MP Ranjan, Chai Gate, NID. Original photograph by Saloni Agarwal. Taken from his Facebook profile.

Remembering Ranjan

“Why is there only this guy? What about the fat guy, the busy fellow, the loving mom, the drunk retard and the rickshaw puller?”

Early 2011. I was a timid and unsure 21 year old Computer Science student from a mediocre engineering college in Delhi. I had ditched a potentially stable career in the IT industry, in the hope of making it as a Graphic Designer. Only problem was, I had no design education or even a moderate idea of how I was going to pursue a career in design. And what was design? A few fancy brushes overlaid on stock textures in Photoshop.

Hoping to get a sense of what I was getting myself in to, I signed up for the Unbox Festival — a platform that brings together people from creative, academic and business fields to explore the intersections and foster inter-disciplinary collaborations. The auditorium at the British Council was filled with what seemed like confident professionals who had success stories to share, and students from design colleges flocking together.

Alone and feeling quite out of place, I shifted in my seat nervously, waiting for the conference to start. A heavily bearded man with thick spectacles, probably in his late fifties walked up to the stage. He had a big smile on his face. Almost cocky, from years of experience, but pleasant – as if to say, “You know nothing, but you’ll learn.”

“With Gandhiji.”

This man was MP Ranjan. The man who embodied and drove design thinking in India. The man who pushed students to think beyond design’s commercial applications and to apply it to problems that affected the public at large. A man I would later see frequently walking down the pigeon path in NID, filling the air with a contagious passion for design practice that would have positive impact on society.

“Design is a powerful force that shapes culture and it is a professional activity that is beneficial for both community and business alike.”

He practiced, taught, documented, published and much more. But what I cherish the most are the conversations. Unlike most other students who went to NID, I did not have the opportunity to attend his class. He did not know me. It didn’t matter. All I had to do was look for an opportune moment when he was not surrounded by people at the canteen, and take the seat opposite him with a cup of chai and an eager face. Shreya and I were working on a project at the time, and we decided we’d pick his brain hoping he would take us across the finish line.

“Hey Ranjan, we’ve been working on a project to create a transparent policing system…”

“Don’t tell me. Draw it here.”

I tried. I drew a linear journey explaining what happens when someone goes to a police station to lodge a complaint. He looked at the sheet of paper, and asked me, “Why is there only this guy? What about the fat guy, the busy fellow, the loving mom, the drunk retard and the rickshaw puller?” That conversation went on for another 40 minutes. It was a crash course in design process. The class I never got to do with him. Our brains were starting to get dizzy from all the lines. We wanted to present our idea and get his feedback. Instead, he opened the whole damn thing up. He was notoriously famous for that. We realized there was so much we hadn’t considered. So much we took for granted.

Sketching with MP Ranjan, BMW, NID

The project ended on a positive note. Ranjan drove our thinking to make our concept not just citizen-centric, but also provide value to the policemen whose jobs we take for granted. We went on to present the project at Microsoft’s Design Expo and pitched our ideas to senior officials in the police department. Some of those ideas are now being spread across the department, and some are being implemented.

That 40 minute conversation was a lesson in visualising a system to understand it. Breaking a system apart to think it through. Considering multiple stakeholders and designing for their needs and motivations. Mapping opportunities and sharing them to enable others to contribute. Acknowledging and respecting the complexity of the world we live in — striving to not fear, but understand it. But most of all, it was a lesson in inclusive design. He planted a seed in me to practice design that caters to people across strata. To provide value for people at the fringes of society. Users who don’t make the market. For those who aren’t considered.

MP Ranjan passed away on the 9th of August, 2015. Many who have had the chance to know him would agree that he taught us how to think. He might be gone but he’s never going to end.

Ranjan’s thoughts on Design for India:

His documentation of the course he took (Design Concepts and Concerns):