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.

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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.

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 Social

Nov 2016. Here’s an update: Neelam Chhibber is now collaborating with IKEA, using her design and social entrepreneur skills to carve a new niche. Her story here:

There is a buzz in the design community these days ever since Sam Pitroda, Adviser to the Prime minister of India, announced thee impetus to set up design and innovation centres all across the country, to address the problems of the people in the bottom of the pyramid.

Designers in major Indian cities are putting their heads together to come up with concepts for innovation centres that will help meet the social and development targets, use design thinking to address the needs of the people who matter and kick-start a movement that will see the intersection of academia, industry and social organisations like never before.

Designers in India are most eligible to address the needs of the needy. Every designer who have gone through formal design education has either designed products for health, living and public use, or worked with artisans and craftsmen to create better products as well as generate livelihoods or worked on communication to put across basic concepts of social importance to a simple rural audience or the illiterate.

Not very long ago, NID alumnus and Industree Co-founder, Neelam Chhiber was awarded as India’s Social Entrepreneur of the year by Schwab Foundation of the World Economic Forum. It rewards and finally recognises Neelam’s untiring efforts in bringing livelihood opportunities to thousands of rural artisans of India. It also is an award that puts Design in the spotlight. Design thinking has a huge role to play in making life better and social entrepreneurship is only one of the many ways designers can contribute.

Neelam has quickly acknowledged the fact that this is also an award for design. How true! Design is potent enough to change lives as much as churning out pretty products. And happily for Neelam, she does both with style.

While focussing on making products that appeal to an international audience, she made sure that the artisans are organised, paid well, looked after and most importantly, remained in their rural environs. Industree managed to make rural employment schemes fashionable.

Coming soon after Kiran BIr Sethi’s  INDEX Award, this too illustrates the capabilities of designers in harnessing design thinking to make lives better. Kiran has successfully leveraged design thinking in not only educating her own school children at Riverside, Ahmedabad but also managed to create a generation of sensitised children all over the world through her ” Design for Change’ programme.

NID Ahmedabad, rated as one of the best schools in the world, has had a large role to play in moulding the thinking of the students.  There are many more examples.

Poonam BIr Kasturi another NID alumnus has set up Daily dump that addresses the problems of waste and comes up with a beautiful solution that is both sustainable and appealing.

(Pic Courtesy : Daily Dump.org)

Lakshmi Murthy, a designer based in Udaipur, works in the area of rural communication and has successfully implemented health and hygiene projects that affect the majority in rural India.

Sandeep Sangaru, a furniture design graduate of NID, brings never-before elegance to cane and bamboo furniture by partnering with artisans of the North East.

My own team at January Design is working with grass-root level innovators recognised by the President of India and helping their innovations better by introducing design concepts into their processes. We are doing this with National Innovation Foundation, the country’s premier organisation dealing with innovation.

Designers all across India are realising the potential for harnessing their design capabilities to make our country a better place.  This has been possible, largely because of the education at NID Ahmedabad.

While the powers that be is putting together a concept for setting up new Innovation centres or new NIDs, it is hoped that they would remember to build this soul into the proposed new programmes.  And this way, it will ensure that design travels to where it impacts most, from the top of the social milieu to the bottom of the pyramid.

Demand Good Design

Demand good design!

By  A Balasubramaniam

Today is World Industrial Design Day. (29th June).

How does it change anything for you? Let’s say, by now you have brushed your teeth, put on a kettle, had a cup of tea and showered. That means you have been touched by the work of an industrial designer. The toothbrush, the kettle, the coffee mug, the shower, the lounge chair have all been designed by industrial designers. But the moot point is this: did you have a good experience? Did the toothbrush seem worth the price? Did the kettle safely dispense hot water? Did the cistern flush properly, saving water? Did the shower work well? Is the chair ergonomical to read broadsheet newspapers? If not, there is a design problem.

Design and designers influence the way we live, work and play. They work to make the whole experience worthwhile. They deal with form, function, safety, maintenance, graphics, packaging, colour and aesthetics of products and systems.

Designers are trained to make a product functionally better, aesthetically appealing, easy-to-manufacture and considerate to the environment. In short, it makes a product a delight to own and use.

When was the last time you were delighted by design? In India, very often, one feels let down by bad design. Have you ever wondered why an alarm did not go off in the morning as set? Or a toothbrush packaging that is difficult to tear open? Low slung Japanese cars always get stuck in the monsoon onslaught on Indian roads. Chairs in a conference room which are not comfortable for long hours. Door handles that don’t turn properly is a regular irritant.  All of us have mobile phones with features we hardly use. Washing machines have no programmes for chunnis, turbans and 9-yard sarees.  Public buses and trains that are difficult to climb for the elderly and the differently-abled. Bank ATMs that are too difficult to decipher is a common complaint. Toys that are unsafe for children are a common concern. The list can go on.

So why does this happen? Often times, the designers are called upon only when things go wrong. Businesses look at design as an unnecessary expense that add to the costs. Price of a product is still more appealing than safety features. And the lowest quoted contractor gets to build the park bench or the bus stand.

Companies do not realize that bad design works out to be more expensive in the long run. Brands lose their sheen, re-calls are expensive and bad word spread faster than good word.

How do designers work for a better product experience? By empathizing with the user. By applying design thinking, designers work towards creating better products and systems. Designers have been trained to be people-centric, business driven, eco-friendly and responsible.

Why do Indian businesses get away with bad design? Because, we still do not demand better design from our industries. Consumers are used to badly designed products everywhere around us.  We need to grow to expect better design. We need to build a constituency that appreciates good design. Lets demand quality and safety. Lets surround ourselves with good-looking products. Lets educate ourselves about making products sustainable. Lets put a premium on delight of ownership. When customers grow to expect that, businesses would have no choice but to cater to customer demands. And will begin to look at design as an integral part of the product cycle. An investment that is required for a good business.

Till that happens, World Industrial Design Day will only be a celebration of a select few.

A Balasubramaniam is a trained product designer who founded January Design. He is an early graduate of NID, Ahmedabad in Industrial Design. He can be reached at bala@januarydesign.com