By: K.G. SREENIVAS             Dated: January 28, 2015

While aesthetics, ideology, or philosophy help visual admiration and “idea generation”, what lies at the crux of design — from garments to public good — are functional excellence, quality, modern or classic contemporary styling, and indeed enduring value

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant. Founder and Creative Strategist at Shining, Shombit, who is a French national now, Shombit began life at the bottom of the pyramid, living in a divided Bengal refugee colony just outside Kolkata. In 1973, with $8 in his pocket, he left for Paris, even as his education at the Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata, and in Paris at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts and École Supérieure d'Arts Graphiques Penninghen remained incomplete for want of money and indeed time away from the daily compulsions of earning a livelihood. From a sweeper to designer to management strategy consultant, Shombit has been witness to a variety of experiences, giving him deep insights into humanity across all races. He put to use this insight to a finer understanding of the art of business helping many global organisations grow creatively and profitably. Shombit speaks to CREATIVE BRANDS about the idea of design and its application in creativity, business, and public good.

The human world functions — or is at least expected to — to a ‘design’, particularly in a physical sense. What to your mind is design or the organizing principles of design? Is Mona Lisa a perversion of design?

Design has two aspects: one is aesthetic, ideological, and philosophical, made only for visual admiration and idea generation, like Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Mona Lisa.

The second aspect of design is used in the social, family, and individual context. If these designs do not have functional excellence, lasting quality, and modern or classic contemporary styling, they will not have any lasting value. People talk very loosely about the contemporary factor in usable design. The garments we wear could be contemporary to look new, but that look can fade away. Bell bottoms were contemporary in the 1970s. This fashion may return but it will again go away.

In contrast, if you look at YSL’s 1979 spring summer designs with a certain design character in the frock and hat, it was so classic that it has become classic contemporary that will never go out of fashion. But the case of usable design can be very dicey if it’s just contemporary. It has to be modern or classic contemporary to be considered more timeless. Artist Piet Mondrian was modern in 1921 but at any given time his art can never become old. The Audi Q7 is a recent car but with a very retro model that has a classic contemporary aspect.

Perversion is a very misunderstood word in our society. If people feel restrained to do something because they don’t have the guts to deviate from social and cultural values, that act is considered perverted. When Mona Lisa was painted in the 16th century, it was during a time when the Catholic Church dominated the arts, science and literature. But Mona Lisa made a breakthrough from religious prohibition. This painting falls under the codification of artistic perversion because it was ahead of its time. Paintings done during that era were large depictions of social and religious scenes in public buildings like churches or in palaces. But Leonardo’s Mona Lisa painting of a central figure portrait with aerial perspective, and that too of an unknown, enigmatic woman, not royalty, was controversial. It is till today the world’s best known, most visited, written and sung about, and the most parodied work of art, a perverse idea generator.

Design rarely ever exists in a vacuum — it perhaps has an objective correlative, or even a metaphysical correlative. And aesthetics is one of its fundamental underpinnings. Is aesthetics a function of culture? You say, and I quote: “The Italians taught me elegance and artistic sense at every stage and in the finished product.”

The functional element of design is very critical for useable products. It can be the subject of a paradigm we may not have considered earlier. We were happy with making carbon copies of documents until the photocopy system with functional advantage was invented. The photocopy machine enabled us to make multiple identical copies from a single, slightly smudged carbon copy. This is the rational factor of a usable design’s fundamental excellence. But more imperative is the quality behind this functionality which I call the non-visible rational factor. Technicalities not visible to the user allow the machine to function the way it does. It’s analogous to blood running inside our bodies; a rational component that’s non-visible to the naked eye. The functional part of design has to be interlinked with the rational quality aspect, that’s the purity in human blood. So trust in a usable design, from its functioning to the end of its life cycle, is its most important attribute.

Aesthetics in a usable design is a dimension used to create differentiation. In today’s world, everything is available to the general public. When some uniqueness that can be protected is injected into design, that rare element is aesthetics. It plays a tremendous role in differentiation. However, if we only address aesthetics without functionality and product quality, that design meant for usability will not work. A customer always looks at any usable product design first from its aesthetics, second its functionality, and next its quality assurance in the span of its lifecycle, as known in industrial parlance. But a designer or the industry has to approach design from the opposite side. Quality faithfulness has to support the product’s unlimited functionality without any deviation, only then do we touch the aesthetics.

In this sense, Italians have extremely high knowledge of aesthetics that they have mastered for over 2000 years with the patronage of the Church and royalty. This artistic sense has been ingrained in them, you will never find an Italian badly dressed. If you compare the posture of Michael Angelo’s David with the current Italian men, you may not find any difference in elegance. Italy has taught me to incorporate the elegance and artistic fervor of Italian society into every design stage of the finished product.

Large expanses of India, as we see it today, say, for example, our urban agglomerations, are largely untouched by design! They cannot be accused of perspective or aesthetics or design… well mostly. (We do have a National Design Policy.) We have had a heritage in aesthetics/design. The British, for all their other crimes, did leave behind some magnificent pieces of urban planning, architecture, and infrastructure. What is it in India that is inimical or resistant to aesthetics or design in say our public spaces? From your experiences in Europe in particular what is that we could unlearn and learn?

Past invasions such as by the Mughals to the British have made us lose the sense of art in living style, making us live in a pigeon cage. The British have tried to bring in Western design principles to our institutions. My art college in Kolkata is a good example. Created in 1860, its main objective was to train Indians on draftsmanship and drawing a la the British way. It anglicised more Indian artists apart from a few like Jamini Roy who worked on the principle and logic of art in Indian patterns and motifs. The Britishers have not taught Indians how they transformed handmade products for industrial reproduction after their Industrial Revolution.

Let me illustrate this with a recent event. On a visit to Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial with one of my French colleagues last year, we went to watch the paintings. His observation on Victoria Memorial’s British paintings while in India was that the painting subjects do not resemble an Indian atmosphere. What he actually noticed was that the British painted India through the window of Great Britain and using British colors while being in India. That’s why the proliferation of Indian colors was totally missing in those paintings.

Whenever I visit Kolkata, I marvel at the unique architecture of the British era. Then in the very next breath I am saddened at their current dilapidated state of maintenance. As a nation we should learn to protect our incredible historical architecture, from ancient India to Mughal and the British periods, and unlearn our lackadaisical civic sense that hinders protecting common property. It’s possible that the growth of population and poverty since our Independence made people concentrate on basic necessities first rather than aesthetics.

However, having a sense of aesthetics is important in any culture. If this is not seriously inculcated in our people, no number of design schools or design policy will bring the sagacity of aesthetics, whether at home or workplace or any area of social events. Let me cite an example of good learning. The income and living standard of an automobile company worker in India does not match the premium, expensive vehicle he is working on. Yet he delivers the sophisticated vehicle from the factory when he hasn’t experienced driving one himself; perhaps his experience has not been anything more than riding a bicycle!

The art of intricate design, be it textiles or urban planning or architecture or even our narratives, has not alien to our rather long heritage. Yet what is it that has robbed our thinking (systems, processes, and methods) of a fundamental sense of ‘design’? What is that emblematic schism?

In India we have the skill for, and productivity in, physical hand-craftsmanship in textiles and many other creative, folkloric artistic fields. However, we have never paid attention to how to transfer this skill into the industrialised system. China has implemented modern industrialisation while outstandingly exploiting Western design systems, processes and methods. India’s biggest design deviation has been in deviating from following systems, processes and methods. To make a commercially design success, there has to be a hierarchy that starts with discipline, gets into creativity, then process adherence. It’s always been a challenge to extrapolate the metaphor of the discipline-creativity-process hierarchy when I run any workshop for my clients in different industries. The challenge comes because participants often insist that creativity comes before a process. They fail to understand that to drive the process and creativity, we need to first adhere to strong discipline.

Mental discipline is very important in the creative world. For a designer, perversion is his or her mental discipline. The more perverted a designer’s design, the better will he create disruption. People will remember that and be tempted to buy his design because its disruption caused new behavioural change. Of course his or her perversion in design should come from the understanding of customer usage pattern. His or her discovery of the usage pattern has to be so much in advance that people would never have thought about it. That’s why that artist will be considered as perverse.

One of our biggest deficiencies is in urban planning. We have not learnt how to address the urban perspective from an aerial view strategy. When we design an urban plan walking on the ground, we can never achieve infinite alignment. A specific Indian deficiency is our unwillingness to learn and transpose knowledge from other countries or imbibe another individual’s best practice. This is where the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans score by making the best adaptation to sell back with value addition to the Western societies they adapted from. The French urban planner, Haussmann, had designed Paris 150 years ago in a way that no country in the world would be able to challenge its superb planning. There’s a proverb that the way Haussmann built Paris in 20 years, nobody else would be able to build it even in hundreds of years. Sure enough, Paris continues to be unchallenged and the world’s most beautiful city.

Yes, we have beautiful textiles in India. Even in the 19th century French Emperor Napoleon used India’s textiles at war time to erect extremely decorative, beautiful, and hardy tents for the royal rest at sundown. But today China has overtaken India to lead the world in textile exports.

You have often spoken about “disruptive design”, and I quote: “… every selling proposition has to be aspirational and disruptive”. In other words, how do you recast the customer’s worldview or sense of critical apprehension/appreciation?

The consumer has no apprehension in buying new things. If that something new you buy has no logical usage or consumption pattern, then there is a problem. A disruptive design is not about changing the wine bottle to refresh it. We preserve wine for its vintage value and better taste for which the bottle has to be changed. But the metaphor of changing the bottle cannot be used for the outside of usable design. Usable design has to first have functionality and quality inbuilt. Disruption is not destruction or eyewash. Disruption in design means bringing real benefit to customers who have never dreamt of such a new design and its purpose.

Disruption erases monotony in human society. But if we try to disrupt only the styling of a usable product, that product will not have commercial success. Disruption for disruption’s sake is not a good idea. Disruption for a well-defined objective gives commercial success. Take the example of Apple’s big failure Machintosh computer and the company making a loss. Late Steve Jobs returned to the company as CEO in 1997, and Apple has since taken a totally disruptive route to recover its falling financial outlook. Jobs veered away from looking at computing and turned to the entertainment industry driven by digital technology. By giving priority to just one human finger to touch and operate an iPod, he transformed the company towards becoming among the most valuable in the world today. This is disruption. This way, Apple rode a new wave towards mass cult supremacy.

You say in “Perversity sells Design” and I quote: “A painting or a sculpture that’s hung or erected in a museum is inspirational. But design that is applied through functional improvement for bettering the human quality of life represents an artist’s strong discipline.” To extrapolate, what is that, that can be applied to public policy (functionally) that can help deliver better good and improve the lives of the vast and unwashed populace of India? In other words, how do we connect the idea of design and public good, or design and governance, or design and progress?
To implement the perversity of design in public places we need to create a significant movement on excellence of usable design. It has to be a collective effort from India’s intellectual society who’s conscious of using the value of design. Here are a few examples that we can take action on: Take the staircase in some public building or your apartment complex. The height of the steps may be steep, the slant of the turning too awkward or the width of the flight of stairs very narrow. Couldn’t there be some usable design discipline set up at the housing licence giving authority like the municipality or council that makes it mandatory to factor in convenience to move up and come down without fatigue, even for an old person? There’s a mushrooming of high-rise, high-end flats being built in all our major cities. But how does a guest enter a sophisticated apartment here? Most often it’s through the ground floor parking lot with a low ceiling and full of car exhaust fumes or some small alley to reach the lift. We are willing to pay a few crores of rupees for such classy apartments, but do not question the look of the apartment entrance. As a buyer if we do not care to impose convenience, civic sense, and design aesthetics, will the building developer pay attention to it? In most roads in India, there are no walking pavements. But in places where we do have them, it is about 12 to 15 inches higher than the ground. How can an older person attempt the climb to reach the pavement? With not enough employment opportunities in India, a huge number of people take to vending items on the street to earn a living. Some manufacturer can easily take the initiative to make vending machines hygienically better, aesthetically great, and functionally advantageous. In every aspect of design, India lacks design logic, sensitivity and purpose, first from the functional perspective. But before we look at functionality, the most crucial elements of design in the societal context are hygiene, civic sense, safety, and aesthetics sense.




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