Thursday, October 30, 2008

IL20 Tasks: Thumbnail Images and Expression of the Particular

IL20 Tasks: Thumbnail Images and Expression of the Particular

M P Ranjan

Image 1: Cover and a sample page from IL 20 Tasks by Prof. Frei Otto and his team.

I have long admired the vision and the power of visualization that is represented in the series of publications that came out of the Institute for Lightweight Structures in Stuttgart under the leadership of Prof Frei Otto. Of these great publications numbered from 1 to 41, one stands out for its audacity and brilliance, and this is the IL20 simply titled “Tasks”, (Aufgaben – in German) and it was produced in 1979 as the 20th in a series of outstanding books that captured the research agenda of the school and the founder, Prof. Frei Otto himself. The origins of this comprehensive research agenda date back to the early 60’s with the publication of two books “Tensile Structures” and in the Newsletters of the Development Centre for Lightweight Construction in Berlin where Frei Otto had already made numerous sketches and suggestions for lightweight structures long before they appeared in practice and in the field. These visualizations were the forerunners of things to come and by their very presence they managed to mobilize support from a wide variety of partners and research enthusiasts who would otherwise have not been able to appreciate the finer aspects of the proposals contained in the Frei Otto thesis. The sketches make the proposals comprehensible and credible and is I believe far more effective than long texts of arguments in favour of or in a descriptive mode about the proposed area of lightweight structures.

Image 2: Expressive thumbnail diagrams that appear in the books by Frei Otto in the IL series from 1 to 41.

In May 1976 Frei Otto set out the outlines of the book titled “Tasks” and Jurgen Hennicke took up the challenge of articulation and compilation in the end of 1976. With the IL team getting into “Brainstorming mode” in the early 1977 and based on these sustained dialogues Frei Otto developed a “Work Programme” that included a list of 100 subject suggestions that could be the focus of the IL teams well into 1990’s. The “Work Programme” that appears in pages 306 to 317 is richly illustrated with the famous thumbnail images so characteristic of all the IL publications, in pen and ink style, crisp and expressive of the concept and manifesting a particular form that most represented the prototype of the concept that was being discussed, and in this case 100 subject areas. The IL 20 is then an elaboration and extension of these 100 subject areas that Frei Otto intended to research over the next twenty years, all spelt out in great detail to draw in partners from a host of disciplines that would be needed to carry out this complex set of research tasks in any meaningful manner. Unfortunately this section in only in German while the rest of the book is bi-lingual to include English texts with the images.

Image 3: IL 20 Tasks as a source of inspiration for the Design Opportunity mapping assignment in the DCC course conducted by the author at NID.

The very idea that one could draw the future had me rivetted and amazed when I first saw this book in the late 70’s. Since then I have been wondering why we do not use this as an approach to map out the design opportunities that lie all around us in India with its huge set of problems across as many as 230 sectors of our economy. I have since decided to introduce my students to this wonderful pursuit of mapping out all the design opportunities that are a product of their imagination in the form of expressive sketches and then in the form of more detailed scenarios as part of the Design Concepts and Concerns course and each batch we are able to address a particular sector of our economy and make a master list of all that needs to be done and sift out those that can be done with our limited resources, looking at both the possible as well as the viable, to further make a list of priorities that can be taken to the planners if we are given a chance to do so. In this process the students learn to do what we would call design thinking and action at the macro-micro level, that of building the future in the thumbnail sketches that lead on to the scenarios that each one of us holds dear in our imagination and helps build our conviction that stems from this very articulation of the possible and the realisation that something worthwhile is indeed possible in all this complexity around us. These thumbnail expressions help us map the contours of the ideas that are developed into scenarios where the fine tuning can take place through which we also develop our own convictions about its viability and we can identify strategies to make it work. Concepts which start off as being quite general are given a particular form through the medium of sketching and in this way they acquire a very particular manifestation as we explore and compare various alternatives that present themselves to us in the cycles of imagination and articulation that is the design journey.

M P Ranjan

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