Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Poverty and Design Explored: Context India

Image: Dr Sam Wong speaking to students at NID in the DCC class about design for sustainable development

Poverty and Design Explored: Context India
Last week we had a couple of visitors to NID, both looking at the macro issues of design and development as well as how we at NID looked at these same issues from our perspective of many years of experience of using design for situations that addressed rural poverty and design policy at the national level. Dr. Sam Wong from the School of Earth and Environment who asked us a question about our methodology for village intervention with design for sustainable living. Dr. Wong is on his way to Rajasthan to conduct a first hand study of development opportunities in rural areas and to look at the various roles for design in that process. This gave me an opportunity to reflect on the various projects done at NID over the years from the Jawaja project, through the Chennapatna toy project to numerous textile design projects such as the Dhamadka Block Print project and more recently to our “Katlamara Chalo” project that integrates bamboo cultivation with product manufacturing as a means to alleviate rural poverty using local skills, resources and local enthusiasm as the primary resource. In my reflections we were able to discuss and build a more generalized sketch model (shown above) that explained the process leading to the selection of the village through research and the building of an understanding of the context from which a number of design opportunities are identified and modeled before they are taken through a participatory development process that used the local strengths and resources in a sustainable manner, all with a design strategy layered with design thinking and action that is aimed at creating the product innovations and business models that could bring self reliance and sustained development to that particular situation. This process has been repeated many times by our students and faculty teams at hundreds of village centres across that country in numerous crafts pockets with a great deal of success. Unfortunately not many of these projects have been published although they are all live examples of success of such design interventions in the field in a very complex social and economic milieu that makes up the India village situation.

Image: Gisele Raulik and Darragh Murphy speaking to NID students in the DCC class about National Design Policies and their research in India and elsewhere.
The second visitor was Gisele Raulik Murphy, a design researcher from the SEEdesign Programme of Design Wales at Cardiff who is visiting India to examine the contours of the Indian National Design Policy and compare it to those of Finland, Brazil and South Korea. Gisele and her designer husband, Darragh Murphy, had an occasion to talk to my students in the DCC Foundation class about design policy, design promotion and design support programmes in many countries that they are researching just now. Gisele had invited me to the conference that she had helped organize on Design Support that was conducted by Design Wales in 2004. My paper on the status of design business in India can be downloaded from this link here. (conference paper 39kb pdf and visual presentation 573kb pdf) Her current visit to NID and India gave me the opportunity to share our thoughts and ideas about design policy and on my personal views about its larger role in India. I am eager to see her interactions with Indian designers and design administrators compiled and discussed in her forthcoming report and to review her insights through her extended study of a comparative analysis of numerous design policies across the world.

The way economists use the term planning today it seems that they do not take into account the various processes that we consider to be at the core of design as explained above, particularly, that of the core design ability of visualization through which design intentions are made visible to all stakeholders before the matter is taken up for sustained implementation with zeal and local participation. The economists prefer to use statistical and mathematically modeled projections and verbal constructs which do not touch upon the core areas of realisable innovations and this is an area that I think that design can help in bringing about a better understanding of even statistics itself. The work of people like Richard Saul Wurman and others in the field of information architecture and data visualisation have touched upon this use of a specific design ability to make visible, structures and forms of processes, situations and happenings, all explored in many complex manifestations. There are many other areas that design can be used in the planning and decision process of governments and industry where it is not used today and this is very evident to me each time i look at the work of our Indian Planning Commission and its publications. These bodies are filled with economists but at many times they seem to have very little faith in imagination and the creation of new and innovative offerings that the situation really affords, at least in my mind this is true. I do believe that these are not adequately addressed due to lack of understanding of what design can do in such situations by being a part of the process from the inside and designers too have not taken on the task of making all these possibilities visible by their own work due to lack of involvement, engagement and of funding at one end and stark apathy at the other. Many designers have taken the easy path of doing what they are told to do by their corporate masters who use their skills to slick up annual reports or company brochures.

I do feel that we need to raise this debate and explore the various roles of design and its potential application that is today ignored by design education and practice alike, including my own school, and we may need to raise that debate at a global level so that a new sense of commitment is brought into the use of design in areas far outside industry and business, and that is one of my objectives in setting up this 'Design for India" blog in order to create a platform from which I can share my thoughts on the possibilities that I see. I also find the peer review system of the research publications as not so perfect although it does work wonders for science analysis and knowledge creation but it may be extremely defective for design demonstration since the idea of “design opportunity”, a very specific term, as a combination of perception and imagination, excludes the viewer or reader from "seeing" the imagination part of the designers statement and therefore it compels the designer to take the idea far down the visualisation path before it can even dawn on others that the idea is truly credible. This means that we may need to create a platform or even many platforms for design incubation and development that can be accessible to many across numerous areas of application and need and these kinds of platforms just do not exist in India today, or if it does, it is dominated by administrative controls that stifle innovation and exploration which is critically needed to make the demonstration. Even at NID, our policies for faculty research and action are very restrictive and the sanction mechanism through administration is very stifling indeed. Some of us have had to battle hard to achieve a small degree of autonomy of action and this is not a good climate for addressing these complex problems which surround us here in India in an effective manner.

Jeffrey Sachs, author of “The End of Poverty: How we can make it happen in our lifetime” and Director of The Earth Institute, is an economist and a respected guide of many International programmes but I fail to see any signs of his deep understanding of design and innovation as we understand it today and here we, as designers and design teachers, have the task of educating our economists and the United Nations and World Bank statesmen, about the possibilities of design use just as the science community has managed to do over the past few hundred years of demonstration and application, their message to the world. This is where I feel the design policy of nations need to be directed to look at areas of real value and I am trying to get the attention of the Government of India to this possibility and to its potential in India and thanks to the internet we can make these statements directly today through our blogs (if managed properly) and I am aware that these have an impact, almost as much as any message in a peer reviewed journal such as the Design Issues or some other such respected platform with a claim of being scientific, but the challenge and problem is located in how we can get the people who need to listen to this to come to the table when the dominating theme in India and the world over is still science and technology and also management top a large extent, while design is not at all a part of that agenda at the level of discourse at the policy level in our nation. Most people, including Sachs, seem to believe that giving “development aid” is the way forward to poverty eradication and the whole aspect of building self reliance is often underplayed or even forgotten altogether. Many NGO’s turn out to be self serving agencies where the dependencies that are built between the donor and the recipient gives the donor a life long kick that they are doing some good in the world as good samaritans while they are in actually serving themselves and their ego needs. It is here that Ravi Matthai’s advise that the interveners must be completely dispensible in the process of building self reliant communities becomes relevant as he had advocated when we entered the Jawaja Project in the early 70’s.


  1. I am really interested in your ideas around design innovation and rural development as a communication designer who worked in Rwanda this past summer. I am interested in considering how information design becomes relevant? Any thoughts? Or directions?

  2. Dear Olive

    Information and education are critical resources in managing poverty in rural areas and there are numerous opportunities to use information and communication strategies and design to help local people cope with their issues and problems. Learning and expanding their cognitive abilities as well as awareness and ability building that maybe called soft skills are critically dependent on their ability to use information and have access to it as and when needed.

    One of our design graduates, Lakshmi Murthy, has been working in this space for many many years and she has a website that is worth looking at and her office called Vikalp-Design has been developing images that can be understod by rural people in the Udaipur, Rajasthan region to transmit knowledge about personal health, hygiene and matters of general education for women who have not had the privilege of going to formal education any time in their lives. Her website can be accessed here

    M P Ranjan
    from my office at NID
    7 November 2008 at 12.20 pm IST


I reserve the right to edit comments. Please keep it simple and to the subject.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.