Design by Design

August 10, 2015
Mahesh Bhat
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I was at India Coffee House on Brigade Road with my college friend Mangal Shetty few days ago. We know each other for about 32 years now. We played cricket for our college, he was my captain. We kept in touch over the years and we meet every now and then to share thoughts and ideas. Mangal founded a software company called Elind Systems which made products to automate stock exchanges. He built it up well and later sold it to a larger company. Mangal is a wonderful entrepreneur and a man of ideas. He he has recently set up a hospitality company, a foundation for environment and is doing some very cool work, more about that in a later post.

Mangal travels around the world and comes back with interesting experiences. Over coffee last week, he talked to me about his recent trip to Spain and a small boat making company set up by two young chaps. My jaws dropped when I saw their catalogue. They make small cruise boats in four variants. Superb design, finish and craftsmanship stunned me.

Few days before meeting Mangal, I had come across Trey Ratcliff, who was trying to make a revolutionary camera/messenger bag. He was unhappy with what was available in the market, so he teamed up with a design firm in San Francisco and came out with a prototype. He then decided to raise US$ 1,00,000/- via Kickstarter to manufacture the bag. Within few days he raised a million dollars! If you look at the promo video you know that it is a beautifully designed bag. I would love to own one!

As Mangal talked about these boat makers, I thought of Trey and his design ideas for the humble bag. I asked Mangal the question that has been troubling me for a while. Why don’t we see such interesting design and execution of that design in India? There are two reasons he said – the first one is that our ecosystem does not encourage experimentation and questioning minds. The second and a fundamental reason is that our education system – from elementary to graduation prepares us to work in ‘assembly lines’ and as clerks– perhaps with very few exceptions.

Though I began writing about product design, I use the word ‘design’ in this post with a larger meaning. I mean product, graphic, city, software,nation and life design! To change the educationl system, we must bring about a dramatic and disruptive change. The system need to be destroyed and rebuilt. The teachers need to unlearn everything they know and re-learn. May be we need new kind of teachers – who are disrupters and builders of a new intellectual landscape. It’ll need resources and lots of it. Mangal and I talked about several captains of the software industry who have used their fortunes to build schools. Unfortunately they have built conventional schools that produce workers for the assembly line. Some other philanthropists who complain about lack of innovation in India have done precious little to foster innovation around them.

Since we are a society that does not accept failure, we do not provide for an environment that encourages experimentation. And since our tolerance level is really low, we do not encourage questioning the status quo.

Coming back to product, graphic and other tangible design forms – I have heard that China has so many more schools that teach design than India. It is not just the numbers that we need but a fundamental change in their nature,the method of imparting knowledge and the quality of teachers. This change has to happen at the level of elementary education. We have to change our definition of success too. I wonder how..? Well, I do have some thoughts on this, will write about them soon.

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