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Why D-schools are the future
Rashmi Bansal
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January 22, 2007

Are you tired of reading about B-schools? You may nod in agreement, but I suspect otherwise. The appetite for information on the subject appears to be as insatiable as the interest in Aishwarya's horoscope. The 'MBA' is a celebrity in the world of careers. And this is the age of celebrity journalism...

 

But today, I steer you away from that well-trodden path. And focus your attention on a completely different and far more exciting animal: the Design school, or 'D-school'.  An institution that trains bright young people to solve problems creatively. To make the world a better and more beautiful place. And ultimately, benefit all you B-school types as well...

 

Art vs design

 

First of all, what is design? Let me clarify: there are many schools that teach fine and applied art. But art and design are not the same thing.

Those who study commercial art are basically trained to work in advertising/ media. So they produce campaigns, make artworks, learn typography, photography, illustration. Yes, they are talented and creative. But within a given framework.

Design graduates, on the other hand, approach their work differently. They look not just at the aesthetic aspect but also at usability. They design not just communication but also the products themselves.

As one D-schooler put it, "Design isn't just about drawing a few lines or beautifying a pre-existing object. It's about conceptualising, thinking, and understanding... Design could be most appropriately defined as a problem-solving technique. It's an entire of philosophy of life."

Businessweek.com recently turned the spotlight on the world's top D-schools. Although the schools listed were predominantly American, there is healthy international representation. Among institutes of repute from England, Netherlands, Germany, Italy and China, India too gets two well-deserved mentions -- the National Institute of Design and the Industrial Design Centre.

Both are amazing institutions and have produced some outstanding graduates. I only wish there were more like them!

Why Design matters

As customers become more demanding and constantly seek something new and exciting, the importance of product design cannot be over-emphasised.

Take the iPod -- it's not just a pretty gadget. The clickwheel is a fundamental design choice, one that defines the brand. No, a design genius at Apple did not invent it -- someone at a company called Synaptics working for Apple did. But you get the idea.

Design is not just about looks (that's styling). Great design is good-looking and provides a better user experience. The corporate world is realising that the design and business functions need to collaborate at an early stage of the product development cycle. Which is why we are seeing increased interaction between B-schools and D-schools.

A course called Strategy for Product and Service Development has been introduced at INSEAD in collaboration with design students from the Art Center in Pasadena. As INSEAD graduate Sameer Agrawal, who now works with GE, recalls, 'At the start of the class we had to decide what to work on. Each of us had a minute to pitch an idea to develop. You could see the difference. MBA pitches dwelt on the market: how big it was, how little it had been served. Most designers said, 'Here is how I use the product today. Here is why it sucks and how it can be better. Here's how I want to do it.''

His perception of designers was, 'Here's my product, make it look sexy.' Now, he sees design as 'a philosophy that people learn in order to understand how products are used...'

Similarly, Mozilla was searching for a way to make Firefox more popular. The company's 's business development team turned to Stanford University. Not to the B-School but the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design on the campus. Each team included a B-schooler, a computer science major, and a product designer. And they used 'design thinking' to shape a business plan for Mozilla.

Apparently, it made a big difference.

A win-win situation

The standard B-school approach is: focus on market size and strategy. The D-schoolers instead focused on the consumers and used ethnography to learn about them.

Business school students would have developed a single new product to sell... and stopped at that. The D-schoolers, however, aimed to create a prototype with a variety of features that might appeal to consumers. And they wanted to go back and refine the product over and over again until they got it 'right'.

Businessweek notes that the power of this new approach, called design thinking, is attracting the attention of corporations around the globe. The magazine notes that design has evolved from a narrow discipline dealing with the form and function of products into a major new approach to developing business models.

'As business increasingly turns to India and China to provide low-cost, high-quality goods and services, companies have to focus on innovation to be competitive... That driving need makes design thinking the hottest trend in business culture today. If engineering, control, and technology were once the central tenets of business culture, then anthropology, creativity, and an obsession with consumers' unmet needs will inform the future.'

In India, IIM-A is offering electives with NID like 'Competitive Advantage through Design' and 'Managing Creativity'. This is part of the recently introduced PGPX or one year executive MBA programme.

Welingkars has kicked off a full-fledged post-graduate programme in business design. I wonder whether these students will take up jobs any different from those who do the standard MBA...

 But I'm sure 'design thinking' is the way to go. More such initiatives will follow!

Where are the D-schools?

The bottom line is, India needs more D-schools.

A great D-school is multi-disciplinary -- combining engineering, business, design, and social sciences. Hence, IITs are ideally placed to house design schools on campus. But while we've seen Schools of Management spring up at all IIT campuses, design has flourished mainly at IIT, Bombay (IDC).

IIT, Guwahati, IIT, Delhi, IIT, Kanpur and IISc,Bangalore, also have design programmes. IIT-Guwahati offers an undergraduate design programme, hence entry is through IIT-JEE. The others are post-graduate programmes and entry is through CEED (Common Entrance Examination for Design), an all India exam conducted by the HRD ministry.

BITS, Pilani also offers a Masters in Design Engineering. Then there are recent institutes such as Srishti School of Art and Design in Bangalore. And design courses at SPA (School of Planning and Architecture) Delhi, MIT-Pune and Symbiosis.

But none are anywhere close to the NID/ IDC league.

Although industry does flock to NID and IDC, for some reason, the contribution of these graduates remains underhyped. Bet you can name a dozen IIT or IIM grads but only a couple from NID --- if at all. And none from IDC. Is it lack of PR, or is it humility? Or a potent combo of both?

Maybe we'll wake up when some foreign company swoops down on NID and offers a $100,000 salary. Actually, salaries are going up.... The figure last year was close to the Rs 9 lakh pa mark -- which is almost as much as the average rupee salary at the IIMs.

But, unfortunately, the idea of design as a career will never really catch the fancy of the media. Or the general public. That's because unlike the MBA -- you need to possess something tangible to aspire for a design education. That something rare and elusive called 'Talent'.
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