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G.V. Sreekumar dreams of design education in schools

The paucity of design graduates in India can be corrected by adding design to the school curriculum, says G.V. Sreekumar of Industrial Design Centre (IDC) school of design at IIT Bombay

G.V. Sreekumar at the IDC school of design at IIT Bombay. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
G.V. Sreekumar at the IDC school of design at IIT Bombay. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Iwas taught calligraphy in class V. That exposure changed my life. It drove me to passionately pursue design. Design covers everything we see, do and use. Yet, India lacks a design temperament in the real sense because it is not taught in schools. In the last 10 years, there has been a significant spurt in graduate and postgraduate design schools in India. What’s needed, however, is the introduction of design as a concept at an early age.

My vision for India is of a design-savvy nation where design thinking is inculcated in young minds and pervades everything they do. Teach them young and well, and watch them bloom.

If we were aware of the concept and possibilities of design, we would look at everything around us in a different way, be it a pressure cooker, a poster, a book cover, websites, or communication networks. Nothing is left untouched by design.

Stories about important landmarks in design history, such as the SBI and rupee symbols, should be incorporated in the school curriculum. Along with stories of our sports heroes, we should have case studies on design.

There could be a chapter on an incident in a Gujarat school that exemplifies the value of design innovation, and how it can be applied from a young age. The drinking water taps at the school were horizontally level. This made drinking water an inconvenient activity for children of varying height. A short child couldn’t reach it but if you lowered the tap, a tall child would have to bend awkwardly to reach it. One student came up with the idea that the main pipe should incline about 30 degrees from the left to the right so that children of different heights could drink water comfortably. Nothing much changed—the existing model was just tweaked. It is a wonderful example of design innovation.

Unlike what is commonly believed, design is not about aesthetics or beautification alone. It is primarily a problem-solving activity. Exposing children to the fundamentals of design will inculcate creative thinking in them. The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) did offer design as an elective for classes XI and XII in 2008 and 2009, respectively, but had to discontinue it, reportedly owing to a poor response.

India’s output of design graduates falls woefully short of demand. Given the increase in the use of software and apps in the past 15 years, demand in the field of UI/UX, (user interface and user experience design) has spiked considerably. But not many institutes teach this subject.

For example, the Industrial Design Centre (IDC) school of design at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, takes around 12-15 students in the master of design programme for interaction design. Companies that need interface designers, such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Infosys, Microsoft and Samsung, have placement requirements for 500-1,000 graduates every year and often ask us why we have so few.

The shortfall in trained designers leaves the industry with no option but to recruit people not formally trained in design, leading to an inevitable compromise in the quality of their output.

While focusing on design education, it is very important to indigenize the learning. The IDC is one of the rare design schools in the country where students are encouraged to learn design in the Indian context, with specific sensitivity to Indian languages. When I teach typography or calligraphy, I encourage students to work in their native scripts, not in English. We also encourage students to study design problems specific to the Indian scenario.

For instance, one student designed a set of posters, tables and charts for illiterate pregnant women on how they should care for the child, including post-birth vaccination schedules. This product is now being used by social workers in rural Andhra Pradesh.

Another student created a product for the Armed Forces that makes water from rivers potable. We need to encourage such indigenized products.

Designers are not born, they are made. It is a misconception that a person with some potential in fine arts is naturally suited for a career in design. I really believe that more than anything, common sense and sensitivity are the most important qualities you need to become a designer.

G.V. Sreekumar is the head of the IDC at IIT, Bombay. A communication designer by training, he specializes in typography, calligraphy, publication design, information graphics and design pedagogy.

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