Thinking Design


S. Balaram

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    To that Eternal Light within and without


    There is something strange about the word ‘design’. It is used in association with a wide variety of other words to form countless compounds, for instance Design Activity, Design Career, Design Community, Design Concepts, Design Critique, Design Drawing, Design Education, Design Gallery, Design Institution, Design Method, Design Movement, Design Practice, Design Profession, Design Scene, Design Semiotics, Design Situation, Design Students, Design Teaching, Design Tools, Design Training… Can it be that design is known solely to the initiated? Is there a Design Mystique?

    In fact design simply means pattern or structure. But would anyone talk of pattern training, pattern career, pattern community, or of structure education, structure activity?

    Strikingly, the French use the English word ‘design’; they did not find it necessary or possible to create a word of their own to convey design's meaning.

    It suggests that ‘design’ is something special. First of all, design is somewhat mysterious because its occurrence is so unlikely. For instance, could anyone anticipate the DNA pattern of an unborn child? Yet, nature creates in millions those unlikely, unique patterns like you and me, unlikely as we are.

    At the same time, design is charming. It appeals to both emotions and intelligence. For instance, a child was once amazed at the design of the word ‘September’, *e* *e* *e*, remarkable both visually and aurally (a fact mentioned by W. W. Sawyer 1969). Similarly, the young poet in Satyajit Ray's film, Charulata, enjoyed the melodious sound of the word ‘Mediterranean’, reminding him of the sound of the Indian musical instrument, the tanpura.

    Film-makers call the design of these films' timing the modulation of movements, for design is not always static. It often evolves with time.

    Design is so significant that according to Carl Jung it often is the symbol of the self in dreams, for instance the design of a crystal.

    In many dreams the nuclear centre, the Self appears as a crystal. The mathematically precise arrangements of a crystal evokes in the intuitive feeling that even in so called ‘deed’ matter, there is a spiritual order/no principle at work. Thus the crystal often symbolically stands for the union of extreme of matter and spirit. (Jung 1997: 221; author's emphasis)

    Design is at once so unlikely and so charming that some people use an argument from design, holding that God's existence is provable by the evidence of design in the universe.

    However, the wonder of wonders is that humans can create design. Animals too create designs, but they can only repeat the designs inscribed into their nature. Man alone can create designs freely, designs that transcend the limitations of their creator. In fact, in order to be fully human, men, women, youths and even children must design. And in achieving their full humanity they reveal their divine potential.

    Design is no ordinary thing, indeed. And S. Balaram is fully aware that ‘[t] he human need’, he writes, ‘which is the origin of design, is not only physical but also psychological, socio-cultural, ecological and spiritual.’ Balaram's Thinking Design explores in a fascinating way the intricate and multifarious relationship of design activity and product, the India of Gandhi and of the following era.

    Befittingly, given its subject, Thinking Design is no ordinary book, indeed.

    Take the title of the book. We are spared the cliché Understanding. Instead, we have Thinking. Like in McLuhan's Understanding Media, however, here too you have a pun. It is a question of thinking about design, or re-thinking design. It is a question also of discovering that design is a form of thinking. There is in it ‘a spiritual ordering principle or work’, like in the crystal Jung spoke about.

    S. Balaram has summed up his design thinking—and his thinking design—at the end of one of his essays (see Chapter 5):

    What is now required is not a skilled designer (by skill I mean knowledge and aesthetics sense included) but a broad based socially well integrated, humane designer with a broad global vision.

    No one knows better than S. Balaram how difficult it is for designers to fulfil these requirements. His entire book is about that difficulty. And, it seems to me, the difficulty deeply and painfully experienced by Balaram himself is the existential contradiction between the need for change and the loss caused by change. I believe that Balaram's problem is best expounded in his chapters, ‘The Power of Representations: Semiotics for Mass Movements’ (in my view, one of the best essays), on the one hand, and on the other, ‘The Barefoot Designer: Design as Service to Rural People’. And the closest, he comes to solutions of the type I would agree with is in the chapter, ‘Leave Well Enough Alone: The Need for Restraint in Designing’.

    My purpose here is not to write a ‘review’ of the book, a task for which I would find myself incompetent, but to give a personal reaction to the book, thereby showing its relevance.

    There always is a loss in change. It is a law of life. The question is, who measures, and with what yardstick, the profit and loss? Allow me to give a personal example: I had the privilege to learn an Indian language, Bengali. But the time and effort I invested in learning Bengali has resulted in a significant loss of my earlier mastery of my mother tongue, French, I lost and I gained. Only I can establish the balance of profit and loss; I can only say here that I have no regret.

    Many changes are now being forced onto India—cultural changes from the West influencing Indians. That must be taken in one's strides as one accepts the weather; that is, something over which one has no power. But what about the rest? Are there not areas where one has the power to choose? Cannot ‘a humane designer with a broad global vision’ make ethical and aesthetic choices that are more conducive to long-term survival than other choices? Balaram answers that question positively and profusely. He urges:

    The designers [should] turn to service design. They should design strategies … offer creative solutions to problems on a variety of issues rather than create more and more varieties of objects. Design would then become a mission instead of what it is today—a commission.

    Thinking Design is a serious book. But it is full of stories and case studies (stones of another type) which make reading delightful and always relate to real issues. This reminds me of a story …Well, another day.

    GastonRoberge Executive Secretary for Social Communications, Society of Jesus, Rome


    The idea of Thinking Design in book form is not mine. It is my colleague and friend Vikas Satwalekar's. It was Vikas's institutional support as Director of National Institute of Design (NID) and personal insistence that I must publish my earlier writings and conference papers as a book that gave me the much needed impetus and finally resulted in the present outcome.

    Kumar Vyas, my former teacher and veteran designer, reviewed some selected chapters and gave a very encouraging feedback which assured us of the relevance of these chapters to the present times and the unquestionable worthiness of their publication. Vishwajit Pandya kindly went through the manuscript and made some useful suggestions. Manisha Singh and R.K. Banerjee were kind enough to go through the script and give a feedback.

    I wish to sincerely thank SAGE Publications for taking the task of publishing this book.

    It was my chance meeting with Mr S. Shreeram for his interest and enthusiasm throughout the period of publication process. I am grateful to Ms Elina Majumdar and Mr Pranab Sarma and his team for their efforts and warm support during the project.

    Without the contribution of all these individuals, this book would not have taken this shape. I value each of their support and most sincerely acknowledge the same.

    I am indeed very grateful to these sources and to the opportunities provided to me. I always remember those friends who each time initiated me into writing.



    Design so far has been considered as a visual activity; and most books and magazines on design have been at best colourful catalogues or case studies with plenty of pictures. The exceptions have been the books which dealt with the inputs required in practising or teaching the design profession. They focused on subjects such as design methods, colour, form, drawing methods and other tools to help develop skills and attitudes. Let me call the first category as ‘Design Gallery or Applied Design’ books and the second category as ‘Design Tools’ books. A third category is often wanting.

    Like artists, designers always feel that they are skilled or even talented, creative professionals who put their body, mind and soul into the work they create. They leave the interpretation of their creation to someone else. They simply hide behind their work and say with the usual aplomb, ‘my work is my statement’.

    In an age-old profession such as ‘Art’ perhaps this works well because there exists a whole community of art critics. This is not so with the design profession. Until recently, there were hardly any design critics. As a consequence there was a severe dearth of serious writing in design that critically examined contemporary issues; social concerns; historical developments; economic, political and environmental contexts; larger global connections; philosophical understanding and future visions. Designers created ‘things’ (this includes communications) but their ‘thinking’ remained unarticulated and unshared by the society at large. This situation has started changing only of late. Thinking Design is a small attempt in that direction.

    This is a collection of a dozen chapters chosen from my earlier writings. They cover a time span of some seventeen odd years. A few learned colleagues of mine who read some of them found them relevant even in the present context and that is the major reason for their selection in the form of a book.

    In a collection that is so paced in time, the style and mode of expression are bound to be somewhat uneven. I have made no effort to change this as each chapter represents a certain period in the world design scene and my thinking process in relation to that period. The statistics mentioned in each chapter refer to those periods and contexts as and when the chapter was written. One good example is the figure of the Indian population which changes drastically every day.

    Each chapter was also written on different occasions addressing different audiences. Therefore, there may be a repetition of some ideas in a few chapters. At other times, there is discontinuity of a norm which I set for myself to follow. For instance, in one of the chapters I have criticised the use of the words ‘Third World’ and ‘developing country’, since both these expressions sound rather derogatory showing the lives of the majority of humanity in a poor light, thus creating a negative bias. In their place, I have used the word ‘majority world’ based on the number of people living there in contrast to the popular words which are based on material wealth or degree of industrialisation a country has. But the use of ‘majority world’ appears only in one chapter of mine, whose main theme is indirect psycho-political oppression and hence such a stance was important.

    A point regarding the language has to be made here. Notes and glossary are not given separately at the end of the book as these are very few. On deserving occasions notes and explanations of Indian words are provided on the same page inside the margin for convenient reference.

    As mentioned earlier, a majority of the chapters were prepared as papers to be presented at national or international conferences. Because of the haste to meet the deadlines and also to add certain cuts and thrusts to an argument, many a time I had to resort to a ‘here and now’ journalistic polemic. Wherever obvious, this has been toned down to give the writing a more enduring format. Yet some traces of it could be detected by the critical reader.

    The chapters chosen are varied in their themes and each represents a different dimension of Design Thinking. Although these are based on the Indian and Asian design situation, their arguments are universal. The themes deal with subjects such as the Indian design context, people's own design solutions, design education, comparison between Western and Indian design concepts, and semiotics. One chapter explores the connection between politics and design, while other moots the concept of ‘barefoot designer’. A couple of chapters argue for the re-appraisal of crafts to bring methods and attitudes of a craftsman into the mainstream design thinking. As a whole they revolve around aspects such as values, identity relevance and human empathy.

    The book is conceived as ‘Graphic’ in the structuring of its contents. On a three axes grid the contents would constitute horizontals, verticals and diagonals. The conventional theoretical reflective argument is considered horizontal while the upright practical design project is vertical. The diagonal, of course, is eccentric and refreshingly mad. The main text in the form of ‘chapter’ is juxtaposed with verticals and diagonals which are there to act as punctuation and provide relief to the main text. The verticals are thirteen case studies of projects done mostly at NID. They are not connected directly to the chapters. But they are indirect applications of some ideas appearing in the chapters. The reader is prompted to make his or her own connections. The diagonals are miniscule amusing stories of Mulla Nasrudin, the mad genius, used in the manner of a quote—they take the reader to a different deeper plane of thinking, both amusing and enlightening at the same time. Their presence in the book is meant to be a teasing distraction.

    The book is not linear. The reader is prodded in every chapter to refer to the case studies appearing in the last section for an illustration of an idea in its realisation. The contents are arranged not chronologically but in a suitable order for a more meaningful reading.

    Some of the arguments are deliberately stretched a little too far to give an edge to the point being made. I hope this writer's ‘excesses’ may be pardoned by the critical readers and not mistaken for sweeping statements.

    At a time in history when a new individualism is leading humanity to a decline in social responsibility and towards a rise in the ‘rights’ culture, this book attempts to bring to light some issues which are important to designers. Even if it succeeds in raising a lively debate whether contradictory or supportive, I consider its aim as being fulfilled.

  • References

    Balaram, S. (ed.). 1993. New Curriculum. Ahmedabad: National Institute of Design
    Balaram, S.1998. Thinking Design. Ahmedabad: National Institute of Design
    Balaram, S. (ed.). Unpublished Document. ‘Report of the UNIDO-ICSID Meeting, 1979’. Ahmedabad: Knowledge Management Centre, National Institute of Design
    Bonsiepe, Gui. 1989. Arabesques of Rationality: Notes on the Methodology of Design. Readings from Ulm. Bombay: Industrial Design Centre
    Coomaraswamy, Ananda K.1985. Art and Swadeshi. Madras: Ganesh & Co. Ltd.
    Dreyfuss, Henry. 1955. Designing for People. NewYork: Simon and Schuster
    Eames, Charles and RayEames. 1958. The India Report. Ahmedabad: National Institute of Design
    Fuller, R. Buckminster and Robert Marks. 1973. The Dymaxian World of Buckminster Fuller. NewYork: Doubleday
    Gandhi, M.K.1976. An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Ahmedabad: Navjeevan Publishing Co.
    Gandhi, M.K.1968a. The SelectedWorks of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. III. Ahmedabad: Navjeevan Publishing House
    Gandhi, M.K.1968b. The SelectedWorks of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. IV. Ahmedabad: Navjeevan Publishing House
    Gandhi, M.K.1968c. The SelectedWorks of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. V. Ahmedabad: Navjeevan Publishing House
    Gandhi, M.K.1921. Young India Journal. Ahmedabad: publisher unknown
    ICSID Bulletin1994. Pamphlet published by International Council of Societies for Industrial Design, Helsinki
    Jones, Christopher. 1972. Design Methods: Seeds of Human Futures. New York: John Wiley and Sons
    Jones, Christopher. 1984. Essays in Design. New York: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.
    Jung, Carl. 1997. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell Publishing Company
    Krishnamurti, J.1973. Freedom from the Known. Bombay: B.I. Publications
    Loewy, Raymond. 1951 (New Edition in 2002). Never Leave Well Enough Alone. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press
    Mayle, Peter. 1986. ‘The Art of Thinking by Jumping’, in Ideas on Design (by Pentagram). London: Faber and Faber
    Mehta, Ved. 1982. A Family Affair: India under Three Prime Ministers. New York: Oxford University Press
    Moles, A.A.1964. ‘Le contenue d'une methodologie appliqué’, Methodologic—vers une science de faction. Paris
    National Institute of Design. 1979. Design Policy for India: Proposal for the Sixth Plan Period. Ahmedabad: A draft report for the Planning Commission
    Papanek, Victor. 1974. Design for the Real World. Paladin: Frogmore
    Royal College of Art. 1992. 91–92 Prospectus. London: RCA Publication
    Sawyer, W. W.1969. Prelude to Mathematics. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books
    Sen, Amartya. 1990. ‘How is India Doing?’Express Magazine, 17 June
    Sparke, Penny, FeliceHodges, AnneStone and Emma DentCoad. 1985. Design Source Book. New York: MacDonald Publications
    Subramanian, K.G.1978. Moving Focus: Essays on Indian Art. New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademy
    Thapar, Romesh. 1966. ‘A Design for Living—A Design for Development’, unpublished paper read at the UNESCO International Round Table on Jawaharlal Nehru, Delhi
    Thapar, Romesh. 1979. ‘Identity in Modernisation’, keynote address delivered at the National Institute of Design, UNIDO–ICSID-lndia Conference, Ahmedabad
    United Nations Development Programme. 1994. Development Report. Washington DC: UNDP
    Whiteley, Nigel. 1993. Design for Society. London: Reaktion Books
    Zimmer, Heinrich. 1985. Philosophies of India. Princeton: Princeton University Press

    Notes on Select Figures

    • 2a. Worship of Bodhi tree: Medallion on the railing around the stupa. Indian Museum, Kolkata
    • 2b. Design of silk tissue by Owen Jones. Spital fields. Shows influence of Indian motifs. Victoria Albert Museum, London
    • 2d. Scheme for the Indian Pavilion, Osaka World Fair 1970, Tensile structure designed by NID in consultation with Dr. Frei Otto
    • 2h. An experimental bamboo house designed at NID
    • 4c. Eminent designer Charles Eames with the author at NID, 1978 4d. Learning traditional craft of wood turning while sitting on the floor
    • Inset 5c. A traditional Indian clay water cooler with coir cover
    • 5d A modern Indian water cooler in steel and plastic
    • 6a The first Indian design school: The National Institute of Design
    • 6f. ‘My Land My People’ An exhibition held in Russia as part of the Festival of India
    • 7c. A good use of recycling: water server made of used coconut shell and used bamboo stick
    • 7e. In a weekly market, a woman artisan makes stoves from recycled metal and sells
    • 7f, 7g, 7h. Mundane household articles arranged as decorations in rural Indian homes.
    • 7i. Lota—A common vessel, design of which was perfected, through evolution by generations of craftsmen
    • 8a. A discarded oil tin modified to become a domestic oil dispenser
    • 8b. A stove lighter
    • 8c. Simplified version of a stove lighter
    • 8d. A cleaner-cum-lighter for a stove
    • 8e. Simplified perforation-cleaner
    • 8f. A kerosene lamp from a scrap tin sheet and a charcoal stove in scrap metal
    • Inset 8g. The most common clay stove used in villages
    • 9b. The illiterate tribal women fitting an Indian Mark II borewell pump
    • 9c. Environmental Perception Course: (a) study of a step well, (b) study of a clay stove
    • 10b. A Kalamkari sketch drawn directly on cloth
    • 10d. Truck decorations by the people
    • 12d. Everyday products redesigned for the less-abled minority 12f. Traditional wisdom: A lightweight umbrella made of palm leaf
    • 14a. Basic design exercise by the author. Plaster model.
    • 14b. Natural indigo dyed textile paintings by Padmini Balaram
    • 14c. a project carried out by Indian and Japanese students. National Institute of Design, Indian Institute of Technology, Tokyo Zokei Daigaku.
    • 14d. First Exhibition of Indian Design Abroad

    About the Author

    S. Balaram is an industrial designer, senior faculty and former Chairman of Education at the National Institute of Design (NID) in India. He is presently Dean of D.J. Academy of Design, Coimbatore.

    He is recipient of the honorary fellowship of the Society of Industrial Designers of India and an invited member of the advisory board of ‘Design Issues’, USA. Four inventions of Balaram have been patented by NID. The institute also won the first International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID), Philips Award for its outstanding achievement in industrial design. One of the seven projects which won this award was designed by Balaram. A life-saving medical equipment which he and a colleague jointly designed for Sri Chitra Tirunal Institute of Medical Sciences and Technology was awarded India's prestigious National Meritorious Invention Award. He was recipient of Ron Mace international award for Universal Design.

    Born into a farmer's family in Gunnathota Valasa, a tiny Agraharam (a village gifted to a scholar by the king) in Andhra Pradesh, South India, Balaram did his post-graduation in Product Design from the NID, Ahmedabad and a research course at the Royal College of Art, London. He holds a diploma in Mechanical Engineering. He started his professional career as a sign-board painter and later became a mechanical engineer, finally settling down to design practice and teaching. His varied pursuits include short story writing, package design and film criticism.

    He has held senior positions such as Chairman of Extension Programmes, Co-ordinator, Foundation Programme, Associate Chairman and Industrial Design at the NID. He was Governing Council Member of The Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, Vice-President of The Society of Industrial Designers of India and Co-ordinator, Design Foundation Studies, NID. He founded the Craft Development Institute in Kashmir.

    His published writings form part of books such as The Idea of Design: Arthaya, Design and Development in South and South-East Asia and Quality through Industrial Design. His article on bullock cart design was prescribed as core course for secondary schools throughout India by the National Council of Educational Research and Training.

    Balaram is married to Textile Designer Padmini Tolat and has two children.

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