The delta of design

This post presents my reflections on the design education I received at IDC. The views presented here are mine. Caution: May contain rants. TL;DR, - There is no TL,DR in Design.

Why design?

After my graduation in Electrical Engineering and partly in Electronics (from CEDT), I had joined Tata Motors, RnD at Pune. My role was with the HMI group there. We worked on various things like control panels and their evaluation (subjective and objective), setting standards for various features, designing, implementing and strategies for various car features like Acoustics, PEPS, Infotainment, Apps, and Telemetry. If someone is familiar with the automotive industry, the organization structure at TML is similar to Ford or JLR. So, in technical terms, I was a part of PAT and ODT. In general, our group was the “internal customer” of the organization. Hence, we set targets for various things and design strategies to be implemented. These would go to the engineers/designers who would implement it based on our requirements. Then, we would test these systems objectively and subjectively and give a Go-NoGo signal to the management. The range of exposure was huge. We dealt with things like tiny icons on the front fascia to larger transmission systems in the car. I think the work there, triggered a lot of inner aspirations and complemented my understanding as an engineer. I developed an interest in minor details of things like the feedback of a button, the volume of the buzzer, the color of the screen under various lighting conditions, acoustics of the car and engine music. I thank my team and friends at TML - Vinit Sir, Priyanka, Mihir, Sachin, and Prem.

At TML, I worked on infotainment navigation systems for Bolt and Tiago/Tigor, then on acoustic measurement and audio-tuning and finally on the ConnectNeXt app ecosystem. We interacted with lots of people from various companies/institutes as we involved them in our work. The work was nice.

Apart from TML, I (as always, unfortunately) had a keen interest in “making”. The moment I reached Pune, In a few days, I was at Mozilla Makerparty. I still remember the pains of commuting and the fun. Thanks to that, I made good friends like Anuj, Rituparna, Nishant and Sunil Sir. We did a few collab projects together. I, Ritu and Anuj still work together.

Before exiting college and working with CEPD, most of my projects were essentially self-expression. They were my abrupt and rapid reactions to instantaneous thoughts and desires. I did not think them thoroughly. Post CEPD, thanks to some gathered skills in electronics and organizing, I was much more confident in executing things. The expression became fun and work at CEPD. But, what about the purpose? There was none outside, having fun and spreading the love. There was no user or customer. Hence, there was no solid problem. At Pune, I grazed grasses and worked a lot, building things like speaker systems, PCBs, HAM-RX and eventually worked with Anuj on the Knit. I was under the impression that I am becoming someone, who can do things but does not know what to do. This lead to a lot of stressed times. I wanted to join * as I found their work pretty exciting. Little did I knew, I applied and got rejected. I was very sad that day. I am just an aimless maker?. Not an X under 25 or Y under 30. Who’s who of hollowness? Nosy talker at conventions. I did incinerate some silicon, for sure. I got over with that in time.

At work too, I realized that there could be a knowledge gap in my understanding of the design elements. I can feel the things to some extent, but to decipher the cause and fix it was challenging. I wanted to learn more about this. I was just not doing justice to the task. Therefore, I decided to try and pursue the higher education thread, rather than switching jobs . I researched about some courses abroad and in India that would help me understand the field better. After a lot of thought, I decided to probably do a degree in design as the curriculum and approach resonated with me. I did validate my interest in design by taking the Delft Design course on edX. Even though it may not be an exhaustive representation of the design pedagogy, It may help me understand if it is for me or not. I really liked the course and hence, zeroed in on design as a future course. I applied to the two best colleges in India, NID and IIT-IDC, very selectively. I got through both and chose IDC. The reason, without being drawn into discussions on pedagogy, was exposure. I felt IDC would provide me with better view of both research and design.

I may have been biased because - It was IIT, so I could meet more geeks; I met a geek prof in the interview at IDC, who could see through my work; The IDC website had better information on things. Now, what did I expect?

I wished to :

  • Develop design sensitivities
  • Explore my interests in HCI through electronics, creative coding etc
  • Work on good projects and meet inspiring folks
  • Do as much work as possible
  • Develop thinking skills in terms of finding and understanding problems.
What is design? circa 2016

When I came at IDC in 2016, I felt that design is essentially out of the box, problem-solving . I recall, most of the engineers replied something similar at the orientation. The dominant voices said things like aesthetics, visual, functional, User-centric and other similar ideas. Henceforth, I worked on my understanding of design. However,to what extent does the problem get solved ? The idea of affecting a problem and not essentially solving it?

Perceived changes in thinking and learnings?

In this section, I summarize the changes in me that I noticed after doing the masters. To understand them, I have been carefully analysing my previous work, conversations with friends and visiting undergrad college. A little nostalgia helps. It took me about a month to come to this list and I stopped expanding when points started repeating and forming themes.

  • Questioning the premise - I think this is the most dominant change of all. As students and kids, we are made to forget the premise. In mathematics and science, the problems and values of variables are given. Engineering expects that we design the circuits we are asked to. But who would ask, WHY?. The most important 3 characters. Many of my engineering folks, still act like this. This habit is a good thinking strategy and often results in non-band aid type paths. It helps one understand the context. It has been a good addition, but with a few negatives- like I don’t usually make random things these days as I used to enjoy, there are lots of discussions/arguments when you question the premise in a social setting, some friends may not be very comfortable to get the answers like “ Why do you even need it?”.

  • System level thinking - Systems are always taught to you as an engineer, but your position, ridiculed by the industry, is to seldom think in its terms. Design teaches you a macroscopic view of thinking followed by microscopic analysis. As Prof. Sumant says, mile wide and inch deep and then inch wide and mile deep. Nature is a system. Things are interconnected and affect each other. If one “makes” a thing/intervention, its effect is usually not localized. It impacts the whole system and hence, a designer has to work on all these facets of a problem. I did not use to think like this as most engineers often work on a small part of the problem has hence, may not think in these terms.

  • Mindfulness - Although mindfulness may seem to be a recurring keyword in self-help books. But design teaches you to be a lot mindful than you would normally be. One has to always check one’s choices against relevant biases. This is another “why?” that I ask myself. “Why?” am I reacting this way?

  • Endlessness of the problem - Design problems are often different than engineering ones. This is the nature of design. Design never ends. It seems like a loop that slows down when the user’s expectations have met for the time being. A change in the state, calls for a designerly response and the loop restarts. This phenomenon is rare in engineering unless there is a designer involved.
    I recall it from my latest project. After about two iterations, the toy was given to the users for evaluation. I am currently working on the third version as user’s expectation has now increased from the time of showing the prototype. This is a great thing for a designer. If the user, is able to see the problem through my solution, one of the goals of design has achieved. His suggestions will improve the product in the longer run. The aim is to have the best solution to the problem in a predictable span of time. The way to reach that particular stage is often complex as the problem itself is complex.

  • Openness of pedagogy - Design education, as experienced by me, is a lot different from technical education in the past. It is more exploratory in nature and not confined to a single track. Hence, I feel, it tries to expose an aspiring designer to various sensitivities. They would not mistake things like type, color,grids etc as simple elements rather take a conscious call on each and every aspect of it. Further, design (and design research) draws heavily from practices of different fields like sociology, psychology, art studies, media ecology and others. There is a curriculum, but fundamentally, its purpose is to channel the discussion. Design tries to inculcate a “lifelong learning” approach. The discussions with teachers are informal and wide-ranging. This was quite different from my BTech days.

  • More than you can do? - This was the hardest lesson for me to learn. I almost spent the first 7-8 months trying to overcome this bias of choosing electronics as a material to realize the solution of problems. I would think, can I make a circuit that would solve this problem? This “circuitification” actually short-circuited my design process. I would hence, propose solutions that I can build rather than ones that may be better. I had to separate the maker and engineer from the designer. Believe me, it felt like Hulk :P.

I feel that one tends to think in terms of one’s tools. It may lead to what McLuhan says Rear View Mirror Thinking. When one imagines the newer media through the older one. Luhan would not have liked “Web pages in VR”. However, there is a satisfying rational of “building upon things you already know”. Nobody can be blamed for this tendency. Continuity is appreciated by everyone, even by the recruiter.

I used to receive a lot of positive reinforcement when friends could see things on the table. But were they the best solutions? Maybe. I could have explored more. A wider solution space may result in a better solution. At least, it seems to be a better strategy. I am a recovering victim. Many are still there. Architects try to think of every solution in terms of spaces. Graphic designers tend to design interfaces similar to print. I think one needs to explore more. I cannot imagine the cool solutions an illustrator would bring if she/he tries to explore it from say form or electronics. We should try to take a risk and live it to the fullest.

  • There is no single solution - As engineers, we have a question, which we end by answering in singularity. There is a mathematical construct involved somewhere that results in that one answer. However, design tries to solve the problem through solutions. This is because we cannot algorithmically calculate the solution to these complex problems. I love the idea and analogy of Compasses vs Maps. It says and I quote, “The idea is that in a world of massive complexity, speed, and diversity, the cost of mapping and planning details often exceeds the cost of just doing something–and the maps are often wrong.” Nigel Cross says something similar when he mentions about understanding a problem by means of possible solutions. In a ripe discussion, senior alumni once told me that his teachers had asked him to produce about 20-30 different variations of the same thing. Niemann also talks about this in his episode of Abstract. He talks about the dot exercise. I have learned this rigor to be fundamental to design practice.

  • Know the material - In our age of rapid “prototyping”, we tend to imagine our solutions in terms of the prototyping technique. Much of the “prototyping” happens in CAD while it could very easily be made by hand. Clean hands can never make great pots. This way we cannot experience what master craftsmen does. In my time at IDC, I worked with many materials like bamboo, clay, thermacol, biofoam, Acrylic, styrene, PoP and finally wood. The materials teach us that true finish comes after rigor. I remember sanding the wood through 6 levels of sanding paper to achieve the finish. I thank Samarth Sir for pushing me to it.

  • Reading and Writing - I am told, Good designers read a lot. Thanks to the nudges by Prof. Girish, I have tried to read as many interesting books as possible. I think I have read more books in the last two years than I did in the previous 10 years. But there are still a lot of shortcomings in my reading habit. I have to work a lot on this skill. Writing is a critical activity for designers. Design communication is an important design skill. There has been a small delta in my writing skills too. But I have a long way ahead.

  • Ethics and Morality - The scope of the design professions has expanded beyond what many could imagine a few years back. It will not be wrong to say if, the next profession to take the Hippocratic Oath would probably be design professionals. So, much of our life is controlled via systems and interfaces we as designers design. I try to think of designs in these terms as well. The need is even more profound in the Indian context. We as designers act as proxies of the users who rely on us as people who respect their context and trust us with their privacy, data, security and sometimes lives. Designers should not absent-mindedly sugar-coat technology for mass consumption. In an important discussion during our DDS, Prof. Udaya kuma₹ talked about responsibility towards our country as designers. It was an important point. Our education empowers us, but we should be responsible towards our users. I did my project involving kids affected by cerebral palsy under Prof. Girish. He advised me to make multiple copies of the product so, that we can present them as a token of participation in the project. I did likewise and was happy to get very good feedback. If one is inclined to podcasts, this one talks about the need of ethics in design.

  • Not being Reactionary- Apart from design, one important skill that Prof. Alka taught us in her course was not being reactionary based on presented information. The media presents us with some facts focussing our attention on a particular side. We should always try and find the other side. It helps us in generating appropriate responses.

I hope, I have summarized the learning well. I will try to expand on them in the future.

Influencers

The major influencers in this journey were (including but not limited to) :

What is design now? circa 2018

These days, the definition of design that I subscribe to is a convenient but tested combination of the definitions given in Nigel Cross’s Designerly ways of knowing and Kenya Harra’s Designing Design.

So, Cross talks about design as the third area apart from Arts and Science. He summarizes (page 20) design to comprise of abilities to:

  • Resolve ill-defined problems
  • adopt solution-focussing strategies
  • employ abductive/productive/appositional thinking
  • use non-verbal, graphical/spatial modeling media

While Hara talks about art and design as “Art is an expression of an individual’s will to society at large, one whose origin is very much of a personal nature. Design, on the other hand, is basically not self-expression. Instead, it originates in society. The essence of design lies in the process of discovering a problem shared by many people and trying to solve it.”

I would recommend these books to anyone interested in understanding design. They helped me a lot in the middle of the course when I felt concerned about my actions. They were recommended by Prof. Rao and Prof. Girish.

I await feedback and suggestions. Please direct them to my mail.

Cheers,

Rohit