There is always a dilemma when you have to choose between Arts and Science. So, rather than choose one, why not choose both of them to apply your knowledge creatively to solve various issues through better design. 

Manu T, our next pathbreaker, Doctoral Researcher at University of Canterbury, New Zealand, researches Biocomposites with the idea of developing sustainable materials for high-value products to address the issue of Environmental Sustainability.

Manu talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his background in Polymer Engineering and Industrial Design, coupled with his breadth of experience as Industrial Designer at SABIC Innovative Plastics, India (formerly GE Plastics), that led to the realization that sustainable material research is the key to keeping our environment safe.

For students, its always a good idea to work in the industry before you take up research, because the industry shows you the gaps that need to be addressed and that becomes your problem statement for your PhD!

Manu, tell us about Your background?

I was born and brought up in a small town in Kerala. I had anything but a non-linear education, where I started with a conventional fully residential school, Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya (JNV) till my tenth, and then to a Technical Higher Secondary school. I was also into art at school (on my art teacher Mani Sir’s initiation) and by the time I was into high school, technology caught my fancy. I dabbled a little with HAM radios and by my tenth standard, I decided to join the Technical School, where electronics and computer science were part of the curriculum. In short, I didn’t have any one particular focus in school, but rather explored a lot of different options.

Thankfully, my parents trusted me and did indulge me by allowing me to make these pivots in my schooling, which was a real blessing for that period.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

The experience at the Technical School was very rewarding as I got to learn Electronic Circuitry and Computer Programming, along with conventional PCM curriculum. I wanted to pursue an engineering degree in electronics, but securing a seat for that course was only for the crème de la crème in that period. But during my higher secondary schooling, I had also developed an interest in organic chemistry (thanks to my teacher Pradeep Sir) and hence chose to pursue bachelor’s degree in Polymer Engineering instead.

Polymer engineering was interesting as the course was very hands-on and we were learning about common plastics & composites that we encounter every day. And the college gave me opportunities to explore artistic pursuits as well which led to my next pivot. 

I was looking at educational options where I could combine art and technology, and found the Industrial Design programmes offered at various IITs. I wrote the CEED entrance exam and got admitted to the Master of Design programme at IIT Delhi, where I got the training to apply my acquired knowledge creatively to solve various issues. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

As I came from a small town, pre-internet, middle-class background, there were not many role models to emulate for my divergent education, as it was considered ‘safe’ to focus/specialize in a particular subject, especially for jobs.  But all of my pivots were encouraged by my teachers who threw light on these possibilities beyond traditional sectors. I kept chasing those passions and though scoring a job was an important factor, I wanted to do jobs that I would enjoy.

So, rather than me ‘choosing’ a career, I followed my interests and ‘fell’ into a career.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Design education gave me a window into the possibilities for creatively applying skills and knowledge to solve issues. There are many domains of designs such as Product Design, Communication Design, Textile Design, etc and a multitude of specializations and combinations amongst these domains. And this would be useful in any sector, any industry. 

Contrary to popular misconception, design is not just about making things look attractive, but to solve the underlying issues. And this requires a deep understanding of the issues around us and how society functions. The more you practice design, the more you’ll start to look deeper into issues to bring more clarity; and this leads to simple and elegant solutions. Design education is not just about teaching software and skills, but also about orienting the student’s mind to see the world through invisible connections and possibilities. And this education doesn’t end in design school, but in every job and every project you do. The environment at IIT gave me the chance to meet and interact with many brilliant students and faculty (Prof. L K Das, Prof. Vijay Chariar, Prof. P L Dhar, etc), who motivated me to think differently and do better.

While at IIT, I was looking for a company, where I could further my interests and leverage my existing skill set to the maximum; that would also create a niche for me in the market. During my final year, by a serendipitous encounter, I got a chance to visit an exhibition organized by General Electric (GE). There I saw their “Plastics” division showcasing durable and high-value applications developed with novel materials. That was the combination of both my interests; materials and design. I made few contacts there and towards the end of my course, I reached out to them with my portfolio. I joined GE Plastics soon after.

Working at GE was like working at a design consultancy; the design projects were at varying scales and came from a breadth of the industry; from consumer appliances to Furniture, Railways and Defense. Since GE dealt only in high-performance engineering plastics, most of the projects had high functional requirements and long usage duration. As a fresher, this experience was key, as I got exposed to a wide range of applications & industries. I picked up all projects that came my way, and was soon managing large design projects especially from railways and defense which needed coordination across multiple organizations, OEMs and departments. Design intervention in these sectors were very limited and I got a chance to work with these firms across the country.

So, after a few years, when I wanted to work on design projects beyond plastics and decided to start a design consultancy, I had a diverse range of projects under my belt. This ensured a steady income stream for the consultancy while I could explore design opportunities in uncharted sectors like MSMEs. This experience was again very enriching and divergent as we could explore lots of new design segments, but also on a personal level, I could learn a lot about financial and business management. Working with MSMEs included awareness seminars sponsored by Design Clinic Scheme and design workshops and these training experiences led me to my next pivot.

These training programmes in design led to an opportunity to relocate back to Kerala, as the state government was setting up a design institute and wanted experienced hands. I joined Kerala State Institute of Design as Assistant Project Director and founding faculty, where I got the chance to develop a road map for the fledgling school and to develop a design curriculum for postgraduate courses. Since we were starting small, there was an all-hands-on-deck approach, which led to a very deep and fine understanding of setting up a school and managing it. Going forward, this understanding of how various sections in an organization works helped me to manage my responsibilities efficiently.  

How did you get your first break?

The first break in my career came soon after joining GE Plastics, when I was assigned the responsibility of a large design project in railways with a multinational, multi-organizational team. Though I had limited experience at that time, I repaid my organization’s trust by preparing meticulously for the project and ensuring all deliverables.

This experience of managing such a large project early in my job gave me a strong career and confidence boost.

What were the challenges you faced in your career? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: When I started off, Design was a novel segment for many people around me, including my own family. So, I had to take care in creating awareness about what the job entails, especially at my workplace, so that my colleagues can manage their expectations and utilize my resources effectively. This eliminated requests for photo-editing and poster/brochure making and led to collaborations with serious business potential. With persistence, I could convince the management to schedule a mandatory induction programme on design as part of new employee orientation. 

Challenge 2: Most of the professional education I received was around the concept that my trade was at the centre of all. In reality, design  or any other career domain should learn to work with other departments in the organization. A perfect product design will not work, if it is not accepted by engineering, production, marketing and all the other influencers in the system. So, I try to empathize with other stakeholders in the system before pushing any idea or solution.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I am currently a Doctoral Researcher at University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Along with my stint as a faculty of design, I was also working on developing sustainable raw materials for industrial production. But this part-timer exploration was not good enough to address this issue, and I decided to do a full-time PhD programme on the topic. I was advised against taking a mid-career break as it would affect my career progression, but my personal experience is that adding knowledge/skills at any stage is never risky. And I see this as an organic continuation of my career.

In my opinion, the first step to a meaningful doctoral programme is to identify your area of interest and finding universities/supervisors working on such topics, at least an year before actual course commencement. A literature review in Google Scholar will let you identify the gaps in the literature and prominent and current researchers in the domain. Once you have made a research proposal on your topic, start sharing that with potential supervisors. This buy-in from supervisors is essential for funding your scholarship. You should also look for funding opportunities through scholarships offered by various organizations and universities. Once a supervisor accepts your proposal, you can apply for funding. I wouldn’t advise joining a PhD programme for the sake of it or purely for meeting job requirements, as it needs lots of self-motivation.

In my case, there were only a few universities working on my topic of interest and I was lucky to zero-in on such a programme. The School of Product Design at University of Canterbury offered me a fully-funded scholarship to study designing with biocomposites and I’m exploring this topic now.

We are depleting natural resources at an unprecedentedly high rate and unfortunately, bulk of that consumption is irresponsible and harmful to our existence. Designers have a huge responsibility here, as the choice of materials, and life and usability of products are conceived by them. But even those designers who try to make sustainable products are hindered by a lack of appropriate raw materials and design methodology to design effectively and competitively. Most of the sustainable materials are developed for low-value applications like packaging. I believe there are better application opportunities for such materials. My project objective is to develop sustainable materials or design methodologies for high-value products. I plan to identify a mass-producible, compostable and sustainable material and develop products which will synergize their unique characteristics.

My role requires a very good understanding of materials, processes and product design, all of which fits well in my skill set. But it is important to keep learning and updating your knowledge base as time passes, because tools and trends change very fast nowadays. Since I was teaching courses related to these topics, I was learning deeper about these subjects and was keeping myself updated about the latest developments. Hence, the transition into this new role has been very smooth.

How does your work benefit society? 

Sustainable design, consumption and disposal can solve much of the visible environmental pollution we see around us, and my research is aimed in that direction. Coming from a polymer engineering background, it is baffling when policymakers oversimplify the issue and ban plastics as a one-step solution. The real factor we should be looking at is the lifecycle cost of materials we use and we’ll see that many plastic substitutes like paper comes with an even bigger environmental liability. If the lifetime of a product is significantly long, that can lessen the lifecycle costs of any material; the disposable nature of products is the main issue in sustainability.

Even the words sustainability, biodegradability and eco-friendly are used in different contexts with wildly varying meanings; and unfortunately, used to confuse consumers. While an average consumer might have the image of a tree leaf or vegetable when they say biodegradable, the real degradation behavior of many ‘eco-friendly’ products in the market may be entirely different. And the burden of solving this issue of managing plastic waste has been put on the shoulders of users and local governing bodies, whereas designers and manufacturers should equally be responsible for such products.

My goal is to give that power to designers to develop products which are safe for our environment, without burdening the consumers in usability or financially.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Designing seats for Mumbai local trains was a memorable project, as it had a very high functional requirement and tough usage environment. It was designed to be modular, so that replacements could be done easily as damages due to rough use was the norm. We had to go through multiple iterations of design and harsh testing before the design was accepted. It was also a challenge to develop the design and fabrication capabilities of local OEMs to manufacture the precision components required. But to overcome all these issues and to sit and travel on one of my seats was a great experience!

Your advice to students based on your experience?

The world today is changing at a very fast pace, but  super-specializing in one domain may create hurdles in the future. The most important thing to remember is to keep an open mind and keep learning new things as you go. These need not be based on any popular profession; rather explore the things that interest you. Try out maximum things as early as possible, so that you can make an informed career decision; and all those explorations will add value to your career in some way. This will help you adapt to changes quickly and evolve your career into an enjoyable activity.

Secondly, choose your workplace wisely; the firm offering the highest package might not have the best work environment. If you start your career in a good work environment, that will set a solid foundation for your professional career; and such environments bring out the best in you, leading  to better career growth.

Future Plans?

My short-term goal is to scale up the material technology I have identified for sustainable materials; and then I’m looking at collaborating with the product design community to create products with these materials. I believe that the best form of environmental responsibility comes when one adopts the practice of sustainability into their life and profession; and I hope that designers will lead the way.