Interview in EdTech Revolution, // October 2014

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1. Could you please tell us what DesignAware is all about?

DesignAware is foremost an architecture and design firm, which provides design consultancy services for architecture, landscape, urban design, interior design, furniture, product, and accessory design. Our team is comprised mostly of architects and designers. Not all of us are in the same physical location, so we collaborate online, and sometimes work independently. Peripherally, we conduct design research by pursuing projects that are relevant to each of us personally (which may or may not be profitable). We also aim to sell the outcomes of our research, especially furniture and accessories. As you can see, we don’t discriminate.

Experimental design education is a personal passion for me. The firm name itself has the word ‘aware’ built into it. It is this facet of DesignAware that I would like to focus on. The awareness we wish to create is in making good design accessible to all, and in introducing new ways of teaching design. DesignAware is more of a revolution in thinking, than any single product or service.

2. How did you stumble upon the DesignAware vision for education?

When I was in school, I had an inclination toward both logic-based subjects such as mathematics, and the arts. However, I saw that (1) arts education was greatly neglected, and limited to drawing/painting or crafts, and (2) mathematics was made as dry as possible for ease of teaching and scoring marks, while in truth, math is very interesting and full of creative possibilities. In order to pursue a career in art, students would have to abandon math, and vice-versa.

I discovered that design is a discipline that lies in the interstitial gap between arts and mathematics. Design is one field that discourages the search for one correct answer. Many years later, I began to teach at the professional undergrad level, and realized that I could contribute towards closing this gap between logic and whim.

At the Design Research Lab of the Architectural Association in London, where I got my Master’s degree, many experimental and cutting-edge methods of teaching are being explored, including collaboration, open-source learning, virtual studios, and the abandonment of traditional tools and expectations in architectural education. When I was invited to teach at a young, enthusiastic college near Chennai, called MIDAS (Marg Institute of Design and Architecture Swarnabhoomi), I applied this knowledge in developing a workshop based on 3D thinking.

3. Tell us about the challenges you face in propagating DesignAware’s methods.

A challenge I frequently face is the lack of faith in experimental methods of teaching. Many colleges find comfort in conforming to the curriculum provided by the boards, and are reluctant to expose students to ways of doing things not dictated by tried and tested techniques, the outcomes of which even faculty lack the imagination to evaluate.

Students are also trained to look for one correct answer, which I call the “single-solution syndrome.” Even when colleges are open to conducting workshops like Fractals, I am approached by students, who are products of this system, who will hold up a complex geometric 3D form, and ask, “Is this correct?”

4. What your plans for your target market and other markets as well?

I like to refer to it as target audience as opposed to target ‘market,’ which has a very business-like feel to it. Firstly, I want to expand the scope of design education to include school students and professionals as well as college students. Right now, what I do barely scratches the surface of design education. It’s only an introductory workshop series that opens up minds to different ways of thinking and helps them (I hope) break out of the single-solution syndrome.

5. Do you have any other products/services in the pipeline?

So many! At DesignAware, we are very intentional about not limiting ourselves to certain types of work. We are in the process of opening an online store which will go live in October. In the near future, will be working with schools and non-profit foundations like MAD. We also aim to conduct our own workshops independent of any institution.

We may have to narrow our focus on a niche to work in at some point, but I really hope not!

6. Tell us more about how you ended up starting your own business.

I am an architect by profession, which is somewhere in between being a mad scientist and a starving artist! It’s a well-established fact that architects don’t make very good managers, but most small architecture firms are headed by the chief designer. I always wanted to be able to design, and after working under many architects and being exposed to different styles and aspects of the process from conception to execution, I felt I was ready to be the decision-maker for entire projects, which was only possible if I worked on my own.

I think the best thing that happened to me was being fired from my last job. I had been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug but had been dragging my feet for quite sometime instead of taking the plunge and starting out on my own. My ex-boss sat me down and told me, “Why do you want to make drawings for me, when you can create designs for yourself?” It pushed me out of my comfort zone, and I left the familiar world of working for someone and earning a paycheck every month like clockwork, to enter the unknown world of entrepreneurship, where you work five times as hard and earn ten times less frequently!

7. What is one lesson in your life as an entrepreneur that you would love to share? Any suggestions for EdTech entrepreneurs?

My advice to anyone who has a vision to create something on their own would be to go for it as soon as you have a basic plan in place. It helps to accumulate some savings, but you end up putting those and whatever you earn right back into the business, so it doesn’t get any better with time. This allows you to pursue what you’re passionate about without having to rely on a client or customer. Nothing can really prepare you to achieve a foolproof business, because there’s no such thing.