Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Design Concepts and Concerns: The Avalanche Effect from NID

Evolution of DCC course at NID: Reflections in 2012
Prof M P Ranjan

Image01: Models and lectures that were developed over the years for the Design Concepts and Concerns course at NID as they stood in 2005 as they appear in the EAD06 conference presentation at Bremen, Germany.
In 2009, Meena Kadri wrote about the course on her blog, “Random Specific”, and she sent me a link with a question – “Has not the DCC course evolved at NID over the past 40 years or so?” I sent her a brief note and then decided that the question could be answered at some length and perhaps some design historian or research scholar would be sufficiently interested in looking at the evolution of the pedagogy at NID which I do believe has made significant contribution to design education in India as well as in the world, much of which is as yet not appreciated due to a paucity of published references on the processes and personalities involved. Parts of this post appeared previously in July 2009 on my course blog named after the course – Design Concepts and Concerns – and here I am elaborating that post with reflections on what has happened after my retirement from NID and the directions that are being explored today by the institute and its faculty.

Image02: Cover and contents page of the Design Issues journal of Autumn 2005 dealing with Design and education in India.
The course as it stood then is documented at this blog site and through a couple of papers that I had written, first in 2002, specifically for the Design Issues magazine at the invitation of Martha Scotford who acting as a guest editor was compiling a collection of papers about design from India for the Design Issues magazine's volume on India. However, this paper that I wrote and submitted was called the "Avalanche Effect" and as luck would have it was not included in the final edited version, unfortunately. On Mon, 1 Dec 2003, after a long wait to hear from the editors I finally received a message from Martha Scotford about the rejection of my paper and I was at that time teaching at the BCDI in Agartala and I immediately posted the full text of my paper on the PhD-Design list which can be seen at this link here below: Avalanche Effect on the PhD –Design discussion list.

The Design Issues is a very respected peer reviewed journal from the MIT and the reviewers may have thought that the claims made by an unknown professor from India were a very tall order at that time or found some other shortcoming in my paper based on which it was declined. The journal came out with their volume about India and Indian design and this did not include my paper (“Design Issues: History Theory Criticism” volume 21, Number 4, Autumn 2005) The pdf copy of the “Avalanche Effect” paper can be downloaded from here as a 55kb pdf file.

Image03: Select pages from my presentation titled “Creating the Unknowable” showing the series of Assignments that are offered to NID Foundation students as part of their five week course on Design Concepts and Concerns.
However in the same year, in 2005, I wrore another paper about this course and my paper was titled “Creating the Unknowable: Designing the Future in Education” and this was also about the DCC course and it was accepted for a peer reviewed conference at Bremen Germany, the EAD06 coordinated by Wolfgang Jonas a design thinker at the Bremen University School of Design and I was able to share the DCC pedagogy and the underlying intentions for the first time on a public forum composed of critical design professors. (Download the full presentation from here as a 54MB zip file containing one pdf of the presentation and six linked movies inside one folder) Unfortunately, even here I faced problems of support from my own Institute. My travel costs would not be supported by NID authorities even though I was going to present a major course development done at the school over many years of experimentation and I had to bear the cost of travel myself. This does show how difficult it is to get support for design education in India in all these years when design thinking was being explored and refined through our teaching and design explorations, without much official support from the authorities that be. This lack of official support is captured in the title of my conference paper for the first National Design Summit in India called the CII-NID Design Summit that was held in Bangalore in December 2001. My paper was titled “Cactus Flower blooms in a Desert: Reflections on Design and Innovation in India”. Download that paper and the accompanying visual presentation from here as a 14.5 MB zip file containing three pdf files.

Image04: Thumbnails of OHP sheets used for the DCC course lectures in the late 80’s and early 90’s before the course was changed significantly in 1998.
Yes, to cut a long story short, the course dealing with design theory and design thinking has been evolving at NID for many many years from the original “Design Methods” that was first taught in its imported and refined form by Prof Kumar Vyas from the late 60’s and the early 70's for Product Design and then in the Foundation Programme and he was later assisted by Prof S Balaram and assisted by the young Dhimant Panchal. A variation in its title took place when the teachers of this course at NID started looking at processes within design in the 80's and it was then re-christened and called “Design Process”. A version of the course offered to Product Design students at the AEP Level was called “Product Design Process” and each discipline at NID had their own version of design theory being offered under different titles. In the mid 70's Prof Mohan Bhandari took over the Foundation programme after his stint of study and work experience in Germany with Professor Herbert Lindinger, a former faculty of the HfG Ulm, and he brought in the Environmental focus to the whole Foundation Programme but this course was still called "Design Process" and that was the case when I took over this course after his departure from NID in the late 80's.

Christopher Alexander’s papers and in particular his descriptive pages from his “Notes of the Synthesis of Form” were available at NID as cyclostyled papers, in a number of copies that were freely available on campus, which I had seen and I even had a personal copy way back in 1969 when I joined the Institute as a student in the first Post Graduate Programme in Furniture Design. These may have been here of many years before Prof Vyas’s course offerings and Alexander did visit India in the early 60’s as part of his research efforts for his first book that looked at an Indian Village as a source of inspiration for his theory about human settlements and design. It was only much later that I could understand the significance of Alexanders research since the Indian village held lessons of human evolution in an almost uninterupted manner in the Indo-Gangetic plains, a continuous evolution of over 5000 years that may not be found anywhere else on the planet. The cyclostyled papers could have been an early draft of his book which someone may have collected and shared with all of us in NID, I hope we get to know this background in some detail when the research about NID is conducted in some depth. There is however an official history of NID in the making and the deadline for its release has come and gone but there is still no sign of the book which has been a closely guarded secret even from members of the NID faculty who are not part of the inner circle of researchers on that project. The book - 50 Years of NID History – was "released" at the NID Convocation ceremony in December 2011 by the the then Chairman of the institute's Governiong Council, Salman Haider, as part of the Golden Jubilee launch but I am told that this was a dummy copy and a symbolic launch – very sly and a slight of hand; just to keep up promises made earlier - very disappointing indeed. I hope the book sees the light of day and we get to see it sometime soon.

Image05: Chart showing the evolution of the Design Methods and Design Process course in the 60’s and 70’s leading up to the formation of the Design Concepts and Concerns course in the 90’s.
In the mid 90's we changed the name of the course and called it “Design Concepts and Concerns” to bring focus to the broader issues that underpinned design action and learning. Some of us realised that ethical and value concerns and motivation with personal commitment are just as important as the tools and processes that designers use to address complex issues and derive suitable design offerings that could be the foundation for responsible design. This is a very brief statement on a long and involved process of course evolution at NID and that paper is still to be written. Many teachers worked with me from 1988 onwards. First it was Jatin Bhatt and Sangita Shroff who then went on to join NIFT. We then had Rashmi Korjan for a long time and Suchitra Sheth and Laxmi Murthy for a brief interlude. Since 1998 many teachers audited or assisted in the conduct of the course either partly or with full involvement and these include Alaxender Bosniak who now teaches in Germany, Dimple Soni, Meena Kadri, Bhavin Kotari, Harini Chandrasekhar, Bani Singh who teaches at NIFT Bangalore and many more that I will have to recall a long list of former students and faculty colleagues if the list is to be completed. Others on the faculty included Praveen Nahar, Ramakrishna Rao and Gayatri Menon in later years. In Bangalore, C S Susanth and Jignesh Khakhar, joined the course last year and we also had a senior student helping us in 2008 from the SDM discipline, Anand Saboo and so on. Many other senior students used to come in and hang out while the lectures and presentations were in progress and there was a rich discussion both inside as well as outside the course on the subjects being explored within the course each year since we had big themes and macro-economic concerns that were addressed, debated, brainstormed, modeled and mapped by each batch and each class producing a rich crop of design opportunities that were represented as visual scenarios that stayed in the mind for a very long time as a vision that cannot be shed easily, once it is found. Design thoughts and insights are not easy to forget if they are appropriately visualised.

Image06: Table showing the course structure and contents in 1995 when I had used this image to share the development of the Design Concepts and Concerns course in a presentation to the NID Faculty Forum as part of a course critique at NID in those days.
I purchased a SONY digital camera in 1998, my first really expensive buy, and the first one freely available at the institute and I used it to record all our classes in great detail. I have shared detailed digital pictures of the student assignments done during the course from 1998 onwards and developed the use of digital images as a source of extended memory for the students to revisit their experiences during the course. These images were shared with all students in individual CD-ROMs, one for each student to take away and when the NID server was set up these images were made available to the whole institute without any editing. Besides this sharing of images, there are many xerox documents in the NID Library of selected student notes and project documents from the earlier phase (from 1988 to 1998) that may need to be revisited. In that early phase we did project based assignments that were assigned to individual students and this was after a phase of lectures and group assignments about design concepts and methods and these projects were done by individual students and that called for individual guides which we fondly called the OPD (out patient department) and here we had Pradyumna Vyas, Vinod Parmar, S M Shah, P M Choksi, S Balaram and several others as project guides for the foundation students as part of the Design process course from 1988 to about 1998 when I dropped the individual project since it was becoming a ritual and not really contributing to any form of deep understanding in the student. The teachers who were guiding the students did not really contribute to a better understanding of the design thinking dimensions but were instead, I realised,  focussed on getting the students to deliver great solutions rather than them learning about the nature of design itself as the core activity and the aim of the project. From here on the course became more team oriented rather than individual focused and group processes and group grades became the norm much to the dismay of the Academic Administration, since I refused to give individual grades.

Shown above in Image04 are picture of an OHP sheet that I had used in 1995 to describe the design process and this is available for download as a pdf that gives the shift in content and assignments as it stood in that year which can be downloaded from here – Download OHP Sheets used in 1995 as pdf file - these are based on hand drawn OHP sheets that were used from 1988 onwards. On 15 August 2007 I had made a post on my other blog “Design for India” about this course and we have another description of the course and its intentions and effects at the link below: Design for India – Post on the DCC course.

Image07: Foundation students of the 2009 batch at NID created these models during the DCC course that showed us how India could get new design education strategies that could address the needs and aspirations of the various regions of the country. Six groups developed concepts and of these three are shown above. My last foundation batch at NID....

By 2002 the course was accepted for both the under-graduate foundation programme as a core offering as well as for all Post Graduate courses offered at the Institute. We started offering this course at NID Gandhinagar campus for the new disciplines of New Media, User Interface Design as well as for the Strategic Design Management students there. When the NID Bangalore campus was set up for three new disciplines this course was offered there as well and these are documented at each offering on the DCC Blog for those who may be interested in the details of what were the themes and the work done by the student teams – all documented in some detail there. I offered this course at NID till November 2010 when I retired from being a faculty at the NID. Last year the course was offered to all batches of students at NID in much the same way that it was designed and developed over the years. However this year I am told that the curriculum review process has decided to drop the course and to adopt the older name of design methods so that the teachers at NID could focus on teaching tools and techniques of design research and not get confused by the macro issues that have been the hallmark of this course since it was revised in the late 90's. The argument, I am told, is that foundation students may not be mature enough to address the complexities of the real world at the early stage in their education that and these would be better reserved for a later stage in their education at NID. Is NID education reverting to the design paradigm of the 80's? Only time will tell!!

When the Government of India announced the setting up of four new NID's in different regions of India it set alarm bells ringing amongst a group of NID alumni who expressed deep concern on the social networks and discussion forums in India. Almost organically a group came into existence and it was called the "Vision First" initiative. It so happened that all members of this group were NID alumni and they took up issues with Government and called for a national debate and discourse on whether the same model of the old NID at Paldi would be followed for all these schools or should we have a fresh think about where design is heading and this debate is documented in some detail at the blog set up by the group here –Vision First – a call for new design initiatives for India by a group of very concerned design professionals and academics from India. I do hope that both NID as well as the Government of India will listen to the voices from these design activists who have had varied experiences in design for development right here in India. Design Thinking and its application is indeed gaining greater acceptance in India as well as overseas. Management schools and research agencies are beginning to use design thinking to address complex problems and to search for solutions  to products, services and systems that make up our lives. Governments too are looking towards design and we will need to build capacity to respond to these kinds of opportunities besides the traditional capability of giving aesthetic form to products of industry and to create marketing messages for commercial ventures in the form of advertising and business communications. I have written about these areas and more needs to be articulated here. Some of my previous posts are listed here for easy access in the context of why the DCC course is important to nurture and take forward as it has been evolving at NID over the years.

2012 July - Design Thinking & Design Journey Revisited
2011 August - Design for Good Governance
2009 November - Design Thinking: The Flavor of the Month
2008 January - Systems Design: The NID Way
2007 December - Design as Research: The Path to Knowledge Creation
2007 October - Design Thinking: What is it?

Besides these posts from my Design for India blog here below I have linked several posts on the Design Concepts and Concerns blog that deal with the theory associated with this course.

2010 March - Business Models for Designers: Learning from the Field
2009 December - DCC 2010 - Foundation Batch 2009-10
2009 March - Scenario Visualisation: Indian Village as Visual Panorama in DCC2009
2009 March - Scenario Presentation: Learning about Composite Images in DCC
2009 March - Scenario Visualisation: Assignment on Composite Images and Mental Maps
2009 February - Business Models: Learning from the Field

The world of design and design education is moving inthe direction that we had anticipated in the DCC course at NID and we now see evidence of this is the new publications that are emerging from the West. I will draw attention here to one particular recent book that is available online with a good and interesting business model that makes it very accessible for our design students in India due to its attractive pricing policy for the digital version. The book that I refer to is "Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving " by Jon Kolko, Austin Centre for Design, 2012 and it is a recent example of the emerging expanded approach to design thinking that is being explored and shared.

Returning to the idea of the "Avalanche Effect" and the claims that I have been making over the years in my papers and presentations about this course needs to be revisited and validated. I took over from Mohan Bhandari in 1988 and I remember that  Kiran Bir Sethi was in my early class and her document of the course and her design project are preserved in the NID library as a xerox document that I had placed there for posterity along with others over the years. Her "Design Process" project was on Design Education and there is no surprise for me that she is today running a school in Ahmedabad called Riverside School  that uses design thinking as a core for delivering the school curriculum and she is also the author of the world's biggest design education effort, Design for Change Project, with millions of children being introduced to design thinking at the school level. I call this phenomenon the "Avalanche Effect" and I see this happening all the time in design schools that encourage its students to think big and connect with the real world and address real problems and opportunities in the real world.
Prof M P Ranjan


  1. I do hope that NID and other Institutions of Design can see how important it is for young students to understand the need to look at the world around as a system. Your documentation is evidence that the students do explore, reflect and act on big ideas and concerns. I hope that the name of the course is the only change at NID and not the spirit of what you have built over the years.

  2. Your blog is very informative. WLCI school of advertising and graphic designing offers programmes & courses for graduates and undergraduates students.

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  3. DCC played a role in broadening the perspectives of design. It enhanced the use & important of design in the world around. Such courses show the path & how to open it in the real world. I think it will be a big loss for students.

    birju patel

  4. This is a really good blog that provides a lot of useful information..keep posted these type of post i like it good work....thx

  5. It's really very Informative Blog Thanks for sharing with us Preschools in Hyderabad


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