Questioning how we design
Updated: Jun 23
Women & Design // Episode 2
Questioning the importance of 'great' visual communication in design.
The pressure of finding a job, being financially independent in a country that is not my own and also navigating through what I want to do (oh, and let's not forget our dear friend COVID-19). The whole thing took a toll on my mental health and how I position myself as a designer. I started questioning if what I had to say was even worth saying since I didn't have a job to prove to the world that what I have to say is valid (say hello to my old friend self-doubt, she likes stirring things up a lot). When I proposed my idea for this article to the Women in Design Team, I wanted to write about how visually communicating your ideas or designs don't need to be the ‘Instagram’ way. I wondered why society dictates how we visually represent our designs. I started writing bits and bobs for the article the day after I submitted my final year project. I knew what I wanted to say - however it's been a month since then. A lot has happened since then, rather nothing happened.
The reason I wanted to write about this was because of my capstone project. I did my major in Industrial Design - not out of choice but out of convenience. I took very few Industrial Design papers throughout my education at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington, contrary to my major was out of active choice. The other very fortunate thing I experienced at VUW was that we had the freedom to explore and interpret the brief however we saw fit. So of course, when it came to my capstone project I had the independence to interpret the project as long as it fulfilled the brief. In the brief, we had to design a solution for an Aotearoa New Zealand-based company/brand/organization that had been impacted by - you guessed it - COVID-19 (we love her, don't we?).
This whole brief had me overwhelmed; the thought of designing a physical product induced my eco-anxiety. But I was fortunate to have a wonderful lecturer and tutor for the course who helped me navigate through the project. The project, I decided to design for New Zealand's Ministry of Education.
What I really want to focus on is not my project itself but how I presented it which is what sparked this conversation. Some background, I have been studying design for five years; the first two years were in India after which I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand. In the last five years, I have made a handful or fewer flashy renders and Instagram-worthy sketches. So how did I present my Industrial Design capstone assignment? It was made from a piece of cardboard from a box that was lying in the garage. I went to the extent to paint it in a way that looked like a kid would have for authenticity. We also had to make a video which was pleasantly disrupted by my flatmate's cat. I had enough footage to have removed the cat bits and had a more refined final video. But of course, I didn't because authenticity - the reality of studying from home means that you will have unprecedented interruptions.
The real reason I wanted to write about visual communication in design is that it is something I struggle with even today. Let's rewind to five years ago - to the beginning of my design education journey. I went to a design school in Pune and I did the product design course (industrial design). The course itself was extremely structured. But from my experience here, what was even more structured was our outcome. What was expected of us and how we delivered it. What this meant was, we needed to have that flashy render, that sick sketch with perfect perspective and our presentation layout had to be a certain way.
(Here's where I need to hit pause and stress on the fact that I am NOT saying that it is trivial to have these beautiful sketches and renders. It most definitely adds value. This is not a dig at anyone that can create those skillful sketches and renders but rather an acknowledgement to those that represent their designs through different mediums.)
The focus on HOW things were presented instead of the intention of the design itself didn't add up for me. The rigidity of "good design" being universally presented a certain way to be accepted confused me. This was a belief that was accepted by both the students and the trainers at my first design school. This is also seen in the larger design community like on Instagram. There has been criticism amongst the design community on Instagram and sometime last year designers started showing their design process and the "ugly" sketches. But this didn't fulfil the question of effective communication in design that I have. This trend also fizzled out, I don't see people talk about this anymore. It's a forgotten topic and we are back to where we were before. What I've been seeking to explore is the idea that you don't need to box yourself into a sheet of paper to illustrate your designs especially in design school.Design school should be a safe space for students to experiment with the tools they are being taught. Instead, we're told to focus on the rubric and pushed towards getting good grades which leads to playing it safe, doing what we know works. As designers, we haven't designed design education any different from conventional education but we sure do love talking about how design can solve all the problems in the world. The universally accepted way of presenting design is questionable. How can anything be universally accepted when we have different ethnic backgrounds? Scroll through various Instagram feeds that showcase industrial design work and they're all awfully similar. One can only question that this stems from our design education, the focus on Eurocentric design history. All the great white cis-male designers whose names we hear in class. We are taught that that is good design, we are shown that this is design. This is why decolonising design and design education matters, it matters to the future designers in classrooms and the people that we are designing for. It matters for the mental wellbeing of students and creators who feel less than for not fitting the mould. Design school should be more than just cultivating skilful visual media - it should stop being a space that fosters talent recognition but rather nurtures holistic design approaches.
This has taken a toll on my mental health before and it was one of the many reasons I quit the design school I attended in India. I didn't feel worthy of being there because I didn't create visuals the same way most of my classmates did and what my trainers expected of us. I questioned if I could even be a designer. I spoke of my final year project because that was the most me when designing, it felt true. I like creating with my hands and through storytelling and that's exactly what I did. Even so, when I went for my final presentation that self-doubt kicked in. I saw my classmates with their beautiful renders and carefully crafted sketches which I knew I didn't display and I wondered if I had done enough. But the narrative is the hero of my design rather the product itself. We need to remember that visual communication is only a tool to convey your work and not the end all be all. And I think that is where learning design can grow. We should encourage ourselves to explore mediums. My presentation was received well. It conveyed my project the way I intended it to.
To reiterate, I understand the value in great visuals. We respond to great visuals. But what makes a great visual? I catch myself absorbing so much visual content that is all too similar. I find myself having brain fogs trying to replicate the same damn content! It affects my mental well-being because I am trying to design and be the designer that the world wants me to be. I am not the designer that I am. And I'm pretty certain that I am not the only one. The standards for being a good designer is merged with how well you create your visuals. How are we setting these standards? These expectations seem to exist amongst designers and not so much amongst non-designers. Do we sometimes forget the purpose of design in design school?
Use your environment to present your work. Go to the beach for your ideation session, use the sand as your canvas. Use your hands, use your feet, use your mind and use your eyes. Use them to create, envision and portray what you innovate. If you are a design student I want you to use the liberty of being in school to explore, question and experiment how you display your work. School should be your playground to learn. It's okay if you don't get an A, it's okay if you fall flat on your face. Find your voice! In the words of one of my favourite lecturers, "Don't design anything you don't care about while at university". And I would add to that, design how you want to design because it is arguable that there is a right way to design. If you are a design professional, I want you to reflect on your design education. I want you to question where you find beauty in design.
Janani is a soon-to-be design for social innovator who indulges in inquiring about the position of design in society. Her sensitivity and love for storytelling help me in understanding various perspectives which she uses to design. She hopes to create inclusive experiences that have a lasting (intangible) impact on society.
Want to get in touch with Janani?
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With 🧡 Team WID.