Skip to content

Looking Back, not Backwards

Two weeks ago, I was at the Kalaghoda Festival in Mumbai, in a panel discussion comprising of myself and Ruchita Madhok (founder of Kahani Designworks), in conversation with Kaiwan Mehta (editor of Domus India) titled Writing Design. During the course of our hour-long discussion, Kaiwan raised an interesting question on why is it important to document what has been done in the past. Here’s a bit of what my thoughts on this are.

Looking at the past (design in India) is not about nostalgia. It is about understanding what design can do in the context of the world around us. It is about learning how design has been deployed to face challenges (of the time) and how it was received. It is not a pill to be popped, with ready answers on the uptake. But it provides material for designers of today to witness an entire cycle of design, from strategy to execution and impact, and cull insights. Done systematically and as collective body of work, it can offer us some clues into the elusive ‘identity’ in Indian design. It cannot guarantee answers, but it is food for thought and fodder for reflection.

Now the disclaimer. Documenting past work, needs to differ from ‘showcasing’ current work. Current work is often easier to comprehend and analyse, because we are ‘in’ it—decisions, both strategic and aesthetic are immediately understood. However, to create writing or documentation, that seeks to serve the future, we must also document the context in which it was created. In doing this, several pockets of connected information starting with personal, like where did the designer train, who were his/her mentors, to larger concepts of market conditions or politics, may come into play. At the very least, and since it is impossible to include everything, it must at the very least point to relevant pieces of content that readers can reference for better understanding.

And to sign-off, here’s one of my favourites bits of looking back, from Dekho. When asked about how did they start the now iconic People Tree brand, Orijit Sen shared:

As students we understood that we couldn’t expect readymade jobs waiting for us after we graduated… we would need to convince the world about the importance of our skills and knowledge.
Somewhere, I think, the idea of People Tree emerged from that context—Our job was to actually re-look at the problems of society and solve them. And to do that, you had to do it your own way, do your own thing—figure out how to apply what we had learnt.  —Dekho, Pg 104, Of The Head, Hand And Heart

That there, is for me is a highly informative piece on what moved designers towards entrepreneurship. It still holds true I feel, despite jobs more readily available for design graduates than ever before.

Ruchita, me & Kaiwan from our Writing Design Panel at Kalaghoda Festival’15. Photograph by Aditya Palsule, co-founder of Kahani Designworks.