Designing for ‘Yesterday’

 The year was 1997. I’d blame it on youth.  I have a vague recollection of being a frustrated Industrial Designer – evangelistic, passionate and vocal – struggling to make my Indian clients see the light. Internet was still in its early days and Industrial Design wasn’t even a notion. The following article found its way into a glossy that nobody read – they just bought an odd copy to display on coffee tables for status value. Let me know what you think.

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  “It is never too early to employ design – almost always too late.  Design should be used to create the spark and not to fight the fire.  It is also important for designers today to recognize that people are now more educated about design and quality.”

Designing for Yesterday (1997)

( A tossed salad of roles, experiences, ethics and goals.)
      “… for them that can think with the heart!”

Client:“… so that’s settled then.  We hope you can work out something that’s    really different and looks like a SONY …” 

Designer:( looking slightly puzzled) “Sure!  But you haven’t yet told me when you want all this.”

Client:(smiling) “YESTERDAY, of course ..!!”

When you first hear something like this, you can be quite amused.  It’s funny!  But somewhere underneath, it’s very profound.  It reflects a culture – a particular way of wanting things to happen

We always seem in a hurry of the tearing variety.  Design time is invariably difficult to accommodate due to  “market pressures”.  Or because design came as an afterthought.  Therefore, YESTERDAY ?!! 
It’s like saying that it should not matter much whether the salt is in the dish or consumed separately while eating.

Many “packaged” collaborations have been observed to “pick” product models that are already obsolete in their countries of origin.  Their moulds are cheaper (read — free to the seller) and the Indian consumer will still be delighted with the “new” option (read — has no choice). 
Therefore YESTERDAY ?!!
It’s like going to a mediocre hotel to eat stale food at prevailing five-star prices.

Since Industrial design encompasses almost every aspect of living, it can become an unending discourse to discuss all its facets. We shall restrict ourselves, in this article, to its synergetic boons and banes from two primary viewpoints: the designer’s heart and the client’s mind.

Who is this Industrial Designer?  What is this value s\he provides?  What are these skills s\he is vested with?  Is s\he an artist, a stylist, a cosmetician or a technobuff?

All “design” in India has tended to being the estate of a select few individuals and institutions.  The esotericism associated with design disciplines has further kept it such. Whenever a specialized field emerges in a society – and before the effects can be felt at the grass roots – there are two things that can happen. One, some people would like to stake their claim to ownership … two, it might be vulnerable to multiple interpretations of the how, when and where and generic criticism of the WHY. Industrial design is one such example. And especially so by its plural nature – reasonably quantifiable and objective in the context of technology on the one hand; and ridiculously wild, provocative and individualistic in the realm of pure art, on the other. Such a marriage is obviously daunting. Individuals who have to practise this technoart soon become specialist “Houdinis”!  Ask any Industrial Designer …

Value, whether in money terms or otherwise, from an industrial designer’s effort can be realized and felt if there is a desire to improve life and conditions of living.  Resources have to be allocated over far larger time-frames, than are required by a trading culture of business where quick returns on investment, money rotation and easy profits are the end. 

Industrial design is inter- and multi-disciplinary.  The trained designer is a specialist thinker.  S\he has learned the art of thinking.  S\he has perfected the technology of finding similarities in things that are different.  S\he is equipped with a whole range of skills from verbal articulation to visual communication to value analysis to optimizing space to adapting appropriate technology …  S\he is capable of marrying volumes of production to the process of manufacture.  Of designing forms based on material character.  Of working within and outside existing levels of technology. S\he can assist in arriving at the delicate balance between resources and investments. 

For design to yield returns, it must sincerely address and adequately fulfil a basic need: it must satisfy the complex relationship between the product and its user. Unless the user is central to the design activity, from the producer’s perspective as well as the designer’s, it remains a fruitless function.  The axiom “Form follows function” should surely tend towards a more humane dimension ? “Form and function follow feeling!”

From an industry viewpoint, it is reasonable to be circumspect.  Commissioning design is not quite like sourcing a supplier. Alternatives are not easily available. Ideas exist only in the minds of designers and cannot be kept on a table for comparison or handed around to dealers for reactions. The designer’s output does not yield immediate returns: it entails and demands further and on-going deployment of resources for model making, researching, moulds and dies, upgrading manufacturing facilities and the like. If successful, it is highly addictive – a one-way street. If not, one is faced with the prospect of insolvency and is driven away from design forever. Despite extravagant investments, ideas cannot be mass manufactured.  Additional effort is needed to market the product, because it is the outcome of a new idea which the customer will not buy unless his neighbour recommends it. Advertising budgets have to be reconsidered .. the unpredictability is unresolvable .. too much effort .. too many variables. Why can’t design be more user-friendly!  Why can’t it be like any other industrial or trading activity. How much more convenient to go the “select-negotiate-pay-buy-ship-sell-earn” way!

In a letter to Kirti Trivedi (one of our own Designer-Educator stalwarts), Gui Bonsiepe, the well-known design thinker and teacher says :-
“It is not by comparing that we gain identity, but only by looking at our own reality.  Design means something completely different in Ahmedabad than in Milan, something profoundly different.  To put it more simply, the differences are deeper than the similarities.
This implies also establishing one’s own criteria.  It is only within the local context that we can develop criteria to assess and evaluate design effort.”

The task of creating the right environment for design to be effective requires to be interactive rather than proactive. Design and technology have to be understood as complementary in a mutually exclusive manner. What an arm-in-arm relationship can yield cannot even be imagined. Even so the onus rests more with the design community (because it understands design better) to disseminate and propagate for the Indian society to absorb and consume.  This role of educating has less to teach than to respond, less to impose than to wait, less to speak than to listen – nevertheless to carry on undaunted and to keep abreast of changes in behaviour, environment and technology. To relentlessly explore and to find. Today, we are still in the pioneering phase. Success will probably come overnight – just … that night may take a long time coming !

To design is a fundamental policy decision.  It can be made only by those who have the authority to implement it, namely, the officers and directors of the company. There is an implied pressing  need for “an overall vision” which does not exist at sub-ordinate levels.  Once made at a top level, hundreds of cascaded decisions emerge for implementation.  It is never too early to employ design – almost always too late. Design should be used to create the spark and not to fight the fire.  It is also important for designers today to recognize that people are now more educated about design and quality.  The certain road to success is to make manufacturers and users feel that they are, in some degree, designers – that their contributions are invaluable to the consumption of design.

The Indian industrial designer must accept the social responsibility of creating the right kind of design awareness through creative communication. Often the client does not even know of the first extents of a designer’s resources and skills. Who will tell him? The gap is between the “creative feeling” of the designer and the “structured thinking” of the industry. Differences in style and structure seem in obvious conflict. But only on the surface. Underneath lies a whole world of unexplored possibilities. Just as opaque silica can lie passively on the beach to be trodden upon or it can be put into a furnace and blown into an exquisite piece of art in the hands of a master craftsman. Transparent crystal-clear  glass!! 

The industry can provide the environment, the designer his craft … for a Holistic approach  … towards a better living.

Let’s gaze into tomorrow and borrow a thought from yesterday.
 “A new truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
         – Max Planck 


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