The Currency of Design

Illustration Credits | Palash Jain

First published in a slightly modified form ‘The Currency of Design’ in Business Standard, 19 November, in Deep Design, a fortnightly column by Itu Chaudhuri.

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“I refuse to add to the chorus,” said DOPE, as the the Designer Of Practically Everything was known to his colleagues, “dissing the Rs 2000 note’s design. Instead, let’s treat it as an occasion to ask explore what design means.”

I looked sadly at the new Rs 2000 note my newspaper had sent for the interview. We sat in a bare, brightly daylit room, whose walls were covered with a jungle of cardboard shapes, and unrecognisable sketches made with fat markers.

There are as many definitions of design as there are animals, he insisted, and it’s continually evolving. And as with natural evolution, all definitions of design co-exist, said the DOPE, watching a linear drawing of something come to life on his laptop screen. Just as bacteria, fish and humans coexist, and even feed off each other. None is superior: all thrive.

There are as many definitions of design as there are animals, and it’s continually evolving. And as with natural evolution, all definitions of design co-exist.

Let’s use this Rs 2000 note, he said, much to my relief, to illustrate how design has evolved. He held it up to the table lamp and peered at it through a small lens.

For many people, design is decoration. This was its dominant 19th century meaning, produced by artists, artisans and ‘makers’ of all kinds in two or three dimensions. This note has several kinds of ornamentation, as though different artists were at play; older notes show a more grace and coherence.

Design is persuasion. The market and media explosions of the 20th century created design as persuasion, to sell goods, lifestyles and even ideas (join the war effort, for example).

Design is product. Industrial design extended desire to appliances and automobiles. It also made us conscious of progress, of how things work, and introduced new materials into our lives. A currency note, said, DOPE, must be durable and easy to handle, especially by ATMs (and not need lakhs of them to be re-calibrated, unless there’s a devious design there). It must be difficult to manufacture, on budget, and include an array of visible and hidden security features.

Design is discourse. As Art began to respond more consciously to the changed world of the 20th century, and ideology became the bridge between the arts and design. Constructivism, futurism and and other intellectual movements left their impress on design, unleashing a series of assertions on what design ought to be, for the first time.

International modernism, a mid 20th century bloom, called for a universal, rational approach to form. A doctrinaire modernist might give primacy to the universality of the banking function, with a clear, highly legible (in all light conditions) design, equally at home in India, or Germany. Even the Rs 2000 note could have done with numerals positioned and sized consistently with older notes, or provided a better way for the future.

Post-modernists might see a kind of imperialism in this ‘narrative’ of universal functionality. They might also argue that Gandhi’s image is a fraud perpetrated by power, advertising morality in the face of a corruption: off with his portrait.

Design is brand. In this age of commercial symbolism, this Rs 2000 note design under-represents the national brand; and second, offers an out-of-touch, backward projection of India. The Mangalyaan may have replaced dams and kisans, but the note’s design hardly projects capability or confidence. It suffers from all the gaudy, verbose clutter that we have come to expect, so what’s new?

In this age of commercial symbolism, this Rs 2000 note design under-represents the national brand; and second, offers an out-of-touch, backward projection of India.

These perspectives, said DOPE, sneaking a quick look at a dancing line on his laptop, are overlapping and simultaneous. They are not exhaustive: we can see design as culture, for example. But note that each of these is concerned with form, physical or visual.

Two relatively recent perspectives promise to transform that.

Design is experience. Experience designers (like UX designers) seek to map money’s journey from bank branch to wallet to exit, from the user’s point of view. But beyond this, she may muse on the experience of payment, physically or electronically, making it smoother. She might even ponder the ATM, and collaborate with a product designer to re-work it. Demonetisation as an experience? Sure, though her compulsion to prototype solutions with real users might be the deal breaker! DOPE chuckled for a minute at this.

Finally, design is thinking. Attracting interest lately is the designer’s ability to deal with incomplete information, and tackle complex situations by creative experimentation, and learning from failures. It aims to think beyond products, about systems, creating a pure problem solving process.

If such a designer thought about a cashless future, she might muse that electronic payments might not reach remote areas for some years. In the interim, imagine local-area cash, valid only in a specific off-network area and bankable in designated machines.

Perhaps the sheer mobility of cash makes it king. Networks fail unpredictably; a small bribe needs to be paid to a cop; a pushcart vegetable seller might have lost his card terminal. Maybe ATMs could dispense ‘temporary’ cash with 3-day validity, introducing friction as a solution to discourage cash.

Could this friction could be physical, giving cash a less convenient form? Maybe notes should occupy space proportional to their value. Imagine a 10,000 rupee note as thick as a sandwich, or as big as a tabloid page.

Psychological issues may obstruct a perfectly electronic world. Cash is a natural, visual means of relating to money; dashboards are not. Alternative visualisations of money may be needed to counter cognitive blindness.

Psychological issues may obstruct a perfectly electronic world. Cash is a natural, visual means of relating to money; dashboards are not.

Such apparently whacky alternatives frame the problem in productive ways, break the rut of the past, and eventually lead to previously unimaginable, working solutions that move us from an existing situation to a preferred one.