The Evolving Role of Design

An interview with Jacob Mathew, Co-Founder and Principal Consultant, Idiom Design & Consulting Ltd.

How has design and its role evolved over time in the industry? If you had to put it in a nutshell, 30 or so years since you started out, how would you say that the role has changed or evolved?

I think when I started off, it was really about how design could add value to what business does. In fact, in 1985, when we started Tesseract, we defined our purpose, mission, vision — the focus was on adding value by design. Whatever a business was doing, we could make it better through design.

Approximately five or six years later, we found that not only were we adding value, but we were ensuring business success if design was a part of the mix. This realisation happened in 1992–93 when we said design is integral to success. If we have design in the mix, the chance of you being successful in what you do is amplified.

In 2007–2008, Khosla Ventures actually created something called a Designer Fund — if your startup has a designer as a Co-Founder, the chances of succeeding is much higher. I think we were a little ahead of realising that business success needs design in it.

At Idiom, we had conducted an informal study by looking at some of our projects. We found that 9/10 projects that we did were successful from a business parameter. Was it a growing business three years down? Was it profitable or on its way to profitability? This was unheard of in design companies. Normally it is about 3/10, and we had 9/10. We were curious to understand what about us made us different from other design companies. And what it boiled down to was that we always looked at things from the point of view of a business, and not purely design. So, we were not designing for designers. We were, therefore, spoken about in business circles, more than design circles.

My focus has now shifted to transforming society through business, and through business design.

How do you think designers of today look at design differently from its traditional definition?

I think designers look at themselves as change makers or change agents. When students enter design school, then feel they are going to change the world. I don’t think that has changed, and I don’t think that should change.

I think designers need to know why they are doing what they are doing, and what’s the purpose of what they are doing. Sometimes it’s as far as finding purpose, meaning and being centred.

In the Design industry in India, what would you destroy, preserve and like to create?

What I would like to destroy is design’s narcissistic view of itself. Like, see what I did, see what I created, clap for me, I did something nice. It’s like playing to a gallery of self admirers. I think that’s something we can do without.

What I would like to see more of is what’ve seen during Bengaluru Design Week, where there was a lot of participation from non-designers. Participating and experiencing design, and then figuring out ways in which they could use it.

In terms of preserve — I think there’s a shift in where design is positioned. I think design is getting more and more into the C-suite — in finding a place at the high table. In fact, I’d like to see more of this.

I’d like to destroy this inflated sense of our importance. We are more of connectors and integrators, rather than stand alone creators. I‘m glad to see the image of Hero as Designer or Design Hero being destroyed, because design is the work of many people together, and not a few individuals.

Design still caters to the upper end of the population. I think that’s what I would like to see changed. We, Tesseract and Idiom, were looked down upon by the larger design community in India, because we were associated with brands like Big Bazaar and so on, which were non-design brands. People would actually shun us like the pariahs of design, because we were doing all this low-end sasta-tikau kind of work. But I think as an organisation we always believed that’s where design has a bigger role to play, because we’ll reach the largest number of people.

Has there been something that has surprised you about design or the industry in general, or even perhaps something that continues to surprise you in this world of design?

I think it’s the versatility of design as a discipline. I trained in Industrial Design, but today I’m working in a social enterprise with villages. What continues to amaze me is that the process and discipline of design actually works across industries.

And now onto some rapid fire questions..

Who would you say is your personal design inspiration?
I am very inspired by Charles and Ray Eames. The width of what they’ve created, their ability to think so clearly, and express it in various filters. The India Report, as an example, is a fantastic document.

Which books do you have in your bag today?
Today, I have Amitav Ghosh’s book — The Great Derangement.

What is one thing that young designers should stop doing?
Stop worrying about getting famous.

One thing that design schools need to start doing?
Bringing in business as a integral part of the curriculum.

If not designer, if not an impact entrepreneur what might you have been in your life?
A doctor for sure. Or a musician.

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