An open letter to my teachers of design

                    Photo credit: James Hicks

Dear NiD,

I walked out on you without a word of explanation just over 18 years ago, one day. Perhaps the time has come to talk about many things, as the Walrus said, including cabbages and kings. And eventually, meander in my own circumlocutory way towards some answer to your question posed to me today “What is a multi disciplinary design environment?” or rather, what should be the vision of one.

I walked out in anger, in pain, in frustration, after three weeks of a gloomy black depression mostly spent lying on my GU designed bed in C-24 of the old girl’s hostel, reading Atlas Shrugged, looking for meaning and value in what felt to me to be a walled “Fantasy Island” on the banks of the Sabharmati. Hai, tu ne kardiya kamaal.

So, where were we before? Where are we now? and most importantly, for any “school”, where do we go from here?

An entire generation has grown up and come of age since that day in March, just a week or so after my 24th birthday.

I find it ironic that the true value of NID has only been realized by me over the past few years, most definitely at least 10 to 15 after my departure. And that value, as has been rightly said, has been primarily due to my memories of my “off the grid” (outside of the formal classrooms and curriculum and structure) experiences.

Now, when I think of NID, I recall midnight musings on the moonlit tiles on the domes of the main building, I think of Holi day where not one member of the entire community, young or old was sober after the thandaii made in a 200 litre drum, clacking sticks during the Garba festival, sitting with Devika at night in the ceramics studio trying to stop the clay from flying out of the window, sneaking in through the open window and into the locked computer room with a OMC Cad machine to experiment at night with programming, long long long talks and walks and philosophy and design and the meaning of life and god, love and pain, truth and visions with whoever was at hand and would listen.

In other words, “interacting with the community” in an “open source” manner.

In the classrooms, there was an emphasis on motor skills, not thinking, and the message I took away with me from NID’s curricula and program – something that I could not articulate for more than a decade – the entire experience locked into box tightly, too painful and disturbing, redolent of failure and inadequacy, touching the very creative heart of ourselves – was that NID was a design school that thought something like this:

“We cannot teach you how to design, it is an art that springs forth, fully formed from your own being, like aphrodite fully formed from the foam. Creativity is a mysterious thing. All we can teach you are the skills of drawing, sketching, painting, balance, harmony and composition, materials and colour, line, weight and form in order to support what is already within you. We have this set of hoops that you must jump through in order to be admitted to this sanctum, that allows us to test you for the eye, the latent designer in you, all we do is show you how to hold a pencil. Oh and btw, we can’t even answer WHY you need the pencil or WHAT the thinking behind the exercise of drawing straight lines is, they have come down from on high {Bauhaus method} and as the priests who have forgotten the meaning of the word and simply content themselves with rote and ritual, we ask you to simply obey and follow. then you too shall achieve a designer’s enlightenment.”

Er, what happened to discourse? What happened to dialogue? When did we forget how to teach by question and answer and take the easy way out of simply following ritual and rote mindlessly? Wither the Argumentative Indian?

That system of unquestioning repetitive practice works for maths problems or english spelling, not for the development of creativity, inspiration, innovative thinking – constructive dissatisfaction is man’s best gift in this life along with a reasoning mind that questions the status quo.

That is the skill that needs to be developed if ever something NEW is to be designed, no, don’t you think? If some primitive man didn’t wonder whether life would be easier if they rolled a heavy boulder on a log instead of dragging it up a hill would the wheel ever have been invented/designed/created?

Sure, Brahma needs Saraswati but there is a reason we have Durga too. Durga’s message is strategic destruction, not Kali’s annhilation, unthinkingly.

What seems to be the biggest obstacle to the true flowering of the original vision which was seeded on the banks of a river? What needs to be blasted in order that design thinkers and creators can find a quiet spot in order to muse upon the world and consider ways to improve the quality of life for those who need it the most?

The Wall – the walls that prevent me from joining the Alumni directory, aka the community of practitioners, the walls that hold us within the definitions of what is a designer and what is not, the walls which say you need a piece of paper to prove you can create, conceive and conceptualize, the walls that fix you firmly forever to the choice of stream or degree or discipline – a choice made far too young and before we even know who we are, the walls of the box that you’re supposed to be thinking OUT of, designers though you may call yourselves.

What would support a truly multi disciplinary environment where people from diverse backgrounds, experiences, interests and abilities can come together to learn to collaborate, co-create, cooperate and communicate?

For the seed of all creative endeavours is the free flow of conversation where brainstorming begins, the sharing of ideas back and forth, shaping and refining an idea until it firms enough to manifest tangibly in some form – aka the prototype.

The other design institute I dropped out of, the Institute of Design IIT in Chicago, removed the streams – communication design, product, and design planning, around the time I left there in 2005. I participated in the faculty meetings that deliberated this choice, how it would impact the admissions process, the graduation requirements and the communication of the schools mission and vision to the larger community.

Every signal from the evolving world around us pointed the way towards open source innovation, multidisciplinary teamwork, creative collaboration and cooperation not ever fragmenting specialization.

Are we then going to prepare our students for the world into which they must emerge and become productive residents who can support themselves or will we cripple them with strictures and regulations about what they can and cannot do so that it takes them years to figure out for themselves that no piece of paper ever proved anything?

What piece of paper has the power to decide what you can or cannot do?

EM Forster said that contracts are a matter of the heart, and no diploma or degree from ID-IIT, NID or elsewhere can take away from me, my conviction of my commitment to design, to Eames’ vision, to the power of design thinking and creative problem solving.

In Helsinki, they are merging the Universities of Business, Engineering and Design by 2009, while from what i read here, for I do not know what goes on in NID at all since I left in 1990, seems to imply an ever greater fragmentation. Robert Heinlein has been famously quoted to have said “Specialization is for insects”. Only you can decide whether you are an anthill or otherwise.

Designers are, in one fundamental sense, futurists. They must conceive of what is not yet built in order to build it. Here is what they say about the needs for a futurist as a professional practitioner,

The best futurists strive to be transdisciplinary systems theorists. It helps to be open to learning the unique dynamics of all physical systems around us, not just to visualize within the domain we find most comfortable. Seeking multidisciplinarity is a never ending, lifelong process of balanced inquiry, and a very rewarding journey.

Designers are also, in another sense, perhaps as envisioned by Eames and Sarabhai, pragmatic idealists, forever wondering if there was a better way to do something and then designing solutions that are sustainable.

Every MBA school worth its salt has a course on Ethics, but I have yet to come across one in a design school. Perhaps its a tacit thing, that of course since we manifest our values tangibly in physical form, we must have already discovered the meaning and value of our work. A multidisciplinary design environment must first and foremost, then, inspire and motivate not dishearten and depress.

On the other hand, some of India’s most visionary thinkers were indeed inspired in jail. Of course, its also a place where one has ample time to think of freedom and envision “how things can be” instead of “as they are”.

The answer to the question now becomes,

Are we creating young minds for the long dead past, the immediate present or for the emerging future?

Everything else can be designed accordingly to support the solution space so identified.

Thank you for your attention,

~ niti

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