Learning to See

By Bhaskar Chatterjee

I was driving a colleague to Atlanta Hartsfield airport. As we drove into the airport, I asked him whether his flight leaves from the north or south terminal. He replied ‘blue’.

I had lived in Atlanta for almost 3 years and driven to the airport a zillion times but on that day I noticed for the first time that the airport signage had a colour coding system and locals were actually using it as a first layer of navigation (processing) than the written word – blue for the north terminal and red for the south.

Later I noticed that the colour system extended into the detailed signage systems of both terminals. What an American saw as blue and red, I saw as ‘North Terminal’ and ‘South Terminal’.

Big deal, one would say. What matters is that both understood the signage correctly. That’s true. But this simple example of ‘not seeing’ indicates a fundamental difference in how I processed the sign differently from someone in the US.

In India (maybe because of our math and science driven education system), we process text and numbers faster than visual data. In the process, primal visual elements i.e. colours, icons, images (which actually are simpler for the brain to process as compared to numbers and text) get left behind. This drives the ability of visual comprehension to the back seat of our brain.

What we see (or don’t see) has a very deep impact on how we design and build things.

  • We consider a software product ready to ship if its (functional) code is running fine. We don’t value user interface (experience) design as much as we value code.
  • We create a logo for our company and we consider branding done. There is no thought on how the identity and colour system will flow through brand touch points. Is the visual branding correctly communicating the purpose, proposition and personality of our organization? Are we religiously following brand guidelines?
  • Are we really seeing?

We all notice that signage systems, public spaces, restaurants, hotels, shopping malls, parking lots, cabs, buses, trains and even websites and app designs made in the Americas and Europe are visually mature than what we see in India.

It’s often made me wonder why we can’t have such a beautiful blend of meaning and aesthetic in everything that we design in India. The conclusion I always reach is that these countries are more prosperous and less populated than us. They have the liberty of money and space. So they create beautiful stuff. But this is only partly true.

The bigger truth is that these countries hold design and visual communication at a much higher pedestal than we do in India.

India is getting richer too. But are our designs really functional and beautiful? Is there design thinking behind everything we do? Yes, we do have some airports, hotels, malls and office buildings which are world class but that’s minuscule compared to the size and scale of our country. We are one of the world’s oldest known civilisations. Our history is loaded with stories of planned cities, ravishing forts, astonishing palaces and beautiful monuments. So at some point in time, we did value and create beautiful designs.

What then went amiss? Why are we not creating the best designs in the world today:  from our public spaces to our software applications?

Have we stopped seeing?

We all need to learn to see.

  • Individuals in leadership positions (CEOs, government officials, ministers, top corporate executives) are the ones who envision and approve projects. It’s paramount that they value design thinking and have basic knowledge of visual communication. This will help them separate good design from bad design and enable good design see light of day.
  • An introduction to visual communication should be part of our school and university curriculum.
  • We need many more design institutions. In the USA there are design institutes in every city, just like we have engineering colleges in India.
  • It’s time the IT industry gives equal focus, time and resources to design as they do to coding/ engineering.  Here is a great example of top executives from corporate India stepping up their learning to see abilities.http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/ites/vishal-sikka-urges-infosys-staff-to-apply-design-thinking/articleshow/40311789.cms
  • Start-up entrepreneurs should take the effort to learn the basics of visual communication and user interface design. A product with good code is just half baked. User Interface Design and User Experience Design is the other and critical part that can make a product world-class.

The art of seeing is a rare skill; takes time and effort to acquire. For starters, it needs an open mind that truly believes in the tremendous potential of design.

I, for one, am fortunate. I get to work with designers day in and day out. But still my seeing abilities are far from great. I am trying really hard and seeing a little more with every passing day.


Bhaskar Chatterjee
Co-Founder and CEO
Zero-G Design

Zero-G Design is a branding, design and digital marketing consultancy.
We use the combined power of business innovation + design + technology
to help businesses get noticed and achieve rapid growth.

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