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Friday, July 31, 2009

The Design Way - Deepankar Bhattacharyya

I have, of late been interacting with students in an educational institute and am struck by the various perceptions of what 'design' means. It has been interpreted as many things from problem solving to a way of making things look good. It has been said that design is rather hard to define but can be described, often vaguely, as some kind of creative process that also involves critical thinking and ends up making objects more comfortable to use and better looking. Some have said that fashion trends and looking spiffy is what it is all about. I too, in my previous writings, have described it as something to do with creative and critical problem solving, as a way of making relationships between elements synergise to deliver results and even as a plan, albeit one that somehow involves parts of ourselves that are not necessarily in our frontal lobes. As something that interfaces between human beings and the world that we build, the world of goods and services, the relationships between humans and this built world and the ensuing quality of life that depends on the quality of these relationships.
When Harold Nelson says that 'Humans did not discover fire, they designed it' he gives us an insight into what design activity really means. 'As a way individuals and organisations continuously create our world'.
Is it a way that synergises creative and critical thinking to build worlds that feel natural and comfortable to our diverse selves, that inspire, that express our dreams and fulfill our desires. Worlds that plug into the natural world with minimal fuss, causing no ill effects and trying to respect the rights of all living things that are inheritors of our Planet Earth?
Is it, at heart, the 'human way' to mimic nature itself to build environments supremely adapted to serve us?
A designer brings together information from 'all that we know' about materials, technologies, skill sets, production possibilities, economic feasibilities, end user likes and dislikes, cultural, media and technological paradigms to sketch an overview of the context that s/he is designing for. Only then, is there enough understanding of 'need' and 'desire' to formulate a problem statement.
Indeed, good design will go further and anticipate need and desire and make itself visible in the built environment as an answer to hitherto unexpressed needs and give form to a world that heralds the future.

This is true regardless of the technological complexity present in the said environment.
The ability to design is present in all of us and we exercise it from the moment we consciously change something in our environment in our favour. This ability underlies most human activity and in that sense, we are all designers first.
For so fundamental an activity to acquire the standing of a profession with so many specialisations, complexity must permeate the environment at the levels of technology, finance, social organisation and cultural expression. A trained designer then learns to adapt a latent skill (the design skill that s/he is born with) to function at these high levels of complexity.
Design education can thus be a process by which one learns to exercise one's innate design skills in a multiplicity of environments containing complex levels of technological, financial and cultural information.
When there is minimal complexity in the environment, all of us are practicing designers. When the environment contains complexity of the kind mentioned earlier we have to learn to design for it. The past century has seen huge qualitative change and manifold increase in complexity in the built environment. This has also been the time when design as a specialised field of activity has really come into its own.
Today, we are living the age of information in a globalised world, when information is doubling approximately every 2 years, with corresponding exponential increase in environmental complexity. The nature of design practice is changing and design principles formed over a century of formal design education are being embraced, adapted and developed by other professionals too, including schools of management who have begun to introduce design courses as part of their training. Design as a way that we use to continuously create our world containing increasingly complex levels of information requires us professional designers to revisit some of our basic premises if we are not to become fossilised in mores that worked so well in the past but now appear quaint. Several of these are to be found in the way we make our specialisations in our schools of design.
At a time when user interfaces determine our relationships with product function we are still teaching product design that worked so well in the days when a music system looked like a music system, a phone looked like a phone etc. Today they are all housed in a box that fits into your pocket, a box that does not suggest product function until you switch it on. In a time when architectural spaces have turned into interactive experiential spaces which plug into natural environments with minimal environmental load, what do we teach our students to make? And have you seen where exhibition design is going? Graphic design has transformed into communication design requiring expertise with moving images, interactive experiential spaces, multimedia and a host of other things that most certainly does not depend on the kind of education that old school design institutes dish out.
The Design Way is a continuously evolving way and depends on the worlds wherein it operates, our world today is globally wired, no place is too far, no one is inaccessible, people everywhere access information like never before, yes, even in Bastar. In India we are seeing qualitative change at many levels, the mp3 coexists with illiteracy and non-existent health care, the mobile phone goes where there are no roads and no mechanised transport.
Does our Design Way reflect these realities? Are we consciously evolving our Design Way to work in our lives?
31 July 2009

1 comment:

  1. This article just stirred the fear in me about the profession I chose few years back- 'designer'.

    I have time and again felt that the definition of a 'Designer' has changed terribly. It has traveled through the ups and downs of proffered vocation since years. Few years back when I had conceptualized and molded acrylics and buffed wood for fabricating my products at NIFT I had felt the happiness and the satisfaction beaming through my being and it still does. I had always thought I had made the right choice.
    But somehow since a year, at NID and now outside it, I have been doubting it every second. I feel that everybody, working in any profession, is earning because they are designers...we are no specials and we don't know anything special. I may be wrong or just doubting the powers of design or being laid back and frustrated :)

    I feel everything needs a design way. When the cell phones has reached where the roads haven't, then I guess their whole lifestyle has changed, not in their purchasing power but in their consuming capacity. (debatable, thinking about it)


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