Monday, November 29, 2010

"The Design of Design" by Christopher Charles Benninger (2009)

We are all gathered here today by a common devotion to something called design. For each of us it may have a different meaning, but for all of us it means a “process through which something is achieved!” We may think of “a design” as an object like the Coca Cola bottle, or the Sony Walkman; or as a beautiful interior space. But the iconic designs which come to our minds are merely the outcomes of a DESIGN PROCESS. We are all involved in this process.

All of my friends sitting here are “designers”, be they lighting designers, industrial designers, architects, interior designers or artists! Each, in their own way is a master of their unique design process. Design to me is a METHOD TO ACHIEVE AN END RESULT, whether it is creating the Tata logo, conceiving of a reading lamp, or rolling out a new automobile. The process starts with a vague image of what is needed and desired; involves defining performance criteria and applying legal standards; creating optional solutions; evaluating options against performance criteria; producing prototypes and correcting prototypes, before rolling out the final product. Reasoning, criticism, logic, questioning, simplicity, dialogue and analysis are all fundamental to the design process. Limited resources temper the process whether in the form of finances, human efforts, or time.

The best designs often emerge where the defining resources are constrained; thus, our nostalgia for tribal art, handicrafts and the rustic architecture of villages.

Designs may range from the plan of a city; the design of a neighborhood; the layout of a public space; the design of a building; to designs for lighting buildings and open spaces; designs artistic motifs and of small artifacts. They may be company logos or a simple letterhead.

As designers, we work as the catalysts of complex interest groups, and stake holders, who will fund and invest in our ideas; construct and manufacture our designs; use and judge these designed artifacts, whether large or small. Designers of entire cities and beautiful furniture all work on time lines, following sequences of planned events, defined outputs and they employ modulated processes to achieve results that match specifications.

Design has emerged as a necessity! Thirty years ago designers were viewed as frivolous artists, churning out fanciful ideas. Indian products were poor copies of thirty year old foreign ones. Product design was new and “lighting design” sounded exotic, if not weird! People were skeptical of architects, as they “make things expensive!”

Today a product will not sell, and it will in fact flop, unless it is well designed. A city will be ugly and will not function unless it is carefully designed. The lives of its inhabitants will be miserable, frustrating and empty in the absence of design. This is the challenge placed before us in India. Our role has to expand from fanciful, lyrical stunts, onto the epic stage of social and economic transformation.

Industrialization has made it possible to bring thousands of daily use items within the reach of the average citizen. Things which were unaffordable when made by hand dropped in price when churned out in the thousands. Rustic oil lamps were difficult to maintain, awkward to operate and unsafe to handle while modern lighting is inexpensive, safe and accessible to all! We have moved from the design of crafted objects to the creation of entire technological systems that have inter-dependent design elements and components, right from the energy source, energy distribution, marketing and bill collection, to the electrical fitting, the luminaire, the type of bulb, to the space being enhanced, and all made functional by light.

Object design is simple; systems design is complex!

If one part of the system is missing, the entire interconnected framework will collapse. There was no sense inventing the radio without broadcasting stations, and one radio will not support a station. So, thousands of radios had to be mass produced to have a broadcasting system. Unless advertisements were designed to broadcast on these stations, there would be no resources to sustain mass media!
The culture of objects has given way to the culture of systems.

Early in the Twentieth Century the marriage between art and industry occurred through the German Werkbund movement, evolving into the Bauhaus and maturing into what is often referred to as industrial design. One of my gurus, Walter Gropius, brought this movement to America, when he took over the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The “Bauhaus Approach” formed the basis for teaching at the National Institute of Design in India and permeates through all basic design courses, be they in fashion design, in industrial design or in architecture.

However, industrialization has also up-rooted and moved millions of people from their traditional habitats bringing them into alien urban environments that are untended by design. Cities just happened and icreated over time, object by object. No system held them together!

The shift of employment from rural fabrication to industrial production has fired a mass migration for which there has been no design. It is chaos resulting in squalor! The results are unhealthy and inhuman. The very citizens for whom mass production is directed and becoming the victims of an ill-conceived system. Design has not failed; it has been ignored.

We must create the scenarios where design can play a crucial role in uplifting the human condition.

Design is the organizer that harmonizes thoughtless machines and raw materials into artifacts of functional use and beauty. Design enhances the quality of people’s lives wherever it is employed wisely.

Our collective interest as designers is how we can create scenarios where DESIGN can impact on the quality of life of average people in a profound manner.

At the turn of the nineteenth century business leaders in Chicago and San Francisco understood that there were no adequate plans that would create order in urban life. These cities were cesspools of sewerage and waste; unorganized settlements of shanties and squalor; and, unhygienic heavens of disease. In Chicago the railcar maker, Pullman, built a model town for his factory and his workers. The city’s industrialists and traders floated a competition for the city’s new plan. Within a decade the city came onto the world map as a good place to do business! Good design branded the city as a “must see” destination in the world. By the end of the nineteenth century “The Chicago School” of architecture was synonymous with modernity and progress.

Design was an engine that drove an epic narrative. Design began to tell a story about the good life, a better life and a new life. Design created the futuristic image that inspired people and catalyzed nations! Design created icons of “what can be,” and design then created the cultural artifacts that defined modern civilization. Design was integral to the process of urbanization and industrialization.

An experiment in one city became the prototype for a dozen more, and then it became standard practice! This is what I mean by EPIC design, as opposed to effete or even lyrical design! Small ideas and little designs tempered taste makers, and then became the BIG STORY of life.

Too often designers focus on the “pretty,” the “clever”, the “cute” and the luxurious. They start getting pulled into conspicuous consumption and consumerism. They get worried over what “will sell” and what is fashionable. By the time they do it, the fashion has turned stale and they are part of an outdated style. The glittery small ideas, the fashions of a season and the gift wrappings all hide what needs to be revealed underneath. Effete design plays to mercantile values and interests that do not sustain cities, cultures or civilizations. Entrepreneurs pay promising designers to tout their brands and products. Every designer needs wealth. Every designer craves fame. Each designer wants personal attention; they become obscene and obnoxious just to gain notoriety: an anal retentive baby is yelling and screaming, instead of an anonymous worker creating for the betterment of society. Effetism is the result and this little effete narrative, this tiny irrelevant story, begins to eat at the roots of the large narrative. Design must get out of tinsel town, leave romanticism to Bollywood and shun the virtual reality of Hollywood.

We need to recapture the Modernist mission, and focus on bringing “the good life” to the masses.

Design has become mundane and banal. It is becoming frivolous and effete! It is playing on cheap emotions, like being the “tallest”, or the largest, or the most stupid! Bright colors, reflective metals and a multitude of materials get crass attention. This is what I see in architecture, interior design, and in product design today. We must defy this!

I recently visited the Spanish town of Granada where centuries of a city making tradition and effective urban design have tempered the inhabitant’s life styles for the better. The key to their success lies in the design fabric of separate templates for buildings, pedestrians and vehicles. People rarely walk across polluted and dangerous streets! They move down covered arcades, through human scale plazas, within pleasant gardens, past proportioned statues and around harmonious fountains. One minute they are in clairvoyant natural daylight; the next they disappear into dark shadows. Historic buildings align on the visual axis of pathways! There are outdoor cafes and places for children to play and the elderly to sit and chat. Shadows play through the glittering rustle of leaves in protective trees! Youngsters flirt and laugh everywhere. As the sun sets, soft lights in foliage create a soft and romantic ambiance. At the turn of each corner a pleasant, unsuspected new experience awaits one!

Collectively it is our challenge is to bring the benefits of good design to more and more people. To do this we must take on ever more complex design challenges like the design of our cities, urban precincts, river fronts, open spaces, affordable shelter and parkland hills. One of the simplest interventions into the urban scenario is the creation of appropriate public lighting for roads, footpaths, public gardens, statues and iconic structures. Drinking water for all is doable within one decade; and the same with sewerage systems.

City governments do not have the intellectual resources to make such plans, nor the vision to see dramatic changes. Urban planning legislation stifles any qualitative improvement of cities, forcing us into a step by step, knee jerk method of identifying little, little projects which together are called a Development Plan. There is no design in all of this, just scheming and adjusting; buying and selling.

There needs to be an engagement of designers, industrialists, business people and professionals with the urban scenario of India’s cities. But this should not be a cabaret where the idle talking heads hold useless meetings and ‘do-good’ seminars, just to watch each other dance and sing the praises of what we neither have, nor can ever achieve. We need to study the statutory barriers as well as the plan options and work on a multi-level platform between policy, programmes, projects, design and people. Our cities and metropolitan regions remain amongst the few mega-habitats in the world without even the gesture of an urban design and designed environments. There is no scenario wherein designers can play a role.

We must employ appropriate technology to this end!

We must apply design logic, design processes, design techniques and design methods to the creation of artifacts that impinge on more and more people. We must employ design logic on correcting the environmental disaster facing us. We must employ design methods to create access to shelter by the poor.

What are we waiting for? Let us create that scenario!

In front of our eyes we have seen the Mumbai-Pune Expressway emerge. We have seen the Hussein Sagar Lake transform from a polluted cesspool into a beautiful urban precinct of public domains. We have seen Pradeep Sachadev turn a dirty nalla in New Delhi transform into the Delhi Haat. The landscape designer Ravi Bhan transformed a misused drainage catchment in Ayodhya into a beautiful river front park. A private developer, Harsh Neotia, in Kolkata turned a virtual garbage heap into a charming cultural centre for the arts called ‘Swabhumi’. In Pune’s Koregaon Park a dirty nalla was transformed into the wonderful Osho Park. The examples of what we have achieved and do through design in India, and through private-public-designer partnerships, is endless.

I remember the wonderful fountains which came up all over Pune before the 1994 National Games. TAIN Square in Pune has created a public space for its neighborhood, where everyone else is building right up to the road line leaving no space for people. We are trying to create a youth plaza spanning over the national highway at the College of Engineering, Pune to link the severed halves of a historic campus together, joining them over the national highway and connecting them to the riverfront.

Why do we feel amazed when we stroll down the boulevards of Paris, stretch out on the green lawns of its gardens, and sip coffee in its side walk cafes? We feel amazed because we are a deprived lot. We are starved of the most basic human joys of life in a civilized city. We are hungry just to sit with a friend a sip tea in a cozy out-of-doors café. Children in slums do not know the joys of running, playing and laughing in a place of their own!

We must re-think design; we must re-consider the role of design; we must re-design design! We must find purpose!

Good Design brings a better life to everyone. Good design is good business! If we passionate to do good things, we can do anything! Design is a process followed to reach our dreams. What are we waiting for: Let us design a better future!

* Christopher Charles Benninger is an architect-urban planner who works from his studios in Pune, India and in Thimphu, Bhutan. He has designed award winning projects like the Suzlon World Headquarters, the Mahindra United World College of India and the Capitol Complex in Bhutan. He studied Urban Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Architecture at Harvard University, where he later taught. He founded the School of Planning at CEPT, Ahmedabad. Articles on his work are found in over fifty Indian and international journals. The article above is amalgamated from two Key Note Addresses given in February 2009, the India Design Festival on the 7th in Pune and the Indian Institute of Interior Design international conference on the 20th in Mumbai.
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