Design Education and Crafts

Design, Designers, Education/Learning, Policy, Skilling, Training, Professional Devt.

Design Education and Crafts: Conflicts and Synergy

Bhatt, Jatin


Design education in India has been wrested with a continuing contradiction of focus between the organised and unorganized sector since it was formally set up through various institutions across the country. Through the socialist economic model of development to its integration into global business, the argument of social responsibility and hardcore commerce has lost the passion that it once aroused. The emerging wisdom has recognized that ultimately design ought to be integrated into the process of commerce and business. However, at a more intrinsic level of design approach and overall orientation, design education is distinctly inclined to cater to the organised sector of industry clientele. The potential for job opportunities, sustained patronage and predictable business structure are some of the reasons for this. The vast unorganized sector that includes handicrafts and sustains millions of artisans has not had its share of professional design intervention in actual practice.

The reasons for such an imbalance are obvious. The organised sector has the ability to hire and sustain design expertise. The perceived opportunities of work and placement are greater and stable with enterprises. The process of delivery and nature of work profile is defined as well as limited to a role largely enabled and conceived through the nature of design education. The values, concerns and expectations of a life as a design professional are best met through metro centric work opportunities. Even the best of corporate organizations find it difficult to source quality professional expertise if the place of work is far removed from the popular metro destinations. Such a reality makes it all the more difficult for design education to instill in students a sense of equal or greater opportunities in craft sector. This is not to say that the issue is not addressed at all or that no designers get closely involved with craft sector. The concern is to determine the difference in approach and process of design intervention between a structured organised industry and craft sector as well as share experiences that qualify this essential difference in characterizing the approach in the structure of experience during design education.

At an academic level, the reputed design institutes in India have strived to create a holistic dimension of Design as a process, method and coverage. The concerns through a world view realized from such an approach address the larger aspects of quality of life and the values that go with them cutting across all possible influences and structures that can be leveraged to achieve the larger developmental concerns of humanity. Design professional is almost seen as a bridge between the organizations and the world to project their ethical social concerns into products, services and processes. However, in practice a large part of these inherent concerns is diminished under the immediacy of business compulsions. Often the inherent academic structure, evaluation criteria and the organizational norms negate the potential opportunities in the minds of students.

Handicrafts in India exist at different organizational and operational levels. The large part of craft exports from India is essentially carried out by firms, which are owner driven business houses with fair amount of mechanization and captive work force under direct control. The products involve lot of skilled handwork in predominantly finishing and assembly with low technology mass production. At the same time there are a multitude of traditional artisans who continue to produce small volumes of individually crafted products and artifacts across the entire rural belt of India. These are mostly dependent on small sales and marginal income. The diminished local markets, limited conduits for their wares to urban / global markets, unfamiliarity of market tastes and needs, little access to funds & working capital and lack of requisite capacity have made these crafts often unviable for survival.

As a part of developmental responsibility, Government and Development Agencies have recognized Design as an important input for craft revival and sustenance. As a result a large part of funding & initiative in Design comes from these agencies. Majority of design initiatives are supported involving professional designers, design students and design institutions. Among many issues being addressed through such funding, new product development and training of artisans are entrusted to design professionals. There are very few initiatives with any significant impact from private sector in handicrafts.

All design interventions in craft sector have a predominant product focus akin to the model of design services with private enterprise. The product outcome is tangible and hence measurable unlike initiatives that may be equally critical but intangible. The impact of such interventions is most often limited and excludes the artisan from the intellectual process of design and product development. Such initiatives also lack the focus on market linkages, positioning and requisite furtherance of the efforts to convert into business for the beneficiary artisans. While such initiatives have validity in terms of need to reinterpret crafts to match contemporary market reality, the actual value retention for the artisan is limited. Time investment by the designers is most often proportional to the funds available and defined outcome in the brief, which invariably is only in number of designs. The extent of familiarity on part of the designers to craft techniques, processes and ability of the artisans to explore and deliver distinct products determines the quality of outcome.

At a human interaction level, the artisans are really the skilled resource to convert alien product / design ideas into prototypes with little or no insight into the complexities of such products and their possible use environment. Conflicts of ego, paradigm and resistance to change are expected in any situation where a new order is introduced before it is understood and accepted. The interaction between artisans and designers is not any different. The position of superiority and power assumes an opposite dimension where a designer generally subservient to the client dictates, assumes the role of the client as well. The creature comforts often become the irritants between the ideal and operational extent of involvement required from the designers.

Is design intervention in crafts different from a typical design project with organised sector? There are some key differences in the recipients of design expertise, which characterize the need to address artisans differently. These differences are defined by the resourcefulness, scale of operations, control on the operations, opportunities, market network, enterprise, fund raising abilities, profitable business practices and organizational intelligence required to consciously conduct and develop business. These ingredients vital for linking any production or business activities to mainstream commerce are the ones, which are missing in the most part of craft production and artisans’ mind set.

It is important to interject the context of experiences based on which these observations have been made. National Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi introduced a design programme in Fashion Accessories, which I was invited to conceive and implement in 1991. The programme was designed to include the unorganized production capabilities of Indian traditional artisans as an important resource in the supply chain envisaged for accessory products. The curriculum envisaged two courses focused on traditional crafts. The students got initiated to traditional crafts through field study as documentation of the larger socio-cultural and economic reality of traditional crafts in the 2nd year and followed it up with an interactive design development course with practicing artisans in the 3rd year. Christened as Craft Based Design Project undertaken by the 5th semester students in the Accessory Design Programme at NIFT. The structure of the interaction is designed to get the artisans at the design schools rather than send the students to the artisans. The assumption is that artisans are unhindered from their routine chores and are therefore, able to commit quality time with an opportunity to respond with open mind in a new and stimulating environment. Another factor is the costs involved in working other way round as well as the problems of creature comforts concerning students especially the issues of accommodation in rural parts. Incidentally, two of the eleven such interactions have had students being at the artisans’ workplace for five weeks at a stretch with its own advantages of learning experience. Both these have been possible as they have been part of a larger project initiative by the faculty wherein this component of students involvement was envisaged and cushioned sufficiently with funds and requisite infrastructure on field.

The typical approach and process that students are trained to apply to design & product development is based on the nuance that design initiatives must make meaning in the market place. This necessitates the process to articulate existing and emerging opportunities, positioning in terms of consumer/ market segment, price, retail and merchandise strategies, material and technical feasibility, influences and tastes as well as aesthetic & functional dimensions of the product range. Ability to anticipate and visualize the entire complexity of issues that can affect the design is single most concern through the approach that aids in mapping, analyzing and synthesis in the process of ideation and concept development. This approach which can be termed as design – marketing interface, is re-emphasized through increasing complexities of design projects for students to internalize the efficacy of the design process endorsed by the inherent philosophy and structure of design education curriculum. It is important to note that the experience, insight and synergy among the entire concerned design faculty to impart such a process and methodology is the most critical aspect of effective inculcation of the complexities of concerns that the methodology addresses.

The process presupposes a specific and initiated client willing to commission design professionals in environment where many of the issues being addressed are either a continuous internal process within his organization or are ones that the client will provide inputs or judgment with a clear business direction in mind. The language and contents are familiar if not fully appreciated. The arguments that build around an approach or a product concept can be supported with understandable data; observations, insights and conclusions to help make decisions between designers and the clients that hire them.

This is possibly the single most differentiator when design intervention is carried out with artisans who are not really the most informed lot capable of reflecting on any of the above issues with requisite exposure and intelligence. The onus therefore, is on the designer to assume a dual role of a creator and a critic of the new development. It is not to conclude that artisans are not capable of developing an entrepreneurial acumen and be equally informed to be in a position to determine the above issues. There are many successful artisans turned entrepreneurs who have done well to go beyond the traditional limits of their reach and have established markets across the country and even abroad. Still the large part of the traditional artisans is devoid of the business intelligence that is required to integrate their capabilities to mainstream commerce.

How does the design process acquire a different nuance to address the craft sector? The design process involving students invariably requires substantial planning and operational structure to be put in place prior to interaction with artisans. The design faculty involved with such an initiative primarily carries this out well in advance. The selection of artisans is based on either specific brief from the funding agency or a strategic mix of materials, skills and techniques envisaged as possible combination. The decision to invite specific artisans is influenced by prior experience, recommendations of NGOs / local agencies and by actual on field interaction as a preparatory visit. The familiarity between students and artisans through field studies in craft documentation is often the effective manner of establishing continuity by inviting representative artisans from same areas. This however, needs to be planned ahead as there is a gap of almost one year between these two different interaction platforms. Effective correspondence, communication and confidence building in the minds of the artisans is critical to ensure not only their participation but also the entire purpose and requirements of materials, tools & related infrastructure needs.

The student groups are briefed ahead of the actual interaction concerning the nature of crafts, techniques, materials, existing product range, intended directions and requisite groundwork to be done by the students. The detailed evaluation of crafts and their contextual potential is one of the important aspects studied and articulated as a part of the project brief. For example, quarrying of stones is getting difficult and hence it is important that the size of the products envisaged is kept in mind. Similarly, lantana as a raw material is available in abundance at low cost and can be used suitably. Such orientation is supported by visual & verbal presentations and intensive discussions. Tentative allocation of the artisan groups and student groups is finalised for the students to initiate related inquiry pertaining to the crafts. Students are often expected to communicate with the allocated artisan groups concerning specific requirements for artisans as well as themselves.

Most importantly, the student and the artisan are termed as equal “Resource Persons” with joint responsibility of working together towards a specific outcome. This is very significant to establish equality of competence, which is different but collaborative as a process between the students and artisans. The design faculty (at least two) involved through the five to six weeks duration, interact with the various resource groups on different possibilities. Simultaneously, the artisan and the student groups carry out explorations through the materials, techniques and skills.

While it is important to give exposure to the students about ground realities pertaining to artisans and their larger work environment, it is equally significant to orient the artisans to environments of the designers as well as actual consumers. The familiarity of the artisan with market place, competition, retail environment, similar production units and practices in urban business set ups is another dimension to create a dialogue around new possibilities with design student. The student and the artisan team often visit many of the above-mentioned situations to explore possibilities. The use of examples through products and experience help in effectively communicating the attributes and parameters required to respond to contemporary markets. These experiences also offer a set of aspirations that the artisan can strive to achieve in market reach, product possibilities as well as business practices.

The nature of an intense and extensive dialogue between the collaborators facilitated by faculty attempts to cover every possible issue that needs to be accounted for as a sense of anticipation and design parameters. Metaphors and analogies are extensively used to ensure that both the student and artisan as collaborators appreciate the concerns to be addressed in new design possibilities. Often basic issues of using measuring tools effectively, understanding simple drawings, interpreting photographs, appreciating different aesthetic styles and similar seemingly simple capabilities are interspersed in the entire interaction to enhance effective appreciation of nuances that concern communication and meaning. Students on their part receive very pragmatic insights into methods, tastes and practices from the artisans. The issues with both collaborators are different but real and need to have synergistic outcome where both of them understand, appreciate and apply their minds and hands together as a team.

The larger purpose of the interaction is to arrive at more insights and possibilities rather than just products. The experience culminates in form of a display of entire exploration to be presented to invitees representing some or the other interest related to crafts and artisans. This adds another dimension of learning for student and the artisan who face different people and their feedback, which while being encouraging most often, can also have surprisingly different response. There is a tendency to contain the artisans based on their skills and traditional expressions of their product manifestations. This often negates the potential and capability of the artisans to think and respond differently given the opportunity and environment. Artisans are as keen to incorporate their newer experiences and insights in their work. The Orissa painters used to making mat hangings with painted birds and animals are equally adept at interpreting high technology and urban products such as cameras, computers, McDonald burgers and cars with great precision, proportion and details. This was one of the recent outcomes of the collaborative process between the accessory Design students and artisans. While students were catalysts in initiating this new application of skills for gifting through the patronage of food chains or MNCs, mainly artisans contributed the realization of these amazing miniature objects. Similarly, the experience of developing footwear with the traditional Mojari makers from Rajasthan has been equally demonstrative of the application of minds jointly between students and artisans.

While these platforms provide for a proactive design intervention in craft sector, they are limited by virtue of being part of a much larger design focus that includes product categories beyond crafts. The inherent focus of the design programme as is now, does not fully address the extent, intensity and depth required to make substantial impact in enhancing the all round capability of artisan to take independent design and product innovation initiative. Although almost all artisans who have participated in these design interaction workshops have, continued to explore the added insights beyond the workshops. Many of them have shared their new developments.

The issue then is the development of genuine capacity of the artisan to restructure his capabilities in form of competitive and marketable products. Various training programmes and workshops aimed at such an education are too short and hence hardly create a new level of understanding. If the professional design programmes with best of selected and talented students require three to four years of full time education for them to become professionals, it is difficult to visualize any significant change through short bursts of training in the artisans who are far removed from the market context that they need to penetrate.

Recent project initiatives in craft sector by Accessory Design Dept. of NIFT have attempted to address the aspect of capacity building of artisans. The approach in both the projects has been derived from the inherent abilities of design thinking that characterizes the potential of design application beyond products. In both the projects the focus has been to develop various capabilities that will initiate a proactive response from the artisan groups to understand, appreciate and apply nuances of contemporary market parameters to ensure competitiveness of their produce with better value realizations.

The first initiative was taken up as a part of rehabilitation package for the artisans affected by the earthquake that displaced thousands of people around Kutch, Gujarat in 2001. The situation after the calamity was extremely different in terms of people’s priorities, anxieties, response to outsiders and ability to receive any contribution beyond immediate needs. CARE India, the funding agency was also for the first time investing in design expertise as a part of rehabilitation initiative. The project was time bound with deadlines to meaningfully use the funds within the time frame of six months. Apart from design & product development, the main focus was on enhancing the artisans’ capabilities concerning product knowledge, new techniques and methods for production, design interpretation abilities, quality concerns, aesthetic nuances of the contemporary markets, inter dependent production structures, skill based distribution of work, costing & pricing, exposure to markets & supply sources, consistency in production and overall orientation to the potential applications of their craft skills to various product categories along with an insight into the way the products actually are used by the customer in distinct markets. The project strategy also envisaged specialized facility center for certain production and finishing processes as a shared facility to add quality dimensions to the products. The students were involved at various stages of the implementation of the project for them to appreciate the larger context of applying design expertise although their main task was to develop new products over five weeks of intensive field interaction with the artisans.

Over 25 training modules were carried out with artisan groups from basic understanding of measuring tools to introducing them to new techniques jointly by faculty team and students. As mentioned earlier this was the first of the two projects as a part of the module “Craft Based Design Project” carried out on the field. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the complications of coordinating the entire module spread over five villages around Anjar Block of Kutch involving 30 students and 250 artisans was extremely challenging. In absence of many habitable buildings and infrastructure damaged due to earthquake, the task of initiating and sustaining the morale was daunting. That two of the students continued to work for six more months for their final graduation projects funded by CARE INDIA was indicative of the extent of interest that such experiences generate in students to get involved with craft sector. The nature of activities and concerns being addressed in academic environment through various faculty initiatives has a direct bearing on the way students look at opportunities and their role as designers.

While the project outcome was satisfying given the short time of six months, it was clear that it required long term follow up initiatives to consolidate and sustain the positive influences generated. This is most often the weak link in such assignments where requisite synergy between various agencies as well as expertise are found wanting. The lack of local NGO tie up, structures of self help groups, pragmatic business and market linkages and most importantly the actual feeling of ownership amongst the artisans are issues that often go beyond the realm of design expertise as practiced.

It is extremely difficult to visualize any long-term impact that can be brought about to change the reality of craft sector to make it genuinely competitive and profitable through the prevailing structures of design education. Like any other business enterprise, the artisans can only be as good as their ability to convert market opportunities into a sound product and business response. Exposure to, understanding of and intelligence about the market place are among the many essential ingredients to ensure acceptable product offerings. While the artisan practices a particular craft, a designer is not so bound by a set of skills and techniques with definite product/artifact as an outcome determined by tradition. This is what differentiates the designer and the artisan.

The entire premise of design for craft sector is based on the need for marketable products that fetch more value to the artisans. Design is by no means the only input that is necessary to ensure marketability. The factors are many including quality, raw materials, production capacity, schedules, packaging, promotion, finance, etc. Since the artisans practice a particular craft, the concern is predominantly to enhance and build on their specific capability. The ability to design is therefore restricted to its application on their prevailing skills, techniques and materials. What is required therefore is to interpret their material skills and techniques differently with the ability to generate a variety of applications that most suit the market needs. What will help the process of regeneration of craft activities is the conscious adaptability and change in methods and products. Any initiative to regenerate the artisan groups will need to focus on larger entrepreneurial abilities supported by a worldview that needs to be inculcated amongst them. The capabilities will need to be diverse and interdependent within the artisan groups, as different expertise requires different aptitudes. The current model of independent artisans as family unit will need to be replaced with more collective models of working to develop visible capacity.

Unlike the design students in design institutes, the artisan is not in a position to devote sustained time and requisite financial resources. If the artisans have to benefit by any efforts aimed at strengthening their sustainability, it will have to be based on a simultaneous learn & earn model. The inputs for their learning will have to be within their context of craft practice with continuous demonstration through actual applications. The effectiveness of building any expertise including design amongst the artisans will largely depend on new models of imparting education and training to them. While the practiced design education models may have something to offer, the complexities of providing specialized education to the artisans where basic education is unavailable will require to be thought through as a new paradigm.

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