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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Changed Times... Changing Concerns... - Deepankar Bhattacharyya

It was convenient and appropriate to set up NID under the Ministry of Industries in 1961. Design was all about products and we were 'modernising' with zeal, industry was the way to a dream of a new and resurgent India. We were going to design and manufacture products using the latest in technology, we were going to build environments that reflected a 'modernism' that we had bypassed because of the circumstances of our history. And we were quite certain that we, all of us from every strata of society would benefit. The temples of modern India were the core industries, the dams and nuclear plants, the centres of learning that had the scientific method as their rationale for being, infrastructure for health, defence and institutions for good governance and furthering of democratic ideals. An ambitious effort was underway and no, no one had forgotten the cultural side, there were efforts to preserve, study and build on our ancient traditions of art, craft and cottage industry.  

In Ahmedabad, we also had the National Institute of Design, which was going to do something at the interface of craft, technology, art, ergonomics, systems approach to problem solving and human needs to basically make products of everyday use preferably in an industrial setting. To this end they had departments of product design, graphic design, textile design, furniture design etc. They interfaced with industry and the government on live projects. Also outreach programs to spread awareness of design along with intervention in craft clusters with the aim of documenting, modernising and marketing. They also started a process of education and training of people at various levels including school leavers to produce a group of dedicated professionals who would carry the activity of design into every part of Indian society.  

This is what they, by and large, continue to do. Of course they have changed with the times, they have introduced newer areas of study, they have incorporated new technologies and they have, to an extent, tried to cope with an India that had changed unrecognisably. They are even trying very hard to cope with new meanings of 'design' itself, not proactively enough as some would want, but with an air of not always reluctant promise, that encourages. Their alumni have spread far and wide in many niches of activity where they have contributed, sometimes with breathtaking brilliance at other times with whimpering ineptitude, but mostly with quiet efficiency. They have seen other centres of design learning and practice crop up, some very very good and vying for top honours and others covering a wide spectrum from excellent to 'rip-off'.  

Indian Design, thankfully, has always been more than NID, many of the good things that have been happening here have come from people who were always outside the sometimes high walls of this institution and a great deal, especially in the realm of unconventional and breakthrough ideas, is owed to them or to those who may have studied at NID or worked there for a bit and then went and did their thing. The latter, because of the connection, became unwitting brand ambassadors for NID without the corresponding benefits. Some of these people have been talking about paradigm shifts in design learning and practice. They have seen the effects of design thinking in unusual niches of activity and have been keen to look at design outside the confines of industrial and communication products. I must acknowledge here that there have been some members of the NID community who have kept an open mind and have contributed in no small measure to furthering these ideas. 

There has, in the wake of the government wanting to set up more NIDs, been some discussion recently about visions for design in India and the brand equity that name may be able to generate in monetary terms. I will not dwell on the details, more information can be found here.

Design has moved much beyond the realm of industry and products. It has shown its usefulness in every human activity and some of us have long argued that education institutions revamp their curricula to reflect the new realities. Those of us who want to see new and relevant visions of design in India have, perhaps, to approach the problem from outside the entity that NID has become and the limitations within which that brand can multiply itself. For one thing design education should, even within government initiatives move to departments other than industry, like rural development, health, infrastructure building, culture etc. NID can't do this while remaining a part of the ministry of Industry. This ministry has a mandate and must use all its resources to fulfill them. The broad design framework it understands has to do with industry and business and this has, unfortunately in my opinion, been the basis of the National Design Policy. The other departments of the government do not see design as something that they should and can incorporate into their scheme of things.  

This national design policy should, more appropriately be looked at as the national design policy for industry.  

It would, without doubt, benefit everyone if this policy is implemented in the industrial space. I, however, think that design needs to outgrow this space, to be truly national it needs to proactively build on the possibilities it brings to enhance our lives in all areas of our environment and our activities. Human environments are complex, many layered and full of meaning and effort. The sort of 'design' that NID, the ministry of industry and, increasingly the newer institutions of design teach and practise is but a small part of the spectrum.  

We have been arguing for a broader vision of design but have we been amiss in thinking that the ministry of industry is the place to go to?

I think so, I also think that private players need to play a larger role. Let us not forget that some of the finest institutions here and abroad have been built in the private space. Let us also not worry too much about NID's brand equity, we all have worked to help create it, many of us have moved on. Let us leave that institution to continue the good work it has done and strengthen its core areas of competence, however they may choose to define it. There is a whole new horizon coming up and the terrain is full of promise. Let us start from a fresh perspective; design is creating itself in so many new ways in surprising niches. Some of us have been developing our visions and ideas for a long time now, we need to find support and funding. This may come from sources that we have not considered but I sense an optimism and a fertility in conditions that may allow a variety of effort to actualise.

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