Friday, June 15, 2007

Reflections on Indian Design Policy 2007

Design has been flying under the radar ever since it was given formal Government recognition in 1958 when Charles and Ray Eames were invited by the then Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, to write their legendary “India Report” based on which the National Institute of Design was set up at Ahmedabad in 1961. The Eamses called for a desire to create an impatient national conscience – a conscience concerned with the quality life that Indians considered valuable and the ultimate value of our environment. Design for them was about seeking a direction and not just finding ways and means to limited industrial and business agendas. Design is about social values, strategy and policy as much as it is about technique and elegant solutions.

Romesh Thappar in his keynote address at the “Design for Development” (1979) conference commented on the slide to mediocrity and vulgarity in all walks of life in India and called for a design conscience to change all this through a mix of ‘dreams’ and ‘practicality’. This UNIDO-ICSID sponsored conference at NID called for the establishment of design policy in all developing countries and the call was heard loud and clear in many nations of Asia and Latin America who immediately set about building their design capabilities and promoting the discipline at the national policy level. However India lagged far behind and while there was much talk about concerted action nothing happened that was of any significance.

This significant conference produced the “Ahmedabad Declaration on Indudtrial Design for Development” and an accompanying document titled “Major Recommendations”. Detailed recommendations are categorized under seven heads (A to G) of which the first four are significant in the context of the National Design Policy of 2007.

A. Recommendations for Design Policies
B. Recommendations for Design Promotion
C. Recommendations for Government Action
D. Recommendations for Industry Action
E. Information Requirements
F. Recommendations for Education, Training and Extension in Industrial Design
G. Recommendations for International Cooperation.

Design is a basic human activity and it is moving away from being seen as a profession for a few able individuals and it can become a way of life for most of us if it is promoted and adopted more widely by society. In India some of us are advocating the use of design across as many as 230 sectors of our economy and in the social and political levels. It is a broad field of application and in this form it would not be restricted to designers alone, although I do hope that it includes designers. It can be seen as the process that would help manifest the form of our culture and help build the future by unfolding opportunities through the imaginative reshaping of our resources and constraints, most of which are products of our perception, using all the tools and processes of design as we know it today, along with the new ones that we will adopt tomorrow.

Putting design inside each and every such offering would require a huge social transformation from a science and technology centric approach of seeking truth and specifications to a shift from looking at products and objects of design to the objectives and goals that are set to be resolved by design. Imagination is the key and value creation the focus, be it sustainability or social equity, it is an activity that needs to be driven by social objectives for the greater good of society and the environment, rather than the limited view of the “market knows best” approach of growth and profits unlimited, quite unsustainable. Design at this level is a political activity and is being recognized as such by the thought leadership within the design community, a small beginning, but present all the same within the design research community and its partners across the world. Political and business leadership is yet to fathom the power of design when it is used as a tool for social and political change besides the obvious economic roles that it is known for today, and here it is not so much about the making of sustainable objects but about fostering sustainable behavior in the human race as a whole.

A tall order, but one that is achievable, if we can shift our gaze from globalization and megalomanic obsessions to local opportunities and the creation of diversity that can match the variety of the socio-cultural landscape that we have all but abandoned in an increasingly homogenized world order. Education is one such sector that is huge and in desparate need for design action at the macro levels of policy as well as at the micro levels of products, services, spaces and events, all of which would need to be innovated across the numerous opportunities that would emerge along the age and demographic profiles of our population.

Prof Bruce Archer had in the 70’s proposed the introduction of design into general education in the UK and he conducted some far reaching research into the establishment of design in the National Curriculum which has had a significant impact in the rise of the creative economy in the UK over the next 40 years. He distinguished the characteristics that made it a discipline that could be at the core of education through describing design as being Useful, Productive, Intentional, Integrative, Inventive and Expediant. It is distinguished from science and technology on the one hand and from arts and humanities on the other as a third leg on which humanity would need to depend for the production of its future contexts as well as give shape and new meaning to its evolving culture. He proposed the use of a “designerly approach to education” rather than a scholarly or a scientific approach to build capability in this third field of enquiery that he believed to be of critical value to society and its future. The UK has hugely benefied from this work and of those who followed Archer, Ken Baynes who helped introduce design to school education, and Nigel Cross who worked at the Open University to make design accessible top a much wider audience across the UK, to name only a few who made significant contributions.

Nigel Cross, Distinguished Fellow of the Design Research Society, in his numerous papers and his significant new book, “Designerly Ways of Knowing” (2006) explains the core concepts of design research and action as well as the ways of knowing and action that are used in design as distinct from the approach of science research and other forms of human enquiery that are offered at the university level. They establish that along with numeracy and literacy human societies have always needed another capability, that of “visuality” to use a term propogated by Gui Bonsiepe, a former teacher at the highly influencial Ulm school of design in Germany. Here we must not be swept to imagine that I am talking about the ‘Chitrakar’, a producer of artistic images but I also include the ‘Kalakar’ the producer of objects with great skill and embedded knowledge, which is a capability that is all but lost in our schooling system today. Design can bring back this integration of imagination and production at an inventive level into our society and as Romesh Thappar had called for, a counter point to the mediocrity and vulgarity that is spawned by the imitation of the West without a deep examination of local values that are dear to us Indians.

The National Design Policy does touch upon some of these concerns in passing and through some angular suggestions. However it is largely dominated by the traditional view of design as a tool of business and not as a core activity of human society.

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