Schools of Design

A field report from a hackathon with thoughts on the current state of design education in India

Designathon

On August 26, 2017, Redd was invited to judge a “designathon”, which is akin to a hackathon but with a design challenge. The event was organised by the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi (IIIT-D) but was open to anyone from across the country. A lot of students had come together and formed teams for their 24-hour round-the-clock effort, forming makeshift offices on mattresses sprawled all across the floors. The energy was palpable.

Some designers came prepared to the event in their jammies

Topics

All the teams had to pick one of four design challenges:

  1. Design how internet banking ought to be
  2. Redesign the classic PacMan game
  3. Design a social search that uses music
  4. Design a pet-adoption platform

All the topics were interesting and broad enough to provide some definition but also to allow the teams to come up with different perspectives on each of them.

The teams had worked through the night according to a schedule that only teenagers could keep up with — deadlines with things that were supposed to be done by 1:00 AM and then at 3:00 AM and then at 5:30 AM!

Some of us judges also took part in mentoring the teams before their presentations and providing last-minute feedback

After several discussions with teams, I was reeling with the quantum of work each of them were able to put out in that one night. Some teams were dealing with issues like the theft of their camera and weren’t able to complete their projects. Despite a few of these unfortunate incidents and a few other drop-outs by other teams, the majority seemed excited to present their ideas to us.

Presentations

There were three other judges in addition to me, including Anil Reddy from Lollypop Studios, Gui Corte Real of Zomato and Aman Parnami who is also a faculty member.

From left to right in the front row: Aman, Gui, Anil and Sharan

There were a total of 24 teams ready to present. Each had been given 4 minutes to present their ideas but none of them adhered to the time limit. The teams ranged from the new-to-design to the ready-to-get-to-work and it was quite impressive to see the maturity in design thinking and their mastery in applying their skills to achieve an objective.

There were several teams that had taken the aesthetics-first approach where they had begun designing the screens of their applications before thinking about the entire scope of the project. These teams had fallen in love with a design and had then gone about squeezing features into the app in awkward ways.

There were others that had spent all their time on doing the research for the application and even had come up with algorithms (backed by mathematical formulae) for matching people with similar musical interests (one of the project topics). Some others hadn’t worked on the screens and didn’t have anything significant to present at all.

The teams that I liked the most had asked the right questions, including what the objective of the application was, who the users would be, what they were trying to achieve, what the competition looked like, what could be improved over the status quo and had then started thinking up solutions that took into consideration all of these aspects.

The Winners

Sometimes competitions like this produce unexpected winners because each judge feels differently about each participant. But this competition ended up producing the winners we all expected, proving that the ratings were objective. The following were the winners of the competition:

Winner: Exun — An app to increase adoption of pets 
Runner-up: Monopoly — An app that changes internet banking
Best-UI: Inkspire 2.0 — An app that fuses banking with earnings
Best Research: Zenith — An app that would simplify money transfers

Winner: Team Exun — An app to increase the adoption of pets
Runner-Up: Team Monopoly — A better digital banking experience
Best UI: Team Inkspire 2.0 — A better way to save and earn your money
Best Research: Team Zenith — A better way to transfer money

Feedback

While giving feedback to the audience, I focused entirely on answering the question of how the best could do even better. The most important aspects that needed improvement across the board were these:

Sharan Grandigae, providing feedback to the students that took part in the designathon

1. We need to become better presenters

If the competition between various design schools across Delhi was any sort of evidence of the state of design education in India, I believe this is one skill that isn’t taught well. In the US (the only other country of reference for me in terms of education), we were made to present our thoughts and ideas in every course we took. This allowed us to overcome basic fears such as presenting in front of audiences and went further in achieving greater chances of success in whatever we were presenting.

2. We need to tell better stories

Storytelling is a very important skill. A good story is the result of attention to detail. You cannot chance upon a good story. It comes from knowing what the core idea is, from understanding the sequences of events that will create the most impact, from being able to understand the roles of all the players involved in the story, from many many revisions and finally from being empathetic to the listener. The lesser reason we need to learn to tell good stories is that human brains are hardwired to listen to stories as that’s how we’ve always communicated ideas to each other. The greater reason we need to learn to tell better stories is that the same skills make us better designers.

3. We need to find our own voice

While most of us learn by imitating others, one must keep in mind that we need to find our own voice. Design in India has heretofore largely been about copying what the best have done in other parts of the world. While it’s never bad for us to be influenced by good design or know the mistakes that others have made so we don’t repeat them ourselves, it must be noted that India is very different from any other nation on the planet. We’ve got the largest population under the age of 30, we’ve got diverse cultures, languages and income levels, have a unbearable focus on utility and are more social than most other countries. Wouldn’t the design of products and services necessarily be different here? It’s about time we found our own voice in design and started building things that suit us and the lives we lead here.

The Esya Designathon 2017 Organising Team

While we have a long way to go in becoming more mature in design education, the designathon definitely left me feeling very positive about our future.

— Sharan Grandigae, Partner, Redd