Ayaz Basrai on Letting Things Emerge

Ayaz Basrai, co-founder of the acclaimed design studio, The Busride, says that going with the flow keeps bringing him new ideas.

Ayaz Basrai

Tell us about your personal journey as a designer

I stumbled into design, unlike my brother Zameer who always had a super sharp focus. The culture of making things, rather than buying them, was something that was important for both of us. In a rather happy coincidence, I visited the National Institute of Design (NID) Ahmedabad campus, and distinctly remember being stunned at the showcase of work. I realised that every single one of my influences and fringe passions were represented there in some form. I had virtually no idea about Industrial design before that.

How did you start your own studio?

With Busride, there were no formulated plans to ever start our own studio. In fact, Zameer and I were both really really wary of it, being brothers, as working together could get really complex. So initially, we tried freelancing together, and the experience completely blew my mind. It was the best kind of partnership.

Since then, we’ve experimented often with ways of working, sometimes bouncing projects internally and sometimes leaving things half way for the other to finish up. Our distinct perspectives help structure projects very differently, from if we were running them individually. I also think the studio being structured informally, helps us play with projects, which is the one thing that ties up most of the work we’ve managed to put out!

From designing commercial spaces like Social to running the community-driven The Bandra Project, what makes Busride take on such a wide range of work?

We gave up the pretence of coherence quite early. The latitude of work is really because we’ve just been interested and inspired by different things at different times. It just seemed more fun to go with the flow.

A lot of early inquiries were centred around satire and parody, materials and textures, innuendo and metaphor. Smoke House Deli, for instance, started off as a parody of the over-detailed, insanely expensive spaces that were starting to proliferate in and around metros. Mocha channeled world culture and Social harnessed Rebellion. The Smokehouse Room was our foray into experimenting with consciousness. The Bandra Project is sort of an architectural ode to the suburb we grew up in. The idea is to constantly think about our terms of engagement with the discipline, and let that guide the outcome. 

We’ve heard that you’re not taking on commercial projects anymore. Is that true? 

Not really. But we have scaled back the extremely hectic juggling of multiple projects in the Goa studio quite a bit. We want to indulge in some intra-studio inquiries around the Future of Craft and the Future of Cities. We’re trying to bring the same polyvalence from the design practice to our research practice, and hopefully have a lot of fun along the way.

“I don’t see a huge discrepancy per se in the commercial and social innovation domains; the conflict is really just an indicator to an immaturity of thought.”

Take us through research and execution process when you start a new project

While a part of our process is definitely grounded in cultural research and data projections, we try to hold this part of the project as loosely in the head as possible. I’m personally a lot more excited about the glitches, the mistakes, the futures in the cracks.

The big issue with futures visualisations that are technologically driven, or come to us from Palo Alto, are that they rob us of the texture of life in our uniquely Indian future. They’re too glossy and manicured! I believe that we will achieve a whole new expression if left to our own devices. We’re a gloriously maximal culture and that exuberance of possibilities is just so much fun to visualise. 

The newspaper of the future

There’s one specific exercise we like to do as part of our process, where we create a collaborative newspaper with stories of the future. As part of this, we tend to state things fairly clearly as well as sensationalise the news. Both methods work well as provocations. The newspaper format creates a fake believability and becomes a collective vision of what could come to pass. That’s always a fun, quick and dirty exercise to supplement the longer futures mapping work.

The Busride Lab works out of Mumbai and Goa. Talk to us about your move to Goa and thoughts on collectivism, considering Busride shares the Goa studio with Quicksand and Tandem Research.

We moved to Goa for all the obvious reasons. The general idea was to explore a flatter (Rhizomatic) structure for the studio, to partner with like minded agencies Quicksand and Tandem, both of whom are old friends and new collaborators. It’s been transformational for me, providing a rare insight into methodologies in social innovation, ethnographic research and hands-on engagement. I am also learning to deal with cutting edge science and the data it produces. We have all agreed to keep the spirit of the Lab alive, where we’ve migrated only a part of our practices, to be able to learn and work with each other. 

“The way I see it, collectivism and collaboration are really the only way forward, and the benefits too obvious to be ignored”.

We work in a small-scale commons environment in Goa, which is a big departure from a city studio. I do feel, however, that it’s important to keep a foot in both situations. Zameer and I are committed to running the studio and lab as sister entities that constantly inform each other.

Ayaz and Zameer Basrai, founders of The Busride Design Studio and Lab

Design thinking and futures thinking are relatively new subjects in India. But they have the potential to change everything for the better (or worse). What is your opinion on where we’re headed?

In the history of thought, one can see the use of a recurring metaphor. Our thoughts predominantly follow if-then, beginning-end framing, a bit like causal loops where we assume a linear progression for most things. When we say ‘Form follows Function’, or speak of linear and flowchart-like processes, the Tree metaphor abides. In Deleuzian terms, this is ‘Arborescent, or Tree-like’ thinking. We tend to manifest institutions using this same thought model: with a CEO, Principal or Prime Minister at the top, and a branching structure below. The prevailing idea in this kind of thought is to Make things happen.

Deleuze then introduces us to a new thought model, which to my mind is a potent tool for design or futures thinking, that of the Rhizomatic thought. In this system of modelling, we exist in an interconnected network of intelligence, where each connection is allowed to hold meaning and knowledge. There are no causal loops, simply because there are no beginnings and endings. This system exists the way the Internet or our own brain does, with dispersed intelligence and empowered nodes.

“The prevailing idea in Rhizomatic thought is letting things emerge.”

Our design and architecture education systems are modelled on the Arborescent flowchart, where we try to create a productive population that can fit into organisational hierarchies, or even worse, become Starchitects, eventually running tyrannical hero practices that bear their own names. In Rhizomatic framing, we need to educate students to become intelligent nodes, ever open to collaborations, always looking for the rupture that signifies new growth. This is the world of the interdisciplinary, the true potential of our communication-enhanced species, where every new conversation, travel or friendship profoundly shapes your work on a minute to minute basis. 

This is the great power of futures thinking, the idea of thinking in networks. It also means constructing vast fragile thought palaces in your head, putting them down in mind-maps, spotting adjacencies, and constructing meaningful projects from the interstitial spaces.

Let’s talk about your point of view on technology. According to you, how much should designers adopt technology in their work?  

Technology has always been close to design, with designers being early adopters if not creators of technological frameworks. As a studio, we engage with technology differently because we’re able to play with it. More often than not, technology that has been designed for something completely different, finds application by designers using it in different ways across disciplines.

Photogrammetry, a tool used extensively by the Quicksand Games Lab to populate their amazing maiden video-game Antariksha Sanchar, is being used in our work to visualise extensions and interventions to monuments and ruins in Old Goa. By doing this, we are able to demonstrate new approaches to Heritage Conservation to multiple stakeholders. We are trying to learn from all ways of thinking – some age-old (like the inputs from our Heritage Next series of Labs) and some very new (from a new inquiry around the Future of Craft). 

Companies that are developing the next round of technologies need to have much stronger interactions with design studios and research labs. Technology with high walls around to keep people out, is really the bane of our times. That is the paradigm we should actively be looking to change.

What are you working on presently? What’s next?

We’re currently working on a coherent theory for design practice with the Rhizome at its centre. We’d like to be working on our abs.

Read the first of Ayaz’s monthly columns for The Hard Copy on reimagining India’s Creative Future in 2035

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