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?

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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.

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.

iibreastexam

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.

Design Thinking gets a new evangelist

The Business Standard’s columnist, Subir Roy, today wrote an incisive column, asking the business folks and the PM to ‘ forget – Make in India and try Design Thinking’. Will the PM and the business tycoons listen to the newest design evangelist, please?

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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 .

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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.

Design – A Subject of ‘National Importance’

On Jan 10th, there was a Government of India press release that recognised NID,( National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, INDIA) by an act of parliament, as an institution of ‘national importance’.

Clearly, it is a great honour.

If you know the fact, that NID recently completed 50 years, one knows that clearly, this was long overdue.

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(Pic Courtesy http://www.nid.edu)

NID has been nominated as an institution of national importance, as it has been the pioneer in design education in India. It is noteworthy that every other design institute big, small, public and private has been set up by NID graduates. A former director of NID, Prof Ashoke Chatterjee, once mentioned that a graduate of NID does not fill up a job vacancy but creates situations that create jobs. That was in the early 1980s when design itself was taking root and India was looking at design as an activity beyond embroidery!

The fact remains that NID has been nominated as an institution of national importance, as NID graduates were crucial to creating new design institutions. The Industrial Design Centre at IIT Bombay, (IDC), the National Institute of Fashion Technology, ( NIFT), the Indian Institute of Crafts & Design,Jaipur, (IICD), Crafts Development Institute, (CDI),Srinagar, Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology, Bangalore have all had NID graduates participating in the founding of these design educational initiatives or have had them as the head of the institution. And it is noteworthy, that each of these institutes cater to a segment of design education that is distinct from each other, instead of clones of their alma mater.

A large section of practising professionals from the early batches, who graduated from NID have gone on to creating design businesses that have helped establish the profession in this country in all its nuances. From Tessaract Design of the 80’s that merged and morphed into Idiom, India’s largest design studio in Bangalore, to Elephant Design in Pune, to Vyas Gianetti Creatives in Mumbai to Lopez Design in Delhi, all helped corporate businesses in their design quest and contributed in bringing about a change in their outlook to design. These firms helped set up norms for the professionals that went to becoming the profession’s protocol.

And NID graduates have also been contributing to the economy by turning entrepreneurs  manufacturing well-designed products from scratch. Whether it is eclectic fashion by Abraham & Thakore, or furniture by Quetzel, or children’s toys by Gween or the collective creativity at People Tree, these designers set their own agenda and celebrated design with  the style it deserves.

 

NID’s international outlook to its curriculum is legendary. Another reason why NID has been nominated as an institution of national importance. The institute’s work has been appreciated more internationally, than in India. This helped several graduates to take the leap and take their design knowledge across the seas to an international audience. Like Surya Vanka, who heads Microsoft’s User Experience excellence group in Seattle or  Sunand Bhattacharya, who is heading the academic section of Autodesk University in the US. Vinay Venkataraman’s  now famous take on Frugal Digital products at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, which he co-founded, has been received very well even at TED, There is also Uday Dandavate’s Sonic Rim which is a design-research firm based in USA that works with corporate America.

NID’s education system helped in nurturing innovation and that’s another reason for NID to be nominated as an institution of national importance. There are several eclectic examples of design career innovation  by the graduates that deserve mention. Latika Khosla’s studio ‘ Freedom Tree in Mumbai specialises in Colour, a unique positioning in design. Sudhir Sharma, another illustrious graduate is also the editor of POOL, a design magazine which is published by his design and branding company. Poonam Bir Kasturi’s concern for urban waste, became a unique design-led business called Daily dump that has won praises and acclaim across the world. Neelam Chibber’s Mother Earth develops products that help sustain the earth as much as rural livelihoods.

NID has a history of doing things uniquely. That’s the major reason why the graduates have done well and the institution has been chosen for this honour. This raises the bar and the institution has to dig deep to sustain this unique culture that MP Ranjan so eloquently writes about in his blog. It is time to discuss the future course of NID and all its proposed new branches all across the country. It is time to redefine teaching and learning paradigms. It is a moment in history that needs introspection as much as savouring. Only then can design can become a subject of national importance.

No Child’s play

Last week I went shopping with my two daughters, aged 9 and 7, for some very basic back-to-school stuff. I needed a bag and a water bottle for the children going to Class II and Class V.

How hard can that be, I thought naively. I can evaluate design and choose the best available product that I can afford!

 

I was stumped by the variety of badly designed products that have flooded the market for children’s products. I asked the fellow at the counter, for a bag for Class II. ” I want one with no cartoon characters.’ my younger one quipped. This stumped the guy behind the counter. ‘ Oh, we have Barbie bags for girls and Ben10 bags for boys, ” he quipped, ‘ but not plain ones!” I was aghast at the stereotyping. I asked my daughter why she did not like any of them. ” They are all the same. I don’t have a bag I can recognise easily in the class. And I do not like Barbie,” she said. Her actual choice of words for Barbie was more caustic actually.

Do designers even stop to think what a child might want in a bag?

Is my child an odd-one-out or are the manufacturers lost the plot? Why should a child be saddled with characters, that she does not relate to? Why do we, as a society create stereotypes?

The water-bottle buying was worse.

” This one is for small kids.”

” This one’s drinking straw comes off.”

” The lid falls off in this.”

” The lid is difficult to open in the bus.”

” This one gets hot during games practice.”

” This one is cheap plastic and smells.”

“This plastic is not easily recycled!”

The last comment came after she overturned the bottle to read the signs. While I was happy that I have aware children, I realised that the makers of bottles have clearly not understood their customers.

Designing children’s products is no child’s play. Designers miss the point, when they do not understand their target audience.

My kids can vouch for that.