Conversations with a pedagogue

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.

Manoj Neel: It’s been over 18 years since you began practicing as a designer. What do you think (very broadly speaking) are the significant changes in ‘requirements’ as clients define them from then to now?
Shiva Kumar: Earlier it used to be too specific; it was an extension of advertising. So clients looked at graphic design as something that ad agencies might not do (or do badly). So they’d come and say, listen can you do the corporate brochure or the annual report, it was very specific. But today they come in with a problem, they don’t come with a solution. Earlier they came with a solution and then we window dressed it in a sense. They say this is what we are getting into – help us. Which is nicer; when I started my career ‘graphic design’ was a standalone term. There was only print as medium; electronic media had just evolved, you know with TV and commercials. We were away from it anyway – it was not something that you could travel to easily, being too much of a niche. It was not even like today where using the same machine I can do both – there was specific hardware, all that kind of stuff. So probably people knew what they were going to get; so they’d come and say – hey, give me this calendar (and that kind of stuff) which doesn’t happen now; the number of media that people can have today are quite a few.

MN: So you’re saying they’re not clear what media they want – they want advice from a designer on what media is right…
SK: They are not even thinking media, which is a fabulous thing. They say this is the problem that we have; now it need not involve the media either, like there are solutions off-media too.

Things have evolved over a period of time, there are multiple different channel options available, specializations within a creative team. And somewhere there was one generalist who was looking at it from the perspective of a solution set, and putting it down to customer experience or nodes of interaction between the business and customer – I think that’s the real deal.

MN: How does the practice of design work in your organization? Is it a multi-disciplinary, collaborative act or is it guided by a sort of Mr Know-all to whom all defer? And how do you see this dynamic changing over the years? (am referring to the ‘no-one-of-us-is-better-than-all-of-us’ dictum).
SK: In terms of skill sets, we’ve got people whom we loosely call ‘information architects’. They are usability professionals. But that does not mean they cannot deal with visual design. Then there are visual designers and the content people. Again, ‘visual designers’ does not mean they cannot handle usability, just that the complexity of the task will be lesser. Like for example apps on iPhone – we don’t even go to the information architects. We do it at the visual designer level, it’s simple as you’ve got a framework, you’ve got to work with the stuff and put an emotive quality to it.

MN: And the style guidelines are also clear…
SK: Importantly the criticality is less; if something fails, it is not a show stopper. So it’s okay for visual designers to look at the user experience as a whole. On the other hand, we’ve worked on large business intelligence and analytics projects which are data critical; they are decision aiding tools and the complexity involved is immense. That’s the kind of stuff that IAs work on. Most often they do the visual design for the app – because here it is simple ‘branded-ness’. It doesn’t need to emote heavily. So I say again that graphic design is a mere tool that is used intelligently where needed and how needed.

MN: Do you agree that there are uniquely Indian challenges for us as designers? If so, are we as design professionals doing enough to address this – any problems in this scenario (not enough money, prevalent sensibilities/attitudes to design in our context)?
SK: There is a lot of reality fear in designing with/for vernacular. Speaking for Apparatus, we were rudely awakened when we were designing a newspaper in Telugu, Sakshi. There cannot be a project that is more Indian, more rooted than that (and it’s not the language alone). The context is Andhra Pradesh, 21 centers, each as varied as they come. The northernmost centre is closer to Orissa and people are comfortable with Oriya along with Telugu and southernmost center is Nellore District where people are comfortable with Tamil along with Telugu – and here we are defining a newspaper for all those centers.

MN: Within a small area there is so much of diversity…

SK: Exactly. There are graphic design problems that are specific to using vernacular, I’m talking about simple elements of graphic design. The anatomy of Telugu script is all about compound characters. For example there are many characters that can fuse to one character, almost like a ligature, by sitting one on top of the other. The standard concept of leading does not work anymore and working with the baseline grid is a bit of a nightmare! So you got to know these nuances. It actually took us about a month to get into the groove of designing for vernacular- and designing within the context.

Working with many parameters at one time – one, the kind of fonts you’re going to choose because it’s going to be bilingual. Two, it’s going to be web and print so you should know your technology very well. Three, you got to understand the Content Management System (CMS) that is deployed and the CMS templates are done in Quark 3.1 and so you better go back in time. Fourthly, the CMS pushes to the web, which means that you need to know that linkage from a tech perspective.

This is also the 1st time a newspaper is doing 32 pages all in 4-color offset – and do they want to push that envelope really hard! So what it essentially means is that we got to get a palette that’s wide. Scream color the way Andhra Pradesh loves.  All this was the reality for this specific project.

That is what I call an Indian project. If you look at the product at the end of it, it looks extremely contemporary – it is no longer about doing decorative motifs. We are imbibing a problem area that is Indian rather than defining a solution that’s superficially Indian. It demands a phenomenal amount of learning in a short period and we had to unlearn to wake up.

General graphic design today is very pan-Indian, pan-global; it’s very culture-neutral right now. But micro culture and local contexts will be the new black soon.

Continued in the next post.

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