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Friday, July 25, 2008

New Artisanship for New Communities - Jogi Panghaal

Frugal Design as the way of the artisan in the new world
Jogi Panghaal [] is an independant Designer, Teacher & Researcher in India

In their practice artisans have managed to not only address the needs of their buyers but also create models of product quality that are distinct and unique from the machine made cheaper products which have stolen their traditional buyers. New projects show that artisans can regain their buyers by clearly understanding the nature and role of craft practice in contemporary world. It is by combining tacit knowledge of the artisan with the explicit knowledge of the designer and buyer that a fresh strategy can be evolved which will ensure that artisan can sustain his practice and maintain his control over the quality of his product and continue to service his buyers.
1. Context
India has by a conservative estimate about 11 million to 14 million artisans for whom practicing artisanship is essentially a livelihood issue. This community of artisanship is spread more or less evenly across the country with few exceptions. Within the community of this artisanship, though there are wide differences of histories, cultures, social status, skills and levels of prosperity of artisans depending upon their locations (geography, remote or close access to raw material, market) and presence of enabling infra-structure (government policies or NGO liaison offices, Banks).
As much as there are differences and diversities in artisan communities there are also some common threads that connect them. This vast community of artisans has served various needs of communities of India over the years particularly in the rural areas. Even though India is urbanizing rapidly, over 60% of its population still resides in about 600,000 villages. In the course of serving community’s needs, artisans have articulated and informed the forms of all the products and services that one uses in a day today life in India particularly in rural regions.
These processes of making and informing a product or service have been born largely in the challenging environments of scarcity of resources and inability to afford and source these from the market. This has resulted in the artisans working closely with nature and its materials, processes and its laws. The form of products and services that have emerged from this engagement with their natural resource fields and sites exhibit a certain quality, of frugality, a ‘certain goodness, a certain beauty and a certain search for truthfulness’.
This frugality of form and economy of movements of its making, when situated or embedded in the day today life of a community of users, produces very elegant and appropriate solutions which are often sustainable and also have a great presence of quality in them. These, in fact, do represent an image of a desirable life style that is, both sustainable and achievable.
Artisans engagement with different natural contexts has given rise to development of a huge range of diverse product forms and other cultural artifacts besides development of range of skills and tacit knowledge among artisans. This reservoir of diverse product forms and accompanying skills that addresses our daily needs is not only a local or a global cultural resource but also an essential keeper of quality among the communities that it serves.
This frugal design has a light presence on earth but also a constant reminder to a community of their true calling. It culturally re-enforces a common idea of quality in all its members. It is from their appreciation of this quality that they derive a common idea of identity. What is significant here is that even the poorest person in a community has an idea of quality that is culturally embedded in him and puts him in the same league as a less poor person. It is important to state here that we were not looking to work with poor person for any altruistic reasons as such but investigating the nature of quality as it resides with communities who are at the so called bottom of the pyramid.
In this sense, quality is, perhaps the embodiment of what Prof Ikujiro Nonaka has called in another context, ‘values of truth, goodness and beauty’.
Artisans are part time farmers or the other way around. For most artisans either agriculture or craft is a supplementary income and they cannot do without it. Craft sector is the biggest employer after agriculture in India. With its capacity to create employment with low capital investment and high value addition, it also is a sector that every government wants to promote. India exports crafts worth $3.5 billion a year (2005 figures) with a growth rate of 10% every year since 2000. It is thus a significant sector for Indian economy. But its larger impact is in the local, informal economy of India.
Artisan products are sold in the local haats or local bazaars. With increasing penetration of cheap machine made products into the rural regions, their traditional markets are diminishing by the day. They need to find new markets. In a democratic set up as in India, they have managed to create a stake for themselves as voters and have managed to get governments to initiate several steps to address their situation. Many policy decisions have been affected that address their concerns. Public sector organizations in the sector like the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts (DCH) facilitate design intervention projects among other things.
Artisan communities are largely illiterate but are very knowledgeable. They own a huge repository of tacit knowledge, which is subjective and experiential in nature, and as Prof Nonaka says it cannot be expressed in words, sentences, numbers and formulas. It is this knowledge that has been used to inform the craft forms over the years. Tacit knowledge happens, learns, adapts, adopts and changes with situation but it is very much the product and fixture of that particular place where it originates. It cannot be transported. With tacit knowledge artisan is able to make for the local intimate area and scale but for a distant and a new market he needs to learn to make it differently For that to happen he needs a partnership with explicit knowledge workers who can help him to use his skills, capabilities and sensibilities and reposition these to design a product or services that find new users and new markets.
2. Project
Bastar is a tribal district in the forested areas of Chattisgarh state in Central India. It is believed that Iron forging techniques and bronze metal castings techniques through lost wax process have been practiced there for nearly 2000 years. It’s an area rich with iron ore mines. There are about 1000 Forge Ironsmiths and about 800 Bronze Casters in Bastar.
Objective of my project which I called Designshala (a home to learn to design) was mainly to develop a series of new products for domestic and personal use in Wrought Iron and Bronze Castings that would address the needs of new buyers and also ‘train’ artisans in ways to learn about new users for their products. A total of 70 artisans worked in phases over a year to make nearly 100 objects each in wrought iron and bronze castings. There were both men and women among artisans, men significantly more than women. Two designers worked together with this group of artisans right through the year.
3. Process
We started by inter-acting closely with artisans and their families and experiencing the ‘quality’ of their lives and their self made object forms with them. It meant looking critically and appreciatively into their habitats, their food and drinks practices, dance forms, healing traditions, listening to their stories, songs and epics, watching their performances in theatre and dances, studying their dresses and traditions. It meant participating in their rituals and ceremonies and listening to their mythologies. Above all watching them make craft objects with their tacit knowledge.
Their core values of goodness, beauty and truthfulness seem to be created with this tacit knowledge and in which every body collaborates fully.
We looked at the material of the crafts that we were focusing on and observed closely how artisans played with it to discover attributes and values of sensuality of the material. (In the nature of ‘you make material but material makes you too’) the speed of slowness or haste. Physical movements of the body to make these products was also observed with efforts always to minimize waste of human energy in sloppy movements.
One of the key observations at this early stage of project is to determine the speed at which products are being made. The beat of making of a product can lead to very meaningful decision making. More beat a product has, more time it has taken to make it and slower would be its embedded speed.
Designshala was an open event in a public space that constantly attracted visitors among whom were students, tourists, a large number of them Indians and some foreigners. There was a constant dialogue between them and artisans mediated by designers.
Designs developed in a manner of shared ideas with their tentative playfulness with materials yielding interesting forms, which were than persuaded to lead to a particular agreed direction.
At every stage, ownership of the evolving form rested with them. They did not do any thing that they did not understand. This meant that they were always working as creative partners in this and not as cheap labor.
What seemed to happen was that tacit knowledge did create the initial start of form making in the material after which designers drew on papers and modeled in wax or clay to create a situation where artisans were able to come out of their own thinking and practicing domain and look critically and reflectively at what designers had done.
This led to opening up the whole issue of the craft and visualizing the entire process of making of craft in simple images. This helped to generate conversations on sustainable practices in terms of use of resources and in terms of finding alternatives to some of these unsustainable practices.
Tacit knowledge helps artisans to make products that largely adhere to sustainable production of them but there are problems when disproportionate success of a particular product leads to rise in its demand. At this stage one needs to collaborate with other explicit knowledge workers like designers and determine how much is the correct, appropriate and sustainable scale of production. Like what has been said before, too little demand is a disaster but too much demand is a disaster too. Here strategic design choices are critical.
Economy of means of doing things has been a major element that has been the bedrock of sustainable practice. With new product development it created new challenges for both designers and artisans. But with practice and experience we were able to create and observe new body movements, as economical as before to make our new products.
Their tacit knowledge helped them to relate to designers new challenge and this new series of products also helped them to move to another and a new level of tacit knowledge.
Tacit knowledge seemed to become explicit knowledge even for artisans through the processes of drawing and modeling that designers were using to visualize the product in greater detail. This helped artisan to look at their own creation and practice in a critical and reflective manner, which led to creation of better levels of skills, practices, forms and new product proposals and designs. More importantly it led to creation of new knowledge both in the tacit knowledge domain and in the explicit knowledge domain for both artisans and designers.
This was an interesting process, which seemed to suggest important roles for persons with explicit knowledge skills. By using certain simple communication devices like words, story telling, drawings, sketches, it is possible to co-create products with artisans like co-authorship of a story. Where these artisans can continue to be creative masters of their professional domain and yet be in an evolutionary mode in the manner in which they grow in their own domains.
The ‘site’ or ‘field’ of the body of a crafted product than is where the evidence of transformation of tacit knowledge to explicit and to a new collective tacit knowledge seems to be seen to be happening.
It was the open source nature of the workshops that led to potential buyers being drawn into lengthy conversations with artisans. Their conversations again led to situations where there was an equal give and take between artisan and potential buyer where both moved from their stated positions of maker and buyer to that of joint creators. New knowledge about the role that artisan can play in their lives and for artisan to know that there are new kind of buyers for his works. This was often difficult to navigate for both but necessary for artisan to understand that new buyer demands a different kind of engagement which is that of co-creation.
It is evident that an active play and creative engagement between tacit knowledge workers and explicit knowledge workers would help both. It is important that this relationship survives in a knowledge economy and a knowledge society. Tacit knowledge comes from the bottom of the pyramid communities and it is important that it continues to be valued and used to make innovations that would gain them new market share on one hand and also continue to give them a central role as active participant in their own development stories by continuing to create more tacit knowledge.
It would also help the buyers to exercise the real choice to connect to the real stories of frugal nature of doing things.
Products of artisanship are not just numbers and volumes. These are individual items, each different from the other. Today’s buyer has to be open to make major shifts in looking at craft items as they are, distinct from machine made items. Two universes are totally different from each other but they help us to appreciate the other. They help us to locate their boundaries, their property, their attributes. There is a need for a wider social conversation on this so that artisans are not stressed to make things in a manner that can only be machine made and vice versa.
Designers need to be sensitive to their own biases of aesthetic models as their education naturally inclines them towards western sources and perhaps machine made aesthetics more than it does towards hand making aesthetics. The designer’s education looks at quality from the industrial shop floor and it tends to ignore the complexity, richness and plurality of the aesthetics of the hand made solutions. Designers tend to flatten and homogenize the diversity of form of artisan’s products, texture, color and sensuality that his tacit knowledge has given him to embed in the product.
It is important for designers to be open and work creatively along with artisans to discover the local and tacit elements of design in the craft of a region. This perspective will help to keep the diversities of the forms and visual languages alive. It is also important for designer to be sensitive to the frugal notions of design whereby certain economy of means, materials and methods gives rise to a very distinctive look and feel of the products and services. This is perhaps the core of sustainable design perspective in our communities.
4. Tools
1. Story telling in the local languages was most extensively used to create an atmosphere for all to imagine new characters. Often development of new characters in a spontaneous manner led to new story making.
2. Photos, drawings and models were used as a process to trigger idea movement and also shown as the material of the designer as much as craft materials are materials of artisans.
3. Actual samples from market or buyers or from other producer groups was also used to trigger critical reflection, new ideation and development of new stories
4. Songs, mythological dramas were often used to create a sequence of events where it was needed to know the order of things.
5. Visit to potential users home was most interesting as they could see their/others products being used in actual context for which they had made it. It also leaves them wondering for new product ideas and a new tacit knowledge.
6. Visit to monuments, ancient sites with remains and museum to check on the local vocabulary of form and materials was useful whenever mediated by designers. It was clear that designers were constantly interpreting explicit knowledge to artisans in a tacit manner to communicate subjects better.
7. Exposure to new materials and new tools and techniques was arranged with mixed results. Some ideas were picked up as others were ignored as impractical and inefficient in the context that we were working in. Its possible that in a different context their choice of what they accept and what they reject would be different..
8. A detailed brief was made and the bigger picture of what we were setting out to do in a year was shared with artisans.
9. Workshop was open to visitors and in a public space. This encouraged a whole lot of people to visit us and share their ideas with us even as they observed the workshop.
10. Exhibitions of the final products were organized in a show and tell mode for buyers where skill demonstration and role of artisans was paramount. This was also an open invite for potential buyers to come and co-create products of their concern.
11. Detailed visual documentation was made with still digital camera to share it with future workshops participants.
5. Issues
1. Keeping the livelihood of this vast number of artisans intact is one of the biggest challenges. To do this in the face of homogenizing nature of globalization is even bigger challenge. This must be taken on by mobilizing the participation of all who can bring new knowledge and expertise to help mount effective challenge. Fortunately artisans are open to change, open to learning and to creating new tacit knowledge. Like mentioned before, it is perhaps important that we have both, handmade and machine made universes of doing things surviving side by side. Both can inform each other and evolve independently. They provide real choice of quality, sensibility, diversity and sustainability to the world. Perhaps artisan need to reinvent himself as an artisan equipped with new knowledge of sustainability.
2. Artisan practice contains an aesthetic which is very special and different from what machine made aesthetic provides. Artisan is excluded from a creative process if his aesthetic is always marginalized and he has to constantly adjust to the new governing aesthetic of the machine. Designers need to be sensitive to this and they can play a positive role if their visual vocabulary included references to the artisan aesthetics.
This would make designers practice inclusive for artisan.
3. When designers work with artisans they bring in their explicit knowledge skills to the domain of tacit knowledge skills of artisans. In the course of their partnership each domain learns from the other. Tacit knowledge become explicit knowledge and together these two knowledge systems produce another level of tacit knowledge when artisans work with it. This onward spiral of new knowledge creation should be allowed to have its full continuous play. New ways need to be found to harness the movement of tacit knowledge as it contains the native wisdom of a particular community that has been co-created by all its active members over the years.
4. In a scarcity hit regions of the world, creativity has been used to not only develop products and services that are frugal in nature but also the manner of their making shows an economy of creation, (in materials, tools, energy including human). When we shift to an economy of easy availability of resources every where, any time there is a real possibility of the loss of economical ways of doing things, of frugal design, which is inherently sustainable and perhaps desirable.
5. Hand made universe is actually handmade, slow and sustainable if scale of production of objects is within the appropriate scale of the handmade. If the order of things move into numbers that rival machine made production number, than we have to reconsider the choice of handmade to address that particular order. Real artisanship that produces quality needs time, skills, appropriate tools, appropriate scale of production and discerning users.
6. Finally artisan demands recognition, respect and dignity for having first created a physical example of an idea of certain quality in our midst and in our communities and his willingness and eagerness to take that idea further into our common futures.


  1. Three Cheers. Thanks for sharing this, Jogi and Deepankar.

  2. Does anyone know of a good specialty metals company that can produce custom made metal parts at a reasonable price?


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