As parents of children at the school, three of us (Aarti Kawlra, Deepa Kamath and Kalpana Shah Korwar) have been associated with different projects and activities at The School, KFI—in the preparation of a class newspaper, in teaching a session on the role of cotton and weaving in the Industrial Revolution, in the designing of the wash area outside the dining hall. Coming from three different fields in design we were interested in the possibility of introducing the study of Design to students of the senior school. The teachers had already been thinking of this for some time. The principal had stated ‘as teachers we have recognized that space that lends itself to being used in multiple ways is far more valuable than space which can be used only in one way. . . A room with only a few mats and possibly low desks will not only remain clean but also provide infinite opportunities for small group work, music and dance, sitting in a circle, reading separately and so on. Thus setting space free of heavy structure appears to be one of the key elements of Design.’ The school was only too willing to see the evolution of an experiment that could eventually develop into a regular Design course aimed at the level of Classes Eleven and Twelve.

First Attempts at Creating a Design Course

Gathering inputs from resource persons in the field took us to vastly diverse subjects, from fractals to architecture and from fashion to the different communication media. These Design areas have their own structures that cater primarily to the practice of the respective professions. And although we could have exposed the students directly to them, we felt it was too early to do so right at the beginning and so decided to offer it instead, at the end of the year, as a summer apprenticeship project based upon the students’ own preference.

It was agreed to approach Design at The School as an exciting means of unraveling order and complexity from one’s environment. In the first year, the syllabus was planned with respect to three larger ‘environments’—nature, society and the built environment—around which the basic Design elements and principles of colour, texture, line, shape, space, proportion, balance, rhythm, motifs and composition were examined. For example, students looked at symmetry (spherical, radial and bilateral) in plants and animals; at patterns in nature like flow, branching, cracking, packing, spirals and so on. They also looked at patterns in society, as found in different types of tools and instruments such as the mortar and pestle used the world over; and at different types of dwellings in the built environment such as the wigwam, igloo, tarawad and so on.

A combination of illustrated lectures, demonstrations, field trips and projects were used to enable the students to engage with these environments. But while we did get the first batch to produce work, by the time they come to their summer projects we found that for some reason the course had not helped them to imbibe an ‘attitude of Design’ i.e. a way of being with Design always—both in their thinking and doing in everyday life.

Evolving a Different Approach

A different strategy was, therefore, adopted for the second batch of Design Studies. It was clear to us now that Design could be a way to enhance spontaneous critical thinking and establish meaningful connections between materials, technologies, products, places, people and processes. We therefore decided to limit the scope of our explorations to taking real-life examples from the students’ immediate environment and perspective. The school grounds therefore became the resource for our basic ‘Design from nature’ exercises. Toys found in our own homes, both modern and traditional, became the focus of attention in our wider understanding of design and society. Different places on the school premises, and in the city such as the newly built Park Hotel and NIFT campus, provided students with the opportunity of understanding familiar places in new ways and unfamiliar places in familiar ways.

The learning outcomes of classroom and home assignments were now intended to basically enhance perceptual abilities, not only through drawing and colour application skills but also through observation and the cognitive skills of analysis and synthesis. We were not looking for neat and final answers but rather at explorations and questions emerging from the students’ own initiative. Students were gently drawn into developing a feel for some aspects of design processes, employing various methods of creative learning and doing such as brainstorming, making mental maps, lateral thinking, series development, guided observation, interviews, research, personal diary reflections, article reviews and presentation techniques. Many were able to successfully handle independent redesigning projects (e.g. a future model in the He Man series, or eco-friendly toys in the line of Barefoot Toys from Sri Lanka) as well as provide directions for redesigning spaces such as the school’s washing and toilet areas.

Some inputs on World Art and Design History further encouraged students to find parallels in their own lives. They could now recognize the inspirations and influences upon the buildings around them, the products they used and the colours that they took for granted. They were able to distinguish for instance, an Art Nouveau inspired leaf from, say, a Bauhaus one. They also began to appreciate some of the nuances of important art works and gradually understood Van Gogh’s treatment of colour and how it differed from the way Matisse used it.

A Reflection on Objectives and Methods

Our objective was not to be exhaustive in any way and nor was it to encourage documentation for its own sake. Instead, our aim was to merely sensitize and sharpen perceptual and analytical skills using design-based teaching strategies. Our attempt was to facilitate rather than teach authoritatively; to reach students with different learning styles and differing learning capacities; to make learning active and self-directed; to use technology in the service of ideas rather than the other way around; and finally, to link the learning content with the student’s own interest as well as the interest of the wider community. What was interesting to see was the fact that, although all three of us employed these strategies in our interactions with the students, each of us emerged with distinctly unique results.

Design Studies, we were now sure, would essentially deal with the generation of creative problems and solutions pertaining to the immediate natural, sociocultural, built, technological and imagined environment around the students. Not only did we see design both as a ‘way of thinking’ and ‘a way of doing’, but also as an opportunity to work in teams, through cooperation, towards goals that were self-initiated as well as meaningful.

We aimed now to inculcate among the students a basic respect for the mundane and hoped that it would also lead them towards a deep attention to detail both in the work they produce and in the life they live.