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The art of tech craft

Product designers innovate, enhance the utility of products and provide business solutions. They don’t just make cute-looking exhibition-variety items,writes Rahat Bano.

education Updated: Sep 22, 2011 11:57 IST
Rahat Bano

They have designed the ‘Eggsoskeleton’ — a futuristic-looking headgear designed to reduce musculo-skeletal disorders and provide a clean “micro-environment” inside (the product) for coal miners who manually dig out fossil fuel… they’ve conjured up a sleek computer monitor with a skin design depicting Devanagri letters and the mouse-cum-scanner and text-recognition device… They truly are creativity personified.

Product designers aren’t people who just make cute-looking exhibition-variety items. They are required to innovate, enhance the utility of a product, and provide business solutions.

“Product design concerns itself with the design of objects and systems that affect the way we live, work and play,” explains Praveen Nahar, associate senior faculty, faculty of industrial design, and activity chairperson, Design Consultancy Services, National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. “It deals with form, function, colour, graphics, packaging safety and maintenance etc.”

Product design is a combination of technology, art and craft. Amit Krishn Gulati, founder and director, Incubis, New Delhi, says, “A product designer deals with, one, aesthetics, two, understanding people and their needs, and three, understanding current and emerging technology. He occupies a unique space at the intersection of these three. He is not an expert in any of them. He has to make the right connections.”

Product designers mainly work with or for manufacturing companies. Their work options range from their own design studios (or freelancing as an individual), design departments of manufacturing industries, small and medium scale industries, working on lifestyle products and promoting their own brand, non-governmental organisations and other crafts sectors. Their sphere of activity extends to software as well, which is a “virtual product” with buttons, etc, says Gulati, an NID alumnus.

While this makes the canvas look very wide, there are some limitations.

“India is a growing economy and has a lot of potential for product design. Our designers have got a lot of opportunity to work nationally and internationally in the last the eight to 10 years,” says Nahar. However, design is a developing field in India, which poses challenges to domestic players to prove and establish themselves. “One of the challenges for product design in India is complimentary support system from the R&D point of view, involving engineering support, model-making, CAD etc,” says Nahar. “Also with respect to society and the environment, we need to look at the diverse Indian population with diverse cultures, languages, geography and products to cater to them. Environmental sustainability is another challenge.”

Vivek Amberkar, owner of design consultancy Vivek Amberkar Product Design, Mumbai, says product development in India is “plagued by reverse engineering”.

“We are a very young country when it comes to design,” says Amberkar, an NID alumnus, whose portfolio includes the Eggsoskeleton. “So, the level of awareness we have in terms of design and how a designer could affect the product and hence the performance of a company is really low. The good part of the same is that you have fresh, undisturbed waters to explore and you could find your own way in and really create some meaningful change.”

In this meaningful pursuit, a product designer teams up with professionals from other fields to make his (and others’) ideas walk. Product design thus requires strong group orientation. “Design is not rocket science,” says Amberkar. All of us have it in us to ‘design’. “Every person is a designer in his own domain, starting right from organising your worktable or doing your garden,” says Amberkar. “I believe design is about logically making decisions at the right time under the right context when required. The ability to see, hear, understand, analyse, appreciate and criticise needs to be very strong for a designer. Interaction with people, observing and recording their behaviour in various situations, listening to them, talking to them is all important as they are the ones for whom we design.”

The other crucial skill is the ability to convey and translate your ideas into a desired outcome. “One should be able to communicate what is in one’s head.

Some designers make hand sketches, some make fancy illustrations and some make CAD models and communicate. The skill required is not the ability to draw but the ability to communicate,” elaborates Amberkar.

What's it about?
Product design involves creating or improvising a product. Product designers mainly work with or for manufacturing companies, including those dealing in automobiles, industrial products, consumer durables and telecommunication. Entrepreneurs do a wider spectrum of things while in the industry, work is “pre-programmed, part of a continuum,” says Amit Krishn Gulati, founder and director, Incubis

Clock Work
9 am: Research for an item to be developed — online, go to a library, meet people, on-field observation, etc. Brainstorm with colleagues
Around noon: Plan client meetings, fine-tune presentations
1 pm: Lunch
2 pm: Meeting with a client (online or on client’s site)
4.30 pm: Discuss client’s requirements with colleagues
6 pm: Work on sketches for another product
8.30 pm: Leave for the day

The Payoff
The pay-off depends on the industry you join. The starting salary of a beginner can be Rs5 lakh to Rs10 lakh a month. Further growth in the pay depends on your performance

Skills
.
Loads of creativity
. Excellent observation, visualisation and sketching skills
. Strong team orientation
. Technological bent of mind

How do i get there?
. After your Class XII, you may go for a graduate diploma or BDes programme. While NID doesn’t specify required subjects at the plus-two level, it says,
“Competence in technical and related subjects will normally be considered an advantage.”
. Take up science in senior school, followed by a degree in streams such as technology, engineering (such as mechanical), architecture, fine and applied arts,
information technology, or computer science, and then studying design at the Master’s level

Institutes & urls
. National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, (Graduate and PG diplomas),
www.nid.edu
. Indian Institutes of Technology, Bombay and Delhi (MDes),
iitb.ac.in, jee.iitd.ac.in

Pros & Cons


.

An extremely constructive pursuit


.

Wide canvas to work on — from automobiles to software


.

Still developing field in India


.

Due to obsession with foreign creations, it’s challenging for domestic players to find work

Initial years can test you

A young entrepreneur-cum-product designer talks about his metier

Is there any innovation in the definition of product design?
I think classically or even till some years ago, products were designed in isolation, when the function and longevity were the only criteria for design of any product. So, there were phases of revolutions and movements of many sorts and the technology available in that time frame, which controlled the approach for design.

Today we can’t look at design only in relation to a product function or requirement but even for the smallest product, the entire matrix of aspects associated with the product has to be considered, inspected, redesigned and realigned. No single entity is responsible for product design, development and evolution. It is co-creation. So, you have manufacturers, vendors, managers, designers, engineers, technologists, factory labour, suppliers, etc. The ‘user’ is at the top. They all are involved in giving birth to a product.

What are the good and not-so-good reasons for becoming a product designer in India?
Unfortunately the good and bad reasons are the same. We are a very young country when it comes to design. So, the level of awareness we have in terms of design and how a designer could affect the product and hence a company’s performance is really low. The good part is, you have fresh undisturbed waters to explore.

What are the challenges?
India is a country where product development is plagued by reverse engineering. The trust on foreign designed, engineered and manufactured products is much higher. So, mostly what come our way are projects like: change the look of the product, it shouldn’t look copied or make it look a little better.

In India, the designer is perceived as a stylist. So, you just make beautiful objects of desire. What they fail to realise is that with the tools of the design process, we can really bring about a change which the company wants for a new product — which means re-looking at the entire product and not just the styling.

The biggest challenge is to establish oneself as an end-to-end solution provider.

Another hurdle not particular to India is the initiation costs for your infrastructure, software, employees etc. The cost factor for these for a product design set-up is much higher than any other genre of design.

The deliverables often are not tangible, so people question their value. Questions are raised over why some scribbles on paper cost so much. The initial years test you to the core for your ability to sustain pressure when you are dying for that one big project.

Vivek Amberkar, owner, Vivek Amberkar Product Design Interviewed by Rahat Bano