ENGINEERING THE DESIGN
“Engineers who join this institute are told to forget engineering”. A head of a prominent design institute of India was heard speaking at an event. It was like déjà-vu. I heard that many times while I was in my design school. There were two kinds of students inducted into the design school – first, those who join after twelfth standard and spend five years in honing their skills as a designer, while the others join after engineering or architecture for half the period i.e. two and a half years. And as one would imagine, usually there would be marked difference in some skills i.e. sketching, between the two streams of design students. But was ‘freehand-sketching’ the only thing and everything that ‘design’ had to offer to the world? Well, at least this was the idea percolated within the designers. Engineers would be ‘denounced’ in every discussion around ‘design and creativity’, as the ones who can only be either a good manager or at best work on more ‘engineering’ centred projects. I was surprised to hear a senior designer in a consumer durable multinational company that he never asked designers with additional engineering degrees to work on ‘form and styling projects’, because he ‘knew’ that they won’t be good at it. This discussion however does not absolve the abysmal status of engineering education, in general, in the country where out of 7,50,000 engineers graduate every year. Not one tenth of them are readily employable. The entire aura generated out of this discussion makes an engineering graduate-now-designer disgusted with the whole idea that he/she is rather CHAINED into ENGINEERING to do anything creative. My discussion is limited to the perception of engineering within the design and so called ‘creative’ community.
Now after so many years in the profession I have seen that the other side, the businesses who consume design, had a different story to tell. Many clients- especially the SMEs, usually had some concerns expressed right in our first meeting. They would invariably tell us, “Whatever you design, need to be producible. We have seen far too many designers who give us sexy renderings/images which fail on the manufacturing front and the entire project loses steam ”. And we would tell them that we were well grounded in technology & manufacturing as much as in design, so no need to worry. I have seen in past my partner & co-founder of Onio, Prakash, sorting out some of the most perplexing problems in design-to-manufacturing journey. That started right from the first assignment that we did with Godrej Security Equipments Division on home security doors. He worked with the Godrej engineers and even workmen on the shop floor to make them understand the new design and help them overcome the resistance to change. It is not that these problems only surface in heavy duty product only. We worked for almost 5 years at a stretch on ‘perfumes and cosmetics field, designing perfume bottles, crème jars and respective packaging. Problems of realisation of design were present here also. A commanding knowledge of manufacturing processes gave us an upper hand whenever we were involved with a manufacturing company. A great skill in design and similar finesse in execution are not two mutually exclusive skills as they are believed to be. Situation has not changed after so many years when now many consumer brands just ‘marketing companies’. They get all the stuff manufactured in Taiwan or China. When they call us for design intervention, the questions remain the same- “will you design be realisable? Can you solve the manufacturing issues that come up through the process”?
Engineering is not just about solving manufacturing process problems. Current education system has made the grand profession of engineering, look like a mindless-tailor of physical products and structures, which lack sense of well-being. The strength of the field that coverts SCIENCE into something usable as a product or a structure, is missing. Engineer, understands structuring, much faster than many other people. Structuring information, or structuring a product- engineers are trained to think structures. When we took up a complex brand strategy assignment, this was ‘STRUCURING SKILL’ that came handy to put several contradicting factors together to make sense. Not all the time in your daily life, you need to BREAK AWAY. We follow structures of relationships, civil laws, organisation, religion, food regimen, etc. etc. There has been some great mind or minds that put things for us in a structured manner to make life simple (barring a few who went to ridiculous extent of creating ‘Seven laws of ...’ on everything). The man who made ‘metro’ train possible in India in record project time and with exemplary project management skills, Mr. E. Sreedharan is a civil engineer. It was a feat in the circumstances that India imposes on any project of the size of Delhi Metro. Goa’s chief minister Mr. Manohar Parrikar is an engineer from IIT Bombay. Jairam Ramesh, ex-minister from the Ministry of Environment, who did some pioneering work in his area, is also an engineer from the same college. Several chiefs of large Indian businesses have engineering degrees (it is only recently that their sons and daughters are being sent to get a MBA degree from some foreign university and more recently to Design colleges as well). There are several people I know who are heading powerful banks and financial institutions abroad, are basically engineers. Why did the banks hire engineers and not just economists or Chartered Accountants only? Because it is believed that financial institutions need a great analytical mind who can quickly sort out an amorphous situation into a structured and predictable model. I am not proposing that all the engineers should go and do banking business or famously ‘sell soaps’. But the point being driven is that there are a few core skills engineers acquire apart from solving technology/manufacturing problems, which are of immense value across the fields and design cannot be an exception.
And towards the end, I would like to recall an inspiration that drove me to the design profession. Leonardo-da-vinci, the grand master artist, architect, biologist and machine design, weapon designer- all bundled in one, of the renaissance times. While at IIT, studying mechanical engineering, I was sitting in the library most of the time and learning of Vinci, copying his sketches multiple times and trying to understand what drove this genius to think about everything under the sun. A human mind is capable of holding several contrasting faculties of knowledge. It is the modern education that makes to tunnel-visioned and fogs the brain when it comes to contrasting streams of knowledge. Let the world be born again with more holism in knowledge.
Time has come when Design as a profession, at least in India, has to embrace engineering in its full blown dimensions. Time has come to wash the bourgeoisie mindsets of those in creative fraternity to open the eyes to a reality that ‘creativity’, at an ‘idea’ level is just worth nothing till it cast into something of a physical reality. It is time to ENGINEER the DESIGN a bit.