The Summer of 2014
Phew! It’s been a hot summer in more ways than one. Besides slurping mangoes and sweating buckets, we Indians actually came out in droves and voted.
We often feel that we are a divided country. We’re just too big, too populated, and too diverse to actually feel like one nation. But this time there was something common amongst all Indians, across the length and breadth of the land. We were all totally fed up with our last Government. Everyone unanimously felt that enough is enough. Now why we were so fed up is another story altogether (more than a story actually, it can form a series of books). But it was a new experience to see everyone throw their vote behind one man. Congress made desperate last-minute barbs by calling him ‘chaiwalla’, and referring to a 56 inch chest, but in the end they had to put their tail between their legs and run for cover, because the people of India gave them a good, solid, well-deserved kick. It feels great that they’ve been squashed (for the present at least), like that lazy, disgusting cockroach that lurks in the corner of your kitchen.
Because of all this polly-tickle tamasha, one watches a lot of news these days. You can’t see a minute of news without hearing the name ‘Modi’. It’s the most used word after the phrase ‘India needs an answer’. If someone actually did a statistical tally, the word ‘modi’ would be occurring at the frequency of one per minute at a bare minimum, and even going up to twenty-seven per minute on a good day. Because even when people are not talking about Modi, they are talking about Modi. You can’t discuss anything without his name popping up. Government, corruption, dhoklas, Gujarat, Hindus, Muslims, kurtas, puppies, and everything connects to Modi somehow. You’ve got to hand it to the guy for become Brand No. 1. During the last six months or so, family/friends get-togethers could not proceed as normal. The room would be firmly divided into pro-Modi and anti-Modi factions. Everyone would be shouting their opinion without hearing anothers’. Each camp is firmly entrenched in its belief, and it’s impossible to budge them either way. There are spouses, siblings, parents and kids who don’t see eye-to-eye on this.
But we forget an important thing. We have to thank the Congress party. Why? If they hadn’t put up a goofy like RaGa, who knows, they might have got a bigger majority, and would not be shaking in their shoes today. Imagine if they had a smart, shrewd, capable leader. It would be terrible, because they might continue in power for the next sixty years, reducing India to pulp. Their miserable governance actually united this country, which otherwise can’t agree on which MDH masala is best.
As citizens of this great nation, there are several cards that are essential to our existence. Yes, you heard right—cards. These harmless little laminated pieces of paper, generously stamped by the Government and decorated with illegible signatures are our lifeblood. You aren’t truly an Indian until you have a bunch of these cards, squirrelled away somewhere.
Take that grand old patriarch of cards, known as the ‘ration card’. This has been around for decades. Are you likely to buy rice or dal at subsidised rates? I thought not. This little booklet doubles up as a proof of residence and practically a proof of citizenship, for when you need to acquire other cards and add them to your ever-growing collection. It is nearly impossible to get your own ration card. I was told by a helpful tout that my name must exist on my parent’s card, and it could only be transferred from there to a new card. Like blue blood, ration cards move from one generation to the next. Unlike blue blood, the transfer would come at a cost, said aforementioned tout, eyeing me greedily.
Consider the humble driving license, another innocent looking thing. Traffic police threaten to confiscate it if you get caught. Friends double up laughing when they see your photograph on it. Thus, it provides power for some and entertainment for others. To attain a driver’s license you should know how to drive. That is the general assumption people make, and it is wrong. Is the ration card used for ration? No. In a similar manner, the license is not proof of your driving skills. Many people possessing driving licenses do not know how to park, and why should they, when the license has much more important functions? It acts as proof of your residence (again) and identity (inspite of the hilarious picture where you resemble a tomato) when you want to apply for Passport, PAN card, Election card, open a bank account, close a bank account, board a domestic flight, prove your identity to a train ticket collector, and so on.
So once I was the proud owner of a driving license I decided to put my license to better use. I would get my Voter ID card, or Election card, or whatever they call the blasted thing these days. This is a precious one. If you possess it, hang on to it. At this time of year everyone is turning his or her cupboard and wallet upside down hunting it down. First-time voters like myself are trudging miles in the heat trying to track down where their card is. This is the card that connects you and me, normal, unimportant people, to the Prime Minister himself (or herself). This card can change our future (or so we believe). This card will improve our lives (that’s what we tell ourselves). My spouse and I are running from pillar to post, but the card is a coy damsel, dodging us at every turn. Still, we have to thank it for getting us into shape with all that chasing, as well as developing our Buddha-like patience.
Let’s not hurt the sentiments of numerous other Indian cards by ignoring them. The PAN card is the easiest, friendliest one of the lot. The Gas Cylinder Card is again a very important creature in the card ecosystem. Housewives value it more than oxygen, and with good reason. For who even breathes real oxygen these days, with all the pollution around us? LPG gas is something we can’t live without, for our rozi roti depends on it. Have you seen a household without a gas cylinder? It’s usually falling apart in chaos. For a short while the Gas Card was hitched with that new kid on the block, the Aadhar Card. This made us all run around like headless chickens. But now that the two cards have got divorced, we’re all breathing easy again.
I hear you ask, why was I seeking a ration card to begin with? Well, let me explain. To provide proof of residence for my learner’s license, which would lead to the driver’s license, which could be used as proof to get an Election Card, which I could vote with to change the government which has created this system, and usher in a new government with their own new crazy system for us to adjust to all over again.
Films from India
Some interesting films came out of India, back in the day of one national TV channel. Whatever your age, you'll never grow tired of watching these. The last one, 'I Am 20', shows how much has changed, and at the same time, how little has changed.
Satyamev Jayate ki jai
The idiot box is not so idiotic anymore.
Yesterday we watched Amir Khan's Satyamev Jayate first telecast on TV. Hopefully, many more Indians were watching too. Finally, someone woke up and made a meaningful TV series. The weaker-minded folks say they don't' want to spend their day off watching an hour and a half of the real issues of India. Such people are very reason India has so many issues to begin with. If apathy is our worse trait, Satyamev Jayate is a good poke in the right direction. It is hard to imagine someone who is not moved while watching it.
I was expecting a documentary-ish programme, but was pleasantly surprised to see it was actually a talk show hosted by Amir Khan. The last few weeks, when Satyamev was being advertised, I was wondering which issue he will cover in the first episode. After all, there is no shortage of issues in India. And they didn't let me down either. Episode 1 is Daughters are Precious, and it is the issue in India that is crying out for most attention, because it points to a seriously ill social structure. Any society that allows for lakhs of girl children to be aborted, or killed at birth, is a dangerous society. This is a symptom of a larger problem, that essentially, women are still not respected or valued in India. Although people say it is better than it used to be, it is still not what it should be. Ask any woman today, how she feels when stared at on the street, even when 'decently' dressed, or when she is groped in a crowded bus or train, or when she is paid less than a man for the same work. The increasing gang rapes, especially in Gurgaon are testimony to this wretched attitude of India towards its women.
Coming back to the show, Amir Khan shows some alarming facts. Female foeticide has risen significantly from 1981 to 2011. It occurs more in urban areas, even among the so-called educated and well-to-do families. Amir interviews some women who have been through hell, been beaten and abused for bearing a female child, have been forced through multiple abortions, but were brave enough to live through it, fight it, and come and talk about it on the show. You need to see the show to hear their stories.
The show also focuses on the positive. It tells us of change happening for the better, of journalists and activists fighting this issue daily, and of how citizens can hopefully put pressure on courts to dispense justice a little faster. Most importantly, Amir Khan tells us that it is you and me who can be the change, in our own small way. At the very least, knowledge is power, and the more people are made aware through this series, the better it is.
For the first time (I think) someone has used Indian television for a meaningful and powerful message. This medium of the idiot box, as I like to call it, is incredibly powerful, watched by millions, in rural and urban areas, and does not require one to be literate. It can affect positive change if used well, and who better to do that than Amir Khan, one of the very few in Bollywood who actually does sensible things. Instead of the ridiculous maa-bahu-saas serials, the mindless reality shows, and the demeaning and outright racist fairness creams crap, there is actually something sensible, intelligent and enlightening on Indian television. Hats off to Amir Khan. I just wish the ads of the saas-bahu serials would not air in the breaks of Satyamev Jayate. It is a cruel irony, that the source of the very issue being discussed, is being advertised. Also, hopefully, the issue of the music copyright will be sorted out soon.
Satyamev Jayate is a mantra from the ancient Mundaka Upanishad. When India gained Independence in 1947, it was established as the national motto. It means 'truth alone triumphs'. Somewhere, especially in the last ten years, it seems as if India lost all faith in her own motto. While many things have been getting better, many things have been getting worse. We have more malls, digital devices, and foreign cars, our homegrown companies are going global. But our cities are more unsafe, our rivers are horribly polluted, there is a loss of green cover, there is growing disparity between the rich and the poor, increasing rape, and unimaginable scams. Maybe Satyamev Jayate will hold a mirror to us all, and enable us to see the not-so-pretty truths there.
Pay to Read?
The internet has pampered us sufficiently into believing that content is as free as the air we breathe (even if the latter is polluted as hell). There was a time in the pre-internet days when one had to pay to read. We still pay to read magazines, books, and the newspaper. The newspapers manage to keep it cheap because the advertisers are paying them. We pay just a few rupees because a corporation has paid a few crores to place their advertisement there.
Some sites with good quality content don't wish to sell out completely to advertisers, and they charge for articles. The New York Times does that, as does The New Yorker. While initially it seems putting-off to a reader, in time it makes sense. No one can write for a living for free. And news, or content, like any other commodity or form of entertainment, comes with a price. If you like what you see, you got to pay to have it. And when there is so much not-so-great content out there, the guys who write quality stuff either have to show you ads to survive, or charge you some money.
Speaking ads in your face, the Indian press media take it new heights daily. On any given day there are 3 to 4 full page ads in the Times of India. Earlier, we spotted ads in-between the news, and they stood out, because they were few. Nowadays, we spot news items between the ads. So you may have starving Bangadeshis rubbing shoulders with Katrina selling diamonds. Should there be some kind of rule on the amount a paper can advertise? More importantly, is the corporate world deciding what news gets showcased? Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against ads, but I think there can be a better balance. Advertising needs to realize its role in visual culture, and how it affects social values. Our news is stringently edited, while our advertising is not. News and advertising offer us two different kinds of information, and the line between them is blurring. How much news is still objective, is a matter of great debate. How much advertising does not tell us a lie, is a matter of no debate, its very little.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold talks about a related issue, regarding product placement in the film industry. A creatively made, but entertaining and somewhat radical documentary, it's definitely worth a watch. If there can be a city without ads, there is no reason a newspaper can have a few less too.
A great visionary, dreamer, and doer of our time has passed on. Though he is no more, he is forever more. Working on a Mac everyday, one can't help but just be in awe of the man who created these marvelous machines. Apple products are more than technology, they are a way of life. A better way of life. A way towards excellence and perfection in everything. Few people had the guts and the gumption to strive for such perfection in a cynical, mediocre world, defined by bottom-lines, but Steve Jobs did. And in that, he inspires people everyday. If we can even be one-tenth of what he was, if we had such drive, such single-minded passion, such attention to detail, if we all did our work with such a quest for excellence, the world would be a better place. We would work for the joy of creating something nearly perfect.
From the black apple subtly placed at the bottom of the screen, to the serene, snowy keyboard, to their mysterious inner workings, Apple products are all the vision of a person who made the impossible possible. He made technology a sheer delight, a pleasure, a thing of beauty. He enabled the machine to truly become an extension of us, seamless, intuitive, and most importantly, he put the joy factor into the littlest of things. I have had the good fortune of working on different generations of Macs. The first one I had was an iBook G4, a small, 13 inch delight. Then I was lucky to get a good second-hand MacBook Pro in 2007, which is still going strong. After that the iMac and now the big daddy, the 27 inch Mac with its magic mouse, which is, well, magical. So many times, I have discovered something new on the Mac, and it has made me smile, or go "Wow, they actually thought of that!" Steve Jobs ensured they thought of everything. Every unvoiced need, every unspoken desire that's swimming around in a user's brain, is addressed. Yet, its never intrusive, ugly, or in-your-face. No icon is too small, no detail too unimportant, to warrant absolute attention. Everything is honed to perfection. Apple knows what you want, when you want it, when you need it. Steve Jobs is the mastermind who brought science, technology, art and beauty all together in his too-short lifetime. He redefined our way of working, connecting, and thinking. In the computer world, he made that evolutionary leap, and the best part is, he still enables millions of others to leap with him.
Yesterday, when I heard the news that Steve Jobs had died, I couldn't believe it. We can't see our heros fall. I know he was suffering from pancreatic cancer, but death is always sudden, and we are never prepared for it. Maybe Steve Jobs is gone, but in many ways he hasn't. Every time I click on iTunes, or hear the signature Mac start-up 'ahummmmmmm' sound, I'm reassured, he still lives somewhere.
RIP Steve Jobs
7 Website Myths
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.
A Real School
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
In this day and age, we can't imagine a designer without a computer. It's almost impossible to function. Unless the designer is that rich or famous that she/he has an army of design slaves to execute their design ideas. And even then they will need the computer for basic communication. Still, there are extremes even in this.
Recently I had the opportunity to meet a German professor, who was trained at Ulm. He uses Indesign in a very different way. He actually codes the software to do exactly what he wants, when he wants it, so there is very little manual work. He believes that it is a machine, and hence built for the level of precision that we humans can never master. The human brain/hand is always liable to make a mistake. So why not use that precision to advantage? He rarely places objects manually in files, but has trained the software to carry out commands, all purely mathematically. The workspace looks different from a conventional Indesign screen. Of course, he can do all this because he has miles of experience behind him, is a true master of the grid, and understands coding and computers. It does make sense, to actually make full use of the computer as a machine. He gives the commands, and Indesign obeys them, laying out the publication. The computer is his slave.
At the other end of the spectrum are some students of typography in Jaipur. A friend visited them recently. There are a few in the class who have never worked on a computer before. To the extent that a couple of them don't know of the very basic computer interactions. For instance, they had no concept of a drop-down menu. The teacher first had to teach them that. It is akin to teaching a student how to hold a book, open it, or how to use the pencil. This means that we take our relationship with the computer for granted. We intuitively know where the drop-down menu is, where the buttons are, and we can react accordingly, without thinking. But for a newbie, who perhaps has never worked on a computer, it can be learning from scratch.
The computer has become the tool most fused with the human brain and hands. But it still can't substitute the real tool of the human mind. Designers need to develop that tool first, to make best use of other tools. Only the intellect can think of ideas, concepts, and weigh them. Creative thought comes from humans, not machines. Microsoft Word can't write the Ramayana by itself.
Working on the computer should not become working for the computer.
The free types
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.
The New Yorker