Most of design practice today is still a thoughtfully created band-aid, rather than an attempt to address the cause of the wound.
Addressing the root cause requires the designer to step down from the role of an external agent of change, the messiah of logic and minimalism, to a facilitator who listens, asks the right questions and mindfully orchestrates systemic change to emerge out of its own context.
The work below scrapes the surface of what is possible, if design in India is approached thus.
The following work is a result of the Living Blue Design Anthropology Workshop 2015, sponsored by Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and led by Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall, Dr. Shilpa Das, and V. Sakthivel. Through the period of the workshop, we were hosted by and at Kalaraksha.
The one month intensive workshop sought to co-create Indian-based and decolonizing approaches to the field through methodological and theoretical training. This project is a co-creative effort of Kautuk Trivedi, Neha Singh and Sikander Khatri (artisan partner) under the guidance of Dori Tunstall. The expected outcome was a designed ‘proof of concept’ with the artisan partner and a performance/presentation of the same.
We followed the ‘QAME of Design Anthropology’ developed by Dori Tunstall based on the approach to theory by anthropologist Alan Barnard (2001). QAME stands for Question, Assumptions, Methods, and Evidence.
As a team, we were keen on exploring possible intersections between a designer’s process of creation (versatile and exploratory), and that of a traditional artisan (sacred and predetermined). After multiple refinements, this thought process lead us to our final research question:
How can we adapt a design tool to enable an artisan to apply their personal aesthetic preferences to their craft?
In order to analyze our question we identified instances of internal states, external states, environments, artifacts and behaviors within it.
Here’s how our question breaks down:
Breaking down our research question in the above manner helped us identify the underlying assumptions in it. These are indications of potential voids in knowledge that need to be addressed to answer your research question thoroughly. Following were our key assumptions:
- There is scope to express the artisan’s personal aesthetic preference in their traditional craft
- The artisans do have a personal aesthetic preference
- Artisans currently lack the tools to express their personal aesthetic preference in their craft
- Expressing their personal aesthetic preference in their work would bring the artisan closer to their craft
- Expressing their personal aesthetic preference in their work would add more value to it
- A design method can be adapted to make it usable for the artisan in their context
- The new tool would not disrupt the artisans relationship with their craft
A fairly exhaustive set of assumptions helped us identify and detail out the methods we needed to employ to validate/invalidate them in a structured and thorough manner.
The identified methods were a combination of primary and secondary research techniques followed by appropriate methods of analysis based on the nature of information collected.
There has been enough documentation of the Kutchhi handicraft and artisan microcosm all the way from the early 1980s. Through well documented literary & photographic accounts we began to understand the various segregations of art forms that co-existed in the same geography. What characteristics differentiate one from another and how each evolved to be a discipline in its own right.
From the perspective of our research question, we began to understand the structures and constraints that existed for an artisan to ‘create’ within. Traditional grid systems existed for embroidery based craft-forms and layout systems for block print based ones. Traditional motifs had historical geo-social context embedded in them and color combinations were standardized based on the traditional aesthetic or the chemical composition of the dyes. One could, as many seemed to have, continue to create beautifully crafted artefacts without having to worry about originality or make it an intellectual exercise.
One could, as many seemed to have, continue to create beautifully crafted artefacts without having to worry about originality or make it an intellectual exercise.
In order to see their work up close we also visited museums (Calico Museum and Shreyas Folk Museum) that displayed an extensive collection of these traditional crafts. It is in these visits that we were able to take full cognizance of the extent of variations that were possible within the traditional constraints of these crafts. In hundreds of pieces of artefacts of a certain craft-form, no two pieces were alike. There seemed to exist enough room for the artisans to create unique pieces and still not run out of newer combinations.
There were rare instances of artisans breaking their traditional grids and using new motifs. In-fact, the few that did ‘break the rules’ did so either to tell a story or to make items for children. Within the confines of a narrative or the freedom of childish imagination, few artisans seemed to have found an opportunity to express their individuality.
We found a living example of the same when we met Rani Ben, who is known for narrating her life experiences through traditional appliqué work, at her residence in Kutchh. Though her process of production was traditional to the appliqué and patch work typical of elderly Kutchhi women, the compositions and content were deeply personal to Rani Ben. As we listened to her speak about her work, it became clear to us that at the age of 85, she was still passionate about what she had created and it held great cathartic value for her. Read her story here and the animated film based on the same (highly recommended).
Meeting our Artisan partner
Sikander Khatri’s family is based in Ajrakhpur (a small artisan village between Dhamadka and Bhuj) had been in the business of creating traditional Ajrakh textiles for a couple of generations. He had taken on the responsibility of continuing his family’s legacy. There were many such families in Khavda, Dhamadka (in Kutchh, Gujrat) and Barmer (in Rajasthan), where almost all of traditional Ajrakh work happens in India.
In our first conversation Sikander bhai seemed to be taking us through his usual monologue since he was used to design folk coming to him to learn about the craft and to teach him about the market and demand that existed ‘out there’. Sikander bhai’s first duty was to make sure he made enough money to sustain his family. He was aware that when it came to serving local markets, his business had already peaked and in order to continue to grow he would to have find newer markets. Overall, he didn’t seem too optimistic about his chances of doing so and wasn’t visibly excited to speak with us. He was waiting and watching.
He was aware that when it came to serving local markets, his business had already peaked and in order to continue to grow he would have to find newer markets.
In the backdrop our fairly un-enthusiastic first conversation with Sikander bhai, we were unsure whether he was in a frame of mind to collaborate with us. What we needed was a tool to help us connect our research question with his reality. The Visually Annotated Bibliography (fondly known as VA-Bib) became that tool for us.
The Visual Annotated Bibliography, invented by Dr. Dori Tunstall in 2006, combines the scholarly activity of reading/viewing lots of text with the form making activities of design, in a way that makes it easy (for designers and everyone) to consume and discuss typically heavy research material.
Based on our research question and the underlying assumptions, we mapped our VA-Bib across two axis. The X-axis represented a scale of ‘orthodoxy’ and the Y-axis represented a scale of the ‘source of influence’. The image below gives a detailed explanation of the same.
The VA Bib externalized the space we wanted to explore (bottom left-of-center) with Sikander bhai, without having to put words into his mouth. The conversation now shifted from us trying to ‘explain’ something to Sikander bhai, to a lively discussion about his perspective on traditional crafts, what it takes to be relevant in the market today and risk-taking. Through the discussion he would point to parts in our bi-axial spectrum to cite examples that would illustrate his point. Connection! Magic!
Sikander Bhai wanted to build his identity, so he could establish himself in newer markets. For this he needed tool(s) that would help him synthesize his identity with his work. This became our shared goal.
One of the key constraints with Ajrakh as an art-form is that the process of creating each artefact is time-sensitive due to various technical reasons. Before you start the process, you better have clarity on the exact outcome you’re expecting. Due to this, exploring and building prototypes with the existing tools of the artisan is difficult. We decided to probe this further.
Sikander Bhai wanted to build his identity, so he could establish himself in newer markets…he needed tool(s) that would help him synthesize his identity with his work. This became our shared goal.
As designers we’re all too familiar with the double diamond ie. divergence of ideas followed by convergence and so on, in order to synthesize well-thought new solutions. What would that diamond be like for an Ajrakh artisan? How could we do this playfully to ease the absorption of a new concept?
Ajrakh as an artform has about has about six variables to play around with:
- Block patterns and combinations there-in
- Colours and combinations there-in
- Textile materials to be printed upon
- Dyeing techniques to be used (which we later learned was dictated by the color being used, so we dropped it)
- The composition of blocks and colours
- The product you make out of the fabric
To prepare ourselves for the game, we first sat together to populate each variable with all the options available within them i.e. kinds of blocks, different colors, possible products etc. on post-its.
To familiarize Sikander bhai with act of making choices based on individual preference, using cue cards (post-its), we did a brief warm-up exercise where each of us chose one option out of a pair of simple comparable experiences of life. For eg. the mountains or the oceans, shoes or slippers etc. After the warm up, we laid out the following rules of the game for Sikander bhai -
- Create 10 combinations of products with the post-its using various options of variables
- Take only 30 seconds to create each combination
- Each combination should include at least 4 of the 6 variables
- Suspend any practical analysis of these new combinations for the time-being
With the stop-clock on command Sikander created the first three combinations with a fair bit of struggle. He would spend most of his time figuring out which post-it to start with, and hurry through picking the rest of the variable to combine with his first pick. So a new rule was suggested:
5. The 30-second timer starts after a starting point has been chosen
With these rules Sikander bhai was able to create five more combinations with the right amount of thought and ease. Having done this, he was visibly excited and eager to analyze the combos he had created. The next step involved him categorizing his ideas on scale of high, medium and low risk. Having done this, Sikander bhai picked one idea from each risk level that he would finally want to produce.
Sikander bhai felt that for him, the most valuable part of the game was to find an anchor (the first post-it) and explore around it. In reflecting back on his actions he realized that some of the ideas he came up with were always loitering half-formed in his mind, but he was unable to articulate them. Other ideas were created for the first time through this process. He spoke about having never taken decisions this way.
For us these were affirming signs. Not only was Sikander bhai able to use the double diamond process in its basic form, but also was also able to suggest modifications that suited him as he went along. While still internalizing what he had just worked through, he seemed to be in a calculative frame of mind as to how he would proceed if he were to execute on his ideas; due to which he felt a certain level of ease with the outcomes.
For our next meeting we decided to have a low fidelity prototype of a tool that Sikander bhai could continue to use in the absence of a facilitator. We demarcated areas for each step of the process to be performed i.e. a space to pick each option from, a space to formulate combinations, and then a final space to put up the most favorable options — so that the tool itself could inform how it was meant to be used.
Sikander bhai ran through the exercise with enthusiasm and ease. He was able to come up with five to six new sets of ideas and finalize two that he would like to try producing. This was followed by a lengthy feedback session (which was audio recorded), where we probed Sikander bhai on the ‘why’ behind his decisions, how he chose to use the tool and how else he would prefer to use it.
We analyzed the conversation audio using Schema Analysis method and were able to deduce the following insights (sorry we lost pictures of this step) -
- Preference towards spending more time on creating each of the initial combinations, rather on finalizing few out of the many
- Preference towards the ability to use this tool to have discussions with team or artisans, family or potential buyers
- Feeling the need to have a better way to test if the chosen set of colors would work together
- Keen on having enough empty cards so he can keep adding new variable options to the mix
- Due to lack of a fixed space to have this tool set up, preference towards having a tool that would be easy to move with
We were very excited to derive constructive feedback from Sikander bhai. The possible solutions to the feedback were discussed collaboratively as a result of this analysis. For our following meeting, we were ready with the next version of our prototype.
Sikander bhai now ran through the ideation process using his tool, without any intervention needed from our end. He owned the tool. Except for a few minor suggestions from him, we were cleared to build the final product.
Based on all the evidence gathered, we produced a tool that was easy to set-up and begin ideating with, adaptable to different kinds of spaces. The tool was also built with materials that were readily available in Sikander bhai’s ecosystem.
For the reader’s reference, below is a mapping of the methods used to address our assumptions:
This experience gave us a hands-on evidence of the fact that through careful and conscious application of design process and the spirit of co-creation, positive transculturation can happen in any context. It is very reassuring to know that. In the context of Indian design, following a participatory approach can ensure a collective re-discovery of what it means to create and solve problems in ways that are intrinsic to India and its many sub-cultures.
Update from Sikander bhai after 4 years
At the time of the workshop Sikander bhai used to produce work out of his rented accommodation in Ajrakhpur along with his younger brother. He has since (as of June 2019) bought land, set up a workshop and a retail outlet. He has a team of 9 people producing traditional Ajrakh work that is sold across major cities in India.
More than anything, he mentions that the work we did together helped him value his work more and realize its potential. I tell him the same holds true for me.
He now uses the tool primarily to decide combinations of colors and block-patterns to be used; not to zoom-out and explore on a less busy day, as originally intended, but more immediately in parallel as the cloth is being prepared for printing. He says people see a lot of value in well thought color combinations. He doesn’t use the combo-boards we created, but likes to pick up the pieces and play around with them directly. More than anything, he mentions that the work we did together helped him value his work more and realize its potential. I tell him the same holds true for me.