Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Design Research - A Relentless Quest

By Udit Chaudhuri
Images: Courtesy Uday Dandavate
Three Types of Research
Interacting with a restless intellectual, who is wont to give back to society all that he has gathered from it and more, we bring you design researcher Uday Dandavate, whose positivity, vision and meticulousness comes from an intense focus on his endeavours.

CEO and co-founder of a global design research consulting practice SonicRim, based in the US, Uday Dandavate is focused on helping his clients cultivate capacity for co-imagining the future and co-creating solutions that help improve the life of everyday people. He often pushes clients beyond their comfort zone to identify unexplored opportunities to experience innovation through co-creation.

Uday Dandavate
Avid world-traveler, passionate champion of co-creation, political columnist, and relentless design activist, Uday works with a wide range of people and organizations at different levels. His curiosity for people, cultures and change has drawn him to fields as diverse as anthropology, psychology, communication, sociology, marketing, politics and design. Seeking to rally people around macro issues, he often hits the road conducting workshops in colleges and companies, championing causes as diverse as ‘co-creation’, ‘MacroDesign’, and ‘sustainability’.

Pattern Finding
Uday coined the term MacroDesign recognizing the need for designers to participate in the public policy domain. He is often invited to write for design and political magazines, also to address corporate, not-for-profit and academic audiences on change, innovation and co-creation.

Co-Creation Workshop At JCI
1 - Tell us about yourself and your work
I am a relentless explorer in search of insights, inspiration and ideas to make the world a better place. My values were shaped while growing up in a family committed to social justice and change. My creative curiosity was shaped by education at the National Institute of Design (NID). My systemic orientation to design research came from studying theories and methods from the fields of design, marketing, psychology, anthropology, and communication theory and politics during and after my graduate education at Ohio. I gained a deep global perspective once I started traveling around the world as a design researcher and talked to thousands of people about their lives and dreams. 

I realize that designers can no longer be confined to shaping the material world. With our abilities to solve problems, look beyond the obvious and fill the void with creative solutions, we need to participate in shaping public policy, public infrastructure and political discourse with design thinking.

Cognitive Maps
2 - What prompted you to pursue a career in design research?

The story of how I chose a career as a design researcher is very interesting. As a practitioner of design in India during the first 13 years of my professional career, I was preoccupied conceptualizing products for functional, psychological, and business benefits. I realized that my innate craving to experiment with my work and affect change was not adequately matched by the expectations of my clients. I was feeling bored and stale and therefore decided to challenge my intellectual cravings at The Ohio State University. That experience fuelled my curiosity and rekindled my spirit.

 At NID, we were exposed to the ideas and creations of legendary designers and had access to design publications from every nook and corner of the world.  This exposure generated a craving in me to follow the path of some celebrated designers, to produce designs that match the enchanting qualities of world-renowned designs. However, my path took me in a new direction.

I enrolled for a research-focused graduate program at The Ohio State University. Working with Prof. Reinhart Butter, Dr. Liz Sanders and Dr. Klaus Krippendorff (of Annenberg School of Communication), my curiosity shifted from designing products to understanding how people experience design.  I studied theories from fields of psychology, anthropology, marketing and communication. At the time, Liz helped me get an internship at a global design firm, Fitch, which later turned into a full time job. Visiting people’s homes for research and understanding their lives and dreams brought me the joy of finding a connection between design and life. In 1999, with three other partners from Fitch, I started SonicRim, a design research consulting practice. Though two of the four partners are no more in the organization, Kevin and I continue to follow our bliss through exciting projects that have global expanse. I am also fortunate that many of our clients, who have an interest in India, encourage me to explore opportunities that use their technologies to develop locally relevant solutions.

Immersive Displays of Insights
3 - After 36 years in the field, what is that one thing you wish you could have learnt as a student, which should have been part of your design school syllabus?

I think the field of design and design education are evolving through the 36 years I have spent in this field as a student of design. I was fortunate enough to study in a school, where the focus was not merely on ‘gaining knowledge’ and ‘acquiring skills’. Rather, we were told on the first day at NID that the foremost thing to learn at NID was to unlearn what we had learned until then, and to open our minds to lifelong learning. From that perspective, I would say there is nothing that I could have learned at the time that I miss today, because mostly we were being trained to be lifelong observers and learners.

Today, when I compete with some of the world’s best firms in design research, what I learned at NID- sensitivity to the environment and openness of mind- is the core competency that helps me differentiate my team and my company from any other design company in the world. Our clients have repeatedly told us how much the openness, flexibility, and participatory nature of our thorough process at SonicRim has helped them come back to us. In the words of one of our professors at NID, Prof. Mohan Bhandari - the core skill that we acquired at NID was to regain our ‘childlike freshness’ in our view of life – a quality that comes in handy when I am confronted with situations where pre-conceived notions get in the way of conceptualizing breakthrough ideas.

Velcro Car- Inside

4 - Two do’s that you could share with a student aspiring to pursue design research?
Conquer your ego. You can never change the world or make an impact on others if your motivation for design is to serve your ego. On the other hand, if you gain the psychological capacity to keep your mind open, ego in check, and seek empathy with people you design for, you will become a more successful designer and a change agent. Always remember that the reason you joined the design profession in the first place was to make the world a better place.

Next, remember, a design is not just about form, function and aesthetic. It is important for a designer to know how one’s design will fit people’s lives. Find ways to get into the heads of the people, who will ultimately benefit from your design. Understand how they think, and figure out how or when your design will be a part of their life; then develop a design concept that will blend well with their environment, their feelings and their imagination.

CDC workshop Bangkok
5 - Two don’ts that you could share with a student aspiring to pursue design research?
Never fall in love with your idea; nor believe that there is one single solution to a problem. Life is made up of diverse people with diverse perspectives. There can be many solutions that serve the problem you are trying to solve. So be flexible, play and bring delight to this world through your ideas and creations.

Secondly, don’t ever evaluate your design based on your criteria of good design. Test it with a group of people that represents the profile of your target user or audience. I have often seen great insights from research or design ideas that are best suited to target audience’s preferences being killed by designers (or clients) just because those ideas did not match their own tastes or preferences.

Remote Monitoring of Behaviors
Designers' Role
You can connect with Mr. Uday Dandavate by posting your comments below or via SonicRim


  1. Thanks for such valueable comments for designers :)

  2. Thank you so much for sharing the thoughts... it is very motivating...

  3. This was a fascinating interview. I'd be interested to know whether India's new wave of design education institutions will be true to the original NID mission "to unlearn what we had learned until then, and to open our minds to lifelong learning..."

    1. John,
      You may remember me (Tony Sully) when I worked with DEGW and you were in partnership with Peter Town as BSD. I would like to get in touch with you. You can contact me on sultony@gotadsl.co.uk.

  4. Uday, Are you looking for new people to join your team? Contact me on j.davidsondesign@gmail.com . I am nearing a Master's in Interior Architecture in San Francisco but I am intrigued by the idea of studying and working with the user experience of interiors.

    Warm regards,
    Ms. Jennifer Davidson


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