Ssshhh…Don’t Interrupt When Change Speaks!

The biggest failing of our education system is that it makes the young numb to the tickle of change. It promotes the idea of education as a job guarantee, and as a ticket to a cushy life. It however fails to build the character that is required of an adult to face her world and to also shape it; to lead and not just follow.

Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable.”

-William Pollard

How deeply true is the above thought. Understanding that change is inevitable, is an evolution in human consciousness. Initiating change, therefore puts us in a better position to manage the change, as opposed to fighting it or simply enduring it.

Designers too, will be expected to be more than just spin doctors who put old wine in new bottles, they will be expected to lead change. Designers therefore should be able to:

  1. Observe
  2. Find opportunity
  3. Collect pertinent data
  4. Analyse data
  5. Draw insights
  6. Hunt for inspirations
  7. Propose possibilities
  8. Develop samples
  9. Fabricate the prototype
  10. Test it
  11. Make modifications
  12. Refine it to a finished form

Please note all the actions that constitute ‘designing’ are in blue. They’re active, and not passive in virtue. Nowhere in this observation of the design thinking process, is there a recommendation for ‘asking for permission’, ‘doing as one is told’, ‘imitating’ or ‘finding an idea that works.’ The mindset that is driven towards change is very different from the mind that is set on the ideas of success and guarantees. As designers of the education of the future, it is this mindset- geared to lead change-  that our programs must help cultivate.

“The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”

                                                                                                            -Steven Spielberg

To observe is fundamental to the design process. It’s also moral, when it is a solitary act; when you see things with nothing but your own awareness. To enable the student to independently observe should be the most essential goal of a foundation program in design. Observing allows us to find opportunities. An opportunity as defined by the Oxford Dictionary is: A good chance, a favouarble occasion. A chance or opening offered by circumstances. Good fortune. I’d like to add, that an opportunity is also the chance to discover potentiality and make possible (the potential).

Opportunity, it must be noted, is entirely, in the eyes of the beholder. The ability to see opportunity requires a deeper vision, one that has come into being as a consequence of being on a quest…having a deep desire to understand what might be the way forward. Without this vision, one fails to see opportunity and can only see problems.

Problems are opportunities in disguise. Our inability to recognize and see opportunities where problems stand, alters the course of our destiny. A problem by virtue, requires a solution. It’s something we must either tackle, address or bypass. It feels bothersome and as a result, it stubbornly fixes and limits the discourse of design. We busy ourselves in designing ‘solutions’ for problems that are at best only imagined, or at worst, simply breeders of other, more complex problems.

An opportunity on the other hand is perceived as a chance to act thoughtfully. It enriches design discourse. It brings in fresh criticality to old concepts. It necessitates the search for insights. It leads us to meaningful and purposeful learning.

“Every project is an opportunity to learn, to figure out problems and challenges, to invent and re-invent.”

                                                                                                            -David Rockwell

To paraphrase this, every project in our programs must be designed to be an opportunity

  1. To learn
  2. To figure out problems and challenges.
  3. To invent and re-invent.

At present, the design of our classes, seems to view failure as an aberration, as a problem. Not only is it not seen as a golden opportunity to learn, to observe the problems and challenges first-hand, it’s seen as THE problem, that must be by-passed. Somehow, we confuse the failures of the outcomes of speculation and trial to the personal failures of the student. The result- the student would rather not think, would rather not try and would rather not risk a self-initiated attempt. Not only is risk-taking not rewarded, it’s not encouraged.

The ways in which we unwittingly do this are:

  1. We are trying to discern evidence of a student’s learning in either her success or failure in fulfilling assigned tasks.
  2. We are assigning tasks to test (and thereby assess) her understanding, preparation and efficiency.
  3. Teaching and learning are construed as performances, where teacher and student must each perform a set of distinct tasks with proof that those tasks have been completed, so that the incidence of learning may be conjectured.

However, had teaching to be viewed or understood as being devoted to learning, we may actually transform each from being a performance, to becoming a consistency- a way of being and not an act done (and then forgotten).

What if we:

  1. Designed our classes to yield opportunities for learning?
  2. Consciously set out to evaluate the difference between, when our classes are presented as opportunities to learn things of value as opposed to being a time and space where they must learn, a pre-determined set of values?
  3. Assigned tasks not to test students’ abilities, but to provide opportunities for them to summon their own understanding and give them a chance to model their knowledge?
  4. Simply boiled down all critical differences between ‘the wrong way’,’ a different way’ and ‘not the best way’ to the essence of it being nothing more than a ‘changed way’? Would that allow us as educators to open up our own minds to the possibilities of innovation?

After all, an education for change, for innovation, cannot run in the same vein as one designed for continuity, stability and maintaining the status quo. Yet, the action to bring about this change must not be a hasty one. We must dwell on the questions that emerge from this contemplation:

  1. How do we educate students who have been taught to follow, to now be geared to lead?
  2. Do they need an indoctrination of methods or do they need an engagement with practices?
  3. Must an education for change and innovation, perpetuate the ways and practices that belong to the very world/ systems we want to bring change to? Or, must we reject outright, the old ways and replace them with new ideas that impress us with their courage to challenge?
  4. Must our education make a clean break from the pedagogies of the past and risk that our students will not come across as being ‘knowledgeable’, ‘sophisticated’ or ‘equipped’ to continue the lineage of the industries they will come to work within?
  5. How do we come to arrive at the centre of a glorious past, an ailing present and an uncertain future and be equipped to function creatively, intuitively and reflectively and come to be seen as valuable contributors to the fields within which we work?

Let this conclude as a question that hovers in your mind, as a constant reminder that these are not problems, but opportunities to grow…to be who we’ve never allowed ourselves to be.



Designers: The Mad Knights

Design, as a creative discipline is like no other. It has a history, but no rules. Its concept is amorphous and ever-changing. It stands on the shifting sands of time. In the past, design meant and was generally understood to be the appearance of a thing and how it looked. Then, it became about how a thing works and now, it’s about how it engages with, and impacts society. Also, design may no longer be discerned only in the expression of an idea in terms of its formal qualities, but also in the intelligence and sub-conscious process that manifests such expression. Design therefore, is in ‘how something is done’, in ‘what is done’, in ‘how it works’ and in ‘how it impacts our lives’. It is the method, the medium and the message.

Design education cannot be cast in the same mold as other disciplines. Its objectives are different. Learning through imagination and play, making conscious the sub-conscious and making purposeful and directional, the intelligence- constitute the aims of its pedagogy. Investigating concepts as opposed to learning about them, experimenting with ideas and making productive, the failures, iterating and improving, reflecting upon the successes and failures of all attempts- are essential aspects of design education.

Creative work is unique. It does not respond to like with like. On the contrary, it begins to think of other possibilities. It works within constraints and yet transcends them. This ability is unique to humans- the ability to speculate, imagine and create beyond what is. In the process, the inert is made dynamic and responsive to the intelligence of the human mind. Creative production, unlike the set and established routines of non-creative production, requires imagination to propel knowledge and the ability to navigate through the dark unknown.

So, how does one learn in the face of the unknown? Design education pitches its mission on this question. Since designers are required to not only be aware of how things ‘are’, but also how they can employ their minds to imagine how things ‘can be’, design education has an epistemological dimension and an ontological one. In other words, in addition to ‘learning by knowing’, student designers must ‘learn by being.’ The ability to function in a climate of ambiguity, to imagine possibilities, to experiment and learn from failures and to have the tenacity to stay the course till the realization of an idea- are the attributes of a designer. These attributes can be cultivated only through the process of doing, encountering, reflecting and circumventing the obstacles. Learning here, is therefore by doing and being. It is by making the leap of imagination that designers come to know what they must know. Much like the mad, self-appointed knight, Don Quixote, who with a head full of romantic ideals, set out to make good the world and rid it of its evil; and who in the end found his reason (but lost his reason to live); designers too, begin with idealistic fervor and learn along the way, about the limitations of imagination intersecting with reality. Their ideas are cut down to size. They gain first-hand insights, which is so much more valuable than receiving second-hand information. They meet much failure, before they meet success. Design, it must be remembered, is an evolutionary process- one that goes from the known to the unknown. Aware that we occupy a space of potentiality, designers through their work navigate uncharted territory and set precedents.

Design education is about culture, not rules. There are no rights, there are no wrongs. There’s no assurance. Nothing is guaranteed. You may not get to the star in the sky, you wanted to arrive it, but by God, you’ll enjoy the journey. And who knows, discover a whole new galaxy along the way.



The Relationship between Art and Design


The Nature of Art

Ever since man discovered his propensity to create and recreate things as he perceives or imagines them, art-making has been around as the father of all human activity. Its primeval status is unprecedented, its importance as an evolutionary agent undisputed and its continuing relevance even in this age of interface technology and robotics, unmatched. Art-making corresponds directly with man’s intrinsic nature of potentiality and creativity, which is nothing but the nature of life itself. In and through art-making man not only discovers his inherent tendencies, but also discovers and hones his faculty of free will- that exalted state which holds promise for the realization of man’s capabilities and enables him to wilfully transcend his current state. Art has an empowering quality and therefore it is, that in the making of art, we make ourselves. Richard Wagner finds nothing less than salvation in the experience of art. “I believe in God, Mozart and Beethoven… I believe in the Holy Spirit and the truth of that one indivisible art… I believe that through this Art all men are saved, and therefore each one may die of hunger for her… I believe that the disciples of High Art will be transfigured in a heavenly veil of sun-drenched fragrance and sweet sound and united for eternity with the divine fount of all harmony. May mine be the sentence of Grace… Amen!”

Thus art-making, as implied may be understood as a situation in human activity which is closest to divinity. In the creation of art, what emerges is that not only is that which is being made art, but art is also the artist, art is also the skill. Thus, art has the ability to infuse its character in the doer, the done and the doing.

Art, by its nature leads us to truths in a way that no other human activity or institution can. It pitches its enterprise in discarded mental spaces or those that we are too afraid to dwell in. It urges us to think about, introspect, feel and resolve the morass of our existence and thereby paves the way for our evolution.

Art and Design in modern times

Art in modern times has come to be understood as a separate human activity- separate from say trade or manufacture. Although such a segregation serves in assigning a special status to art, it can also- by that very token- render it irrelevant or meaningless. Art, instead, can very usefully be understood as the pursuit of truth and perfection in all human activity; yes, even trade and manufacture. Any activity can be imbued with artistic qualities when it is done in communion with the doer’s inner calling, governed by intent and led by its pursuit of truth and perfection.

Design, in contrast, inhabits a more defined space. Its primary task is to fulfil a need; the need may be physical, emotional, intellectual or societal. Designs are reckoned responses to identified problems. If art lays before us, things we should be concerned about, design busies itself with working through those concerns. Art stems from philosophy, design from teleology.

The symbiotic relationship between art and design

The making of art can be both an instinctive act and a carefully measured and charted process. “Art,” according to artist SH Raza, “is a profound personal reaction.” If we view art from that standpoint, it may seem that art-making requires spontaneity, an instinctive urge or something as quick and as unpredictable as a reaction. This may be true to the point when an artist feels moved by a particular thought, idea, event or circumstance and finds in it a need or a calling for resolution, for working through its character. This need for working through a subject matter seems important for human beings, for society-at-large, because there is a universal need to understand appropriate ways of feeling, to clarify our thoughts, to articulate ourselves better and to transact with the world upholding those moral values that we hold dear intellectually but find great difficulty in putting into practice. But art-making doesn’t reach its function with simply feeling. The expression and presentation of art require skill, an understanding of the materials which the artist puts to the task of expressing his feelings and an exemplary understanding of his craft. Yes, art-making begins with feeling and finds expression through craft. Great craft in turn, must reach out and connect with the beholder.

So then, is the culmination of art, design? The process of art-making requires a keen understanding of the materials that the artist will use to present his subject matter. And this understanding, in turn, comes with the observation that the material world holds immense possibility and purpose. What those possibilities are and what that purpose is, is subject to the imagination of the human mind. The human mind can imagine and see value and breathe life and purpose in seemingly inert matter. He may craft it carefully with respect to its inherent character so that we may find in it beauty and reaffirm our faith in the sublime.

This ability to see value, usefulness and possibility in the material world is the office of the designer. Thus, the relationship between art and design appears to be a symbiotic one where the making of objects is not purely a mechanical activity; it requires the imagination and sensitivity of an artist. And the artist, in turn, in order to express himself purposefully and with clarity, requires the mindset of a designer.

How can the study of art be useful to the designer?

The study of art can lay before the student-designer an intimate account of the history and evolution of human thought. It can reveal to the student those past existential arrangements, those knots in the collective consciousness, those dilemmas that seemed to have touched the most sensitive of humans; who by their inherent vulnerability and sensitivity felt things more deeply and readily than the rest of the clan. Because they felt, they introduced us to those feelings. In and through their sensitivity, they sensitized and civilized the human race- at least to the extent of inspiring appreciation for their work. What was it they felt? What moved them? How did they express themselves? What methods did they employ? What attitudes governed their purpose? What were the elements of their work? What were their chosen arrangements?

Leave alone the answers, just the questioning that the study of art can inspire, itself is of immense value to the student-designer.  It equips the student-designer with a probing mind- a mind that questions in a bid to sieve out the most intimate, essential aspects of a work. And such a questioning is an apt and necessary beginning in the unfoldment of a creative mind.


Perhaps art and design are not separate. Perhaps they are one and the same thing. Perhaps all creation begins with the stirrings of art and is manifest as design. Perhaps the human mind can only understand art through design and conversely, our sense of appreciation can only be developed through art.


References: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art: Richard Eldridge; Cambridge University Press

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