Ken Botnick, professor of communication design in the Sam Fox School, was a 2005–2006 Fulbright Fellow at the National Institute of Design in Ahmadabad, India, and has continued his relationship with Indian craft and design through yearly excursions, most currently directing Washington University's Village India Program. Botnick and Ira Raja co-wrote an essay about design thinking in India that appeared in Design Observer on May 24, 2010. An excerpt from the essay is republished below; to read the essay in its entirety, click here.
Everywhere you look in India you will find evidence of the maker's hand. Signs painted on walls, trucks ornamented and painted with messages, cooking utensils, hand-woven and printed clothing, ritual religious objects, any number of containers made from recycled metals — even the famous jugaad vehicles cobbled together from spare parts for new lives as trucks and tractors — are just a few of the handmade objects. These articles are made with such remarkable ingenuity and embellished with such attention to detail that India could easily be considered more "high touch" than high tech. But is there anything to be learned from this intimate, hands-on, experiential culture that might be relevant to one that is becoming increasingly virtual?
An axiom popular in design circles today, "making is thinking," implies that experiential knowledge is the most direct stimulus to innovation. The process of acquiring experiential knowledge, however, also involves an intimate relationship between the maker and his material. The maker must be familiar not only with where, when and how to source his material, but also with the best ways of giving it form. Craft culture, patronizingly referred to as "small-scale industry" by those who deal in steel and cement, is thus particularly well suited to innovation. This innovation, we argue, is the result of design thinking born from the maker's acts of processing and shaping raw materials in his hands. We call this mode of design thinking based in the experience of craft "subtle technology." We further propose that the Indian craftsman, faced with the demands of a population that is continually testing the limits of its resources, is uniquely placed to present us with a model for sustainability and innovation for contemporary design practice.
Bicycle saddle covers are an ingenious solution to the problem of making
one's bike identifiable in a sea of identical models while at the same time
extending the life of the seat. Photo by Ken Botnick.
To the extent that a craftsman is connected to his art through personal experience, that relationship is impossible to replicate. When Indian management professionals, playing up to the current obsession with innovation, ask why they cannot seem to harness the authentically innovative spirit of the Indian streets, they fail to recognize that this kind of knowledge is by its nature unquantifiable. To draw on the ideas of the economist Friedrich Hayek, experiential knowledge is impossible to translate into statistics and cannot therefore be conveyed to any central authority in statistical form. Hayek argues that statistics are generated "precisely by abstracting from minor differences between the things, by lumping together, as resources of one kind, items which differ as regards location, quality, and other particulars.…" The process of generating statistics would thus seem to call for an elimination of the very life blood of innovation that lies in the knowledge of detail, such as only the "man on the spot" may possess. When business decides to disregard "mere detail" in the name of efficiency, it also chokes off the possibility for innovation that derives from the irreducible experientiality of artisanship.
Design might be thought of as a two-stage process, the functional and the elaborated. First, the functional requirement is fulfilled — a chair, a cup, a lamp, a sari. The process could end with the simple, usable object, but this lowest-common-denominator problem-solving is often not enough for both makers and users, who long for something more profound — an aesthetic "adjustment," a deliberate attempt to make the functional object beautiful. This is usually done through the addition of color or the elaboration of form, both essential components of the practice of embellishment. In her book Art and Intimacy, ethologist Ellen Dissanayake calls it the process of "making special." But as Dissanayake is careful to point out, making something special is not only making it beautiful. Positioning herself against conventional histories of humanity where the artistic impulse is considered to be a relatively late development, Dissanayake argues that, on the contrary, it was a primal impulse, located in the intimate reciprocity of the mother-child interaction. The "special" for Dissanayake thus arises equally from a transcultural desire for beauty and a basic human need for intimacy, both of which are fulfilled in the creative act of elaboration.
Elaboration connects the maker (and user) to a unique cultural context by employing shared aesthetics in color, pattern and materials, even as it enables makers to mark the object with their individual stamp, their personality — to announce to the world their role as creator. Handloomed saris from across India, for example, use modes of embellishment — colors, textures, motifs, types of weave, print, or embroidery — that allow the discerning viewer to establish the object's origins at once within a particular region of India. At the same time, each handloomed sari is one of a kind, allowing the weaver to claim it as a special creation. To the extent that the wearer is conscious of its unique quality, the buying of a sari might be thought of as the currency of intimacy between the maker and user, the mark of the maker's hand representing almost a personal gesture for the owner.
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