“Can I change the world?”
Whenever we start a new design project we begin the process by establishing two things – our key ‘intent’ through the project and our ‘inquiry’ of the project.
Before I even formally knew about these words as an important step in the design process, I had them answered for the project and the process that my life was.
The intent was simple – to change the world – and so was the inquiry – “can I really?”
I officially started my relationship with design about four years ago (ten, unofficially and unconsciously, but more on that later) as I sat my parents down to share the news that their fairly intelligent son who was studying Phy/Maths/Chem (a clear recipe for engineering) in eleventh standard, wanted to become an Animator.
This was a new word to them. I had to reaffirm, “Yes mum, people who make cartoon movies.”
My parents are supportive. They’ve always been. Like they were an year back when we were discussing the issue of my subject choices for eleventh standard with the prodigal engineering student across the street. You know who I’m talking about. For some reasons every geographical area in a radius of one kilometer somehow manages to have a student from a prestigious university with too many ‘I’s and ‘T’s in their abbreviated name to care about.
“There is something called ‘technology’ ”
This might be a good time to mention that at that point in my life, I had already been studying robotics – electronics, mechanical and programming – for about 6 years now.
I loved what I was learning. I was mighty good at it too. I had grown up watching Iron Man movies so I knew precisely what this knowledge could yield. This seemed like the future. Every step forward that civilization had taken, had been a direct result of this.
I was quite sure this was the most important thing to learn.
Hence in this important meeting I knew that regardless of the suggestion being offered to me, my personal stance was to reason my place in the non-medical stream.
Now to offer you another piece of my background, my father had built a good business for himself. Quite honestly, he wasn’t all that concerned with what I study, he had the money to spend on any sort of education I liked and the lenience to let me follow my passion. He had the most ideal, the most dreamy response any millennial in my position could hope for, “Jo padhna hai padh beta, nahi samajh aaya toh apna kaam toh hai hi.” (Study whatever you feel like, if it doesn’t work out, you have our business to fall back to) – I couldn’t have asked for more.
So this meeting began with my somewhat indifferent father, my doting mother who wanted nothing but for me to : (A) stay within the same geographic city as hers for my higher education, and (B) not stress myself too much with learning – remember, “Apna kaam toh hai hi!”, and finally, also the prodigal engineering student who after four years of pursuing engineering had now taken on the looks of what we call a *coughs* mad *coughs* scientist.
So he comes into the drawing room where the three members of the Chopra family had occupied the three person sofa, sipping on Miranda with an albeit discomfort of fitting three Punjabi buttocks on a sofa meant only for three regular size buttocks. He comes in and sits on a single sofa opposite to us with his one leg on the armrest and one arm on the footrest.
With this seating mudra he had just observed in front of us, even without saying anything, he had spoken volumes as to what the four years of an engineering education had done to him.
His words were a mere confirmation, “If you have an option, don’t do it, it’s not worth it.”
But I recalled my stance. I had to stay strong. I wanted to be the Iron Man.
So this meeting was another half an hour of me passionately and adamantly justifying both my academic acumen and my strong aptitude for the subject in question.
Long story short – I won. I had to. You don’t become the Iron Man without a little persistence.
My parents took their happy refuge in, “Jo karna hai karne do, apna kaam toh hai hi.” And finally offering their ultimate support to my dream and their stamp to my passion – agreed with my taking on the non medical subjects for my post tenth grade education.
Now let’s jump back to where I started from, I sat my parents down to tell them the news that I wanted to be an animator.
You see, memory of an Indian parent is peculiar in nature – it is highly specific and suitable to their convenience. The fact that they promised you a new cellphone on your birthday would slip conveniently off their minds; but as I gave them this news on my re-decision for my career choice, they started by repeating the entire episode above to me as I did to you. Right down to the last excruciating detail.
Now I had already used my passion card the last time. So that was out of question.
You see, our understanding of people and their aspirations, are restricted to one passion per life.
Watching so many coming-of-age movies had made us slightly warm to the concept of people having ‘dreams’ of what they want to do; but two dreams in one life, what’re you talking about? What happened to your last “dream”?
Sadly the duration of a three hour long movie doesn’t offer the scope for the protagonist to have two passions, some bad decisions and a re-decision.
But my supportive parents and their “Jo karna hai karne do..” attitude came to my rescue.
They still believed in me, yes, I wouldn’t say they didn’t. But I was still being cautious about the usage of the word passion.
Before we jump ahead, Let’s pause here for a minute and discuss what had happened in the year between these two meetings.
“There is something called ‘art’ ”
In eleventh standard I came to a new class, met a bunch of new people. Of this lot were a bunch of guys who watched this thing called ‘Naruto’, it’s an anime.
Now here’s the thing, regardless of where I am or where I’ll go, this is the single most event that shaped how I’ll lead the life that was ahead of me. And five years might seem like a small time in some relative terms, but at each stage in these years I have (and hopefully will continue to) refer to the things that I learned and the opinions that I formed by the whole experience of watching ‘Naruto’.
By it’s own accord, it might seem somewhat as lacking depth to derive such passionate values from a seemingly regular experience. I mean come on, all of us know people who are swayed by fictional narratives.
But that was the entire point!
I was under the belief that technology could change the world. But now it dawned me that technology can only change how we lead our lives. The world needed a much more dynamic change in how people interacted and treated each other. And fiction was precisely the tool that possessed that capacity.
Fiction, could influence the way people think and behave!
A few years down the line I realized that – what magic I thought only fiction possessed, was a characteristic of everything that fell under the umbrella of what we call art. But back then the notion that led me to the field of animation was a belief in fiction.
Now with my parents on-board on the whole animation idea, I joined a good tuition center for my art and a design coaching. Gave my class board examination sincerely. Even though no art-design college factored the board percentage, I still had to establish myself as a hard and disciplined worker.
You see, before you can claim that an achievement is needless, you have to go ahead and achieve it anyway. That’s how the world functions.
So that’s what I did. All the while preparing for my entrance examinations I took my academics seriously and quite aced the board examinations. It’s borderline bragging to go ahead and explicitly state it, but getting 96% for a science student was at that point considered a fairly good achievement.
Then I gave my design college entrances. Made through NID’s first round, failed the interview however. Cleared through a UK university’s entrance and narrowly escaped joining it eventually, quite fortunately so -speaking in retrospect. And I finally landed at this beautiful place called Srishti.
“I’m sure I’m getting a little distracted”
So with the hopes of learning animation I started my studies at Srishti, but barring one animation course, I spent the entirety of the first year running after courses that allowed me to utilize my years of robotics knowledge.
So when at the end of the first year I was asked to decide on a major, it finally hit me that I had been a little distracted, I wasn’t sure of my passion for animation anymore.
But that’s the precise reason I chose animation as a major when I was asked on this occasion. I chose it not because I was sure about it, but so I can finally try it properly and be sure.
Now you see, trying, in my personal experience and in the words of my design guru, Donald Norman, isn’t a very bad thing.
“Nothing is learnt if everything works perfectly. For learning to take place, failure must happen.” – and the more you’re trying, the more you’re failing and hence, the more you’re learning.
So I spent first half of the second year learning animation. Which wasn’t the best time of my life.
I was quick to realize, the job of animator is not so much to construct a story, as it is to narrate one. I entered the field to write life-changing narratives. But I was spending majority of time sketching frames to make a body move from point A to B.
Not that it wasn’t expected. I was cautious about the cons of the job from the beginning. But the worst was the realization that I wasn’t sculpted for story making:
A mere intent to do something didn’t necessarily mean one also had the capacity to actually do that.
As simple as it sounds, I learnt it the hard way.
Not that my appreciation for art or animation itself had somehow dwindled in that year, I had just come to realize, I wasn’t the guy up for the task. I couldn’t write good stories.
“There’s something called ‘design’ ”
In a somewhat final return to my roots of robotics, I sat down thinking what was it I really wanted to do.
I knew I had the skills and the aptitude for programming and deducting patterns; and I also knew I liked to get my hands dirty and work with materials.
So even when I had no knowledge that IOT and embedded technology was a field unto itself, I decided to gather the required skills to make it a reality for myself.
The plan was simple – learn a bit of technology by doing those respective course, and learn a bit of industrial and product design by doing those respective courses.
So for the first part I joined a course in interaction design from a major called Human Centered Design (HCD).
Now HCD essentially implied UI/UX design – which to a layman roughly translates as designing websites and apps. But the particular course I joined was to teach a bit of visual programming software (processing) as well and that is why I took up the course.
But halfway through the course I realized we were spending much more time just simply discussing things like human needs, human behavior, their intuitions, their reactions and how to utilize all of that to design an interaction.
And that was my aha! Moment.
All of us talked about design as learning graphic designing or product designing or film making, but no, these are all craft skills or art skills.
Design was never about what you made, but how you reached the decision as to what to make. The process!
And here at HCD that’s the exact philosophy and ideology they were advocating.
Lucky for my prior trials and failures, I had caught on sufficient prototyping skills – animation helped me visually convey design ideas through video mock-ups. And my product/robotics learning helped me come up with material prototypes.
And as a final realization on how to change the world, It seemed like design was the key.
But how should I be sure that I wasn’t getting swayed again? I’d done that twice in the past already. What was to say even this would stop to be true?
But you see, it probably wouldn’t. Because my devotion was not to a unique outcome, a label, of what I am doing. But to a process of how I’m doing it.
By this time I’d also figured that I had the capacity to catch on skills pretty quick and suddenly it was crystal clear :
Neither my faith in technology was unfound and same goes about my faith in art. But the err was to rely on either of them independently and uniquely as a remedy for all diseases. The need was to intelligently take a call on how much of art to mix with technology OR how much of technology to be mixed with art. And taking that call coherently for a given project, was precisely what design implied.
So, here I am, a Generalist as I prefer to call myself. I don’t restrict myself to outcomes and outputs.
If you ask me to unlock a door for you, chances are I might make a new door from scratch that overcomes the problem of unlocking itself.
I cannot be certain about anything. Except my process. Which basically demands me to not be certain about anything. My process says jump afresh into an inquiry and keep unpacking it till the answer presents itself.
Generalism, by the virtue of practicing and understanding various kinds of outputs through various media; coupled with the knowledge I learnt as an HCD student about designing experiences – allows me to practice what I like to call ‘Vision Design’.
So far I feel that the tools of experience designers allow them to furnish outputs that describe the said experiences only at a somewhat abstract level, owing to the limitation of the vocabulary of an HCD practitioner. Collaboration with other stream expert designers does address that problem to a level. But a lot is lost in translation and handing over of projects from one designer to the other.
This is precisely where I hope to walk in with Vision Design. Being a Generalist, allows me to design and describe any intended experience in the format that the executing body might require and understand. A Vision Designer gives that necessary layer of detail about the materialisation of a certain experience that a regular experience designer might not be fully equipped to. A Vision Designer, therefore, not only design a takeaway experience, but the real-time on ground vision that helps attain that experience.
So can I change the world now? Maybe yes. One design at a time.