North South Project

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North South Project: A New Model of Design and Craft Collaborations in the Developing World

Johnson, Patty


‘North South Project:
A New Model of Design and Craft Collaborations
in the Developing World’
Patty Johnson
22nd August 2006
India International Center, New Delhi

“North South Project: A new model of viable design and craft collaborations in the developing world” was realised over a two year period and resulted in a product launch at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, New York City in May 2006. Called the North South Project because of reach across the global north-south axis, it was implemented in Guyana, South America and Botswana, Africa. The tenets and principles were the same: a collaborative effort involving small scale craft factories and indigenous producers in the creation and branding of new design products that used regional vocabularies in unexpected ways to reach high end markets.

“North South Project” received an ICFF Editors Award for Craftsmanship and was included in Newsweek’s “Design Dozen” for 2006.

Product oriented design and practice is being changed by new technologies, global marketing and the internationalisation of products and production. As the basis of manufacturing shifts in response to commercial forces, the role of the designer is becoming increasingly strategic. Design practitioners need to be able to think about the identity of products and their cultural backgrounds, issues underpinned by the need for innovation, and, economic, sustainable and ethical thinking.

As the rapid pace of globalisation changes the role of the designer, the means of production and the market itself, at an ever-increasing rate, new approaches must be undertaken. “North South Project” is a design program that over a period of two years focussed on the creation of partnerships with manufacturers, indigenous communities and crafts organisations in South America and Africa to create market-ready contemporary design objects.

As one of the key connections between the factory floor and the market, designers have a pivotal role to play in the real futuristic world we live in, where everything is indeed made by hand. It is now time for designers to assert that responsibility. Each generation of industrial designers raises a particular issue to the forefront. In the 80’s it was universal design. In the 90’s it was sustainable design. I believe that the shame of exploitative manufacturing is what this generation has to face.

The developing world is one of the next design frontiers, producing goods that fuse quality with creativity beyond just low cost. For a long time, design in these places has been relegated to handicrafts and regional products. But now, with the coincident movement toward more handcrafted, high quality products in the home, this region’s expertise is being tapped for mid- to high-end products, as many brands grapple with the quality and creativity gap that exist with much of the manufacturing in Asia.

In part, the intention of North South Project is to act as advocate for creative communities and to ensure that the nature of product development is a sustainable process that can extend beyond the length of the project timescale.

At its core, North South Project suggests that designers look beyond the individualism of Western consumer philosophies that currently drive design practise to include investigations of craft production and indigenous artefact in developing countries and to be explicit about those partners and makers.

The project aspires to create a human centred and partnership based model of design collaboration that produces sophisticated hybrid products that are launched in high end markets. Implicit in this investigation is the idea that design practitioners must expand their focus to include strategic development and through this begin to redefine the designer’s role in a contemporary context. The research and the implementation specific to the product lines and market launch of this project show that a new model of viable design and craft collaborations in the developing world is possible and that these findings can have a broader relevance for sustainable design practise.

The cultural position of design remains an intense and contradictory matter but one that is successfully played out through a very wide variety of methodologies. There are many positions for design in contemporary culture. Quality and innovation have a whole bundle of sources: designers need to be alert and knowledgeable, and there has to be an awareness of design and making as a positive engine for change in the larger context of contemporary social concerns. A broader critical approach is needed in order to avoid the often inward and self referential spiral that is the most prominent danger for design as a field of knowledge.

Much of the current discourse around design in the Europe and North America revolves around the growing anxiety of the loss of the manufacturing sector to Asia and the need for design to gain relevance through new approaches. Object-focussed design, whether from the craft studio or the design industry, seems less and less sustainable from a global perspective.

North South Project chooses an approach that posits an ideal that can incorporate this ongoing dialogue in the North and that allows Southern producers and communities to translate designs with their own unique skills and regional materials to produce sophisticated hybrids. The luxury of individuality is still the key for Northern markets; it is just that the individuality is not an imposition of the designer. It has become more inclusive and works for a broad range of partners. Certainly it takes the empowerment of producer communities as a given.

Dutch craft designer Hella Jongerius and the Campana Brothers in Brazil explore similar areas and their work demonstrates a lively vitality that balances craft and mass production while addressing cultural diversity. The Campana Brothers centre their production for Edra and other high end manufacturers in Brazil. They look for the spaces between traditional products and experimental products often utilising the waste materials from factories in poor regions of the country. Their work is grounded in the physical world, as contrasted with the technological world, and is tied to a place and its manufacturing traditions making it more specifically representative of the people who make it. This is an ideal for a broader contemporary design practise.

If the artisan furniture and craft products of the developing world are to be valued properly and create sustainable livelihoods in those places, their design must realistically reflect and communicate the labour and skills of the producers who make them. The aim is to avoid the branch plant mentality of multinationals that plagues Southeast Asia, and other places where craft skills have been degraded, and offer instead high end design products that are suited to the skills, technologies and histories of these places. In this context, the designer’s role is expanded to include the development of new creative strategies, the creation of appropriate research protocols and the building of infrastructures, in addition to, the traditional knowledge base of craft and design practise.

Large scale projects are some of the clearest examples of the exploitation of the South by the North in the name of development. Projects such as gold mining, bauxite quarrying and the export of raw timbers in Guyana, and, diamond mining in Botswana are often jointly funded by Northern countries and their Southern hosts.

The benefits of existing projects flow mainly to the North in the form of contracts for heavy equipment, specialised materials and technical expertise. The main beneficiaries in Guyana and Botswana are too often highly placed local elite of officials and business people. The effect on local people can be to create poverty. Poor people are displaced from their land, natural resources are spoiled or sold for one-time profit, local access is denied to those natural resources, people’s existing systems of knowledge are devalued or eliminated and their ability to sustain a self-provisioning lifestyle is curtailed, often with no compensation or replacement by alternative sources of income.

No community is more affected by this situation than the indigenous Wai Wai. The Wai Wai live in the far south of Guyana at the headwaters of the Essequibo River near the borders of Brazil and Surinam. Traditionally considered master weavers they are an extremely artistic community that makes beautiful baskets and many other objects including pottery, woven combs, bone flutes, bows and arrows, blowguns, beaded aprons and necklaces. There are only two hundred Wai Wai in Guyana and their existence is threatened by concession logging and government policy.

The Wai Wai weavers are intuitive and intelligent about their techniques and materials and the aim of this component of the project was to work with their traditional forms and patterns to create new objects of high value and utility for Northern markets while retaining the meaning of those objects for the Southern makers. Their remote village, Gunns, is only accessible by prop plane and short wave radio. Their inaccessibility, coupled with a lack of infrastructure and protocols, presented some difficulty in working with them. I am also amazed at the efficiency of the grass roots networks that stand in for infrastructure and protocols in the developing world and this project is successful in no small part due to these informal relationships.

In general, as a designer, you are at the mercy of the craftsman—in a good way. Mostly this relationship produces wonderful results, and at an amazingly quick pace. And handmade production does allow you to make things that are still impossible for machines; the variations and imperfections give life to details, and can add a (literal) human touch to minimal designs.

Craft producers and manufacturers in Guyana and Botswana are confronted with numerous challenges. One of the major needs and constraints faced by these manufacturers and communities relates to adequacy of infrastructure and access to international markets. For example, the poor availability of standardised and properly dried timber in Guyana and the lack of complementary industries like metal fabricators and plastics manufacturers in Botswana, as well as government support for business development, contribute to the difficulty in securing and creating new networks and distribution channels.

Working in a resource-poor setting requires a great deal of flexibility and demands the development of new skills. Above all, a culture of quality must be encouraged. Expectations must be readjusted and the long sustainable approach must be taken. It won’t be a one-month project; it will be a two, three or five year project. And the designer has some responsibility not only for the design and production of these objects from a variety of manufacturers, but also for getting these products to international markets.

The design strategy was developed (slowly) out of an analysis of theory, field research and the application of design process. The approach is human centred and emphasises sustainable and collaborative design practise using local resources, appropriate technology and socially aware production.

The North South Project hypothesised that it is possible to develop a flexible design methodology which allows for the assessment and evaluation of differing situations. Designers are in a unique position to move between cultures and to facilitate an exchange of information. A lack of information about market demands and benchmarks was the most common obstacle cited by crafts producers on this project. The inadvisability of taking a risk which necessitated an excess of capital and resources was also acknowledged. By linking local materials and local techniques with knowledge of the export market, appropriate design and sophisticated hybrids can be created. Design input from the producers derives from their knowledge of skill, process and cultural design sources. While emphasising locally rooted initiatives and developing culturally sensitive, sustainable objects, the importance of broader connections with global economies and the need for access to other markets is addressed.

Through this process of collaborative decision-making and design development, new creative directions are possible. The designer, by acting as a receptive information gatherer is able to engage as a design instigator.

In the course of a project of this scale many partners, facilitators and collaborators are needed. Each of these agencies, manufacturers and communities will have different expectations and demands of the project. The designer in the role of instigator/coordinator is the figure that provides information on the course of the activities and as such must have as reasonable an understanding as possible of the constantly changing views and demands of each of these groups.

It is the spaces created between the common ground and the differing positions of the stakeholders that is the area in which the contemporary designer should be working. Cross-disciplinary knowledge of opposing interests like government policy, agency mandates, social concerns and the needs of manufacturers and producers is necessary to keep the spaces open enough to work in. Each of these contributors is an important component in the success of the project and the designer must make sure that each is informed enough to have confidence in the outcome without sacrificing the creative skill that is the designer’s contribution and area of expertise.

‘The best products of the next decades will be the result of a reconciliation of what have previously been understood to be opposition: specialisation and generalisation: the individual and the collective; globality and locality; the avant-garde and the popular. Everything relates to everything. Accepting this without losing ourselves or sacrificing the quality of the things we make will be the great challenge.’ (The Persistence of Craft, Greenhalgh)

At the centre of this equation is the need for building economic capacity for the producers through design and, for the designer, the opportunity for creative development of a different order. If this is kept at the forefront of the program of activities, it is often necessary for the designer to become an advocate not only for the completion of the product lines and dissemination into international markets, but for design itself. In Guyana and Botswana, like in North America, design is seen in contradictory ways and the role of design is sometimes undervalued and sometimes overvalued. The designer must have a sense of these differing viewpoints and constantly work to achieve a middle ground in which to begin the work of design.

All over the world, creative communities in non-industrialised countries continue to produce craft products drawing from their own cultures and craft traditions. Many of these artisans, like those in the Wai Wai community, are living at a subsistence level and trying to employ their skills in an attempt to support their families and their villages. While internationally, $100 million (USD) is currently traded in craft products each year, for many of these makers, access to markets in industrialised countries is often difficult to attain. However, market connections can be improved through information the designer brings to the producers. Consumers in wealthy, post-industrialised countries are seeking the feeling of a continued link with traditional cultures and the value of goods made by people. On the other hand, the rise in ethical consumerism means that these same consumers demand accountability; they are not willing to take part in exploitive relationships between poor producers and distributors, exporters or retailers. They want to be certain that their money is reaching the people who make the goods.

In addition to a lack of information about market demands and trends in affluent markets as a major obstacle to product development, the producer groups clearly cited economic hardship and the social costs of a “trial and error” method of design development.

There are a range of market-led design decisions which must be made in order to define what objects will be produced. Above all, the designer provides information with which the producers can differentiate their goods from other products in the North American and European markets. There is no point in artisans and craft production factories competing with mass produced goods. They can instead compete on the strengths of the product, by focussing on the upper end of the market through high quality materials, detailing, production and design. Scale of production is another important factor in product development and design; the product must be situated within a market which is suitable to the producers’ abilities. Labour intensive craft products can be expensive to produce and so the final product must be priced accordingly. A pricing structure has to be established which gives the producers a fair return for their work yet also accommodates the needs of wholesalers, importers and retailers. By looking at what is already available, where market gaps appear and what is flooding the market, the designer is carrying out an analysis to match materials, skills and techniques to an appropriate product, price point and market niche.

The majority of the funding for the project went to the cost of the booth space and the promotional materials. By Northern standards the budget for promotional tools was not that large and decisions were centred on the best way to achieve the greatest reach. A tool kit of a comprehensive website, postcards, letterhead and business cards were developed. The website is the central component and there were a number of reasons for this.

The internet is a communications tool which has potential for creating direct connections between producers in the South and buyers in the North. With the spread of Internet use for catalogue shopping and direct speciality shopping, it seems a natural extension to look at the Internet as a potential branding tool for these products. In addition the design and printing of catalogues is financially out of the reach of most of the producers in developing countries and the Internet, even though unregulated, can provide a cost-effective, broad dissemination of products.

The North South Project website is both a product showcase and a case study of the project as it was implemented. This tone is intentional and the purpose is to both offer product and, at the same time, to clearly explain the narrative and brand the methodology of the project.

Now having had a little time since May to review the results of this course of work, I can definitely say that the outcome reflects my continuing interest in the interchange between research and design and commerce and culture as well as my belief in the importance of sustainable design practise.

And I think that it is possible for indigenous communities and craft factories in developing countries to produce sophisticated hybrid design products appropriate for Northern markets. This can be done in a collaborative and sustainable way. Flexibility of approach is absolutely necessary, and the designer must be willing to occupy a space typified by the constant flux of the societies in which she works.

My experience designing for these manufacturers and creative communities was one of the most enriching of my life and profoundly changed the way I think about design (and was a challenging and constant process of the re-evaluation of my own shortcomings and views). I learned that people-centered design has a middle component, living between ethnography and interface. Hand manufacturing is the reality in much of the world, and designers, sitting at their desks sending off PDFs to unknown destinations, may be a modern paradigm, but ultimately a hollow one. I would encourage designers to go and visit where their products are made, and, especially, with the people who make them.

Three of the most important issues which face the global community as we enter the new century are unemployment, the exploitation of labour and the environment. If the great thinkers and motivators of the Arts and Crafts movement were still with us, these are the issues they would focus on. So should we.”
Paul Greenhalgh
“The Progress of Captain Ludd”

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