Picture this. A large, cool and comfortable room. A group of men sitting around a conference table. Everyone is at least 50 years, or older. Most of them are academics, or have worked in universities, often in administrative levels, most of their lives. They have requested 3 young designers to come and 'share their expertise' with them. A quick summary below --
The task at hand: Designing the university certificates.
The design tools: A projector, and a university employee with a laptop.
The design solution (as desired by them): Anything that looks 'good'.
Definition of good: Widely debatable.
As we sat at that table (yes it was two friends/colleagues and me at that table), we very rapidly realized the blokes in front of us don't really know or understand what design is. We can't blame them for that. After all, design is still shrouded in mystery for most folks. Putting it mildly, they did't really have a clue, and they haven't the foggiest idea of what we can do for them. We were regarded by some with suspicion, and by some with relief.
Initially, it seemed as if they wanted us to guide the man working on the laptop, as he typed in the various nuggets of information that would appear on the certificate. We could all see what he did on the projection screen. The gentlemen were constantly giving him advice, designerly and otherwise, but mostly designerly.
"Use Algerian font, it's the best.", "Should the logo come on top, or should the university name come first?", "Should we have English or Hindi first?", "University naam curve pe dal (place the university name in a curve)", and many, many more such golden words of wisdom was freely shared. It was both hilarious and tragic at the same time, besides being mildly bizarre. Why were we designers called? To be witness to the 'design by committee' process perhaps, and give it our stamp of approval. At any rate, it proved very hard to explain to some of the gentlemen there what design was, and how it happened. It ideally did not happen in an hour, on a projection screen, with everyone giving their opinion on it. Most of the time we just sat quiet. This caused one of them to laughingly say,"They are not revealing their trade secrets." Yes, if by trade secrets he meant we don't design by popular vote, he was right. Another gentleman, who was more understanding conceded, "No they will do it on their own, when we give them the content."
This university logo was a strange, convoluted being. It was a product of some quick Google searches, Illustrator live-trace option, and ad-hoc colour selection. When we asked who the designer was, there was no clear answer besides, "Ermmm..". There was no question of re-designing this poor logo, yet, "Do something so that it looks nice." Basically, apply a Band-Aid on it when it actually needs major surgery, or complete reconstruction.
There are numerous people, organizations, institutes, and bodies like this, where design is a mysterious word. Or design is simply beautification. How does one explain design to someone, who doesn't have a clue as to what design is? How does one explain its value, its process, its role and importance? How can you tell someone that design is more that just its tools? Needless to say, we didn't get into it then and there.
I'm really grateful to advertisers and sponsors for letting us get glimpses of movies and programmes on TV between the hours of advertising. Besides being thoroughly entertaining, brainwashing and mind-numbing, ads provide some real insights into mainstream culture. There are some ads on TV that are genuinely good, humourous and make their point. But a good amount of Indian advertising presumes people will believe anything, such as:
1) Indian roads are smooth, wide, empty surrounded by greenery, beautiful and India looks like a first world country.You can race your bike/car on them as much as you like. And super hot girls in mini skirts fill petrol at the petrol pumps.
2) It is really important that you be fair, so every company makes a 'fairness' cream. Nowadays even men need fairness creams, and smoothening face gels, so that they don't feel left in the dark, quite literally. In a country of beautiful, brown complexion, it is now extremely important to look like a super-white cartridge sheet. The 'brightness' option on Photoshop has never been misused to such effect.
3) As soon as you are born, you start ageing, so you must start using an anti-aging cream when you are around ten. Or heaven help you, you will look twenty by the time you are err.. twenty.
4) Your existing mobile phone is never good enough for you, even if you just bought it. Make sure you upgrade asap. Otherwise how will you get all those cool friends?
5) You really haven't arrived till you have a fancy new bathroom, that is probably bigger than your living room.
6) Hair colour is very important, almost as crucial as face colour. But in hair colour, darker is better, and you should really start hiding those grey strands at sixteen.
7) There is really a lot to be said about hair, and yours is not strong enough until you can tie it to the front bumper of a truck, and pull the truck along. To do that, you need to only use a Long and Strong Shampoo, because as we all know, it's so normal to be using your extra long hair to pull automobiles along the road.
8) While on the topic of our crowning glories, there are now enough shampoos. conditioners, detanglers and hair products to keep Rapunzel busy for the rest of her life. There is stuff for long hair, straight hair, curly hair, falling hair, dry hair, sticky hair, thin hair, thick hair, no hair, dandruffy hair, coloured hair, white hair, and split ends, because you're worth it.
Most important, when you don't have a real concept to sell a product or service, or you can't find its distinctive advantage, just make any member of the Indian Cricket Team endorse the thing. This will ensure that half the nation will at least blindly watch the commercial, and not flick channels. They might even purchase that product. If a cricketer is telling you that you need it, then you need it, whether it is a fancy car, cooking oil, or hair conditioner. When in doubt, always fall back on our boys in blue.
Back in the day, ads were created to let you know about the real function or advantage of the product. They were direct, simple and more honest. With increasing production, choice and consumerism, today they have to all compete with numerous others in the market. So now it's more about lifestyle, experience, brand and how important it is just to purchase it. What you already have is never good enough, famous enough, or beautiful enough. We are victims of the Ad Age. You need more, even if you really don't need more. The next time you are watching the idiot box, make sure you don't become the idiot in front of it.
The census is a chance once a decade, for a country to reflect on itself. The recent census of India show us facts and figures about ourselves, that give some indications of our culture and mindset. The gender ratio, is still pretty skewed, especially in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan where the odds are really stacked against women. For some strange reason, large parts of India are obsessed with the male child. Mothers and fathers do not consider their families complete or 'blessed' till the arrival of a male heir. Occassionaly this male heir will grow up to be an unemployed, wife-abusing drunk. And the abused wife is once again craving for a son, ignoring her daughters, recreating the whole cycle.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. One can somewhat understand the centuries-old desire for a male child in rural areas, or amongst the uneducated. But what is more (and seriously) alarming is this desire for a son even amongst educated, wealthy citizens, living in cities like Mumbai and Delhi. Female foeticide is still prevalent, among all sections of society. A brilliant paper by Amartya Sen titled More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing, (title self-explanatory) sheds light on some some alarming realities.
Moving closer home, where are all the women in design? I studied Applied Art, where there were mostly women. Then I came to study at NID, where there were still more women! Some disciplines such as graphic design and textile design, have women in greater numbers than their male counterparts. But one sees very few women at top level positions in design, or running design firms. Off-hand I can only think of Sujata Keshavan (Brand Union) and Divya Thakur (Design Temple) in India. There are some women running businesses, media houses, ad agencies, publishing etc., but not much is known about them. On the other hand, one can immediately think of several foreign female designers: Jessica Helfand, Paula Scher, Zaha Hadid, Leila Vignelli, Debbie Millman, Marian Bantjes, Ellen Lupton, and more. There is a dearth of female role models in design in India. Type 'famous female designer India' and Google throws up a list of interior and fashion designers, with Tarun Tahiliani as the seventh link. (guess Google still can't tell gender apart ;-)
What happens to the thousands of female students at these design schools? Where do they all go afterwards? Is it so hard for women to climb the success ladder? Probably yes, with long work hours, family pressure, and the occasional man who resents a women's success. India may be a rising nation, the next economic superpower, and we may even be able to finally do something about our corruption, but the basic attitude towards women is still stuck in the Dark Ages. Why else do men on the street behave the way they do? Why do foreign visitors get harassed even when decently dressed? Make no mistake, even at the best of places, anywhere, there is always a creep hanging around the corner.
Maybe it all stems from the fact that a girl has to be married fast and young. Before she grows a mind of her own. Career is acceptable, but upto a point. Independence is not preferable. Read the ads in the Matrimonial section of any paper and you will know what I mean. There are fixed words used in almost every matrimonial ad
1) Everyone wants 'fair' in a country of wheatish complexion.
2) 'Domesticated', because women are wild animals that need to be lassoed and tied up. No 'junglees' wanted.
3) 'Homely', as opposed to what? Shop-ly? Collegely? Stupidly?
In the matrimonial zone, its a man's market at the moment. Personal friends, perfectly decent, intelligent, wonderful women, can't find prospective grooms because they aren't fair enough, homely enough, or (the worst) earn too much!
I would like to place a new matrimonial ad.
Wanted: Dark, wild and undomesticated woman. Must not give a dam about her face, hair, skin, the beauty parlour or men. Must possess independent, fully functioning brain. Preferably has a career. Cooking, cleaning and housekeeping skills non-essential. Must look like a healthy Indian girl and not a plastic doll.
If you say you are 29, and unmarried, you get a pitying look (even though its your choice). If you say you have only one sister, you get another pitying look along with, "What! No brother! How sad for you and your parents." I tell them, show me a dutiful son, and I can show you ten dutiful daughters.
Gandhi was right when he said, "Unfair treatment of women is a disease as bad as untouchability." It's the worst form of racism. Yet, things are much better for women now than they ever were in the past. Meanwhile, I'm still hunting for that top-shot female design person in India.
The terrible disaster in Japan this month has left the world shocked (how could it be so brutal!), scared (what if it happens to us?) and confused (how dangerous is nuclear power?). The media is a fickle mistress, and the news is now dominated by Libya, Wikileaks and so on. But the scale of the earthquake, and the force of the tsunami after that has left everyone gasping for breath. The world won't forget Japan that easily.
More astounding, to a lot of us, is the good behaviour of the Japanese, even in the face of total destruction. They still stand in orderly lines for food. There has been no looting, plundering and rioting, as often breaks out in other parts of the world (sometimes even in normal circumstances). This is also because the Japanese are trained from childhood to always value the group above the individual. The good of the group comes before I, myself and me. That is why few people are hoarding, because they know that hoarding implies they are depriving their neighbour of essential supplies. In previous earthquakes, people rushed out into the street, but almost at once they quietly queued up to pay their shop or restaurant bill. Such is their love for doing the right thing. So even in the worst of situations, they still remain human.
In contrast, our culture values the individual above the group, in most situations. The individual is greater than the area, the organisation, the city, state or country. Hence, a lot of people feel they are above the law. Multiply this across a lot of levels of society, and you get a happy state of anarchy (masquerading as democracy). In a functioning democracy, you can exercise your rights because you fulfill your duty. In a democrazy people can freely break the signal, or throw garbage on the street, or bribe, because a) they don't care b) they don't feel the street is their country and c) they usually don't feel Indian. The identity of Indianness is usually overshadowed by the identity of the community. It is always 'I am Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, (fill in any state)' before it is 'I am Indian'. We were a bunch of kingdoms earlier, and we still are a bunch of kingdoms, strongly based on linguistic lines. For the North Indians, everyone south of Mumbai is a 'Madrasi'. For the South Indians, everyone north of Mumbai is a Northie. For the Mumbaikars, Mumbai is its own country.
So the general 'Me before all else' attitude has made our country very fertile for corruption. It is rampant at all levels, in all places, barring a few. 2010 may have been the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese calendar, but in the Indian calendar it was the Year of the Scammers. There was 2G, Commonwealth Games, Adarsh Society, Satyam, Ramalinga Raju, Raja and his Batcha, Swiss Bank, and the evergreen politicians being bought with wads of notes that were the size of bricks. And these are just a few of those that made the headlines. One can't imagine the amount of money changing hands under the table across all levels. No system is the system, with money as the new God. Scams are the new democracy, as everyone can freely indulge in them. It's scamming by the people, for the people and of the people.
And we are all part of the system. I plead guilty. In 2006, some friends and I bribed a peon at a prominent art college in South Mumbai to get our certificates. The certificates were rightfully ours by the way, and we didn't have to do it, but the peon openly and shamelessly asked three of us students for a bribe. Except that he called it a 'gift'. Filled with disgust, and in shock, we didn't want to give in. We didn't belong to that college, and we also didn't want to make numerous trips there to get it out of him. He would definitely trouble us if we didn't pay him. Our lame excuse is we had no choice. The real reason is that we were cowards who wanted the easy way out. There is no real excuse for bending the rules to suit your own convenience. We put 'me' before the greater good. So the price for 3 pieces of paper (also known as certificates) was Rs 100/- total.
Japan is grappling with radiation, but India has to grapple with something more dangerous in the long-term. The debates over nuclear power, safety, environmental destruction and disaster management will rage and die out as issues bulldoze one another. But good sensible behaviour, basic ethics, and the decision to do right, even when nobody is watching, is, well, the strength of the Japanese alone.
It's a strange phenomena, but most people, including a lot of graphic designers think fonts are free as the air we breathe (which, I have no doubt, will cost us one day). But typefaces/fonts are not. A huge amount of effort goes into creating a single typeface. And that is just one basic version of it. More effort goes into creating different weights of the entire family. Yet, fonts are the most plagiarized of all resources, more than even the Internet or Wikipedia. I used some 'illegal' (not purchased) fonts too, as a student. In the Indian context, a lot of people think buying fonts is just a waste of money, not realising the importance of buying fonts for commercial and published work. Some fonts are expensive and may eat away a good chunk of their design budget. People's reactions range from:
Fonts aren't free? What the hell!
Why bother, lets just use a pirated version.
Why are we thinking of these fonts? Lets just download from dafont.com
Can't we use this font and just change it a bit?
Ok, lets use only those pre-loaded on the machine, at least that way we can save money and still be legal.
Can they sue us?
Lets buy some fonts. It's a good investment.
Sadly a very slim percentage of the population will say that last line. People need to be informed and educated about the importance and value of fonts. A lot of people ask the second last line. It's only the fear of punishment that makes people want to do the right thing.
Why should we buy fonts?
1) They are good investments. When you buy a good workhorse font, from a type foundry, it goes a long way. You get a whole font family, that could be anything from two to forty weights. Just that one font family alone can be used in innumerable ways, in countless projects, over the years. Take into account the fact that most good fonts have been around for decades (Helvetica) or centuries (Caslon, Didot, Bodoni). One solid font family purchased today can probably be used most of your lifetime.
2) It's the right thing to do. There is no other way to explain this.
3) Respect the creator. When you buy fonts, you are respecting, acknowledging and encouraging the designer somewhere, to create more. If everyone stopped buying fonts and used pirated versions, font designers would have to give up their careers. And then we would all be stuck using Helvetica forever.
4) There are fonts, and then there are fonts. Sites like dafont.com have their time and place, I believe. It's passable to use those fonts in student projects, your brother's class poster or a card for your girlfriend. In short, they are mostly (not always) amateur. It's not a great idea to use them on a client brochure, or a magazine, or for any professional/commerical work. Many times these fonts won't be kerned right, or won't have all the necessary glyphs. A lot of fonts on such sites are tweaked, squeezed and squashed versions of real, solid fonts.
5) The great are invisible. The really good fonts work invisibly and silently. They won't be shouting for you to see them. In fact, you may not notice them. They are designed to aid reading, not draw attention to themselves. So if you want people to actually read your text, and not just admire it, these are the fonts to go for. That is why big news agencies or newspapers commission their own fonts which are highly readable. Fonts are carriers and dispensers of content.
Have a fontastic week.