Further conversations with a pedagogue: Part Two

Manoj Neel heads Interaction Design and Information Design faculty at National Institute of Design, Bangalore. He is authoring an interesting paper on the future of design education in India. This is an excerpt from his conversations with me as a practicing designer. This is a continuation from the previous post. Read that first.

Manoj Neel: You’ve been practising for over 18 years; and you’d have observed and mentored a good number of designers as they work on projects in the office. Any change you’ve observed in their mindsets from then to now (aptitudes, motivation to listen, passion etc. any broad patterns you see). In your interactions with the student community do you see any change in their mindsets, their motivations today – or is it simply that ‘students-will-always-be-students’?
Shiva Kumar: Oh sure they’ve changed. Today it takes just 5 mins on my browser to know something which once took me 2-3 weeks to search, assimilate and represent – that leads to a phenomenal amount of complacency in present day students.
And educators have not woken up to the fact that information is available so fast and so easily, because they are not power users of technology and Internet. So there’s a huge gap between the educators and students. Students are progressive in accessing info; now do they use it the right way, I don’t know. They take all this information and put it in these containers and show it as they are. They don’t interpret it within context, which is expected of them. They are not analytical about what you get; they access prepackaged information and present it to technologically challenged educators.
When I run graphic design courses at design schools today the connect with the students is solid. The schools think I am of immense value to students. The reason is because I can access what they can and most often question their originality. And that’s because of the industry I am in, that’s all.

MN: Your practice really informs what you do….
SK: It can be brutal if I am not informed. I’m trying to always be on the curve if not ahead of it; and my team is well informed too.

MN: Admittedly, your office handles a diverse portfolio of projects – from publications design to social web2.0 applications. Given this spread (and no stated media preference, you prefer to remain media-agnostic), what do you look for when hiring a designer or putting one on any job that comes in? Do you look at media-specific skills or at design thinking ability – or something in between? In other words, do you prefer a generalist or a specialist?
SK: All I want is someone with a basic hygiene factor to create crafted solutions. And if that hygiene factor not enough we can train them. We can mentor a good typographer, layout artist – but the key ingredient is for somebody to look a problem in its face and be able to dismember it – deconstruct it. Restructure it in such a way that it can be viewed from multiple perspectives to reach a solution very easily. And that’s what we at Apparatus do. If a person can conceptually understand this that’s who we need. And yes, there’s a lot of work that’s done outside the machine before we even get to it.

MN    In the course of your work you’d have interacted with a number of international designers, design students. How do you see the ‘Indian model’ of design education (as shaping the profile of a designer) as different from an ‘International’ one?
SK: It is about how you can make design education more Indian, if I understand you correctly. First of all we shouldn’t look at the west, there’s a grammar that’s very seriously Indian. One important thing is we are a culture of narratives, a culture of storytelling where we string contexts to make tales. Grandmothers told us stories, you sit in a bus and the guy next to you is telling you a story. The West is waking up to this concept of narratives today. I think that is what is missing in our education and there are micro flavors to it. All of us need to be wired to that to create crafted solutions in context.

We’ve followed the West for quite a while, which is a boxed method of delivery. While this is good, we are conceptually way more organic.

MN: Do you still have trouble describing what you do for a living to your friends  – unlike say a doctor, a software techie, or an engineer – after all these years in the profession, how would you introduce yourself? And what would you say is the fundamentally different thing that a designer ought to have that, perhaps no one else in the room does?

SK: That’s still a tricky thing to explain (not that it bothers me), so I say I run my own business, that’s all I tell people. Now what do you do as business? Well I’m a consultant. And it’s true; we define products for other people. So what did you do recently? Well, we defined this newspaper called Sakshi. In the process we design. Design doesn’t need to figure in the conversation, it’s got connotations attached to it that are unnecessary. Design just happened in the process. One of things we stress on is that we are ‘participative consultants’, we actively do stuff as a part of the consulting.

MN: And what would you say is the fundamentally different thing that a designer ought to have that, perhaps no one else in the room does?

SK: If you can straddle both the emotional and rational/analytical worlds – that is what a designer should have and nobody can ever have. The ability to think about something analytically and emotively within a specific context. From my head and heart, at once.  And I think it is so very special that you are always the odd guy in the room, because you’re talking about revenue models and you are talking about what’s the love in it.

MN    We have regular Gyaan Adda sessions at our campus where the subject for a recent discussion was ‘Can design be taught?’ When you reflect on your design education at design school, do you see a tangible connect between your education at NID and your evolution as a designer? What has been the greatest ‘learning’ you’d recollect from being at design school?
SK: Oh very heavily indeed. I did carry away two things – Consciousness for what you do/how you do it, and a phenomenal sensitivity to context. Two things that NID has taught me that no other place would have taught me – ‘sensitivity’ about being a good person; you respect, listen, respond, and empathise. Because most often I see that I’m constantly fitting myself into somebody else’s shoes, I’m constantly looking at a problem and wondering what happens if the user is handicapped or aged. And as I said, a great sensitivity to context.


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