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MORE ORGANIC THAN ORGANISED

By: K. G. SREENIVAS             Dated: September 01, 2014

Ashish Deshpande is among the pioneers of multidisciplinary design in India and heads what he and his co-founders interestingly named ‘Elephant’ Design. Design wasn’t quite an organized industry those days — in fact it was only as late as 2007 that India has had a National Design Policy and in 2009 a National Design Council. Ashish and his colleagues wanted to do “something not done before” because as he says in a conversation with Creative Brands that “India needed design”.

organic-than-organisedLet's begin from the beginning... Why and how ‘Elephant’? What was the philosophical underpinning of the visual imagery that a giant pachyderm such as an elephant evokes? (It is of course not to take away anything from the magnificence of an elephant.)

Elephant began with two questions: Why? And, Why not? The first was a reflection on the fact that there were no organised design consulting firms in the late eighties in India. We saw this as an opportunity compared to the well charted waters of corporate careers. The second was the exploratory instinct of doing something not done before. Starting a multidisciplinary design consulting firm was an adventure we wanted to jump into as we clearly saw that India needed design.

Elephant was conceptualised as a story. A story deeply embedded in our folklore of yesteryears. That story of six blind men, who come across a large creature in the middle of a village road. Each had a different perception about the creature blocking their path but when they discussed it, they put together the ‘elephant’. Design is something similar. It is only when you put together various facets of a challenge with different stakeholders together that the solution emerges.

At Elephant this has been our philosophy. We have been multidisciplinary and co-creative in our approach to challenges and lived to the fact that the sum of parts is always larger than the whole.

And let's go back to the basics: Is there an aesthetic schism in our country? What will it take to make design an organic part of our thinking, our systems, our processes, and our methods?

We have been fortunate to be present in India, a land of rich traditions, varied ethnicities of people, food, and festivals. In India, the context changes every few hundred kilometres of travel, so to have a generalised Indian sense of aesthetics will be a diluted notion of what exists. Take an example of our famous ‘lota’ (pot), rightfully epitomised by the great American designer couple, Charles & Ray Eames, in their seminal India Design Report. Who designed this classical product? Who shaped its intrinsic simple yet highly functional form, the multi-utility design, the ergonomics of hold, the nature of flow, form, and sound. There is no one answer.

Over the years, our crafts and needs have shaped and created objects of everyday use. They evolve from region to region, sometimes subtly, at other times, radically, depending on geography and local beliefs. So, yes, we do have a sense of aesthetics but to pinpoint it to one set of defined clichés would be undermining the treasure that we have inherited in the Indian region over years.

Design has always been part of our thinking process. May be it was and will continue to be more a way of life of responding to challenges that face us on an everyday basis, more organic than organised. It will take a whole lot of disciplined thinking and education to make it into formal habit like our Western world counterparts. We may need to take a hard look at our traditional creative industry resources and look at what we need to preserve and evolve before we get completely overwhelmed by the sensibilities and commerce of the Western world.

Design or the notion of design rarely ever exists in a vacuum — it has both an objective correlative and even a metaphysical correlative. Needless to say aesthetics is one of its fundamental underpinnings. Is aesthetics a function of culture? Shall we dare say the West/South East and Far East Asia have had a far more developed sense of aesthetics, say, for example, when it comes to design of its public spaces and institutions? What is that key cultural differentiator?

The roots of aesthetic sensibilities always lie in the culture they evolve. Take an example of the tatoo tribals of Bastar or Nordic arts. They are expressions based on acute local habits. The more contained a culture, the more there is a presence of unique expression. Look at Japan and Korea, nations that remained closed to outside influence for years maintain, a fair bit of their local aesthetics and lifestyle today than Europe or South East Asia, which have evolved as melting pots through years of transfusion. Maybe we should question if we have isolated some of the cultural finesse towards objects, buildings, and spaces in our efforts to survive the post-colonial growth period. I think yes. We are undergoing a change. A change bought on by a lack of vision, blind following of western aspirations, cheap consumerism, and inherent lack of respect for self. We have, over last few decades, slowly let our challenge of population, literacy, and poverty overpower our ability to use abductive philosophy and expressions which formed the core of our cultural heritage of our past.

Our urban agglomerations cannot be accused of design or perspective or aesthetics... well mostly. And we do have a National Design Policy. We have had a significant heritage in civilizational aesthetics/design. For all their other crimes, the colonials, however, did leave behind a legacy of design, especially when it came to urban planning/architecture. What is it in India that is resistant to aesthetics or design? I am aware it's a rather sweeping generalisation, but that seems to be the fact.

The National Design Policy is a recent phenomenon and so is the India Design Council. It will be a while before the Design Council finds its roots to be able to implement the policy successfully. We have not learnt from Lutyen’s Delhi or Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh or Corea’s New Mumbai. Design has made some progress in the boardrooms of Indian corporate but not become a mantra for our policy makers, governments and people leaders. The day this happens, we will be looking at a changed India. A sensible India that will start questioning its real roots and needs. Focusing on aesthetics is not required, it will happen, it will evolve.

In your job how do you help your clients articulate their vision and realise their dreams through design? How do you go beyond product design?

We all dream. Every entrepreneur has a vision close to his/her heart. A professional designer helps interpret this vision, layers it with his sensibilities. My sensibilities are based on what people want. I try and not create objects that people don’t want. I am always building that moment of connect with the people who are going to experience the product. If it relates to them, I have done justice to the product. This is something no client ever tells you to do.

How do we connect the idea of design and public good, or design and governance, or design and progress?

Design is always experienced by us individually, however, good design affects everyone. It improves life. Everyone’s life. Products are not necessarily a benchmark of progress. It is the quality of the overall impact or influence that makes a great product. Take an example of the EVM, the Electronic Voting Machine. A product that made our election process easy, faster, more manageable, and ecologically a tree saver! It is this progress. I believe this is progress and an example of great design.

CB

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