Sunday, July 13, 2008

Food and AnthroDesign: Approaches and Attitudes for India

Image: The Indian “Thali”, a platter with a mixed set of offerings that are balanced and cooked to suit the occasion and the season, each region has its own varient and the exquisite food can be served on a leaf plate or all the way up the ladder in a silver one. Pictures sourced from Google image search for Indian thali.

This year the theme for the Design Concepts and Concerns course at NID Gandhinagar, Paldi and Bangalore deals with food. With rampant food inflation that has hit the economy over the past nine months and the looming threat of a runaway price of oil which has slowed down the world economy is a context in which we felt it would be prudent to see if a bit of applied imagination could help find new ways out of these pressing dilemmas. Indian food comes in a huge variety across many regional and climatic zones as well as cultural and social categories that has a long tradition behind the form and pattern of consumption by the people of these places. While there are many similarities across zones, the differences are palpable and give a sense of distinction through both form and flavours. These are influenced by a huge variety of factors both local as well as global, and the change in both tastes and habits are rapid as they are deeply protected by the same people across all age barriers. Can we understand these dynamics and apply this understanding to discovering new ways forward that can help the economy, the health of the population and solve many associated problems such as poverty, malnutrition and hunger in our society? We do believe that design and innovation can not just solve some of these problems but also address the larger threats of climate change and political inequity through a better understanding of food surplus economy and access to healthy food to all humans across the planet.

Image: Fruits and vegetables on the streets of Bangalore captured by an avid photo documenter, Rajesh Dangi, who shares his pictures on flickr rajesh-dangi’s photostream and on his blog called Bangalore Daily Photo.

Having said that, we can now look at the micro details of food production, distribution and consumption in our own locations and juxtapose these with global trends and changing aspirations of people. The tools that are used by designers are many and one of the significant new tools is called anthro-design or design-ethnography which helps us understand the finer aspects of human aspirations and behavior which determines to a large extant the choices that will be made by people to satisfy their needs. These can also help us understand the facts and fiction, myths and realities that we have to confront in the process of shaping alternatives that can be then decided through the group processes of politics and social and economic negotiation. The texture of reality is very important in design thinking and action and that is why designers need to go out and look at the reality even if a whole lot of information is available in the form of socio-economic study reports and market statistics. Imagine if someone told you that a street vendor made a living selling a few kilos of guava, mangos, or cucumber by offering a service of slicing the fruit with a knife and a sprinkling of salt and masala, a subsistence living that is. Where does the value come from which he can make a living? A service offered where it is needed and appreciated and that which is informed by the local knowledge of seasonality and local preferences for taste and nutrition and of course the economic reality that fruit is expensive in India and not affordable to most but desired by all. You will not find many market survey reports on these guys but they are all over our streets if we care to look. Rajesh Dangi,s pictures give us an honest view of this reality on the streets of Bangalore.

Image: Series of images from the Time Magazine story about What the World Eats. This is based on the research in the book titled “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats” by Peter Menzel, Faith D'Aluisio

The champions of anthro-design are growing in India and around the world and many new design companies and institutes are offering real research services to help understand the mind of the diverse user of services and products that is the foundation for any design and innovation programme. The discussion list called anthrodesign at is an active list that debates and shares insights about the skills and tools of the emerging discipline. Dori – Elizabeth Tunstall teaches the subject called Design Anthropology as an Associate Professor of Design Anthropology at University of Illinois at Chicago . Her blog Dori’s Moblog, is full of insights and very informative podcasts about the subject. Our own graduates have been offering this kind of research as a service to their corporate clients both in India and overseas. Uday Dandavate, an NID alumni, had set up the company called SonicRim along with his teacher, Liz Sanders from Ohio State University. Manoj Kotari, founder of Onio Design, Pune offers trend research to their clients as does Locus Design, Pune handled by three NID graduates, Chandrashekar Badve, Milind Risaildar & Siddharth Kabra and in the South, in Bangalore the IDIOM, which is the biggest design office in India, offers these services with a focus on retail business services. IDIOM is founded by NID graduates Sonia Manchanda, Jacob Mathew and Anand Aurora working in concert with Kishore Biyani, the retail mega star in India, the founder of the Big Baazar and Pantaloon and the Future Group in India.

Image: Nokia Mobile Development Report prepared by Centre for Knowledge Societies in Bangalore. The digital version of the report can be downloaded from this link here as a 15 mb pdf file.

In Bangalore there is another compelling presence in this business which is the Centre for Knowledge Societies which was founded by Dr Aditiya Dev Sood. CKS offers such design research insights into local markets and populations by mapping their aspirations and visually capturing the fine texture of the local along with statistical parameters that can inform innovation and design action in a variety of industries. The CKS report for NOKIA on the Mobile Telephones in India and more recently their “Emerging Economy Report: Societal Intelligence for Business Innovation” that offers insights on populations in Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Egypt and Keneya. This report is however a professional offering that can only be afforded by the multinational corporates however some information is available on the website. CKS has been in partnership with the Doors of Perception in assisting John Thackara in managing the DOORS events in India and this puts them in very good company indeed. John has been a impassioned advocate for design use at the local level and in his path breaking project DOTT07 with the Design Council, London took up Food as one of the thrust areas and his Doors of Perception too continues to promote the idea of local food and sensible consumption. Jogi Panghaal, an NID graduate and member of Doors, was the first design guru who sensitised us to the finer sensibilities of food in human society with his course offering called "Ways of Eating, way back in the early 90's.

Well, we now know that anthro-design both meaningful and also draws big money, and it is a way forward to sense and find attitudes and aspirations that lie below the surface and something that can provide us with design insights that no amount of hard facts and knowledge that science can provide. AnthroDesign is also something that designers do all the time to make sense of the world around them and to get an insight into the minds and emotions of the users that they wish to serve.


  1. Hi Ranjan,

    Nice post on food and Anthrodesign. Just a small counter comment -it is true that design ethnography does draw money and has become the mantra today among corporates looking to reach the next 4 billion in the emerging markets as well as the more discerning middle class markets. Also more and more Indian designers are claiming to do design ethnography and one or two design schools are even starting graduate level programs in this arena in India and elsewhere.

    I however, don't agree with your last statement that most designers are practicising or teaching what some call "anthrodesign" or other term as "design ethnography, " (design anthropologu is not quite the same). Few fully understand what these terms really mean.

    Also, with regard to your statement that "anthrodesign" "always" been something that designers did "all the time to make sense of the world to get an insight of the users they wish to serve," - My experience both in India and overseas, counters this -I find that many designers still continue to be big D designers and don't even bother to understand the needs, values and aspirations or the behavior of the users. Also "anthrodesign" is still an expensive commodity for many firms in India and it will take a while before all firms, designers are ready to embrace and practice it.


    Uma V Chandru

  2. Dear Uma

    Thank you for your comments which are very precise and insightful. I must qualify my statement that most designers use the discipline of anthrodesign, I quote from my blog post above – "AnthroDesign is also something that designers do all the time" – unquote. Here I must clarify that most designers by virtue of their training are USER focussed even if their clients may be business, profit, product, market or feature focussed. Nowadays however, clients are paying for this kind of USER focus that designers bring to them as a service which was not the case in the early days of design action in India or even in the West.

    The focus on the USER has been the hallmark of the designers concern after the initial engagement with aesthetics and function that was debated quite a bit in the pre-war and post-war days of the evolution of industrial design to become the thing and activity as we know it today.

    Here I would like to recount my own experience with the subject, although a trained anthropologist or ethnographer would not call it by the same name, we (I) had immersed ourselves in the reading of anthropology texts in our preparation for the year long field work that we had to do in the late 70's and early 80's for the Bamboo & Cane Crafts of Northeast India study. I did grapple with the texts from Malinowski and Claude Levi Strauss and later Margret Mead and Gregory Bateson to try and understand the methods and tools of field work and particularly in the interpretation of the field information and it was no easy task since the territory was new and the learning curve huge. However as we moved into the field and learned from the field, so to speak, I believe we got better at this kind of work and built systems and tools that worked for us. This effort in particular also drew on the growing body of field experiences that other NID designers (faculty and students) particularly from the area of Textile design were bringing to the table through the sustained work in Crafts Documentation.

    We were told in those days that what we were doing was "mere documentation" and not a science, as if science in the labs and in books was a higher offering, than that of a direct study in the field with the piecing together of material, culture and human behavior kind of information that we then tried to make sense of for the purpose of future design action. This I believe is the key. Design investigations had a particular agenda (very political if you like) and that was in our case development oriented and these intentions did shape the content and direction of our study as well as the sources of our funding, rarely from industry. Perhaps this will need a more detailed account of our methods as well as our insights from this experience in the days ahead.

    My own respect for the fields of anthropology and psychology grew immensely in those days but I also felt that it needed the designer to get directly involved in this activity since whenever the task of crafts based field study was done by a non-designer we got very good accounts of the crafts but the insights for action going forward was not very rich. The focus was on the now or on the past and not on the future possibilities which is the essence of design action in my opinion. I am sure you may have another point of view, but I would like to hear that as well.

    Thank you for raising this issue and I am sure design action and design research will be better informed by this debate.

    M P Ranjan
    3 August 2008 at 7.50 pm
    from my iMac at home on the NID campus


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.