If we have to teach design, then we have to deal with the question of what design is. So one can ask is design a skill? Is it a process? Is it a principle? Is it a value? What is it that we are supposed to teach?

In design, we are expected to draw, to paint, and express all our thoughts. Initially, one teaches how to think and thereafter teaches how this thinking can materialise into a tangible product. This thinking process has also been articulated by somebody else. Design education has become skill-oriented. Students are taught about 3D applications, web design, and the environment, but they are not taught about life or how people live and why do they live like that. We get to discover a lot of things only after we become designers. However, I do not see a scope for such discoveries in the design education process. Everybody feels constrained with the present conditions when he or she is teaching. Each one is busy looking in different directions and refrains from thinking about what needs to be done for education.

We need to come to an agreement as to why India needs the subject of design in its educational atlas. I think the answers will be very clear if we can figure out what can help our country in terms of its economy, its lifestyle, its attempts to upgrade people’s lives, and in terms of coming out of 5000 years of traditional and ritualistic practices, I think we need a certain philosophy and a certain thought about why design is important for us. It clearly differs from why design is important for America or for any other country. The moment we have this clarity, it will become quite apparent that the way design needs to be taught in India is different from the way the design is being taught elsewhere.

In India, so far, we have had fifty years of design education through which some achievements have been made, but what is it that we need to do for the next fifty years? We need not do everything from scratch; technology has advanced by leaps and bounds; we can bring in new approaches. We need design to suit the purposes of our own country, of our own people. We have to figure out how design can be taught. How do we create the environment, infrastructure, and teachers for imparting such design education?

Design education needs to focus on processes which have to be so robust that irrespective of whether a student works in a rural area, a sophisticated high-security field, a high-safety pharmaceutical zone, or a financial institution, he or she will know how to work I think that the ability to adapt and study in an environment is more important than specialisation. If we do not allow the process, then things will not work and we might not gain as much learning as a required, we might be unable to create a product or a service or a or process for an individual or for society in general, we might not even find good markets for our works Ultimately. we would have ended up wasting precious time. One must be able to differentiate between knowing a process and using a process.

There is a lot we can learn from our own culture. Harmony is one of the basic principles of any behaviour or lifestyle. As a designer, I believe that we have to internalise the fact that when we create something, we create disturbances; this is the very case with any industry which starts producing something, and in the process, aggravates pollution. We might make a ‘green’ industry but the fact remains that making a factory itself is a destructive phenomenon. Take it for granted that nothing that we ever design will be non-destructive. The moment something has been created, something else has already been destroyed in the process. This is the fundamental truth, but I think we need to remove this guilt from our students completely by saying, “It is not wrong, one will have to do it.” However, we should focus on how one can minimise it, how one can do that with responsibility. I do not think that we should be commissioned a ‘green’ project; this project has to be part of all the processes. We should take this aspect into our process, otherwise we cannot create. Anybody who creates anything must be aware of the environment, it is not just the responsibility of a designer, but it is the responsibility of the entire society. We must not create disharmony in the process of creation. I think that is where the role of the institution comes in – to define what is our responsibility, how do we teach students to be responsible towards the natural environment.

The other environment is the one which exists in the market. We have to look at the realities of life. We justify curtailing the production of some things as we might find them redundant and say, “Indians do not need this or this does not suit the Indian environment.” This is not how things have to be developed. One should go to the rural areas, say twenty kilometres away from Pune or ten kilometres away from Ahmedabad and see what mode of transport is used by the people living there We do not know what they will need, but the design has to be generated from the environment in which they live. Designers have to work, study the environment, study the people and then come up with ideas; similarly, design education has to look at the environment and the needs of the country and its economy as well. We talk about the huge manufacturing industry in India, but the bitter fact is that we do not have a single product which we can claim as our product or as something we have designed here. There is a phrase which we Indians use all too conveniently—”Tum mujhe ek chadar do main apne paon uske andar hi phailaunga” [Give me a bedsheet and I will spread my legs only underneath it]. This shows our restricted mindset. We never even consider making a fresh chadar or bedsheet for ourselves.

One very crucial aspect that is missing in today’s education is the presence of a true guru. We must always be aware of the significance a guru has in a student’s life. A guru is one who is beyond doubt, who is an expert in his or her field, who can teach; who can listen, not question, whom you never doubt, to whom you can ask any question at any time without hesitation. I feel they have all but disappeared. Nowadays, there is a total lack of respect for teachers because they have ceased to become gurus; they themselves have been caught up in maya, and are running after materialistic gains. I have even met teachers who are doing part-time jobs to make ends meet. So, what will they teach the students?

I have observed that in some institutions, learning through the environment has become a part of the former’s culture. The environment itself has created a culture of self-learning and self-discovery. One learns how to learn; the best thing we can teach students is how they can learn on their own. Sadly, a lot of places have not inculcated this philosophy; for example, in some colleges in Pune, Bengaluru, and Delhi, since they do have residential campuses, students squander quite a bit of their time getting distracted by throwing parties at various entertainment joints in these cities. And finally when they manage to get the certificate, they say, “We are designers.”

Students emulate teachers and learn from the latter’s behaviour. What will the students learn from them? I find that an environment that nurtures learning imbibed with values is non-existent. It is not something that we can teach from a book and claim that we have ‘imparted’ value education. It is something which has to be in one’s heart, in one’s attitude, and in one’s behaviour. Designers are emotional people, well, designers have to be emotional people. Designers are emotionally connected, so should they think with their heads or with their hearts?

Many a times, while going through students’ portfolios or while interviewing students, it becomes clear that nobody actually taught them correctly. This is really sad. During the course of their studies, these brilliant students with such bright minds seem to have had a ‘party’ and nothing else. I feel that even if they had taken up a totally different profession, they would have done better. Not all of them are so bad, because some of them learn through peers, some of them learn through projects, some of them get interested in interacting with faculty who inspires them and are willing to transfer knowledge, but I feel the majority of the lot is unproductive; they cannot add value to any project.

Every time I interview the young graduates, I ask them to name five designers they know of; funnily enough, they will tell me the names of their classmates or the names of their teachers, but they do not know the names of people who have contributed to design. If I ask them to name the five best design products, they will talk about the iPhone or Apple computers because this is the only exposure they have got. They have read that Apple computers have the best design, and they believe it. They are oblivious to something that is probably there on their table which has been designed by somebody. We do not have the culture of propagating good designs and designers; we do not have the medium we do not have the public awareness which it finally boils down to.

The number of designers is steadily increasing; this shows that design usage and the requirement of designers is also on the rise. This might lead one to assume that someone in the system has already figured out the need of the hour and how designers are to be trained. So what are we doing? How are we training young people? I think we are late. We need to have faculty who can impart the training, and we need to comprehend the urgency of the situation and its implications in the near future.

I really feel that there are no dedicated efforts or thoughts towards improving design education. For instance, industrialists who view education as a business, start seeing students as a lucrative market—how much money can they make from the students’ fees by opening an institute. It does not matter to them whether or not there are sufficient teachers in their institutes.

Why is there a paucity of teachers? Why is a proper teaching-learning environment totally absent? It all boils down to the willingness of society. There is very little awareness about design; many people do not know what design really means and those who do, are not stressing strongly enough on the urgency of integrating design with society; as of now, there are very few policies that focus on design. We even have policies on jugaad, but we do not have policies on design. If Indian society is not made aware of what it can stand to gain through design or what it stands to lose out on owing to the lack of design inputs, then Indian society will not feel pressured enough to initiate changes.

In the medical profession, doctors learn medicine from various institutes with the same equipment, the same curriculum, and same learning methodologies. The doctors who graduate, probably practise in the same way. Then should the same not hold true for designers? I feel there should be some kind of uniformity or standardisation for teaching design as well; there has to be some kind of academic inquiry; there has to be research-orientation; there has to be skill training; there has to be broadening and opening of the mind; it is the teachers who make a difference, not the curricula or the systems. One needs teachers who are passionate, who teach because they are passionate about teaching and not just because they chose teaching as their last career option, after having failed elsewhere. It is same with designers. There are those who are really good, who are aware of what is happening in the market and what needs to be done; they are polite, humble, and down-to-earth. I feel it is same with the teachers. One needs to spot those brilliant minds that can really inspire students. There has to be a system that helps discover such teachers for the benefit of design education in the country. Design is not an academic subject by itself, it is a practice, and it is most essential that these teachers possess sound industry experience.

We should engage in thorough planning across dimensions. This will change many definitions and facilitate the emergence of the support, the infrastructure, and the training which are vital to the field of design. At present, in India, a designer needs to be a policymaker, a craftsperson a hands-on worker, and a planner. I am sure design encompasses all these fields.

Indians are spiritual people; spirituality is that which makes the thought come from the heart. When one thinks from the heart, one can discriminate between the right and the wrong. The academic side is based on Western thinking models which emphasise upon logic. Thus, politics, bureaucracy, and hypocrisy—everything comes from the mind, they do not come from the heart. I always tell my students, “Learn everything with your mind, but take a decision with your heart.” This is the long-forgotten practice which had always been part and parcel of our culture. Unfortunately, today we are telling students that marks are more important than the learning acquired, this means we are emphasising on the mind; we are emphasising that knowledge is more important than the emotional connect. Ultimately, design has an emotional connect. The problem is, we do not listen to the heart, we just suppress it, but our saints and sadhus always spoke from the heart, and the heart can never speak something which is false. This holds true for everyone. We should speak from the heart; I think the moment we teach this to our students and our children, we would have done our job. The more they learn, the more their minds get trained; they become more learned, yet they will speak from their heart. To me, a person who has learnt a lot, but speaks only from the mind, is finished, he or she is no longer alive in the real sense. Life itself speaks from the heart. So, knowledge has to be collective, but the heart has to be correct; this is what we keep forgetting. When we listen to our hearts, all the issues of how we behave with one another, all our concerns about responsibilities and duties towards nature or society or one another, the issues regarding sustainability and everything else gets taken care of successfully. To run exercises in schools and to teach children how they should think with their heart, is indeed a mammoth task, it is difficult to speak the truth.

Why is Mahatma Gandhi considered to be so great? it is because he spoke the truth; he spoke the truth with courage and conviction. This is the most difficult thing to do in life. It is very easy to lie and get away scot-free, but it is very difficult to be honest. We must teach our students and our children to speak from the heart and accept the consequences of this practice without any fear. I believe that the more you learn, the more you forget true harmony, the true purpose of life. That is why many a times, when we read biographies, we understand that the people who are really great no doubt learnt a lot, but they kept their hearts alive. That is the quality we should teach our students—to keep their heart alive, to follow their hearts, and bravely say, “Sir/Ma’am, teach us whatever you want to teach, but please allow us to think for ourselves what is right and what is wrong”. If this happens, then I think half the problems that young designers face today, will disappear.

 A reconstructed narrative based on the video interview with I.S. Mathur on April 21, 2011 at Pune.