Design Education in India: The Three Tensions
As an educator practicing and teaching architecture and design, I have seen so much change in design education in the last 30 odd years that it would be hard to sum it all up in one article, or even in five. Speculating about the future is even harder and fraught with risks. However, I am of the belief that the future is an extension of the present, and that a clear understanding of the present circumstances might lead us to creating a more agreeable future.
As I see it, the domain of design education has never been more riddled with complexities, contradictions, conflicts of interests, discourses, and debates as it is today. Some of these are not only specific to design education alone but apply to all education in general. These conflicts and debates are also the very source of its richness and vibrancy. At the risk of being reductive, I shall classify all the debates I have personally encountered in to three sets of ideological ‘tensions’ or tug-of-wars. Of course, there are many more issues and debates and perhaps they may or may not fit into these three categories.
The first tug of war is all about defining the expertise of the designer and therefore the ‘Body of knowledge’. In other words, WHAT we teach in design education. The second tug of war is about HOW we teach what we teach. The third tug of war is about WHY we teach what and how we teach, or our underlying values that drive the first two. I present these polarities not as binary ‘either-or’ choices but ideological positions that represent two ends of a continuum.
1. Design Expertise: Fragmentary — Integrative?
Over the years, we have seen domains of knowledge branching into sub domains and further into sub-sub domains and so on. What was once a ‘communication designer’ could be now a UX, UI designer, experience designer, animation designer, content manager, and it is likely to split into further specializations.
Should we have curricula that produce more generalists or more specialists? Should schools hire more ‘super-specialists’ to teach specific sub-discipline modules? What about their fate (and the students’ ) when those specific skills become suddenly redundant as is happening more and more often?
Many institutions have been grappling with this problem and are negotiating a tight- rope walk between ‘core’ skills and ‘pathways’, and ‘electives’ to balance the graduate competences. However, Industries find graduates end up with a diluted compromise — a smattering of breadth of exposure with insufficient depth.
This naturally leads us to the next question — Should the ‘industry’ determine what is taught and should education respond in an agile (some might call it knee jerk) fashion to what skill is in ‘current demand’, or should education look to the future with foresight and teach enduring qualities that can sustain learners through unforeseeable disruptions? Should education serve the industry by transferring existing knowledge or should education lead the industry by producing new knowledge? More of this later.
The diversification of knowledge also reflects in fragmented curricular structures that have ‘subject’ or purely ‘skill’ based modules which gives the impression to the students and teachers alike that that skill has been ‘delivered’ in the syllabus and ‘consumed’ by the students. Education is reduced to a checklist of atomized modules entirely based on ‘contents’. That it automatically adds up into an ‘integrated whole’ and as an digested as an ‘ability’ inside the learner is a myth.
My experience has shown that unless the education process actively demands integration, synthesis, and repeated practice of knowledge, it does not get internalized and assimilated, and Embodied as knowledge. Can contemporary curricula afford to set aside sufficient time for repeated ‘practice’ or Riaz, and even if they do, will our students with ever decreasing spans of attention appreciate and benefit from it?
Furthermore, there is an increasing demand in the world for people who have an ‘overview’ of design domains and can ‘manage’ teams of varied skills, like a conductor of an orchestra consisting of virtuoso players. ‘Inter-disciplinary’, ‘multi-disciplinary’, ‘trans-disciplinary’ approaches to design education are becoming the new buzzwords.
While there are many individual ‘Primadonna’ designers who establish personal ‘design labels’ there are many collaborative design teams that seem to be thriving in equal measure in the industry. Unless there is disciplinary core-competence, can there be such ‘inter-disciplinary’ team excellence? The debate continues between long term views VS short-term goals, generalization VS specialization, and to what degree of each to include in the curricula in the limited duration of a design program.
2. Design pedagogy: Individualized — Standardized?
The projected number of designers needed in India in the next decade is staggering. There is a corresponding number of shortage of qualified teachers which is alarming. With each passing year, a greater number of students are applying to design schools. With the implementation of the new National Education Policy, that number is likely to jump dramatically in the coming years. We are definitely going to see a lot more private players in the field of design education.
The ‘business’ of education is getting increasingly competitive with many institutions trying to sustain themselves from a common pool of applicants. Many are now managed with systems that value customer satisfaction, high efficiency in use of resources, and ‘Return on Investments’.There is a greater push for ‘scaling up’ of operations, while maintaining low overheads and ensuring greater ‘parity’ of quality across larger number of students. This can only be achieved through setting up quality standards, while ‘stream-lining’ various delivery systems, operations, and procedures.
This is a refreshing change from the bureaucracy, inertia, and lack of vision that many existing design institutions are mired in. One has seen too many directionless institutions that simply leave all contents and pedagogy to the whims and fancies of individual teachers that pull in all directions, creating disparities, and leaving the students confused, lost, and frustrated.
As part of standardization, there is a trending ‘outcome-based’ academic system that has its origins in the west. It works on an implicit belief that if learning outcomes, learning activities, learning resources, and feedback rubrics are laid out precisely at the outset in black and white, and if they are all ‘constructively aligned’, and if teachers and students follow it in letter and spirit, learning will automatically take place. The teacher is merely a facilitator of this learning flowchart. S/he may not even require deep subject expertise and may be replaced with another teacher as in a supply chain.
This is the new emerging ‘industrial model’ of design education, where courses are called ‘products’ that are developed, packaged, advertised, marketed, and sold like any other commodity to consumers. Teachers are expected to play their part in ‘promoting’ sales as their very job security depends on healthy student enrollment numbers.
It makes teachers directly accountable for their own performance, and culpable for student dissatisfaction. As a consequence, the staff, (both teaching and non teaching) spend a great deal of time and energy producing or collecting data or documents to report and confirm back to the hierarchy that the system works efficiently and that they are performing well. It induces ‘performance anxiety’ in the teacher as well as the learner as it is very ‘result’ oriented rather than ‘process’ oriented.
It is taken for granted that experienced teachers, who have devoted decades deepening their subject expertise and refining their craft of pedagogy, as they get promoted up the ladder, have to gravitate towards mostly doing administrative work — managing people, resources, and time efficiently .They end up doing the job of an MBA without being qualified as one, as this seems to be only available path for ‘career growth’ — draining the available pool of teaching talent.
Designers are highly individualistic and like to develop unique and personal design perspectives that sets them apart from others. With each passing generation, one has observed more and more students demanding teachers with high subject mastery and deep industry experience — who can provide individual attention, personal mentoring, and customized feedback to nurture their individuality.
However, the economic analysis makes certain tried and tested individualized pedagogic systems like co-teaching, and studio pedagogy, which rely on low teacher-student ratios, one-to-one conversation, — as staff-intensive, time-intensive, and space-intensive, and therefore financially ‘unsustainable’. Instead, a single teacher is expected to teach design to a cohort of up to 20–30 students. Naturally, a design studio ends up being more of a lecture on a whiteboard where common inputs are given, and general principles explained, keeping individualized discussions brief. Design pedagogy ends up being less dialogic and more didactic.
Although in theory this a highly efficient delivery system to address large numbers, in practice it has its limitations. It is neither student-centric (as it promises to be), not teacher-centric but system-centric. Could there be a model that resolves the conflict of individual VS Mass delivery of design education without compromising on educational quality while ensuring economic sustainability? A delivery system that acknowledges and celebrates the dignity of the individual student and the nobility of the teaching profession? I am a long-term optimist.
3. Design Values: Humane — Technocratic?
We are familiar with the famous ‘Iceberg analogy’ — Our behavior is only the visible tip of the iceberg. Submerged and invisible are layers of perceptions, attitudes, values and beliefs. What are our belief and value systems that determine the policies, systems, and procedures of design education, which is but a small subset of ALL education?
I shall categorize the human belief-systems broadly into those which believe all the problems of the world (including that of education) can be solved through technology — that technology could dominate natural systems, and that natural forces can be ‘managed’, manipulated, and controlled, like pawns in a game of chess. These ideas have their roots in the Western philosophy of Descartes that fundamentally divides Mind and Body.
Today the world is facing disasters of unprecedented scale simultaneously on many fronts — human, economic, and ecological. David Orr, in his seminal essay “What Is Education For? Six myths about the foundations of modern education, and six new principles to replace them” writes:
“…The truth is that many things on which your future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity. It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs. Elie Wiesel made a similar point to the Global Forum in Moscow last winter when he said that the designers and perpetrators of the Holocaust were the heirs of Kant and Goethe. In most respects the Germans were the best educated people on Earth, but their education did not serve as an adequate barrier to barbarity. What was wrong with their education? In Wiesel’s words: “It emphasized theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience…”
Many Eastern thinkers have discovered that all human problems are not ‘out there’, but have their origins the ‘being’, and ‘psyche’ of human beings, as the Mind, Body, and the World are part of an indivisible continuum. It is the ‘self’, and its destructive emotions of greed, anger, and hatred that needs to be tamed and mastered, and not the external world. This view is best exemplified by Shantideva (8th cent.AD), a famous Buddhist scholar-saint from Nalanda University who said:
“…Where would I possibly find enough leather
With which to cover the surface of the earth?
But (wearing) leather just on the soles of my shoes
Is equivalent to covering the earth with it.
Likewise it is not possible for me
To restrain the external course of things;
But should I restrain this mind of mine
What would be the need to restrain all else?…”
Post the pandemic, there is a growing disillusionment around the globe towards narratives of ‘science’, ‘modernity’, ‘progress’, ‘growth’, ‘success’, and ‘development’ and all that they stand for. There has been some serious soul-searching about whether education should be all about collecting knowledge and skills for survival, material success, and acquiring more ‘stuff’ for an affluent lifestyle at the cost of human dignity, equity, and environmental heath.
The new generations are more mobile, nomadic, and less inclined to ‘owning’ things. Creativity, fulfilment, and living in harmony with community and nature are the aspirations of younger peoples around the globe. This shows education must focus on learners’ long-term sense of well-being by developing enduring personal values and character that empower them to construct meaningful lives.
The question is, can such trans-formative personal values be effectively delivered in the industrial system through standardized fragmented curricula and mass production of graduates, or do they get transferred and integrated only through close inter-personal contact, assimilation of life-experience, and by ‘osmosis’?
Can learning be ‘fast-tracked’ through technology, or is it an organic process requiring its own time, pace, and place, like the gestation of a child inside a womb? Is the purpose of all education mastery of subject or the mastery of self? Thus, the values of education determine both the contents of education, as well the and method of its delivery.
The diagram below represents the three tensions on the X, Y, and Z axis in three colors. WHAT we teach (Expertise)in design education is represented in green. HOW we teach (Delivery) is in red. WHY we teach (Values) is represented in blue.
It is interesting to note that historically, the three forces on the top belonged to the Pre-industrial global paradigm of education. This paradigm was prevalent in the Indian subcontinent before British colonization as the Guru-Chela or ‘Master-disciple’ system. According to many a credible historical account, this served us well — Our culture and arts were highly refined, and the economy flourished , and the civilization was thriving. The ordinary ‘Lota’, and the ‘Matka’, held up as ultimate refinements in ‘design’ by Charles and Ray Eames in their famous India Report, are a by-product of this paradigm.
Post the industrial revolution, this has been replaced by the paradigm represented by the three forces at the bottom. It has since been exported around the globe and has dominated it . The forthcoming flood of big data, AI, and ‘customization’, and ‘gamification’ of education, along with its promise of ‘personal choice’, are all logical extensions of these very technocratic forces.
Current human trends suggest a growing disillusionment with this paradigm, and a nostalgia to return to humanistic ‘basics’ or a pre-industrial ‘innocence’ — which could be a myth. The India Report’s extolling the virtues of Indian ‘craft’ and quoting the Indian philosophy of work from the Bhagavat Gita in the foreword, while setting forth the vision for the National Institute of Design, the first ‘industrial design’ school in India, is clearly symbolic of this longing to ‘return to the roots’.
We cannot hit the ‘reboot’ button as we have strayed too far. Neither can we wind the clock back — unless the matter is taken out our hands and yet another catastrophe knocks out all our digital systems. I personally hope to see some kind of a magical reconciliation, a revolutionary transcendence of these dialectical opposites in the future. We designers know how to view contradictions as a fertile ground for potentially elegant resolutions. After all, we invented ‘design thinking’…
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s own and do not aim to reflect, endorse, or critique the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer, or company.