I don't know what it is, but spelling and grammar mistakes seem to be on the rise. It could be the auto-correct in Microsoft Word and Google that's pampering (read spoiling) everyone's language benchmark. It could be just sheer laziness, or too many distractions around us. It could be the falling standards of education. It could be the rise of digital devices. We still don't know the real long-term implications of all this technology around us. If mobile phone waves are killing sparrows, they might be messing with our spelling skills too.
Speaking of mobiles, we can definitely dump some of the blame on the mobile phone and smsing. I love mobile phones and technology. Bt myb thts y we all rite like dis now, evn n collg. Ders no time. I hv frgten de real splings of tings. I also rite in rely shrt sntnces nw. Dis proves we can read ny wrd easly.
But we can't use language like that in printed/published work (not yet at least). Language standards, in India can be surprisingly low in places where they should be high. Pick up the Times of India. On any given day, you can usually find one spelling plus one grammar mistake, and you won't even have to read the entire paper to discover them. Errors are especially rampant in the supplementary paper such as Ahmedabad Times. Surprised? Don't be. Recently, someone pointed out a spelling error in a Penguin book.
English is definitely not the easiest language to master, with more exceptions than rules. The er and the ar are often confused. "I went to collage." (You couldn't have gone to a work of art). Some errors of course result in pretty hilarious situations. Recently we witnessed the 'Osama/Obama is dead' situation. A slip of one letter can mean something drastically different. Imagine the "Diving Mother that helps one in time of need." (Divine became a water sport).
The slips between s and c are countless. Receive and abscess can deceive us all. And you might want to discus something or throw the discuss. Viscous can be vicious to spell. You are pretty likely to find some mistakes in this post, if you read carefully enough.
Now I haven't done many sites, but the amount of misconceptions out there are astounding. Here's a few.
1) A site can be done in a day: Yes a few sites can perhaps be done in a day, but don't expect anything great. A website is not a blog.
2) No one reads: This is a classy one, one of the oldest in the book, and is genuinely and tragically believed by several designers too. That's why a lot of content out there sounds like blah blah blah. People can't really get solid information and facts from blue rectangles, moving stars, or purple stripes. Even photographs have their limitations, that's why they come with that little thing called captions. Words matter. And if you think they don't, you may have to eat your words. They aren't even that tasty.
3) Only look and feel matters: The term look and feel is frequently applied to any kind of visual design. This is like applying band-aids to cure jaundice. It just doesn't work. If the design is weak, all the surface cosmetics just won't help. And websites run way deeper than the page you see.
4) Interactive is cool, hep and in: Interactive is a word that should be banned (more on banned words later), along with other terms such as look and feel, cutting-edge, innovation and creative. These words have become as generic as 'nice' and 'good'. These poor words meant something once, in a glorious past, but now their value has dimished, and they are joining the ranks of 'jargon'. Interactive could mean anything. You and me talking is interactive. Interactive site may not equal functional site. ("This site is Awesome! But I've been looking for the Home page since yesterday.")
5) Flash is best: Steve Jobs doesn't use Flash in any Apple products. That says it all. Still looking for more proof? It makes things slow, provides pointless animations, and doesn't really have any function online. Out of 1000 websites using Flash, only one really probably needed it. It also looks like the website was created in 1742. BCE. ("I designed this site when Rameses II was building pyramid 3.")
6) Everyone uses the internet now: That's in a world where 'everyone' is 22 years old, wears Levis and eats at Subway. Thankfully, we don't live there yet. The real world has many forty-plus people who are not completely comfortable with the internet. Many small-town people may not be using it everyday. The worst mistake a designer can make is to assume everyone is just like them. Internet users are like underwear users. They can be anyone, anywhere, and you got to make something that is comfortable for all of them, however diverse they are.
7) Crack the home page and you are done: That's why the web is littered with home pages that are ornate, flashy, 'interactive', non-functional and look nothing like the other pages of the site. Inside pages need to be as functional and friendly as the home page. A home page needs to reflect the rest of the site without charging at you and knocking you flat with 1200 links. Or knocking you down with nothingness.
Most of us complain about our education systems, with colonial approaches, and boring curriculum. We rarely consider the value of our education, or what it has done for us. Recently, I got the opportunity to visit a rural school for tribal children at Igatpuri, a small town in Maharashtra, India.
Igatpuri was a major railway junction in days gone by, but is hardly visited nowadays. It is a sleepy and charming little town. Thankfully, it hasn't been touched by urbanisation, so no malls, multiplexes and parking problems. It's midway between Mumbai and Nashik. It is well-known for one thing, the famous Buddhist Vipassana Centre.
An NGO, Aseema, that is based in Mumbai has been working in the area for some years now. Aseema works for the education of under-privileged children, and now educates children in 3 municipal schools in Mumbai. Their rural school is 5 kms away from Igatpuri, near the village of Awalkheda. Though only around 3 hours from Mumbai, this area is one of many in India that has been forgotten. There are 5 villages near one another. Roads were recently constructed here, and though there is plentiful rain in the monsoon, there is no water harvesting. As a result, people (women and children) walk miles each day to get water from one common well. Though the land is fertile, the lack of water means there is very little farming. Many youngsters leave in frustration and migrate to Mumbai to do menial labour for a pittance. Most people here eat one proper meal every two days.
Aseema has been working in the villages around Igatpuri for some years now, and I had been with them on their initial forays into the area, when they were looking for land. It is a challenge to buy rural land in India, as a lot of it is owned by tribals, adivasis, and strict laws govern sale of such land. Families also tend to keep splitting the land between their sons, so each successive generation gets progressively smaller plots. All land deals are in Marathi, often illegible, and the local government is often reluctant to cooperate unless the appropriate palms are greased. On paper the boundary of a certain plot maybe at a certain place, but in reality it might be very different. Despite all hardships, Aseema did succeed in acquiring land after years of perseverance.
Against this backdrop, Aseema first started helping the local Balwadi (kindergarten). The Government provides a mid-day meal, but the food is often bad, spoilt, or inedible, and gets wasted. One can't expect children to learn on an empty stomach. Aseema provides the daily meal, trains the local teacher, and provides teaching aids. Most parents are happy to send their children here because they get to eat one meal a day. Education for much of our country needs to be so much more beyond books and exams. People have to be fed first. Development that is getting you the latest mobile phone, while ignoring the hungry millions is one-sided.
Training the local teacher is crucial, as she understands the local context, is from the area, and knows how to deal with things. Transplanting the average city teacher there would provide its own challenges. On the flip side, most local teachers employed by the Government are class 6 or 7 drop-outs, and may not even be perfect at spelling themselves.
After a few years, and a struggle to acquire funds, Aseema has built a wonderful school at a beautiful location. This is a primary school, and the oldest children are not more than age 4. I was lucky to be there for the simple yet moving inauguration. There was a performance by the children, and lunch for the villagers. Almost 700 villagers came for the occasion. There was a tree-planting in the school courtyard. It filled one with a feeling of hope, joy, and anything being possible.
The school has a well on the premises. The appropriate use of the landscape as well as the construction of a series of bunds has already increased the water table in the area. This ensures the well has water even through the summer when the common well run dry. Now many women from the nearby villages have to walk one tenth the distance, as they can use this well. And this is in just one year. World economies run on petrol, but water is the real liquid gold. It's the life blood of our planet, our communities, our lives. Water can transform areas of acute poverty to sustainable agriculture, water can change poor communities to well-fed ones. Water can prevent frustrated people from leaving their villages to enter the cities.
Primary education is the most important part of education, yet the most ignored. Millions are pumped into higher institutes of learning, but the crucial years of one's life are the initial ones. At that age, education can inculcate good habits, better understanding, and so much more than chemical equations. Aseema uses the Montessori system of education, which is a fascinating and holistic way to teach. It is a way of overall human development. It is amazing to see how children truly want to learn. In Montessori, the teacher is more of a guide, just watching the students and nudging them if needed, never force-feeding them information, or making then write endless lines of senseless alphabets in the quest for 'good handwriting'. Children automatically go to what they need to learn that day, and learn by self-initiated activities. Conventional education kills this love for learning. We need to urgently re-think and question the entire concept of school education, as it exists right now.
There is huge scope for designers to make a difference to rural India. But design education being what it is, and design being perceived as styling, the shift is not going to happen soon or easily. Heavy student loans make it impossible for a lot of students to even consider doing socially responsible design work, which can't pay as much as your average corporate job.
There is only one thing that can propel India into the 'developed' category. And it's not 3G technology, Audi cars, multiplexes, malls, consumerism, and it's not design either. It's good, solid, holistic school education and sustainable community development.
Inauguration of Aseema's School was on 26th March 2011
Photographs: Armeen Kapadia