Our latest The Desi Designer interview is here! IVS and Carnegie Mellon graduate Ahmed Ansari recently returned to Pakistan from the United States where he was studying for a Masters degree in Interaction Design on a two year Fulbright scholarship. He is currently an assistant professor in the Media & Social Sciences department at SZABIST, and does both design and education consulting on the side. Ahmed talks to The Desi Design about the state of design in Pakistan: the current scenario, the future outlook and everything in between!

It’s going to be a lot of scrolling, but it’s all worth it – Dig right in!

Tell us about your work, what do you specialize in, which is your favorite project?

ahmed ansari

Well, most of my work now is very different from what it was two years ago before I left for the States. I experimented a lot after finishing my undergrad in communication design – back then, I was far more interested in designing for digital media rather than print, and instead of going the traditional career path of joining an advertising agency, I freelanced, and later worked for a startup in digital advertising (amounts to the same thing though, doesn’t it?). Most of my work circa 2008-2011 is rich media websites, some games, and user interfaces for clients, with a smattering of print and production work here and there.

The scope of my work over the last two years has changed immensely. I don’t take on commercial projects anymore, and in fact, I’ve ceased to do any kind of traditional communication design work at all. I’d been heavily involved in design research at CMU, particularly in dealing with the possible uses of new, cutting edge technologies in unfamiliar contexts. Most of my recent projects have been interaction design projects, and most of them have had a focus on learning and education, particularly in environments outside of the classroom. My personal work apart from research has become very theoretical, applying systems thinking and philosophy to design to develop new frameworks, methods and ways of thinking about design.

I don’t think I could be strictly called a designer anymore – I have a rather eclectic mix of talents and knowledge. I’ve taught university classes in critical theory, particularly media and communication studies…I have a very thorough grounding in philosophy, particularly with twentieth century continental philosophers like Heidegger. Then there’s the designerly part of me that loves to play with applying all of this theoretical work to design practice, and loves to mess around with post-its and create experiments and conduct contextual inquiries and site observations, and finally there’s the part of me which loves to make beautiful things and photoshops and codes and gets into the guts of technology and stuff.

I can tell you about projects I really enjoyed doing – my undergrad thesis was immensely enjoyable, for one – it was a rather narcissistic exercise in interactive storytelling…somewhat like a point-and-click adventure game. I still reflect fondly on that over time…another more recent project – Gigapixel (link) – was a rather long nine-month research project on embedding high resolution imaging technology within museums…it was my first taste of being involved in the entire process from beginning (problem formulation) to the end (deploying an actual working prototype within an exhibit that we also designed). The exhibit is still up and we’ve been getting extremely good, encouraging data on its effectiveness. Makes me feel good to know that the project was successful.

ahmed ansari

Gigapixel: High-res imaging viewer facilitating informal learning within museum environments, c 2012

Would you encourage other people to take up design as a career path?

Yes, but only if you stop thinking about it in terms of “a career”. Yes, design is a rapidly growing discipline – it’s becoming important, and more and more firms, companies and organizations, even governments, are hiring designers and investing in design, but, and this is a big but: it is an incredibly competitive field, and you start low, and you have to be very good, or very different, or both. It is not easy, and if you want to make lots of money quick, forget about it – it’s a slog just like every other creative field. It is also a rapidly changing field – the face of the discipline is changing every few years now as trends and technologies come and go, and newer and better work feeds into the field. If you are always open to learn, are committed to hard work, and enjoy creative problem solving, then by all means, pick it up!

How can we promote design as a viable career option in Pakistan?

Get the schools to change the way they teach it. Education and industry here both work to perpetuate this vicious cycle of producing visual designers to a base template of skills required for them to succeed as labor in the workforce. It isn’t surprising that a fair amount of design graduates who don’t want to work in advertising or marketing actually cease to do significant design work after graduating and turn to other fields like photography or illustration or film. Schools need to start showing students what is possible with design and what is happening the world over. Then they need to start training their kids in design thinking and research. And lastly, they need to start building ties with other academic institutions, with engineering and computer science and business programs, and with different industries – the software industry, for beginners. I think that this has, to some extent, already begun, but it has to be framed properly, emphasizing the role that design can play as a critical problem solving tool instead of simply selling design as aesthetic value addition.

lifted ahmed ansari

Lifted: Software Application linking informal learning outside classrooms to in-class learning, c 2012

As a designer, what is your biggest frustration working in Pakistan?

Apart from the usual difficulties of working in Pakistan with its myriad security and infrastructural concerns, this odd cycle of designers selling themselves short, and clients continuing to accept mediocre work. There’s this odd notion that everything needs to be done as soon as possible, and you will be payed as long as the job is done in time, and to hell with the final product. Good design solutions take time and a systematic, thorough approach.

What are the most common problems you come across working as a designer?

So far, I’ve had a pretty diverse run of problems across projects. I’d say self-motivation and poor planning, which makes me a pretty bad freelancer – I’m extremely driven on projects that I’m personally invested in, but also when they are well planned and I know exactly how I’m going to do them, with no unforeseen variables throwing things off kilter. When I was freelancing as a designer years ago wishy-washy clients often vague on their own requirements would change project briefs midway and it would drive me nuts…these things would drag my motivation to work on a project into the dust. It’s why I love the way design research is done abroad.

Are our education centers providing a quality design education? Such as NCA and IVS?

You’ve put me in a rather difficult spot, as an educator. Since I’ve only recently come back, my knowledge of what the local art schools are doing with their programs is sketchy – I can say that, until I left, the dominant attitude was still very much stuck in a vocational, “commercial art” paradigm – too much emphasis on craft, technical training, and creative fictions, too little stress on communication planning and rhetoric, and very little work in training students to be analytical, critical thinkers. While a sound training in formal aesthetics and creative idea generation is good, I believe that it should not be the sole crux of a four year undergraduate education. I would like to see more real problems tackled through systematic research, with solutions that are actually implemented and evaluated for the thoroughness of their process and the effectiveness of their solutions. This is how I believe school projects and theses should be done in Pakistan. Academic institutions also need to broaden the scope of their engagement with design – where are our industrial, interaction or service design programs?

Lifted: Software Application linking informal learning outside classrooms to in-class learning, c 2012

Lifted: Software Application linking informal learning outside classrooms to in-class learning, c 2012

I also believe that undergraduate education should be well rounded rather than specific, and here our academic institutions fail miserably – I have yet to see a good liberal arts program giving design students a thorough grounding in the humanities, physical and social sciences, and connecting it all back to design, be implemented in Pakistan. You cannot be an effective designer in a vacuum – which is why courses in design theory and philosophy, in psychology, critical theory and science and technology studies become so important. This is actually a problem with higher education in general here. Most students don’t know how to write proper academic papers by the time they graduate, and the standard of freshman writing is so poor that before any of these things, students need to be taught how to read and write, to structure cohesive arguments and articulate their thoughts well.

Like I’d pointed out before, it’s interesting to note that most design theses coming out of the art schools here tend to be dominated by their minors, whether photography or illustration or advertising, and the number of graduates every year changing fields to pursue their minors is telling about what students see as the scope of design in practice. That being said, I have seen some very interesting theses coming out of both IVS and Karachi University in recent years where students have applied creative problem solving to concrete, real world problems. My sense is that things are now beginning to shift, with old and new universities beginning to take an interest in design – SZABIST is beginning to move in this direction, and Habib University is hiring international faculty to teach in their upcoming design program. IVS’s liberal arts program has grown since I was there. So, despite my scathing critique, I do remain optimistic that things will change, but design departments need to change their purely operational way of training students. Unless they do so, disenchanted graduates will continue to leave design as a viable career option and move on to other fields.

How can we use design and design thinking to make a positive contribution towards Pakistan’s problems?

As of right now in Pakistan, design praxis (as I shall call it, since “design thinking” is a buzzword I personally despise) is merely milked for its capacity to add superficial value to products for the sole purposes of promoting consumption, and barely applied in its capacity to add real value to people’s experiences using products or services, let alone solve complex problems in the totality of their personal, social, ethical and political dimensions. The first step to tackling real, concrete, on the ground problems in Pakistan is to first let go of this wretched definition of design as “commercial art” slaved to the advertising/marketing industry. There has been a global shift over the last decade in the way design practitioners, academics, and the industries that have traditionally hired them, think about themselves and the field. The emphasis has turned away from design as mere value addition towards its role in shaping behaviors, politics and ethics, and empowering and enabling (and similarly, inhibiting and disabling) people through technological means. More and more, companies abroad now understand that one well designed, original product or service can completely change the expectations of consumers and the way entire industries operate – just look at AirBnB and the way the landscape of the hoteling industry has changed in America.

I’ve been back in Karachi barely two weeks and it’s taken me eight phone calls and two visits to the office of a local internet service provider just to get my internet up and running at home. The level of opacity, unaccountability and redundancy built into their customer service department is ridiculous, and would be completely unheard of in the States – automating the entire process and streamlining the way their services operate would be a good design problem to start with! There are boundless opportunities in this country for designers to dive in and take charge – redesigning the entire system of voting, the experience at polling stations, right down to the ballot itself, for example, would be a worthy task, and just one of many areas designers can work in. Healthcare, the retail sector, the software industry – design praxis can help breathe new life into all of these!

Who is your favorite designer and inspiration?

I can tell you a story about one of my idols back in undergrad whom I had the immense good fortune to meet when I was in New York City last year. I stood outside Milton Glaser’s office for two hours, and finally, a cab stopped, and a very elderly Glaser stepped out, looked at me standing there outside his door, and signaled to me to follow him. We had a brief 20 minute meeting, and, needless to say, it wasn’t at all what I had expected. I remember asking him, at one point, what design meant to him…what he thought the heart of it was, and he looked at me, rather curiously, and asked me why I was stressed about it. Then he asked me what I would do with his answer if he gave it to me, and I replied, very disconcerted, that I didn’t know, probably nothing, but that it would be nice to know. The advice I got in the end was: “Put your heart in the work.”

Another person who really inspires me and who I’m deeply indebted to, especially because of the role  he played in helping develop my critical understanding of the discipline, was my thesis advisor, Cameron Tonkinwise, who is one of the sharpest minds in design thinking today. You’d be hard pressed to find a more articulate and honest voice critiquing popular design discourse, and I’m really lucky to have had him at CMU.

What are your future plans, do you want to work in Pakistan?

Well, I have a year or two to spend here, which I intend to dedicate to teaching, some consulting work, and continuing my research, before I leave Pakistan again to do a PhD (probably not in design, I’m currently looking at STS programs). I’m not interested in commercial practice at all. There are a few things in the works here that might make life interesting in the months to come – I’m eager to continue working on research grants and have applied for ICT funding. One of my personal dreams here is to open a world-class interdisciplinary research lab in an academic institution that values such work, something along the lines of MIT’s Media Lab, CMU’s CreateLab or Stanford’s D-School, working with the best and brightest students here to create next generation solutions for local problems.

gaia ahmed ansari

Gaia: Mobile game teaching sustainable practices to minors, c 2011

Have you noticed any remarkable talent or projects in design coming out of Pakistan?

Apart from the occasional look at my Behance followings, I know very little of what’s been happening in the design scene here. I know what my old colleagues from art school are doing, and some of it is good work, but no, I can’t say I’ve seen anything stupendous recently, sorry.

Some of the most interesting design solutions have, ironically, been coming from non-designers. I’m a big fan of the service that kitabein.com is providing, and I’ve recently heard of this new startup in Lahore that invented a form of twitter using cellular networks for non-smartphones – I think they’re calling it Pring. It’s entrepreneurs that are investing in new kinds of services and products that are pushing innovation in design in Pakistan – designers need to get involved too.

What is the future of design in Pakistan?

I can’t tell, honestly. I’m pretty certain that the quality of design education will improve, as more and more institutions start investing in design thinking and art schools broaden the kind of education their students are getting. We are seeing a gradual shift towards more work being done in the digital domain, and this will continue, although most of the people with design backgrounds I know either end up working completely on the art/user interface side of things, or in handling digital marketing or strategy. That being said, there’s good raw talent here, and I like to be optimistic about things.


Ahmed got back to us and wanted to share an update about the state of things now that he’s been back in Karachi for some time and has gotten to know the local design scene better:

AA: Over the last six months, having been engaged in teaching and consulting with a number of institutions and startups, I can safely say that the winds are beginning to shift significantly in Pakistan. The sense that I get, especially from students, is that there is far more awareness now of the value and scope of design as a discipline with serious problem solving potential and I’m beginning to see pockets of research-driven design work being done both in Lahore and Karachi. However, my evaluation as far as methods as knowledge goes still stands: few academics and even fewer industry professionals actually know how to do design research and translate it into solutions, even as there is a growing awareness that these skills are going to be increasingly needed. But, like everything, the first step is knowing that there needs to be change: design schools like IVS, Karachi University and SZABIST are all in the midst of reforming curriculums to better meet the changing requirements of the times. I might add that in my original assessment, having only recently come back, underscored the work that incubators like Plan 9, organizations like the Pakistan Innovation Foundation and P@SHA are doing to raise awareness about the role of design in product and service innovation, and that there is an excess of work for designers who would find it in the emerging startup culture both in Karachi and Lahore.

Learn more about Ahmed and his work at his website here.