Arvind Lodaya
Associate Faculty,
Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology,
Bangalore, India

   Design Cultures
From outsider to insider: my journey in art/design territory

My initiation into "art/design" was a painful process that lasted nearly two years. Design school was unlike anything I had ever known before - the fashionably casual/western dress style, anglicized lingo where nicknames &/or abbreviations were instantly awarded, a nearly 1:1 male-to-female ratio [reflected in the prolific pairing-up], first-name address for distinguished-looking professors, and the far higher standards of disposable income, brands & lifestyle than my own - all these formed a challenge to my [comparatively] provincial, conservative and sexually-repressed middle-class background. No wonder then that my first reaction was of extreme discomfort.

I struggled to come to terms with this elite bohemian culture, tempted by its seductive sensuality and glamour, repulsed by its hedonism and disconnect from the local culture. Eventually, what helped was just good work. I was fortunate in having the right mix of skills & aptitude - earning me the respect of my peers, who gradually began accepting me the way I was. I drew well, I was strong on theory as well as creativity, I dressed to reflect my middle-class roots, I was outspoken and political, I offered blunt but fair critiques. I had arrived.

Working freelance was my first experience of professional isolation - brought about in part by sheer physical distance from one's peers, in part by the new element of competitiveness [and hence confidentiality] into our relationship. At that time, however, it did not feel repressive - I remember the thrill at being able to buy my chums dinner, and I regularly visited the local British Library to keep abreast of changes & developments around the world, since there was no Indian publication on design then [there still isn't!].

First job
I walked into a design-saturated ambience with my first job. There were bookshelves loaded with design books & magazines, posters of design classics, the workspace was customized for a designer, there were ample supplies of expensive and high-quality design materials-there was even a computer loaded with AutoCAD. However, the internet and e-mail weren't around yet.

The "image drives reality" axiom really worked, and being high on design appeared to persuade potential clients of our abilities and passion. I was to work on more than a dozen successful industrial design assignments in this job, many of which are still in production and continue to earn significant profits for our clients.

For the first time, I was initiated into client service/ socializing, and I found out that I simply hated it. I also undertook my first air travel and 5-star hotel stay on work - the delightful perks that come with high-end consulting - and learnt to appear suitably disdainful.

However, this job resulted in a significant decrease in communing with peers, since there was virtually no time for it, and the competitive pressure was far more real. This was partially compensated by increased access to international design books & magazines - in a sense, connecting with the global design practice. My response was to begin teaching occasionally at my institute - and thereby maintain contact with my local peer group.

Shift of focus & client-set
When I shifted from industrial design to illustration and communication design - and from profit making corporate clients to non-government community organisations, I discovered an almost spiritual fit with my middle-class values and ethics as well as lifestyle choices. I turned anti-"design" with a vengeance - to exemplify the social and political value of design and challenge its popular perception as an elite and glamourous profession. I pushed thrift to the limit, dressing down and using the most basic tools I could find. ["a good idea is independent of the resources available"]

I found while I earned a lot of respect from my peers for my career shift, there were very few who were "peers" in the true sense. I found a new community amongst social entrepreneurs who founded and ran community organisations, and who were highly resourceful and creative in their own ways. My concept of "creativity" enlarged from being pegged to "design" to something much larger and open-ended.

Creative director
I found life amongst the NGO-set too rigourous, so I repositioned myself midway between social work and hothouse design. I must assert here that academia continued to provide a strong bridge across these almost contradictory values.

My second avatar in for-profit design was as creative director with an internationally-renown advertising company's specialist design/branding division. This provided me and my co-founders with the opportunity to fashion an entire organisation in our own vision, and the first thing we did was to reposition it as a strategic consultancy in an attempt to establish our intellectual & conceptual capabilities. We tried to reflect this in our corporate brochure, the orientation given to fresh recruits, and the system of internal critiques and debates.

I broke ground by giving young designers independent charge of projects - with the rest of the team including myself on standby as resources. I played father figure, devil's advocate/ provocateur, troubleshooter & assistant, lobbyist & negotiator, guide, teacher and mentor. I insured against creative blocks &/or inadequacies by initiating collective brainstorming & ideation at the outset of every project - thus rescuing individuals from the threat of having to produce miracles at impossibly short notice. It worked, and we achieved a very high degree of staff-to-profit ratio within the first year.

However, I maintained a distinct divide between my professional and personal life, and refused to let the two mingle - probably driven by my general lack of personal respect for and/or identification with my professional peers!

I was now a senior, and in a powerful and influential position. I attempted to engage with my institute in this capacity but got little response - bringing in a greater communication focus and strategic perspective did not appeal to them; they were quite satisfied with classical design education, thank you. However, the other institutes that I was teaching at were far more enthusiastic.

I helped refocus a course on Environmental Education from its distinctly Graphic Design dominance towards effective communication. I was able to introduce a module on copy writing in a course on digital portfolio design at a fashion school. And I was able to elevate the module on design offered at a communication/ media planning course to strategic branding & identity, with graphic design posited as the craft that helped achieved the end. Most significantly, I helped a new design school flesh out and offer a year-long course on "Social Communication" - a new and valuable evolution in the teaching of design in India. The receptiveness of these institutes reflects their eagerness to keep abreast of latest trends & practices- and the competitiveness in design education.

My third avatar as independent professional was far more assured than the earlier two. I was now on confident ground - from within and without. I configured my workplace to be minimal, yet drawing upon the latest technologies [by now I was almost entirely working on computers, and communicating over the internet and e-mail].

Owing to the difference in perceptions between my alma mater and me on my capacity to contribute, I minimized interactions with it. However, I made up for it by teaching frequently at other institutes, building a modest but rich library, and commissioning a number of design students and young professionals - thereby encouraging a mini-community of my own. Being professionally self-assured, I was able to dismantle many secrecy/ confidentiality barriers and hence enhance the quality of our interaction.

I found my opinions being sought and valued by diverse businesses in areas beyond "design," and I knew that I had turned into a "consultant." On the other hand, I was feeling the lack of serious intellectual & creative challenge - and dealt with it by farming out many discrete design tasks to students or fresh designers, making friends with them and keeping in touch with their worlds.

My shift to full time academia was in response to the plateauing I felt in my professional life. I consider myself extremely fortunate to find a position with a design school located in the pleasant environs of Bangalore. Being a small school, they were totally open and flexible about the curriculum - which is a good as well as not-so-good thing for the students. However, this was just what I needed - and I joined the process of reinventing the academy as a place that generates valuable knowledge.

This school was special in that its leadership was entirely female, and this seemed to influence the work culture inside-out. Instead of a competitive or even aggressive performance focus, the focus was more on emotional nurturing and enabling. This took me a while to figure out [having never been in such a work ethos], but once I did, I 'flowed' with it. Of course, I have my differences over issues of standards and quality ["appreciative criticism is fine, but does it produce outstanding creativity?"], but I do concede that this way of working has far too many advantages over the conventional.

I intended to keep one foot each in professional and academic design but ended up spending my entire time in teaching or working on my research interests - which includes exploring and defining what my research interests are in the first place. I have rediscovered challenge in the form of research, and I feel excited after a long time about taking it on - in fact, I am looking for a suitable Ph.D. program to help me get there. Simultaneously, I work in a group that is spearheading research in a dedicated and rigourous manner.

The future
Looking back, I realize that I've moved along the classic trajectory - from student to a successful professional, to a teacher and academic, and could well move into areas of policy. Not that I harbour any such ambitions, but my passion for design could well draw me into helping shape and define policy - if the opportunity arose. At the same time, I am deeply aware that my roots lie in my craft, and cutting off from them could leave me directionless, purposeless and meaningless.

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Last Updated: February 18, 2005