A design dialogue at the Jamia Millia Islamia

Yesterday was a special day for me. I had an online design dialogue with the students and faculty of the Department of Design & Innovation at the 100 year old Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi. The dialogue was special for many reasons; most important amongst them is that Jamia has played a big role in producing some of the brilliant minds who have contributed to creation of modern ethos of democratic India. One of the founders of the university and a former president of India Dr Zakir Hussein once said, “the movement of Jamia Millia Islamia as a struggle for education and cultural renaissance that aims to prepare a blueprint for Indian Muslims which may focus on Islam but simultaneously evolve a national culture for common Indian.”

In the midst of a very busy schedule, I accepted the invitation to speak to the students of Jamia because I believe that many of the problems the world faces today call for creative solutions. In this context I foresee the department of design at Jamia playing a key role in nurturing a new practice of creative collaboration across diverse mindsets and cultures.

I started the dialogue with an invitation to the audience to ask me any question. Though I had prepared key points for discussion I wanted to request the audience to ask the first question as a framing for our dialogue. The first question a student asked was “How do you handle the gap between your design discourse or design ideology and the actual practice of serving your clients”?

I wanted to be honest with my response. “I belong to a generation of design graduates who went through design education in an idealistic environment. We were obsessed with changing the world with design. The books we read, the conversations we had over tea and coffee, were all about envisioning a new society. As much as we learned practical skills of building design artifacts, we were more curious about building the idealistic future. Once we graduated, we were faced with the realities of earning our living. That is where the gap between our ideology and our practice became a struggle. Over the past five decades clients have hired us as designers for what we could build for them rather than for the change we could inspire in their collective imagination. Yet, while catering to the needs of the clients we have preserved our idealism by continuing our dialogue amongst us and with people we meet in the real world. We have formed relationships with people who share our values and aspirations to change the society through creative solutions. Over time, the things we build changed with changes in the market demand and advent of new technologies, yet our concerns, curiosities and imaginations remained focused on societal issues that inspired us when we were design students. We realized that more than the products we introduce in the market, the ideas we introduce in social imagery have more lasting relevance. Over time, as I moved my role from being a designer of products to an ethnographer of social imagery, the perceived gap between my rhetoric and my practice reduced significantly. Though the future of our ideals still remains distant, our impact and influence on the society has grown.”

Another student asked a question, “I have worked in advertising industry. In this industry you are considered a high value professional if you are perceived as a hero designer with an attitude. In your article you suggest a new approach to design based on Tehzeeb. You define Tehzeeb as a culture of humility, mutual respect and elegance. Isn’t what you suggest as a culture of design at variance with what makes a designer successful in the eyes of the clients?” Another student interjected, “Please give us an example of how you changed from an egocentric designer to one that values Tehzeeb.”

I replied, “I had to step out of my role as a designer to embrace humility. In graduate school at The Ohio State University I came in contact with teachers with Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology and Communications theory backgrounds. I also worked as a design research intern for the design firm Fitch. I started learning how people experience life and how they make meaning. I started visiting people’s homes and realized that the homes look different (and messy) from the homes I saw in design catalogues. I realized that the products we design serve limited purpose in shaping people’s life experience. People design their own lives and use the products designers design to support their meaning making process. Design begins in social imagery and continues to evolve long after we design the products- people live with and modify the products designers design as they live their own lives around those products. I realized that my role as a designer was not to design people’s life but to participate in their life as a provocateur of thinking and imagining possibilities for living meaningfully. More humble I remain in this process, more impact I can have in enabling people to design their own lives.”

This was a good time during the dialogue to present my emerging understanding of the practice of design. I went through a series of statements to express what I believe are life principles that define my role in the society as a designer.

Here are the life principle for design I shared with the students of Jamia:

  • We are all a part of nature
  • Diversity is the essence of nature
  • We are all connected
  • What goes around comes around
  • So how might we tap into the power and potential of our connectedness?
  • It is in our nature to use our connectedness to care for and support each other in the hour of need
  • The concept of Tehzeeb* provides foundational principles for designing interactions and relationships that would lead to a culturally, psychologically, ecologically and ethically evolved and improved society we dream of as designers.

*Tehzeeb is a culture of humility, mutual respect and elegance.

I reminded the students that the practice of design has undergone changes during the past five decades of my own life experience.

In the past when we graduated from design school we were trained in Product design, Graphic design, Package design, Environment design, etc.

Today, graduates of design are trained in new practices that are needed to harness the state of the art technologies and to deal with complex web of information and technology systems. The present crop of designers handle projects in Information Design, UX Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI) Design, Systems Design and Service design.

However, the future opportunities for designers are going to be significantly different and closer to the rhetoric and ideology we embraced fifty years ago. We will be working on design of:

Institutional cognition

Both in for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, collective preparedness to create value in the society is limited by how the the organizations think, make decisions and produce ideas. The power structures and relationships within the organizations have an impact on how memes travel through it and to its stakeholders outside. Designers of the future will serve as the provocateurs and facilitators of “rethinking how organizations think and act”. By the way this phrase was coined by Rikki Crutcher, an HR. Manager of Bridgestone to describe her understanding of what my team at SonicRim does.

Ritual design

Several of the conflicts we see today in the world are tied to beliefs, myths and superstitions we have inherited from hundreds of years of following our traditions. Rituals play a big part in shaping our sense of identity and connection to our legacy. To build competencies for living in today’s fast changing environments, we need a new set of narratives and rituals that can become a part of social imagery and interactions. These rituals will make space for intercultural and modern ways of living and help people learn to work and live with other people who do not share their culture and traditions. New rituals will also help cultivate inclusive mindsets and create access to abundant resources available for positive and creative thinking and actions as the world we live in becomes more diverse. Ritual design for the modern world will require an open minded curiosity, futuristic thinking, accommodating mindsets and mindfulness.

Community Design

The pandemic has brought into focus the need for caring for each other. It has also brought people to think about the importance of family and community as our primary support structure. In this background big corporations and the governments are gong to have to turn to nurturing and strengthening community infrastructure for achieving wellbeing, progress and prosperity. Instead of just building products and services we are gong to have to build relationships, tools for communication, and ways of tapping into indigenous resources (talent and materials). Designers will have the opportunities to inspire a common purpose, and purpose driven relationships for communities to design a sustainable lifestyle

Culture Design

Company culture to a large extend has an impact on employee motivation and turnover. Especially in the post pandemic future company culture will become even more important to attract and retain high caliber talent. In this context the need to build creative communities within organizations will drive opportunities for designers to conduct cultural audits and envision design of cultural ethos that balances the legacy values of the organization and the aspirations of its people.

Social imagination design

Designers will no longer serve as servants of the companies that pay them. We will use our design sensitivities to directly engage with communities in the real world- provoking social imageries and shaping discourses about the future. We will use story telling, poetry, film making, theater and many other creative tools to provoke imagination of possible future. By being in close contact with the real people in the real world and gaining familiarity with their imagination, designers will serve as people’s voice in client companies. We will evangelize, provoke, and challenge fresh thinking about simplifying, improving and leapfrogging ways of creating value for people.

Towards the end of the dialogue one of the professors asked me what kind of a design education program I envision for the future. My response was- I envision design schools embedded in the communities which their graduates would eventually serve, using the community as a learning laboratory. They would gain understanding of the innate capacities of those communities and co-create, with the people in the community, a sustainable ways of living. The design schools of the future will not produce national or international celebrity designers. Instead, they will train designers with Tehzeeb, as facilitators of creativity within communities.

As I ended the dialogue with the students and faculty of Jamia, I felt a sense of hope that we will have more opportunities to bridge the gap between our design ideology and design practice.



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