Making design education a part of the Indian national agenda

16 June 2011
Uday Dandavate cautions against the current direction of establishing new National Institutes of Design campuses without a coherent direction for the future of design. Uday is a core member of 'Vision First,' an initiative to develop a vision for creating design competencies in India.

The government of India has initiated steps for setting up four new National Institutes of Design in Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Haryana. The Department of Industrial Production and Policy (DIPP) of the Government of India has floated a request for a proposal that invites agencies to bid for a contract to help the government build the infrastructure for the institutes.

This news has triggered an outcry amongst the design community on the Design India forum. The comments on Design India reflect a strong concern in the design community about the approach taken by the government which is bypassing a critical phase in building any institution of standing - that of building a vision that can drive its functioning for years to come. When Jawaharlal Nehru first initiated steps to set up NID 50 years ago, he invited Charles and Ray Eames, a highly respected American designer couple, to articulate a vision for a design institute. Today, 50 years later that vision needs to be revisited against the background of changes occurring everywhere around us, especially after two generations of designers have worked in the trenches developing their own visions of what India needs and how best design can emerge as a strategic national competency.

The discussions on Design India have led to the creation of an initiative called 'Vision First.' A core group of designers has already approached the DIPP and Sam Pitroda, the Prime Minister's Advisor on Information Infrastructure and Innovations, with a plea to first tap into the ideas, wisdom and vision of the Indian design community and other stakeholders to co-create a robust vision that can challenge any preconceived notions, discard outdated models, and conceptualise a vision that is in sync with the realities and aspirations of India. "With a 19th century mindset and 20th century processes, we are trying to meet the needs of the 21st century. We need to redesign processes and tools and technologies if we are going to be really globally competitive and create the kind of jobs that we need to for 550 million young below the age of 25. We have no option but to innovate things differently," said Pitroda to the Vision First delegation.

Specifically, the Vision First team believes that serious thought and an exhaustive process of consultations need to be put into evaluating and articulating emerging directions in design education; this will ensure a more robust and relevant framework for expanding the design education infrastructure in the country, prior to building infrastructure for the same.

  • Government funds could be more appropriately utilised by rightsizing the envisaged institutes and broad-basing design consciousness from primary school to professional education.
  • There is an urgent need to invest in human resources (especially teachers) trained to deal with new design paradigms.
  • The PPP process as outlined in the RFP may lead to teaming up with agencies that may leverage the valuable NID brand created over the last 50 years for short-term ends. This will not be in the best interests of the profession or the nation. A serious evaluation of the NID brand needs to be undertaken prior to leveraging it to raise funds in the manner proposed.
  • The funding model needs to be formulated in a manner that does not compromise the integrity and long-term approach essential to good design, and must reinforce rather than erode the public role of such national institutions.
  • The stringent financial criteria applied on the potential bidders exclude most NID graduates and other practicing design professionals, who could potentially contribute a relevant vision and real world orientation to the process.
  • It will be a disservice to the nation if we do not create an appropriately scaled design-education infrastructure that is contemporary, globally connected and richly informed by the local context.

There have been many instances of visionary leadership driving sustained growth of public institutions and building public infrastructure. V. Kurien of NDDB and E. Sridharan are examples of leaders who have proved that clear vision, conviction and commitment help establish a public institution that can provide 
quality services that can outperform private sector enterprises.

The haste with which investment in NIDs is being pushed, ignoring the pleas of domain experts, will lead to squandering of public funds for ill-defined projects. The spending will not stand the scrutiny of the Public Accounts Committee. This issue is not about creation of more NIDs; it is about establishing a new vision for developing a design education infrastructure for India. Many countries around the world have recognized the distinctive value of design thinking as a strategic resource. The design community needs to rally around the Vision First initiative and help make design thinking a part of national discourse and change the design education approach from a monolithic enterprise to a grass root level effort. The officers cannot be trusted to nurture a vibrant design education infrastructure for India
without participation of the experts in a visioning process.

In a letter written to Rashmi Korjan (a core team member of Vision First) in support of the Vision First initiative, Prof. Kumar Vyas, one of the founders of NID wrote, "One of the things that happened to me soon after I began at the NID in 1962 was my induction to a small group of persons who eventually were to pave the way for the first ever school of design in the country. The group, monitored by Gautam Sarabhai, met fairly regularly. It was in the course of these long protracted deliberations that the Institute's value system and education philosophy emerged. The issues addressed at these sessions eventually turned into the 'building blocks' of NID's educational ethos and learning methods. Lateral shifts in the collective thinking of the group will - and should - happen when working on the Vision."

Speaking at the recent felicitation of Prof. Kumar Vyas, Vikas Satwalekar, former Executive Director, NID said, "It is significant that Kumar receives this medal in the very period when there is debate and action within the Indian design community about the processes by which new institutions of design are set up for tomorrow at the initiative of the State. Kumar has the unique distinction of straddling both scenarios – state as well as private sector. It must be a matter of immense pride and satisfaction to Kumar that the key movers in the Vision First Initiative are all his students."

Re-published with permission from POOL Magazine, issue 11.

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About POOL Magazine

POOL Magazine is a new monthly publication for designers, creative professionals, and the inquisitive in India, that launched in June 2010.

Being India's first international magazine dedicated to all walks of design, innovation and art, Pool aims to stay true to the very essence of creativity by inspiring, informing and entertaining readers via fresh approaches and ideas in never-seen-before design features.