Public design in India. A last priority

  • By: Anshuman Gupta
  • Posted on August,7 2017

By Yogesh Dandekar

A big announcement came in the newspaper. Railway station wayfinding signs are being designed by a Design School. Promising news and a good idea. What you see here is a snap shot of work being done. This sign is finalised and installed.


Trust me this is a photograph taken on 26 July 2017. Neither very old nor purposely taken to show it in a bad light. It definitely lacks thinking and expertise. This partnership of design institute and a government organisation is a lethal combination. Good for the institute, economical (read free) for the government but worthless for the users beyond showing that authorities are taking some efforts and installing chic signs. But you should not be worried, users would hardly know if it is good or bad, and any ways they cannot see beyond the skin. It is going to look brand new, beautiful and skin deep in its purpose of making the station look good. Will this work, Who cares?

Are we doing tick marks on a checklist or really concerned of passenger experience? This is a convenient tactic but brutal use of passenger’s ignorance as they are not aware what is good for them. Just put anything anywhere. People anyways don’t understand hence don’t complain. A filthy station, absolutely no security, chaos, visual clutter and illegible systems and spaces only are a few examples. You can walk into the station and would almost feel as if a phone brand owns the station.

See, Another image of a citywide beautification exercise. Pardon the image taken while riding a bus. But the object I wish to point out is a decorative light pole (Image 2).

Public design4

In India, beauty is skin deep. The most common Indian cannot understand beauty in order, completeness, discipline and effectiveness. The footpath is not walkable, there are no lights or seats in a bus stop, pedestrian is an endangered entity, children have no places to play, people are getting killed on roads more than anywhere else. But we take pride in installing such lamps which have a confused identity of visual treatment, literally has elevated a culturally strong symbol of a basil plant podium (tulsi vrindavan) found in traditional house courtyard, in an inaccessible location on top of the pole obviously with a plastic plant. This brutalist way of showing cultural sensitivity. Even Salvador Dali’s surrealistic style will be out of words to explain this piece of artefact. Does the light really serve a functional purpose, I doubt, as it is bang next to a brightly lit High mast light in a very busy traffic junction.

No wonder people SPIT ON YOUR CITIES and SPIT ON YOUR STATIONS and everywhere. You don’t care, why do you expect them to care?

Standing at a big interchange bus stand where all the buses are now GPS tagged, the controller is busy shouting the next bus and reciting all the key stops which fall on the route. This is in the best rated smart city being developed in India. He fears about his job if a display of the bus tracker is put up at the stop to inform passengers about the next bus. It’s ok, don’t make the people happy by making the system easy to use because they anyway don’t know what is good. At least help your employees work with better tools and facilities. The government is all shouting on top of the world that we will change the country, make better India. What is a country, not the land, the rivers, the cities, houses, buildings, mountains or the roads. The country means people. There is a cancerous growth of indiscipline, lack of integrity and disrespect to other human being and the shared elements in our country like roads, trains, environment. In a race to become a developed country everyone has become a self-centred consumer. India needs a new definition of patriotism. It is not connected to soldiers sacrificing their lives, but is about simple acts of stopping others from doing wrong and starting to care and do good. Aren’t we understanding that we cannot get individually developed. Either we all will live in a great country or we won’t. The people on the street are the same who are running the system. So the problem extrapolates.

In my opinion India has stopped CARING.

I completely agree with Mr. Narayan Murthy about his comment, that, India cannot invent. Invention means deep urge and burning fire to solve own problems and progress self with the society. We have a burning desire, but it gets exhausted by the time we make things good for ourself. One has to go beyond and work for a better society. Public design in India misinterprets invention or innovation with inspiration. It’s ok to get inspired but there is a difference between inspiring and blatant and mindless mimicry.

Public design has 2 words. Public and Design. ‘Public’ for the people, and ‘Design’ which a misunderstood term in India particularly in the realm of public design which are shared systems, places and infrastructure. It is designed with the same apathy, as people treat it by literally spitting on it. And we are free to say proudly that our Airports are clean. India discriminates between personal and public, between those who have and those who don’t. Public design cannot and should not discriminate. Shared systems are great levellers in enriching a society. It is a criminal and discriminating thought that a Railway passenger or a bus traveller does not deserve efficient system, good spaces and better experience. The thinking that my gated community or house should be clean and the city can be treated as a dump is flawed to the core. I feel that we are hypocrites claiming to create good experience and aspiring to become global leaders but not doing the right thing. We are abusing the word democracy.

Coming to design in India, it is often compared to mehendi (temporary plant pigment used as a tatoo by women to decorate their hands and feet during marriage and festival). As designers, it is extremely tough to convince that it really brings value. In addition, the government wants design for free because vendors offer it to them for free. Simple stone slabs on masonry can be seats, who cares of ergonomics, usability, ergonomics. It is natural, if you don’t value it, you would offer it for free. Neither government understands nor vendors care. The root cause of all this insensitivity and careless state of public design is attributed to thoughtless artefacts, products and systems which have been created with this unwritten alliance in ignoring of value of a well thought, researched and detailed product created with CARE.

Philanthropy is a great concept. Philanthropy for underprivileged, suppressed, ignored, faced injustice and those who have been born with disabilities is justified. But India is using it to get its house in order on basic necessities for people – ‘the public design’, and this is a very sad state. Public design is looking to save itself holding on to the thin thread offered by generous donors and philanthropy seems to be the only hope. People in India even ignore this and are insensitive to the core. See image, garbage thrown around and not inside a recently installed dustbin. Is it a great effort of dropping the trash inside this dustbin?In fact it has now has been brought closer to you to reduce your effort. At times, such projects also don’t use good design as they miss to realise its value and design products and systems which make it easy to use and maintain. Most of these projects are often just done to enjoy the tax benefits and fulfil a statutory business obligation.

In a country where the Prime minister who should be worried of future and larger issues on country’s development is running a campaign for Clean India and convincing people to not defecate in open and clean cities. We are having tough time keeping vigilance on our borders while the enemy is already within the country.

The economics of these public design projects reveals pathetic realities of corrupt officials and thrives on the common mans ignorance. The whole system is so dark, that, a designer who has a genuine interest to contribute, grows a deep fear of getting tainted facing conflicting situations on his moral values. This is the reason good designers stay away and no one works with the government in public design. In such a condition Design institute get an advantage. They are always on the lookout for exposing the students to real world problems. It’s is good for the portfolio of a student but once the student graduates, he seldom gathers the courage or dares to enter into this dark world of public design.

Public design in India is a REAL PROBLEM.

If you wish to solve this problem, then be prepared to look for other sources to feed yourself. India does not pay to solve these real problems. It is left to those few, whose morals are socially inclined, have a tint of activism in their design practice with social values and have courage to drink water when hungry.

Design cannot change values of people, but it has the power to change habits.

Who would do this work by sacrificing own life, a comfortable job, designing gated communities, another car or a scooter, a new shampoo, a movie set, a jewellery showroom, a new fashion, a music video, a multimillionaire’s house, plush apartments, malls, hotels and restaurants and even design and plan expensive weddings. They are also important for the society and it is natural for the design community to get involved as they don’t have as much darkness as faced in public design. No wonder, they are favoured topics of work and interest.

It’s a kind of war/revolution/movement which cannot be fought by a few. It needs more designers to contribute and join with courage and determination to brave the darkness and bring light for my country.


Yogesh Dandekar is a Pune based Architect and Design professional, specialising in Designing Customer focused Transport systems, Design for Urban Mobility and Railways.

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