In this informative conversation, Mr. AR R Raamnathan, Chairman of the DOT School of Design shares his insights on why design could be a lucrative career choice, what it takes to be successful in this field and more.
ACG: Tell us about your journey to becoming an architect. What did you do to prepare for college exams/getting admission into architecture school?
Raamnathan: I was a kid who didn’t know about career options when I had completed my 12th. When I was joining college all the people were crazy to join engineering but it wasn’t my cup of tea. I tried to figure out what else was out there. I became aware of the architecture program, and since I was passionate about buildings, I got into that program. At the time, we didn’t have any specialised exams like NATA (National Aptitude Test in Architecture) but we did have an aptitude test. I took the test without any preparation and got in. It was while studying architecture that I learned about other creative fields and there are degrees for design. I completed my architecture degree at Anna University, then my Master's degree at Sathyabama University with a specialisation in Project Management. I then worked at interior design and project management firms for nearly 1-1.5 years after which I practised on my own for 7-8 years.
ACG: Why and how did you switch from architecture?
Raamnathan: While running my own firm, I realised I wasn’t able to recruit good juniors to practice under me or assist me. That’s what pushed me into education. I never thought of starting a college; it was more informal. Instead of training for free, I thought to myself, why don’t we charge a nominal fee and give hands-on training to students pursuing architecture, civil engineering or interior design? That’s how I got into my education venture and started training college students.
ACG: What inspired you to launch the DOT School of Design?
Raamnathan: While teaching college students, I decided to extend my coaching to school students as well because they had no programs on creativity and it’s better to start learning early at the school level. We partnered with a few schools and created a syllabus for them on design foundations such that students can get into further design studies in future if they wanted. It wasn't so much a preparation for an entrance exam but a lesson in design fundamentals. This program was running parallel to their regular school syllabus, except students would come over to our institute over the weekends to learn (along with the college students I was training).
While informally training interns, I received a positive response and decided to launch a diploma program for students completing their graduation or those who have graduated and want to pursue interior design full-time. Then I got into the process of getting approval for giving out a proper diploma to students. We approached Alagappa University where we are now associated and introduced design as a program at Alagappa because up until then they were focused on engineering, arts and science and not on any design disciplines. Their Vice Chancellor was also very supportive and receptive to our initiative. We proposed people from NID and NIFT (both are premium design institutes in India) to be on the syllabus committee. We also referred professors from IITs and architecture professors from Anna University. They formed a board of studies with this group in order to introduce a new design syllabus and department. Alagappa University was the first government university to offer a 4-year Bachelor of Design (B. Des.) in Tamil Nadu through DOT school of design. Since then, other institutes have followed suit. Thus, we grew organically from a 100 square feet informal institute to whatever DOT is now.
ACG: What schools are associated with DOT in addition to Alagappa University?
Raamnathan: We are currently partnered with Velammal schools, Dharmapuri, Sethu Bhaskara school in Ambattur, Central School in OMR.
ACG: How do you measure the impact of studying design early in school? What differences do you see in someone who went through your design foundation course versus someone who didn’t?
Raamnathan: Studying design early helps with critical thinking/problem solving and managing other subjects like Maths, Physics, Languages, etc. Time management is another skill they will learn because students solve our time-based problems out of interest - there are no right or wrong answers, it's all about students’ ideas. And without interest, you can’t solve problems successfully. With all of this, their confidence, communication and social skills improve as they’re not just reading a book and regurgitating in the exam
ACG: How is DOT’s B. Des. program different from NIFT or NID?
Raamnathan: Although the name of the degree is the same and there is no doubt NIFT and NID are premium institutes, DOT’s methodology for teaching is totally different. We are keen on running design education parallel to industry requirements. For instance, we give real-world projects to students. We also encourage our faculty to continue their freelance work so they don’t have to choose between working and teaching.
Unlike NID and NIFT, we recently launched the D-tour program, an initiative to go beyond the classroom and assist students in discovering inspiration through travel. Students travel to different cities every semester as part of the curriculum and cover a majority of the syllabus during their tour. Depending on their syllabus, we select the best locations in India where that industry specializes. For instance, packaging design or printing technology. We take them to real craftsmen so they can learn about their livelihood. So far, our students have travelled to Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Cochin, further south in Tamil Nadu to Sivakasi, even rural areas. So, during the 4-year program, students will be able to cover about two-thirds of India. We do this to motivate students, learn through travel, improve observation skills, build empathy rather than just giving them books. Our plan is to cover northeast India next and eventually abroad.
ACG: Who funds the D-tour program?
Raamnathan: D-tour is part of the syllabus and not considered an add-on or optional feature. It is designed as a method of learning that can take place anywhere in the world in the most efficient way. D-tour is provided to students as part of the semester fee, no additional fees are collected.
ACG: How many NID and NIFT institutes are there in India and where are they?
Raamnathan: There are a total of seven NID institutes in India:
● NID Ahmedabad, Est 1961
● NID Bengaluru, Est 2006 (Only PG Programs)
● NID Gandhinagar, Est 2004 (Only PG Programs)
● NID Andhra Pradesh, Est 2015
● NID Madhya Pradesh, Est 2019
● NID Haryana, Est 2016
● NID Assam, Est 2019
There are a total of sixteen NIFT institutes in India. The campus at New Delhi was established in 1986 in collaboration with the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. Campuses in Chennai, Gandhinagar, Kolkata, Hyderabad, and Mumbai were set up in 1995 and that of Bengaluru in 1997. The new millennium witnessed the emergence of new campuses in Bhopal, Bhubaneswar, Jodhpur, Kangra, Kannur, Patna, Raebareli and Shillong. The campus at Srinagar in Jammu & Kashmir is the newly added node to NIFT's network.
ACG: What other institutes offer design programs in the country?
Raamnathan: Many private universities and private institutions affiliated with government universities also offer design programs. Nearly all of them are located in Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Karnataka. However, they all follow the same traditional pattern, under the guise of the “B.Des'' label. Multidisciplinary, exclusive, stand-alone design schools are few in number.
ACG: What is the entry requirement for DOT School of Design and more traditional institutes like NIFT, NID?
Raamnathan: All institutes including DOT test for the same things during entrance exams i.e. passion for problem solving, creative/out-of-the-box thinking, imagination and empathy.
At DOT we have 3 levels to the entrance exam:
● Portfolio submission
● Aptitude test and basic drawing skills
● Hands on exercise where students are asked to come to the institute and make something out of the materials we provide to them
Due to the large number of applications, NID has stopped personal interview and portfolio review but we still do that.
ACG: Do you have the same process of applications for all of your programs?
Raamnathan: Yes, the structure is the same for all degree programs (B.Des. and M. Des.). For diploma programs, we conduct only 2 levels of exam i.e., aptitude test and hands-on exercise.
ACG: What can students do to prepare for these exams? Are there any books or resources you’d recommend?
Raamnathan: No book can help in fully preparing for entrance exams like these. For instance, you can’t learn empathy in a book. Even an artist who trains others can only teach technical skills. Students need to know how to think, how to observe and appreciate art. It’s not about being a great artist but rather, improving visual thinking or the ability to put ideas to paper. It’s more about mentorship than coaching and students can find mentors in other designers or other students studying design.
ACG: What is the fee structure for a design education in India?
Raamnathan: Compared to engineering or any other degree, design education is very costly in India. The reason being, faculty members are usually from the industry, they are working and we need to pay them a comparable salary to teach. So, it’s hard to find full-time teachers. NIFT and NID are under the Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Textiles so the central government provides them with a lot of funding for infrastructure, land, and even small things like pens. All that NIFT and NID have to take care of are their faculty salaries and maintenance. Furthermore, no scholarships are available at any design institute in India. With all of this, the average annual tuition fee is around 3.5 lakhs.
When I got into design education, my intention was to reduce this fee. If the class is composed of students belonging to the same socioeconomic status, developing empathy becomes very difficult. So, we did whatever we could to reduce this fee with the support of the industry and the live projects we get from companies. We charge nearly half of what NID and NIFT charge, so we charged 1.8 lakhs per annum last year. We also reserve 10% of seats for government school students who can’t afford to pay; it’s free for them. This helps to create social balance in our college.
ACG: Are there any other scholarships you offer?
Raamnathan: Switching to a different stream during post-graduation is uncommon. It’s considered a drawback in India to do this. So, we want to encourage and give more scholarships to postgraduate students who studied something else in undergrad and want to pursue design.
ACG: What are some success stories of students who studied design for their postgrad without any design experience in undergrad?
Raamnathan: I want to recall my first batch of students for the diploma programs, when DOT was much smaller; all of the students are currently in great positions, in the same field that they studied at DOT. A lot of these students actually did civil and mechanical engineering in their undergrad. Last year, students who graduated from our graphic design PG diploma got offers from Cognizant Technologies with a package of around Rs. 75000 per month which is a very good salary for someone who did a 1-year diploma. But all of them didn’t want this job because they were confident in starting their own design firm or freelance business. They eventually did and are doing very well!
To help students who want to start their own businesses, we launched D-SPRAC, an initiative that aims to cultivate entrepreneurial talent and shape students into responsible creators, collaborators, and leaders.
ACG: What is the state of design as a profession in India and how does it compare to design abroad? Which design disciplines are most lucrative? (includes architecture, industrial, fashion, digital, etc.)
Raamnathan: All IT companies are now hunting for UI/UX designers, they are very much in demand. So much so that engineering graduates want to be designers now! For other design disciplines, there still isn’t a lot of awareness. People still think of design as a hobby, not a profession. Or when they think of design, they only think of fashion. This is primarily because we started out in the industrial age which was all about manufacturing and mass production. But we are now moving towards the imagination age which requires more creativity.
10 years ago, large companies like TATA, Ashoka Leyland etc. didn’t have any design departments. For instance, products for home appliances and medical equipment would be designed in foreign countries and copied to fit Indian standards. Indian anthropometry wasn’t and sometimes isn’t taken into consideration even today. But since then, a lot of Indian companies and MNCs across various sectors have come up with design incubation units. The purpose of these units is to study customer requirements in India and do research on how to solve problems in an innovative and cost-effective way. This has created a tremendous demand for designers in India. Industrial design jobs in automobiles, toys, and even fashion design are booming and come with fancy salaries.
ACG: How much is the average salary for designers across various design disciplines?
Raamnathan: As a result of the boom in design incubation units and jobs, the average salary range for a graduate is easily 1 lakh per month. They can get more after 5-10 years of experience. This is especially true for those who graduate from proper design programs such as DOT or NID. But it’s important to keep in mind that candidates are not evaluated through certificates or marks. Ultimately, it’s their portfolio and ideas that will help them get ahead.
ACG: What is lacking in design education in universities/colleges today? How is DOT helping?
Raamnathan: Apart from the D-tour program, we also have an INCO (Industry Collaboration) wing where students are given live projects and real-world problems to solve for real companies. For instance, Chennai Metco was interested in DOT and shared the problems they were having with machinery design. Our students did some ideation and presented it to the company’s key members. They were so happy with the output that they wanted to honour the students and their design ideas so the students were given a stipend. And now their ideas are in the production process! Chennai Metco also wants to hire students from DOT after they graduate. This has really improved our students’ confidence and motivation. We also have a full-time psychologist at DOT to understand students’ mental health. Some other initiatives at DOT include industry professionals coming in to speak with the students about industry updates, challenges, etc. This is how we are bridging the gap in design education in India.
ACG: Why should students pursue a formal design education as compared to self-learning?
Raamnathan: To begin with, self-learning will not work in most cases for design. Learning is possible, but ideation, collaboration and teamwork will be hard to learn on your own. Secondly, design is a process, not a conclusion - there will always be a better design for problems! So, learning to accept this and other critical feedback is important and possible only in a full-time educational setting. Furthermore, full-time education is preferable for school students because they may not be as mature to self-learn or learn online.
ACG: What career advice do you have for students?
Raamnathan: There are 3 principles I recommend while exploring career options:
● Understand your interest and passion
● Understand where the demand is
● Understand the requirements (example: ask yourself and do research on whether the field can be easily automated by machines or computers. If it can, it’s probably not the best career choice)
ACG: Looking back, what career advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
Raamnathan: It would have been better if I had travelled more and had more exposure to various fields. Very few people are willing to understand their strengths and weaknesses so more awareness would have been better for me!