Phil Speaks

by Phil

I spoke at this event called Design Fridays last week. It’s a long-running, subscription-based, quarterly event produced by Ray+Keshavan, a premiere international branding firm here in Bangalore. The event consists of a presentation by someone noteworthy from a given creative field, followed by Q&A, followed by dinner, cocktails, and enlightened conversation. Attendees are a nice variety of people from many creative disciplines, lively and engaged. Pam and I had attended the previous one as guests, and had a really fantastic time.

My talk was called “Desire and Digital Design.” My intention was to examine the differences between design/designers in India and design/designers in the west, and to spend some time looking at the evolution of UI design as a distinct discipline over the last 15 odd years. The juxtaposition of India and the U.S., as seen through the lens of design, is actually a very interesting subject, one I grapple with and reformulate every single day here. My working theory at the moment entertains the notion that desire is a fundamental component of the act of design; and that desire itself has been systematically bred out of the culture here for thousands of years. That’s just the top level; there are many other forces in play: politics, education, history, geography, literacy, language, religion, and more. Each has a distinct role in suppressing desire, and in turn, design. There is reason for hope, there are green shoots – I closed the talk with an examination of one particularly inspiring story – but India’s cultural model is the stream against which aspiring designers here are all swimming.

I’m pretty sure I managed to offend some in the crowd, regardless of my academic intentions. I know because they told me so ! Engaging men and women, architects, photographers, journalists, typophiles… We had fantastic talks about what India truly is, how I may have misperceived, and when we might dine together properly and have a *real* conversation :)

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8 Responses to “Phil Speaks”

  1. cara zoe says:

    I would add that an important element of design is improvising with the resources available to you to meet your needs, something that many Indians are very good at. Paint can stoves, rice sack shopping bags, + plates made with leaves are a few of the many examples. I agree that aesthetics are not valued very highly in most parts of Indian life, but that could simply be an economic issue.

  2. Phil says:

    I would argue that improvisation, like wit, is something that happens in the moment; it is not proscribed. The examples cited above are all solutions, adaptations, that have been around here for as long as there have been paint cans, rice sacks, and need. I’d further argue that need is very different from desire; and I would agree that India is ingenious at meeting its needs.

    As I pointed out in the talk, I will not suggest that desire as we know it in the west is necessarily a good or superior thing. In fact it’s a major pain in the ass. The Bhagavad Gita says, “All is clouded by desire,” and I am inclined to agree. Nonetheless, it is the engine that drives us in the west; and it seems to me that this engine is entirely absent here, for better or worse.

  3. Hey Phil ! That’s great !! I would’ve loved to attend this talk… Would it be possible to post a gist of what you spoke (or the whole talk) at the ‘Design Friday’ ?

  4. JD says:

    The search, I guess, is for a happy balance: between the resourcefulness and ingenuinity of Indians – which means they make every little resource go miles, recycle, reinvent; with aesthetics. In India its a case of form follows fundamental economics (of supply and demand).

    Having said that, right across the lane at the exit off Brunton Road where R+K is based, is a small temporary structure inhabited by two ragamuffins. The two spend most of their day collecting scraps and rubbish (which they obviously sell on) – but almost every other day they make small little sculptures from their collections – broken vases with crushed flowers, next to a makeshift pic from a magazine. I am amazed at their sense of order and the inherent need (or desire) to create something beautiful out of decay. Photos of their work soon :-) As you say Phil, there is hope….

    As a nation, we are generally at ease with chaos – the first thing that would hit me on return to India was not the visual dissonance but the smell and the noise. Look at the Indian News and you have the proof of visual and auditory overload. And yet I guess it makes a lot of sense to many…as does the new paintings adorning lots of tunnels across Bangalore!

    To sum up my long rambling, its possibly the lack of desire for order, for systems, for rules, for discipline. Evident in the traffic, in the city planning, in bus and train stations….and yet we happily (or unhappily?) follow the rules and systems once abroad! Contradictory? Ambivalent?

    Welcome to India :-)

  5. Phil says:

    Hey Jay !

    Beautifully said.

    I fully agree: as designers we have a fundamental *desire* to make order from chaos; it’s in our DNA. Shorthand way of saying it might be: we have a desire to make things better. As I said at DF, we believe:

    1. It is possible to make things better;
    2. Making things better has value and meaning; and
    3. We are personally capable of making things better.

    It’s a bit arrogant, really… if we walk around all day with those things foremost in mind, we can become real malcontents. Conversely, if India is comfortable with things as they are, chaos and all, then maybe that is the more durable long-term position in this hard world. It would definitely preclude any notion of progress, though it can be argued that progress itself is an illusion :)

    Your ragamuffins are a great concept to ponder. Their clear drive to make order out of chaos suggests that it is not necessarily learned, but innate in some, not necessarily killed by cruel context. I love that notion.

    Can’t wait to see your pictures; if I were seeing those things en route to work every day, I would take such great pleasure there :)


  6. Hey, Phil! Would you consider switching you RSS feed to full content instead of excerpts? This was a great post and great discussion, but I confess I don’t usually click through from Google Reader to read your posts because that breaks the flow of my feed reading. Don’t make the user work to get to your content! :-)



  7. Phil says:

    Hey Matt!

    So this is a test: does your RSS reader monitor comments? I guess we will see ;)

    So the Louvre should deliver Mona to your door, rather than ask you to come see her yourself? HA :)


    Interesting idea. Honestly I am not a big blogger, I jumped in only because of this India year; it seemed the right thing to do. After a quick poll of people who are smarter than me, I chose WordPress and have been happy with it as a platform.

    I don’t consume my news via RSS, but when I use RSS (for other data streams) I use a stock-ticker-styled thing called NewsTicker, which I love. BUT, it only displays headlines; upon rollover, it shows the teaser/excerpt.

    The idea is that if the teaser is compelling, people will click and come to papa. But, as you say, that requires an interruption which may not be welcome. However, the other side of that is, maybe, if I turn on full content instead, then what happens? I don’t know, but I imagine a giant balloon full of tiny text that takes a long time to consume. The old “hitting a fly with a sledgehammer” conundrum.

    Also, the presentation is important to me. This is partly a showcase for Pam’s writing, in which case formatting is a huge part of the reading experience; and it is also a showcase for my photos; again, context is very important. A photo looks very different in different contexts. Most great photos look a lot less great on Flickr, for instance, where they are sooo lovelessly presented. How would visual content look in your Google Reader? Probably not great, is my guess, but I do not have the time to test it, or any/all other possible contexts. Blog always takes 2nd place to my primary work here, and even simply posting photos, or especially slideshows or videos, is a tremendous time-suck. SO the UI / UE here is not as nuanced as it would be if it were actually my job :)

    My many assumptions here may be flawed; and my understanding of RSS and blog conventions and feed readers and all is not deep. Let me know?

    Glad you are reading in any case. Especially if you are seeing this Comment in your reader ;)


  8. Kai says:

    I switched to Feedly ( about a year ago, and I am very happy with it. By far one of the nicest feed (RSS) readers out there. It’s basically a layer on top of Google Reader with great attention to detail and readability – something that Google Reader is completely lacking. Highly recommended.