Reimagined curriculums need art and design

Arvind Passey
January 2020

The first time I saw a short clip of a walking bicycle, I was not just surprised but also confused. The rear wheel in this contraption was non-existent and one could see a metal skeleton with four legs in its place. This was inspired from Theo Jansen’s kinetic Strandbeest sculptures. What if I now tell you about interiors where materials, light, and fabric create the right minimalist architectural effect? Or remind you that there are episodes of Black Mirror that bring in dog-like drones. The days aren’t far when bio-bots like solar-powered insects will be in use. Sustainable architectural design is already up and running and there are people talking about housing where modular, mass-customization, and sustainability converge seamlessly. We are living in a world where innovation, imagination, and intuition work together in harmony and help intellectual and perceptual skills reach a level where creating new-age solutions becomes possible.

New-age solutions

Solutions matter. It isn’t difficult to imagine that solutions today are created, fashioned, executed, or constructed when multiple forms of art decide to harness each other’s strengths. Thus visual, literary, and performing arts are often seen attending to each other because this kind of coming together creates communication messages that are both easier as well as effective. An apt example is of street plays that make use of poetry, music, dance rhythms, and even art to make socially relevant communication reach the right audience. Art and design aren’t just about some narrowed down academic disciplines or concepts that only a few profess to be interested in. Just like science today. Or history. Or the languages. Almost every subject today comes no longer with limited vision or value as an interactive force. Life itself has become inter-disciplinary.

Design, for instance, isn’t about cardboard packaging or window displays but also about architectural blueprints, business processes, diagrams for circuits, patterns for sewing, engineer drawings and the line goes on. Both art as well as design are no longer happy to remain in the confines of a gallery where a few kindred souls clinking champagne glasses and munching canapes meander through a maze of amazing colours and objects weighing auction budgets in their minds. I guess this still goes on in certain circles but the radius of such circles has reduced and both art as well as design have decided to win more territories.

What do art and design really do these days?

Those who specialize in art and design today do much more than just dabble with visual styles in magazines, newspapers, product packaging. movies, TV shows, and layouts for award nites and so on. These specialists need to have a deeper understanding of the human psyche and must connect needs, desires, and wants to the way the social matrix has reshaped over time. Some people may even go on to say that it is a reshaping with the future in perspective. We are already at a stage when people the world over are talking about voting by apps… quite obviously, besides the technology involved, it is the ease of the user that is going to be paramount and this is where the right design enters. For quite a while now everyone has been mentioning and singing praises for the way UX or user interface has evolved. The design student looks ahead and asks: What after UX? Both art and design are about futuristic views.

The new world, I must admit here, is constantly looking at creating space for ‘Hair Guru’, ‘Brand Warrior’, and ‘Content Hero’ according to Lydia Dishman in a posting on the internet. This year has also dived into an euphemistic state of creative interpretation and has seen HR Managers called Chief Heart Officers, Fundom in place of marketing, and rockstars at almost every nook of the corporate world.

Relevance of art and design for other streams

What is important is to understand that art and design isn’t just about some structured course. Yes, those who are interested in the fine arts are certainly looking for focused courses in streams that include painting, sculpture, architecture, landscaping, product design, technical design, auto desig. India has specific courses for all these streams in every region and these institutes have already made a name for themselves in the global arena. What matters more is that a sensitization to the elements of art and design needs to be introduced and pursued in other streams and this includes engineering, management, and even other degree courses in science and humanities.

The obvious question of sceptics will be: How is this relevant to, say, automobile engineers or students of computer science? Why must a B.Sc student be introduced to the creative elements of design?

We know that nearly 80% of our engineering graduates are not employable and many of them ultimately go out to find jobs in non-engineering fields or remain unemployed. One of the reasons for this is that they are simply not being taught things that the industry today is looking for. These students are neither industry-ready nor are they taught the fine art of conceptualization of ideas. Thus the decision-makers in product manufacturing as well as the service sectors tend to bypass them all. Recent statistics published in a leading newspaper revealed that 87% of B.Sc graduates too remain unwanted because of somewhat similar reasons.

Design, let me unequivocally say, is a business skill. If this makes you restless, you have not probably understood that design isn’t about creating something just because it may look good or win you accolades. Design is successful when people go ahead and adopt it in their daily lives, accept it for what it is, and benefit because something relevant to their lives has been created and given to them. There is business linked to it whichever way you look at it. This is just one of the dynamic things that modules on art and design will teach all those students who are already being taught hard-core technology. Thus design is about problem solving. Design education is learning how to apply practical methods, prior knowledge, and natural talent to solve new problems. It is also referred to as Creative Education. Creative education is what the country needs today.

For long now, education has tended to go off the main track under the guise of undiluted focus on the things that matter. I have heard a lot of engineers sneer at the inclusion of mathematics in engineering streams. These are precisely the sort of people who do not know that mathematics is at the heart of every design effort. Mathematics teaches a student the art of asking the right questions… and this is also what art and design do. Art and design are all about the mathematics of mixing and matching the right moves out of an infinite number of options to reach the desired output. Have you thought about what Nek Chand has done? This engineer who has given us the Rock Garden of Chandigarh is a master in the art of completing a project with available resources. He asked the right questions when he looked at what society had junked. He applied the basic tenet of design that wants to walk hand-in-hand with business skills and creative analysis, using all the current day technology that was within his grasp.

Design helps a student go about following his dream by harnessing the power of creative interpretation. He knows through his study of art and design that being critical is essential so long as it is for the sake of enhanced productivity. This kind of aware student understands that it is also equally vital to say no to an idea that isn’t willing to be tested by thorough research.

Design adds value to learning

One fact that has stood the test of time is that those students who have managed to develop both the hemispheres of their brain and are both right and left brained, tend to perform better and give society the right ROI that it searches for in its new professionals.

This isn’t hard to achieve for any institute or college. My suggestions are included in the listing below.

  1. Create the right resources. These include availability and access to the latest computer programs that aren’t always narrowed down to subject relevance, photography studios and libraries to aid documentation and reach for research, and a place where they can not only create projects but also be able to communicate them to audiences not necessarily within the institute. This is what makes the environment full of creative energy where relevance to society is prime.
  2. Mentors are essential. When one talks of mentors one obviously means finding and inviting professionals from even the art and design streams as they are the ones who can add value to the sort of learning that an engineer indulges in.
  3. Creative community and colleagues: By no means is school the only place to make friends in the industry, but the shared experiences and growth while studying can build long-lasting—and fruitful—relationships among peers.
  4. Understanding restrictions. When students understand what restrictions are they tend to develop immunity to real-world obstacles that they would anyway have to face. Restrictions format time and space in ways that transform knowledge from books into a creative flow of ideas that is relevant to what the society may need in the times to come. Foresight obviously is an important by-product that our engineering and management student need to develop. This is one aspect that interaction with art and design can do seamlessly.

Destroying barriers of traditional thought is what teaching art and design to students of all other streams aims at. Many of you may be unaware that Indira Nooyi, the former CEO of Pepsico at one time worked under her director of design and understood how vital this was for business decisions. By the way, even Airbnb was an idea that came out of minds that had understood the value of design.

You must read on if you’re still not convinced

We are living in times when environmental architecture and nanotechnology must be taught to design students… and even the reverse is equally true. After all, the microeconomics of setting up an engineering unit or the anthropology of literary genres no longer sounds alien, or does it?

Curriculums need to be reimagined. This is because the world now is too complex and inter-connected for any stream of study to want to exist in isolation. An article that I read recently quoted Don Norman, the father of UX who stated that ‘to deal with today’s large, complex problems, design education needs to change to include multiple disciplines, technology, art, the social sciences, politics, and business.’ What this also means is that the change must be sought with equal zeal by other disciplines as well. Technology student anyway understand that ‘design is not about interacting with a computer; it’s about interacting with the world.’ We are living in times when it isn’t just about job profiles having become innovative… this has happened because the industry looks for innovative definitions of job profiles. This means that our colleges and institutes must wake up and follow an inter-disciplinary approach to education. Why restrict a student to just the elements and principles of just the subject of his choice?

You would know the level of innovation that has entered teaching at every level. The Waldorf school ensures that ‘certain maths principles are taught through knitting, languages are practiced during games, and storytelling plays a central role’… and we know that such things are no longer isolated trends in fashionable places. These trends have already become the norm in most institutes abroad… and Indian educators have a lot of catching up to do.

It is time to realise that being curious and having a hungry mind is what learnability has evolved into and this is what is going to be a key indicator for career potential. Art and design make this transition easier.

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