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Friday, March 26, 2010

Revisiting reductionist aspects of design in the time of holism - Deepankar Bhattacharyya

Just the other day in Bangalore, I viewed an exhibition titled ulm: method and design/ ulm: school of design 1953-68 and attended a conference titled - LOOK Back LOOK Forward: HfG Ulm and design education in India. This was organised by National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad and Bangalore in collaboration with Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan (GI/MMB) Bangalore and HfG-Archive Ulm & IfA (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, Germany) Stuttgart.

The experience took me back nearly 40 years to my days as a student at NID, to a time when the world was a simpler place and notions of sustainable growth, ecology and alternative lifestyles were fringe phenomena worthy of either contempt or rebellious adulation depending on how young you were.

There was a prevailing notion of quality and beauty born of rigorous study, analysis and application of the fundamental elements of design, a striving for simplicity, cleanliness, efficiency, objectivity and economy. A rational extraction of principles that governed form, space, structure and colour, coupled with sound technological insight and their application in the making of solutions towards the fulfillment of human needs was seen as a watertight methodology for dealing with the problems of our world. For many older designers here, it still is.

During my initiation, I stood a little past half-way between the beginnings of modern design methodology and the present. The momentous happenings of the first half of the 20th century, the masters who had been spawned at Bauhaus and Ulm, the various movements that built on and from these two institutions as well as the one in Chicago, the seductive simplicity and cleanliness of the international style along with whispered mutterings of discontent was a fertile backdrop for my learning 'design'. Rem Koolhaas was about to happen and the established relationships between form and function were being revisited. Composition, scale, proportion and detail were beginning to become unfashionable. A new realism was being born.

Notions of 'quality' were being challenged, realisation that people could actually be happy anywhere and 'well designed' habitats had nothing to do with it was turning established notions upside down, existing definitions of up and down, north and south were being seen as quaint perceptions of preconditioned thinking. The crisis of faith in the soundness of prevailing notions of 'progress', development and 'the better life' was stirring the young to newer forms of expression. Peace, Freedom and Love were worthy goals to strive for, as were sustainability and animal rights. The predominant view of reality was expanding and transforming, so was the meaning of design. Well, not officially of course, because a lot of this was still heresy.

On the way 'Out' were the structured environments and forms that were the offshoot of function. 'In' were adaptable organic forms that enabled a multiplicity of functions, many unplanned for.

The consumer was becoming a proactive player in the making of meaning and interactive processes were beginning to determine design outcomes.

This explosion in consciousness has now accelerated manifold in a globalised world driven by information and communication. Humans everywhere are touched by events happening anywhere and 'design for complexity' is having to formulate new principles - the simplicity and reductionist nature of forms born in the last century and the design pedagogy that grew around them appear unrecognisable. It is like looking at design at an atomic level and seeing the development of its very DNA, the building blocks of what we do. One sees the beginnings of all that is commonplace in our methodologies today and the historical movements focus into a new perspective.

As one revisits these times the polarities melt away and the reductionist and holistic aspects of the complexity of 'design' settle into a seamless whole. One sees that the 'one' doesn't exist without the 'other' and that both must be incorporated into one's design process. It is the very certainty at the level of 'micro' that enables the organic fluid flexibility at the level of 'macro'.

The intangible relational possibilities that we design today needs mastery over component design if we are to create meaningful and effective systems where 'quality' can be nurtured and human aspirations find freedom to actualise.

I thank the organisers for bringing this exhibition to me and allowing me this cobweb clearing look into the times of my youth as I renew my faith in what I do and hope to do. I thank the masters at Ulm and elsewhere who gave us so much that form the foundations of modern design (such a pity, that younger designers who haven't bothered with history do not understand the origins and development of so much that is commonplace in their methodologies).

Reductionist and Holism are but perspectives that give insight and allow understanding of complex processes and help us to develop the tools to design our worlds of increasing complexity.


  1. Without disagreeing with Deepankar, I want to critique his article by zooming out somewhat. Design was born in a particular time and space, and that particularity has dogged it ever since. The utopian ideals of purity, simplicity and minimalism had real meaning and value in that context, which is why their status rapidly grew from contextual to becoming iconic. The whole world assumed these as being 'universal', 'natural' and 'right' and applied them into their own contexts - but these were blinded by the iconic rather than rigorously or critically informed positions. This has led to some serious distortions and misalignments especially in those times and spaces where the founding context simply did not exist. Therefore, while the abstract values of reductionism and holism do resonate in diverse contexts, their particularity has limited (or even negative?) resonance - limited only to those microcosms where the local context superficially matched the European. Instead of seeing - even appreciating - these in context (which I believe is the fatal flaw of the design discipline in India), we embraced them as universal and eternal. This has only aggravated the deep faultline between the multiple and paradoxical realities (which in itself is a delusion that occurs if one identifies oneself to or idealizes any one particularity) that exist in India. What is urgently needed is a series of hard critiques of these 'mother' texts and narratives rooted in our locality as well as accumulating and disseminating a series of 'counter-' or 'alternative' narratives to inculcate a more nuanced and richly complex way of making sense of our history and present reality.

  2. The older designers still carry the sentimental baggage of Bauhaus and Ulm which the younger ones have thankfully been able to put in perspective. In the evolution of design they were important milestones no doubt, but they are no moulds or dogmas to be emulated forever, especially when technology and lifestyle have changed so much in last thirty years.

    The renown German typographer Erik Spiekermann has even likened Bauhaus as a style. A way of doing things because of the technological constraints it had to endure. A point we don't dare to discuss. We forget that there are nothing absolute about design. If there is something called "design truth" that must be very fickle minded :)
    Please see

    Today Bauhaus is 90+ years old and NID 50 years. As the years go by the gap of 40 years will seem insignificant. Yet we are holding on to the same pedagogy as the ultimate mantra for design. True, India needed handholding and Eames Report had immense value in its time. But we never tried to outgrow it. We never sought to find our own answers even within the framework of those models. The awkward question however, as asked by Prof. Buchanon in last CII conference was, what have we done since then? And we have no answers. Design institutes are mushrooming everywhere and are run by many design graduates. Sadly, one has hardly seen any innovation in pedagogy – the same NID template, the same 25 year old exercises are being continued in class rooms without questioning, resulting in many more clones in a very different time.

    The "untrained" designers, on the other hand are doing as good or better. They have no baggage of historicity of minimalism to shoulder, and are celebrating maximalism with relish. Because they have tried to sense the pulse of India better. And they are succeeding.

    Somewhere down the line of imported sensibilities, we have forgotten our people, the way we are, and emulated standards and styles which we thought were universal. They were not: You can't go to Rajasthan and enforce Scandinavian colour palette. The message of Bauhaus and Ulms should be seen as contextual and historical, as Arvind has suggested.

    The primary focus of design has changed now. From the handmaiden of industry in the age of mass production in sixties, design has evolved as more user-centric and the pursuit today is more humanistic (well I know Gurgaon exists!). The future of design will be more inclusive and democratic through co-creation. It will no longer be supply driven–– only demand driven––not by mighty clients but the users themselves.

    Cheers to all that.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.