Alex Velasco is the Dean of the School of Design at Pearl Academy. With a career spanning over 35 years in the design industry, Alex Velasco is an expert in design education, product design and design thinking. He has taught design students in the United Kingdom, Turkey, Georgia, and India. He attained a Gulbenkian Foundation Scholarship for postgraduate study (1993) and has been awarded the South African Bureau of Standards design award (2000). In an exclusive interaction with Higher Education Digest, Alex Velasco talks about the design industry across the world, India’s education challenges in developing talented designers and many more.
- India’s design industry is booming. Do you think, we have an adequate number of institutes that can create quality manpower to support this growth? Comparing to the developed nations, what should be the focus of Indian design schools now?
With new technologies permeating our lives, there is a huge demand for creativity and design to ensure that India is able to compete on the global stage. Currently, it is said that 62,000 designers are required to meet the industry demand this year, in India alone, and those numbers are expected to grow in the coming years. India is also a key market for multinational companies, thus providing plenty of opportunities for graduates in the design sector. There is probably a sufficient number of seats in design education institutions to satisfy demand from prospective students, but the majority of those seats are to be found in private education providers and they favor students who can afford it. India should focus on growth in both public and private design education to provide adequate choice to its deserving youth while ensuring that its graduates are well-qualified to comfortably compete on an international stage. To give an example, at Pearl Academy we continue to expand geographically with new campuses opening this year in South Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru to add to our existing ones in West Delhi, Jaipur, and Mumbai.
- As you have been working in design education for a long time, what are the major changes that you have noticed in the way design aspirants are taught?
I have been working in design education for 25 years and, before that, I had been, both, a student and practitioner since the mid-1980s. In that time I have witnessed profound changes. Firstly, there has been a change in design from vocational to the professional model of education, akin to engineering, as design education migrated from art and design colleges to universities. Secondly, as a consequence of this shift, design education has been searching for its disciplinary foundations. Design is, by nature, inter-disciplinary—combining the visual arts and culture, the social sciences, engineering, management, and others. As design disciplines have absorbed these influences, they have become richer and more interesting. For example, designers owe a debt to anthropology by noting how they do ethnographic research, which is a big part of the design thinking process. Psychology is another major field that furnishes design with the principles of user experience and interaction design.
Third, and most interestingly, has been the technological and macro-economic changes that have occurred in that time. We live in a far more globalized world now. New technologies, such as the PC and the internet, have been great upheavals for designers. Computer numeric control revolutionized manufacturing. A further jolt to the system occurred when Steve Jobs announced the Apple iPhone in 2007; that shifted the economic and technological center-of-gravity online and towards mobile devices and brought us the applications and connectivity that we see today with electronic payments, online shopping, social media, and gaming. This has proved to be a great opportunity for designers and education has followed suit. In India, while the demand for traditional fields such as graphic design, interior design, accessory design, jewelry design, and product design is strong, they are being eclipsed by the growing demand for creatives especially in communication, interaction, and game design.
Education also strives to prepare post-graduate students for today’s highly unpredictable economy, where designers are required to be business strategists. They must apply rigorous R&D processes that involve thorough market and user research. They must also master multiple forms of prototyping and user testing. Today, it is common to find designer-entrepreneurs doing all the above in their own companies. From budding entrepreneurs to large MNCs, design is now a key part of the way we do business. Therefore the demand for designers is set to increase across the board.
- At present, what are the biggest current challenges in the design education sector?
The design education sector in India is expected to thrive for the foreseeable future; given India’s positive demographics, rising awareness about the importance of education, openness to explore and pursue alternate careers, and the general willingness to invest in higher education.
Young people spend four years of their lives, and often substantial amounts of money, in higher education. Every graduate expects that their certificate will be a passport to financial security and successful career in their chosen field. Our task as design educators is to give them an education and not merely train them for a vocation. That requires a broad academic approach by offering students choices and electives in different subjects and other educational mechanisms. Nevertheless, we must also keep our eye on the ball by improving the quality of our educational product. The bar is getting ever higher: design practice is rapidly evolving abroad, and there are increasing numbers of institutions offering design at home. It is only fair that we give our students value for their money and time by keeping them abreast of new fields such as UX and UI, service design and transformation design; as well as developments at the cutting-edge of practice. As the world gets ever smaller, global companies increasingly turn to Indian talent, and Indian graduates increasingly choose to work or continue their studies abroad, so educators must prepare them for that future.
- How can a design educator teach creativity and imagination to make inter-disciplinary thinkers?
A design practitioner must be knowledgeable and well versed in the processes and tools of design. Having confidence in your own ability and yet striving continuously to improve and learn are key ingredients for success. Teaching design thinking is the single most effective way to impart creativity and imagination on designers. The practice of design thinking shows us the benefits of multi-disciplinary groups of people coming together in order to solve problems and innovate. Design thinking is also inter-disciplinary because the process combines the practices of the social sciences, management, engineering, and other fields. Therefore, students ought to take an interest in subjects beyond the narrow confines of design, and their colleges must expose them to other disciplines to enrich their learning. It is rare for an individual to be an expert in more than one field, yet exposure to other branches of knowledge will make designers conversant and empowered to lead multi-disciplinary teams in their future roles.
- What are the challenges for a traditional design educator in the tech-driven world?
Designers and educators must stay abreast of these developments. The focus and tools of design practice are continually evolving. In response to these technological and economic shifts, designers have developed an arsenal of services, including branding, product development, design thinking, user-interaction, user-experience, design of services, design management, strategic design, sustainable design, and more.
Designers are active in addressing some of our most pressing social problems of poverty and deprivation, access to resources, health and education, amongst others. Yet, the long-term challenge for designers, and indeed all of us, will be to address the even greater macro-economic shifts that will be brought about by the crisis of anthropogenic climate change and our continuing harmful and unsustainable impacts on the world’s environment and its biodiversity. Building a sustainable future will require profound changes and re-adjustments, unlike anything we have experienced before.
- What advice would you give to a young person thinking about becoming a designer?
Read up on the design disciplines to understand their differences and find what interests you. Learn about the different educational institutions and their entrance requirements. Think about your possible career and educational trajectory: can you afford to study and where? Would you like to study abroad? How will you finance your studies? Might you do postgraduate study in the future? You don’t need to answer all these questions, only the immediate ones. But it’s important to think about your options. Once you have decided what you want to study, and you have a shortlist of institutions that you are considering; learn about their programmes and contact them, talk to the faculty to better understand what you are getting into. Think of your career as setting off into the sea in a little boat. You must chart a course to your destination and navigate the obstacles that come your way. You will be under the mercy of currents and battered by storms, and you may, indeed, have to change course from time-to-time. Yet, it is the journey as much as the destination that attracts you and keeps you going.