Design for public spaces

About five weeks ago, having just moved to Bombay excited about the prospect of new, interesting work, I found myself talking to a lot of people, passionately explaining why I love design so much. During one of these conversations, someone asked me- “If design is so big and there are so many talented designers in India, why don’t we see design around us?” That person is a respected and admired figure in the Indian advertising and design world, so that the question came from him, made me stop short. I had no counter argument- It is true. While Indian design schools are churning out thousands of designers a year, design hasn’t quite tricked into the average Indian’s life. I pondered over this for a few days and then, at Designyatra late last month, reluctantly accepted a few possible reasons for why this was true.

The last speaker at Designyatra, Melissa Weigel of Moment Factory, led me to the answer to my question. Moment Factory specializes in creating integrated multimedia for the stage and public spaces. The work, without a doubt was spectacular, but a few things she spoke about seemed to explain why design in India isn’t visible to the average Indian. So many of the fascinating projects in her presentation were for public spaces in cities. The first thing I thought of when I saw the projects was- Who has budgets like that? The answer is simple- Governments do. It’s governments that can commission larger-than-life projects in public spaces. It’s government’s that can afford to. But they need to see the importance of design in order to do that.

When talking about the work Moment Factory did for Altantic City, Melissa Weigel said-” Cities today need to be more competitive. By enhancing experiences and giving back to the people, cities can actually gain.” Well, I don’t know how far that applies to India- To a certain extent, it does. Indian cities do compete for tourism. They do try to attract more visitors. Is it a priority? Probably not. Does our government have the money? Since it seems to able to spend crores of taxpayers money to commission prayer for rain, I’m going to take a chance and say, it probably does.

When talking about design for urban spaces and her projects relying heavily on larger than life projection,  Melissa Weigel spoke about the importance of light. She spoke about how design could transform something dreary to something fun and exciting. “Where there’s light, people will gather” she said, “and when people come together, you feel safe.” Could India benefit from a little fun? Yes. Do we have enough dreary, dimly lit public spaces? Yes. And could we all do with more public spaces that make us feel comfortable and secure? Absolutely.

One particular project she presented took my breath away. The work was phenomenal- It was powerful, it was positive, it was beautiful. But the sentiment behind it and the responses to it struck me as absolutely wonderful. In September 2012, the city of Barcelona invited Moment Factory to create a sound and light projection on the facade of the Sagrada Familia, inspired by Antonio Gaudi’s unfulfilled dream of having the facade filled with colour. The spectacle, witnessed by tremendous crowds of people proved, according to Melissa Weigel, the value of ‘collective memories.’ Mid 2012 was not a good time in Europe and Spain’s economy was crumbling. But as Melissa Weigel put it, in times like that, when the city was able to being it’s people together to witness something positive, it was strangely powerful. “It makes you feel like everything will be ok.”

That is what hit me the hardest. After all our country has been through, surely we could use a little something that made us feel like everything will be ok. Surely we could use a break from the depressing news we read about every single day. Surely, it might be worth exploring the idea of making people happy. Making them feel good about their country. Making them, even for fifteen minutes, feel positive. But design like this, design that reaches hundreds of thousands of people, will only be possible when our government supports it. As long as individuals are funding their design projects, the scope will always be smaller, their reach will always be limited. Is this something our government should do? I don’t know. I can only imagine the public backlash a decision like this would invite- [Feed the country’s hungry children instead of wasting money on things like this. Etc…] The backlash, if rational, would be valid. The point however, is this– For design to reach the average Indian, design needs to be where the average Indian is– not just in expensive boutique stores, not just curated in exhibitions, not just online- design needs to be in public spaces. It doesn’t have to be over the top light shows- It could start with intelligent urban design addressing problems such as directional signage and instruction, it could be in services like public washrooms and drinking water fountains. It could be in efficient garbage disposal… All these problems could be addressed if good product design, graphic design and system design were backed by the people who have the jurisdiction and the funding- The government. And until the government sees design for public spaces and something that should be prioritized, design will, sadly enough, remain on the screens of a few thousand Macbook Pros.

Sagrada_Familia_Gaudi_2012_Visuel_du_Poster_Credits_Moment_Factory

The Sagrada Familia with mapped projections transforming it completely

Head over here to look at the amazing work by Moment Factory: http://www.momentfactory.com/en

You can look at the Sagrada Familia project, here: http://www.momentfactory.com/en/project/street/Ode_à_la_vie_on_the_Sagrada_familia

So you know I’m not making up the crores on prayer for rain, you can read an article on it here: http://www.ndtv.com/article/south/the-17-crore-prayer-in-karnataka-for-rain-248142

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