Design Education in India: Essentials for aspiring students & their parents

Time and again people reach out to me seeking tips on preparing for admission into a design college or for guidance on selecting the right stream/college for their wards. A top design institute like NID was envisioned more than 50 years back by erstwhile Prime Minister of India, Nehru, who mandated an American designer couple Charles and Ray Eames to write the charter for such an education in India. Even a decade back only a handful of Indian colleges taught design. Today this list in India runs long. Design being still a relatively new field for India, parents have little or no idea of how to choose this stream or a college for their ward. Tougher even, is how to prepare for the entrance examination for design. Yes, it is the parents in India, who decide many things for their children at this juncture, unlike western counterparts. Here are my thoughts* on some of these connected topics.
Picture for illustration purpose only. Rights with the photographer

Design as a career, appears glitzy and yet tactical at the same time to aspiring students or their parents, who don’t know where to place a designer in the industry. It simply does not appear to make sense in the conventional business hierarchy i.e. would you see a designer as a managing director of a company, or as a senior government official, some years down the line?
Just for a quick update, recently, Ford has announced that its new CEO would be Jim Hackett who pioneered use of Design Thinking at Steelcase earlier ( Indira Nooyi has created a position of Chief Design Officer in Pepsico. Companies like SAP, IBM, Godrej, Dr. Reddy’s Lab, Future Group etc. have already institutionalised ‘Design’ as a corporate philosophy rather than just a tactical deliverable. Many cities in the world like Seoul, Helsinki, Turin, Capetown and Mexico city (2018) have been awarded the status of ‘World Design Capital’ in rotation and these city-councils have done phenomenal work of bringing ‘design sensitivity’ into everyday life. That essentially means that these cities are ‘putting more thought to everyday planning and execution in favour of public good’. Over the last few years, there are trained ‘designers’ with a university degree and there are trained ‘design thinkers’ who come from diverse fields and got trained in design ways. An innovation consulting company like Turian Labs, employs both kinds. So, the field is now ripe for a mass revolution. With the advent of ‘digital’ when the world is looking for autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, designers (the doers and the thinkers) would find their role increasingly in the center of attention, to make sense of technology in the ‘humanized’ way.
A new trend has caught-on in India now- undergraduate degree from an Indian college and then post-graduation from a European or American college. When it comes to employing, design profession is highly democratized. There is no premium attached to a person flaunting a foreign degree, unless he/she is good at the skill. Unlike engineering, testing a design doing or design thinking skill is relatively easy. It also shows in the portfolio, a person brings in. Work matters and the expression matters. While people spend a fortune in studying abroad, getting a job in this profession in Europe is difficult in the current economic situation. Action is happening in the Indian and Chinese markets right now. So, coming back to India does make sense, but then repayment of loans taken for studies, takes quite a while, from the Rupee salaries. A good option is exchange programs that many design colleges in India have signed-up with universities abroad. These programs give a good option of getting an exposure abroad while keeping the cost low.
There is a misconception abound that one must draw or paint well, to get into a design college. Design is not Art. Art, is for the self. Design, is for someone else. If a student already knows how to draw or express well visually, what is left for the college to teach? Yes, it does require some inclination to art and liberal arts in general, but not a glitzy portfolio for sure.
Design-education-readiness is less about pre-acquired visual skills and more about ability to observe and PERCIEVE DEEPLY. Coaching class provide a stimulus but that may also make the mind passive. Drawing or photography skill may improve but the attitude of QUESTIONING and inquiry is what design-profession thrives on. I also heard about a ridiculous claim from a local entrance coaching class in Pune, where they charge a hefty sum for training the child and ‘guarantee a seat’ at NID (I found this claim false ultimately). A society of busy middle-class parents, where everyone else is running to prepare for computer engineering at IIT, dreaming of working for IT companies in USA, and hence registering for one of the many expensive coaching classes, it is difficult to remain sane and not look at coaching for design entrance tests. Coaching classes are like ‘fixed deposit’ for parents. They feel that the kid is now engaged and something right must be happening. On the kid’s side, it just provides a rhythm and a network of people to mix around with. Some simple exercises that aspirants of design education can take themselves, to enhance perceptive skills are here below:
1. Use the colored supplements of newspapers to make a collage to depict the spirit of ‘climate change’
2. Draw a credit card as seen from the eyes of an ant
3. Write a paragraph on what you feel while waiting for bus at a bus stand.
4. Express the above feelings (of point 3) using 5 straight lines (in parts of straight, thickness may vary)
5. Use broken toys/parts of gadgets at home, to construct something useful for kitchen
6. What can be done with the water dripping from air-conditioner condenser? Provide 5 creative ideas with reason.
7. Write the sequence of discussion and decisions that are needed at home, to decide which movie to go to, on a weekend.
Curriculum of design, in India in general, has essentially been derived from NID’s thought on design education. After practicing design at different levels in the past two decades, from tactical to global strategy applications, and after participating in several curriculum design meetings for different colleges, I understand that many of these colleges are fossilized in their education pedagogy. Older the college, the chances are that it is NOT applying ‘Design’ thought to its own education. For example, over a period, Design as a ‘doing skill’ and Design as a ‘thinking skill’ is evolving as different lines. It was meant to be an integrated skill but as the world around us complicates, we need minds who can also put creative thought to structuring the ecosystem as much as creating the end-product/service. In a 2-year program, there is no use devoting three months to make those students ‘draw well’, who are known to be better thinkers than doers. It needs a different mix. Fortunately, some institutions abroad have given it a thought and rejigged the design education. Aalto University in Finland and SUTD in Singapore are worth mentioning. In India, recently started Avantika University (part of MITID in Pune) is also exploring the integrated yet specialized design education. Only time will tell how this visionary curriculum plan turns into a reality .
As we pass through the age of YouTube learning, expect drastic changes in the way design education will be delivered to GenZ. There are no rules or templates yet globally and that is a good sign. India can and MUST take a lead in this level playing field, if there is a visionary sitting in the right place.
‘Which stream to take up’, is always a big question. I have seen people with the less-popular textile-design, toy-design or animation design background doing great for themselves. Choice of stream should not be guided by the usual question in India ‘what is the career scope in this stream?’. Every stream of design has a great career possibility today. I would like to put a few words in favour of Product Design though. Reason is making of a physical product involves consideration of all other disciplines. 3D visualization of a new idea, is much tougher that 2D visualization. A simple pencil design will involve consideration for user’s way of holding and using it, understanding of learning philosophy and psychology, material science around graphite/wood/alternatives, production methods, understanding of brand and marketing etc. This makes it relatively easier for a Product Designer to shift to other domains of design than vice-versa.
Recently, since the advent of UI and UX design (loosely also termed as interface design), graduates from all streams of design are hoarding towards IT companies probably for the fat salaries. I have seen cases like a person taking up fashion design at under-grad level, then accessory-design at post-grad level and then seeking a job as a UX designer in a software company. There is nothing wrong with such shifts, if done with a thought, because usually reverse travel is not possible with similar ease. The good news is that there are some people around who are still passionate about their field and stick to their guns. They usually come from well-off families and have clear ideas on what kind of career they would like to have. They don’t fall for just salary packages. Many of them are turning towards ‘social enterprises’ as the society moves higher on Maslov’s pyramid.
The original set of legendary teachers who were sent by Government of India to train in Germany (Bauhaus school of thought), are now either retired or distributed amongst NID, IITB-IDC, MITID and others. Recently many of the teachers in the top colleges are ‘in-bred’ (joined a college as a teacher, directly after the studies without little or no practical experience). This happened due to the lack of industry attention on this field in all these years, which led to low salaries of teachers and low demand for this profession in the industry. Now the situation seems to be improving (as IT industry in India is throwing a party to all design graduates, but with a ‘cost’). Successive governments in India have been playing to populism without understanding the ‘premium education’ or building a ‘brand’ like MIT or Stanford. Number of IITs, IIMs, NIDs and NIFTs spawned in the last few years (each state demands one) without considering the method of acquiring and training good teachers, is a great error (in my judgement). Design as a field needs practicing designers and design thinkers to become the torch bearer of new pedagogy in design. Look for a college which balances the ratio of career teachers with practioner-teacher well.
I studied design where we were 9 students in a class and some other stream ran with just 3–4 students per class. Today, the design colleges are running with a class of 40–50 students per class or more. Buildings where these colleges run, are designed in a hurry and lack the thought that they deserve. For example, a design college had been running in a mall in Mumbai on a crowded street. It is not a crime, but a profession that is a beacon of applying thought to every nuance, needs planned spaces for a rich learning ecosystem.
Engineering colleges had seen a similar chaotic-mushrooming a few years back. Indian middle-class was flocking to remote unknown engineering colleges also, which had rickety buildings, sub-standard labs and untrained teachers running the course, not to mention the ‘donation’ based admissions granted to all and sundry. The result is the mess that we see of the engineering education today. According to an estimate, less than 20% of 800,000 engineering graduates passing out in India every year, are employable. Design education may walk aggressively towards that stage, if unchecked. But then, there are pleasant surprises also. FLAME University campus in Pune (a liberal arts college) is one such example.
Design, as a profession has a bright future globally. Design education standards are patchy in India. Some colleges are world class and others are struggling to make sense of the basics. Preparing for design entrance, needs no special coaching. Walls between different streams are becoming more and more fluid and there is new knowledge evolving every day with the changing technological landscape. Opportunities lie ahead for those, who seek them.
(Just for the context, I studied at National Institute of Design (PG, 1997 Product Design) and Indian Institute of Technology Mumbai (1992, B. Tech. Mechanical Engineering). I cofounded a leading design company in India — Onio Design, in 1997 and a Design Thinking consulting company- Turian Labs, that I lead currently)

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