The Design Experiment @ IIT Roorkee

“Since you all are here, you are willing to make a career in Design!” A senior said to a bunch of freshmen at their introductory meeting.

“What! A career in design? No way! What will it look like? I am not interested.” I mumbled to myself standing in that crowd.

“I came here just for fun! I can sketch and paint a bit. Photoshop is also cool. And that ‘thing’ they were talking about yesterday… Adobe Illustrator-that also seemed interesting! But a career in Design seems a lot! What more could you do with such a career apart from designing posters and websites. I am a physics undergrad at a premier engineering institute in India. I love physics and want to go for a Ph.D. in Cosmology or maybe Nuclear or Particle Physics.” My naive line of thoughts continued still trying to absorb everything said at the gathering.

This was one chilly evening of early January in the northern plains of India almost seven years ago. The group had gathered to work as the “design team” for the annual technical festival of the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee aka IIT Roorkee (my alma mater).

The curriculum at IITs in general is very technology and management focussed. They usually do not have any sort of ‘design’ like coursework except some like IIT Bombay and IIT Guwahati (which do have a history of design departments). IIT Roorkee wasn’t very different and had no such center/department for Design in those days (though seven years later, now it has a center for Design). The closest thing was the department of Architecture which did offer an undergraduate degree. But even to get admitted into that, you had to cross the barrier of JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) which evaluated you on Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics scores and had an acceptance rate of 0.5–0.7%! All of this easily explains my naive notions about design (being a physics major in such a STEM focussed environment).

Yet almost seven years later, here I am today, in the middle of my graduate studies in design (after an undergraduate degree in Physics!), very much on a career path I dismissed in that first encounter!

How did this change and transition happen? When I look back, it seems almost unbelievable but magical at the same time! It was a series of events, which nurtured, shaped, and polished my skills and values and transformed me into a designer who still loves physics. But I wasn’t alone. There were many who experienced a similar transition. We all were part of a big experiment. This is the story of that experiment, the ‘design experiment’ at IIT Roorkee.

I was part of a group of people who came together to form what is known as the “Design Studio, IIT Roorkee”. It was a remarkable journey of sheer inventiveness, extraordinary leadership, teamwork, passion, and the coming together of a bunch of really smart people. People who have made the Design Studio today a powerhouse in the domain of Product Design, and Interaction Design with further expansion into the domains of augmented/virtual reality and game development. It is the first of its own kind of studio run by students from a college campus in India. And just to reiterate, this all happened in an academically design-deprived institution!

The Background!

The seed of the idea that there should be a place and environment supportive of designers inside the IIT campus was sown at the same place where the above-mentioned gathering was happening — the design team for the technical festival of IIT Roorkee. I was a naive freshman then, listening to all the ideas floating around, absorbing anything that sounded interesting. It was this peer group, which taught me (and many like me) the basics of design, user interface, and user experience. We were all amateurs, majoring across diverse disciplines, from computer science, electronics, civil engineering, material science, physics, to architecture.

This new crop of designers was the result of the expanding SaaS and startup ecosystem in India. College campuses like IITs have been at the driving seat of the economic transformation which India has witnessed in the last 10–15 years. Various student groups at IIT Roorkee weren’t aloof from these changes (interested in Software development, Web and Mobile development, etc.) and were willing to have a ‘designer’ or a ‘design team’ for their needs of branding, aesthetics, and website design. UI-UX was already a word you could hear around, and there was a tiny group of people working as designers scattered all around the campus. However, the notion of design thinking and design as a human-centered problem-solving exercise was far from appreciated, let alone popularized.

Consequently, the early discussions about Design Studio were quite informal. Each one of us had our own idea of what we wanted to do with design. However, we all agreed that there should be a place, infrastructure, resources for people interested in design inside the campus. Though, what it will be like, nobody knew. Perhaps, we were waiting for the big idea!

PAUSE (To be continued in Part 2).

Designer trained as Physicist | PhD student @cuatlas | Developing human-centered programmable materials | Previously: IIT Roorkee, Co-founder @log9materials