M P Ranjan, India’s foremost Design Thinker, said on 16 October 1997 at the AEP Bridge Semester, National Institute of Design:
“Design is a responsible and creative activity that aims to understand human needs and aspirations in order to generate effective alternate solutions that can resolve these needs. By its very nature the process of design deals with extremely complex interrelationships of issues and concerns of the user, the environment and the well being of society in social, technological and economic realms.
The designer is therefore in the arena of generating scenarios and specifications and offering these for selection and decision within the framework of professional contributions offered to a wide variety of clients.
The nature and complexity of different design tasks may vary to a great extent. Some tasks are technologically complex but most design tasks deal with other realms of complexity in the social, economic or psychological dimensions of users and the community that supports the conduct and performance of the task.”
I asked my ‘History of Design’ students in the first year of Communication Design to observe, understand and critically analyse this statement in the structure of the design space within the larger context of wars that have questioned and changed the world order. They were asked, what, in their opinion, were the ways in which design reacted and responded during, before and after the times of conflict? How does it help find their own space today through research from the past?
The wars under the scanner were:
- French Revolution: 1789 – 1799
- World War I: 1914–1918
- World War II: 1939–1945
- Cold War: 1947 – 1991
- Cuban Revolution: 1953 – 1959
- Vietnam War: 1955 – 1975
- Gulf War: 1990 – 1991
- Iraq War: 2003 – 2011
Their research output ranged from modifications of the sanitary napkin (refer to pic above) to change in colour of packaging of Hermes products due to unavailability of their famous coloured paper, use of make-up as “beauty was duty” to fight against Hitler’s idea that women had to look plain for War and inventions in lipsticks shades with names like Tangee’s ‘Lips in Uniform’ shade or Helena Rubenstein’s ‘Regimental Red’, the creation of War Propaganda images on matchbox books to carry during the World Wars, changes in plastic surgery, the work of Alan Turing or Hedy Lamarr who’s immense contribution went unrecognised due to their sexual orientation or public image. The use of symbols during French Revolution or the change of images on French currency were crucial to create an impression on the minds of people about the image of the Revolution. The intense thought behind the posters with the image of Che or the cover design of ‘Tricontinental’ magazine from Cuba…
These are just a small representation of the design responses the students found and excitedly shared. Their shock and surprise at these revelations during the presentation led to some intense discussions on being a conscientious designer and what and who defined “need”. With some unresolved questions, the students have moved ahead in their path in the global design community. Would Ranjan have been happy with these arguments? One can only wonder…
Students felt that “as MP Ranjan addresses the need for design and how its objectivity lends itself to understanding the duality of what constitutes as good design... In war, ‘responsible’ and ‘creative’ designs are often refined versions of weapons of mass destruction. However, if they are sleeker and more efficient, wouldn’t that constitute good design?”
Kareena Shamsi argues, “since form follows function… When it comes to understanding how design can be used to serve a purpose, it is also equally important to recognise that there can be multiple uses of a single design. The metro was only planned for efficient transit, yet at the same time the war called for it to be designed as a safe haven for Muscovites.”
Adyot Rajadhyaksha researched on ‘The role of superhero comics in USA before, during and after it’s involvement in World War II’ and discovered that “Superman never fought the War“. He wrote how this exercise:
“enhanced and benefitted my growth through making me understand the deep connections and cause/effect nature of time and its evolution. The design of today is based off the slow and steady development over the entirety of human history, affected by each political movement, social revolution and economic force that led up to where we are.”
All photographs have been researched and credited by Akshat, Kareena, Priya Shroff & Adyot.