Should Indian Design Go Dutch?

Last week in Mumbai, the Embassy of the Netherlands, along with an array of Dutch design institutions and practitioners, had a proposition for India: Dutch design has learned something critical and new, they argued, about respecting end-users and designing for context. It embodies principles of economy and even parsimony. It has a flat, inclusive vision of society, and is well oriented to work for India’s lower income and marginal communities. It is systematic in its approach, it blends the practical with the aesthetic with the whimsical. To address the large challenges in our society, we should give it a try.

It’s a hard truth to face, but maybe not all cultures of design from all parts of the world are equal. More accurately, we do not necessary have cultures of design per se in all parts of the world, only perhaps material cultures — different ways of making things, spaces, and interactions. A culture of design is something else: a way of organizing intentionality between different actors in a system which can then create new solutions and resolutions to existing challenges.

At CKS we have struggled with the questions of India’s culture of design since our inception. As part of our Used in India project (2005), we curated different kinds of street technologies and explored how industrial manufacturing, digital media and handcraft all interweave in unexpected ways to define India’s media and modes of production. The artifacts we curated were often inventive, sometimes amusing, and always brilliantly colored, pushing the very limits of visual expressionism, with holography, etching, reflectiveness, all playing upon the senses. In these artifacts of Indian material and media culture we saw some of the foundations for an Indian approach to design: expressive, multiply-mediated, interactive, joyful. Tactical rather than strategic, mass-customized, and priced for the street — in some ways, it seems to me, that still captures Indian approaches to design pretty well.

It’s a strange and curious thing for an entire country to offer it’s design culture for use by another. Should we take them up on it? What would it even mean for us to try?

Comments

  1. Aditya Dev Sood says:
  2. Successful design in a new cultural context is not only about understanding the context and specific challenges related to it, but also about finding the inspiration from the context itself. While the outsiders can attempt to closely understand the challenges and may be successful at picking up the nuances behind the challenges, seeking design inspiration from the context itself may not be always possible, especially if one is not part of the context.

  3. hm… thanks ekta, but i’m wondering if that’s always true.

    in some sense when we go to bihar we’re going there from the outside. and we think we did a good job of both capturing local context as well as responding to it in ways that were inspired, no?

    • Bihar I would say is still a familiar context, I meant going to an international location-even in that case one may be able to understand the context well but I am not sure whether it would be easy to find inspiration from the context being an outsider. In order to do so we may not only have to look at existing challenges closely, but also analyze why certain objects of material culture/design are preferred over others in those contexts. As an insider it may be easier to do so, while being an outsider one might need to spend longer period of time deliberating over these issues.

  4. so, in 2006 i did some work in china, collecting examples of local cultural forms which went into our http://www.emergingeconomyreport.com. more recently we’ve been doing work in indonesia and ghana. seems like we’re pretty comfortable learning from and advising other cultures. does the rub come only when we have to receive advice from outsiders?

    now, i do concede that there are aspects of design which are deeply culturally situated. that, i think, is the interesting part of this ‘proposition’ by the dutch. if, for example, ideo were to have an event in mumbai telling indian industry that they should use their approaches and methodologies, would that have precisely the same flavor? there is something different, but it’s not entirely clear what…

  5. with my head wrapped around manfred max neefs framework of needs for the past couple of days, i’m beginning to understand the value of recognizing commonalities between different cultures and societies – a universal categorization of needs is what neef recommends – but knowing that these commonalities are only the beginning that give rise to an almost infinite divergence. according to him while needs are universal, the way in which different societies, or even the same society over a period of time, satisfies these needs is different. i find that this is a really important way of understanding cultural differences and responding accordingly. i guess what im saying is that there isn’t so much of a problem with designing for different cultures, what we need is a suitable framework.

  6. From what i read and could understand. The Dutch design firms wants to establish themselves big in India and it is interesting to see their government’s involvement to help them set their foot on the ground firmly.

    In the onset, these companies would partner with the Indian Design firms.
    @Ekta we would probably giving them the design inspiration out of the context. But with time, they would be able to better understand culture, context and the challenges better.

    My question is what would be they doing next?
    What is the dutch way of doing things? What is their USP? Is it just “dutch design”!! which is??

    FYI: Droog Lab’s project in Mumbai Slum
    http://www.drooglab.com/projects/models/unprepared–lessons-from-the-informal-economy-/

  7. Not especially, design thinking and applying knowledge is an accumulative and constantly evolving process. India has the benefit of drawing from international hindsight and adding to many matured/exhausted design heuristics. It’s a unique time for the subcontinent that went from sarees to software and now potentially to provide world-class design.

    ————————-

    Great analysis of emerging issues and thought provoking discussions exchanged at CKS.

  8. Aishwarya Panicker says:

    Expression of ideas should definitely be sensitive to the context of a particular culture, but at the end of the day, it’s how an idea is taken forward that matters. Focusing too much on the cultural critique brings in a ‘clash of civilizations’ scenario, which will only lead to rigid ‘my way or the highway’ framework. We would be on a path to ethnocentrism (or in this case, indo-centrism) if none of the ideas and perceptions from the Dutch (or whoever wants to participate in design thinking) are accepted because they are ‘foreign’ and don’t fit the context entirely – and accept only those design ideas that have come from within the context.

    Also, inspiration is entirely subjective, it’s how that initial idea becomes a visionary concept for greater results that’s important.

    Bringing in the innovation debate:
    What is the role of culture in dominant innovation theories?
    It is apparent that ideas are being spread back and forth (three cheers for globalization!) and incorporated (in maybe an alternative form) into a cultural context (glocalization!). Isn’t this flow of information the primary catalyst for an innovation dialogue? So why deter the Dutch in bringing in their design thinking?
    Personally, it would be exciting to see what comes out of this collaboration!

    ++
    http://www.architecturebrio.blogspot.in/

  9. it is interesting – there is a lot of interest in india – coincides with the timing of the demise of the euro and the shining india story. amongst many design related conversations i had was one with a dutch designer wondering why we would want to import practices from a economy that has failed! but interesting to examine what we can learn from them and not repeat some of the mistakes that seem to be inherent in a lot of the growth led, consumer driven economies and therefore scale and therefore design.

  10. Ridhima Jaiswal says:

    Exchange of idea is great and there is no harm in experimentation. But its definitely important to give a thought to the intention with which such initiatives are designed. Do they want to understand the context to design for the good or to sustain their own design industry?- what Aanchal has pointed out. Also, irrespective of such initiatives will we be still able to provide equal opportunity to our own design industry? Another question that’s munching my brain, “Is our government interested equally to get involved and support Indian Design firms?”

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