipur has developed basic cloth masks that can be stitched at home and will go a long way in preventing the spread. Developed in rural India, they have also developed the manual to making the masks and has helped the government to prepare a manual.

In a country that believes in frugal design, every little effort counts. Janak Mistry, designer and an academic, has made this simplistic hand glove out of newspaper that can be easily replicated and used by everyone. Simple to make and convenient to use, this would help in keeping the virus at bay.

This is not all. Groups of designers are working towards a systemic way of tackling the problem. Some are busy educating the government. Some are helping the government in putting together communication materials.

Some have worked out an array of solutions that will help in keeping the virus at bay.

I’m sure there are several more examples of design efforts by Indian designers that are flying under the radar.

I have always believed in the Indian Designer’s ability to rise to the challenge. We thrive under these kind of challenges, every day.

I am sure Indian Design can teach the world, a thing or two. To do that, we need to let everyone know about India’s design capabilities.

That will certainly happen, when this post goes viral.

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.

Design on Track

Tucked away in the recently tabled Railway budget of 2012 , between paragraphs on Disaster management and Housekeeping is a significant proposal that will bring a cheer to designers and rail-users alike. The minister has proposed setting up of the “ Rail Design Centre” at NID, Ahmedabad  to leverage design for improving the facilities at railway stations and the trains.

An idea that is both timely and note-worthy. For the first time, the government recognises the need to improve passenger facilities through design intervention.

This is will hopefully, signal the end of passenger woes.

The whole user experience needs an overhaul, not just improvisations. It begins with the form that is difficult to fill, queues that extend out  of the shelters during rush hours, signages that do not guide the passengers properly  at the station and announcement boards that are more stylish than substantive.

Ever traveled with an elderly, a child or a differently-abled person on a train? You don’t need to be convinced that the trains need to be redesigned to be made more inclusive. High steps, sliding doors, unergonomical heights of taps and dustbins, all signify that things have been designed for the non-existent average person.

Berths that are a tad short for the above-average, windows that get stuck in monsoons, bathrooms that flood the whole compartment, lunch packets that are difficult to open, tables that are too far from the seat, plastic covers that don’t work during the sweaty Indian summers, this list can go on.

Anyone who has traveled in the trains would agree that Design has a large role to play to improve the overall user experience and NID is more than suited to do the job. For, far too long, the Indian railways have relied on engineers to design the bogies, advertisers to design the communication and bureaucrats to decide on passenger facilities. This is now a tacit recognition by the Indian Railways of the professional designer, who has a definite role to play.

This is a dream opportunity for the design community. Every student who went through NID’s education programme would probably have in his portfolio, a hypothetical project of a better design of the railway’s facilties. During my time at NID, I have seen students developed better trolleys for luggage’s, berths that fold easily, eating plates that contain well and don’t spill, better designed reservation forms and a folding mug for the toilets. All these and more can now be dusted and brought to life, as and when the proposed centre becomes operational. It will also be an opportunity for all the vendors who supply to the Indian railways and the good word on design will spread.

There is another significance.

The government departments are suddenly sitting up and taking notice of design. The Handloom and handicrafts ministries are already investing in design. The MSME ministry has set aside Rs 77 Crores to promote design as a driver to manufacture better products made by the small and medium-scale enterprises with their ‘ Design Clinic scheme’.

There are so many other sectors of the government that can now think in terms of investing in design. The agriculture ministry can set up design centres to make better implements and products. The health ministry can easily use ‘design thinking’ to make better healthcare services. The rural development ministry can easily use design to really develop the rural areas of our country. The education ministry can put their money to good use by leveraging design in education. This is just the beginning, but design has this power to transcend barriers and solve problems across all the sectors of the economy.

In a recently concluded design conference, the international product designer Karim Rashid said that ‎”If India does not establish some brands soon, it will be too late since all the imports will just take over the country. It was a shame that the hotel I stayed at in New Delhi had Italian lighting, Italian furniture, German sinks, German faucets, French products,” (as quoted in The Economist.) If Karim Rashid had not stayed in a star hotel and spent a night in an Indian train, he would have realized that designers in India need to spend more time in addressing the problems of the people and would have had a different take on Indian design.

And as for the Indian Railways, it is doing well by putting design on track.