From the ARCADE Issue 34.1 feature section, "Visiting the Past, Desigining the Future: Reflections on Influence." Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

Being Authentic Surya Vanka

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to lead hundreds of people around the world in “design swarms” that have crafted innovative responses to urgent social challenges. To take on wicked problems such as homelessness, climate change and the refugee crisis and come up with creative solutions, I’ve leaned on the guidance of many teachers I’ve had. A few individuals stand out who continue to influence and inspire me every day.

Victor Papanek: Finding a Moral Compass

As an 18-year-old searching for a career that aligned with my passions, I was thrilled to discover industrial design and looked forward to a life of styling fast cars and luxury goods. But on my very first day at design school, I read these words, and they had a profound influence on me:

There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second. Never before in history have grown men sat down and seriously designed electric hairbrushes, rhinestone-covered file boxes, and mink carpeting for bathrooms, and then drawn up elaborate plans to make and sell these gadgets to millions of people.

Victor Papanek’s hard-hitting opening paragraph to his seminal book Design for the Real World opened my eyes to the fact that designing is a political act. Through the years, it became clear that a strong moral compass not only makes your design work more purposeful but also makes you a better designer.

Charles and Ray Eames: Uncovering the Hidden 

I had the privilege of being one of two dozen students from across India selected to be part of a young, experimental design institute initiated by Charles and Ray Eames. A few years before, at the request of Prime Minister Nehru, the Eameses had crisscrossed the country searching for the soul of Indian design. In the end, they discovered it in the humble, ubiquitous water vessel found in every Indian home, its form perfected through centuries of use. As they wrote in The India Report: “Of all the objects we have seen and admired during our visit to India, the Lota, that simple vessel of everyday use, stands out as perhaps the greatest, the most beautiful. … The hope for and the reason for such an institute as we describe is that it will hasten the production of the ‘Lotas’ of our time.”

The quest for simple, essential and enduring solutions has guided me ever since, whether it’s designing the shapes of plastics and metals of physical objects or the patterns of pixels and algorithms of digital products. The Eameses taught me that design is about uncovering the authentic forms that lie waiting in each material and each context. 

Buckminster Fuller: Alchemy of Beauty

The great Buckminster Fuller was a frequent visitor in body and spirit to that design institute on the banks of the Sabarmati River. We built geodesic domes—his magically beautiful structures that defied gravity and common sense—and heard Bucky say: “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty ... but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” Bucky’s firm conviction of an invisible geometry in the universe taught me that when great beauty is achieved, it is simply a reflection of a problem elegantly solved.

Achille Castiglioni: Lightening Up

Once, in Aspen, Colorado, I spent a whole day listening to one of my greatest teachers, Achille Castiglioni, the Italian design master. “There has to be irony, both in design and in the objects. I see around me a professional disease of taking everything too seriously. One of my secrets is to joke all the time,” he said. I learned from Achille a most valuable lesson: design is less the quest for the one single, perfect solution to a problem and more a personal and human response that can be playful, whimsical and even mischievous. 

 

After a quarter century of exploration and learning, what endures from the lessons of my teachers is that designing is ultimately an inquiry into what is authentic—as we design we learn not just what is authentic to the thing we create but, also, what is authentic to ourselves.