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The missing Silicon Valley of design

The missing Silicon Valley of design
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First Published: Fri, Jun 04 2010. 12 30 AM IST

Role model: (top) Students of NID, Ahmedabad, at work on their designs. The institute’s most important project in the long run will be its bid to redesign itself. Photo: India Today
Role model: (top) Students of NID, Ahmedabad, at work on their designs. The institute’s most important project in the long run will be its bid to redesign itself. Photo: India Today
Updated: Tue, Jun 08 2010. 01 02 PM IST
Mumbai: I n Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision, modern India was to be built on a troika of skills—technology, management and design. Accordingly, Nehru created three sets of institutions to train Indians to excel in these three skills. But while the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) gained global recognition as creators of outstanding talent, the National Institute of Design (NID) has been neglected by industry for much of this time.
“Nehru had a wonderful vision of design, technology, and management,” says Pradyumna Vyas, NID director. “But design didn’t take off as there were no buyers at the time.” Even today, fewer than 1,000 design diplomas are awarded annually (excluding the disciplines of architecture, interior design and fashion design).
Role model: (top) Students of NID, Ahmedabad, at work on their designs. The institute’s most important project in the long run will be its bid to redesign itself. Photo: India Today
NID provides the ideal prism to assess the opportunities and challenges facing design education. The school’s history parallels the rise of the global ambitions of Indian companies, but its prospects also raise important questions about India’s future competitiveness in the field.
The institute owes its origins to Charles and Ray Eames, pioneering American furniture designers whose iconic mid-20th century designs are still in production. Invited by the Indian government, and sponsored by the Ford Foundation, the Eameses studied design practices across India and compiled the seminal India Report in April 1958.
The report advocated setting NID as “an institute of design, research and service…connected to the ministry of commerce and industry”. In 1961, NID was created to play three roles—an educational institute, a national design promotion agency, and a design consultancy for the government, removed from the bureaucratic clutches of the education ministry.
NID produced designers and serviced the government’s design needs, but it was less successful in winning a seat in the boardroom. As early as 1981, Keshub Mahindra’s speech to graduating students at NID’s convocation ceremony cautioned that “there is an impression in the business circles that you are somewhat isolated” and that “the full impact of your achievements has not been felt yet in the industrial circles”.
Vyas says the disconnect between design and industry was a consequence of the licence raj, where product development was defined by what is euphemistically called “reverse engineering”.
“Companies had a library of Western products in those days, which they would copy,” she says, and few had the patience or inclination to invest in original design. This is echoed by Uday Athavankar, one of the first professors at the Industrial Design Centre, a department created at IIT Mumbai in 1970, the only other significant such school in India for many years.
Design education is a more serious business elsewhere. In the UK, 6.2% of “gross value added” in 2007 was generated by the design industry, according to government data. Future innovations will be fuelled by “155,000 students in over 30 higher educational institutes which offer design courses”, says T.R. Giridhar, senior trade and investment adviser at the British deputy high commission in Mumbai.
In China, even by European standards, “the number of design students...is phenomenal”, says Philip Dodd, a London-based consultant who advises Chinese city governments on creative industries.
Although lack of competition certainly encouraged Indian industry’s myopia towards innovation, NID itself was never particularly market-oriented, partly because of its government patronage. Its faculty members are not permitted to run independent design studios—a radical difference from the philosophy at leading schools such as the 150-year-old Royal College of Arts (RCA) in London. RCA professors must necessarily be well-known design practitioners, “with the right CV (curriculum vitae) and willingness to invest time into teaching”, according to Rama Gheerawo, deputy director at the Helen Hamlyn Centre at RCA, a hub for industry-design interaction.
NID also has few incentives to generate cutting-edge research or publications. It is neither a centre of excellence (such as IITs or IIMs) nor affiliated with a university; it cannot even award full-fledged degrees or offer doctoral programmes. The largest customer of its design services remains the captive Indian government, rather than private sector companies.
Nearly two decades of economic liberalization have, however, spurred homegrown innovation and brokered greater harmony between NID graduates and Indian industry. NID’s 2,500 alumni have also swelled to a critical mass, propagating its diktat.
Preeti Vyas Gianetti is one of India’s most experienced graphic designers, best known for her cohesive visual identity for the Aditya Birla Group. She graduated from NID in 1981, when “design was a cottage industry… Now clients finally understand that advertising and design do different things and are highly specialized disciplines, although design is not always implemented consistently.”
Rajesh Kejriwal, the organizer of the Kyoorius Design Yatra, an annual four-day conference, estimates there are at least 400 independent design firms in India. Running a product or graphic design agency has become a viable profession, although annual revenues from design services still add up to only single-digit crores for most studios.
The country’s leading flag-bearer of design has also evolved with industry’s growing appetite for its craft. NID’s campus and curriculum have expanded. Incubus, an incubator for promising design ventures of recent graduates, has been allocated pole positioning on its main 20 acre campus. Faculty members have greater autonomy and financial incentives to pursue independent projects.
The ongoing dialogue with industry has been structured through sponsored academic chairs and dedicated centres for industry-oriented research, but Vyas remarks that multinationals, such as Nokia and IBM, have a more nuanced understanding than domestic firms of how to derive maximum benefit from such engagements. “Institute–industry partnerships are the order of the day. Indian industry should come to institutes for innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, and not for cheap labour as they sometimes do.”
These initiatives are steps in the right direction, but they may not be sufficient for NID to win itself a top slot on Indian companies innovation agenda. Gianetti’s firm has partnered with a Dutch design consultancy, and she says: “Designers here need more strategic and scientific weight, especially in product design. Our Dutch partners bring intelligence about design and market understanding.”
Successful design, particularly industrial or product design, is an alchemy of aesthetics, engineering, technology, economics and ergonomics, all fused with an understanding of human needs and a creative problem-solving approach. Such lateral thinking can only be powered by collaborative, multidisciplinary academic training—a model pioneered by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, known as Stanford’s “d.school”.
Graduate students from any of Stanford’s seven schools, including medicine, business and law, are encouraged to take its courses. “The d.school wants to produce innovators, ‘T-shaped’ people who have significant depth in a particular expertise as well as breadth and the ability to work with a diverse group of people,” explains Sarah Stein Greenberg, a senior consultant with Monitor. Greenberg took d.school courses during her MBA at Stanford and served as a teaching fellow for a year after her MBA. One of the school’s most popular courses—entrepreneurial design for extreme affordability—has spawned several enterprises, including Embrace Global, a low-cost infant warmer venture, and d.light, a solar lantern company, both of whose products are marketed in India.
Indian design education is learning from Stanford’s unique ecosystem. At the Bangalore-based Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, liberal arts accompany conventional skills-based design education to develop students’ conceptual abilities. The experimental curriculum is regularly updated and includes thought-provoking modules such as “Environmental Exposure: Livelihoods”, “Remembering Dissent” and “How Things Work.” A.V. Varghese, academic dean of the professional diploma?programmes,?says: “Our vision is that our children become autonomous entrepreneurs who can run their own firms. We don’t want to produce industry clones that sit in booths.” Just over 10 years old, Srishti’s pedagogy—particularly its flagship visual communication design?programme—has?won it accolades.
Business schools have also staked a claim. Mumbai’s Welingkar Management Institute introduced a postgraduate diploma course in business design in 2007, with encouragement from Kishore Biyani’s Future Group. A third of the curriculum is devoted to design-related subjects. Sudhakar Nadkarni, the programme’s dean, hopes that the course will become “one route to start a culture of innovation” in the corporate world.
Some officials recognize the benefits of infusing design into other academic courses. Prithviraj Chavan, minister for science and technology, worked as a design engineer before joining public life and says: “I am a strong votary of having at least a one-semester design course in our engineering colleges and, if it can be organized, in science institutes.” He advocates creating “many more formal institutes of industrial design”.
NID welcomes the emergence of new design schools and is advising the government on its proposed creation of four new similar institutes. “We need 10,000 designers every year,” estimates Vyas. With 6,000 applications every year for its 340 seats, NID’s admissions department continues to be spoilt for choice.
But as NID prepares to celebrate its 50th year in November, the challenge for its next half-century will be to introduce the drawing board into the boardroom. Forging a dialogue with its more famous neighbour, IIM Ahmedabad, may be the key to igniting Indian companies’ design consciousness. The NID’s most important design project, in the long run, will be its bid to redesign itself.
This is the fourth of a five-part series on the growing role of product design in Indian industry.
Next: Design for plurality
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First Published: Fri, Jun 04 2010. 12 30 AM IST