I found this project difficult to approach. How do you put all of your experience and what you have learned and gained into a single product? How do you represent those influences even in an object?
Initially I wanted to develop a platform (a working sculpture) that would embrace my fascination with saris and their unique stories to express (1) the impressions of collaborating with those from different disciplines and from diverse communities, and (2) the juxtaposition of new and traditional through technology. However, I abandoned this concept because it did not capture how this experience in India has influenced me as a designer.
How did this Indian experience influence me? There were so many subtexts of influence that it was hard to pinpoint my main takeaway. I’ve been to India before, but this trip made me look at it in a different way. To answer the question, I went back though the thousands of photographs, the many notes I had made along the way of things that caught my attention, the emails to those at home and the blog to remind myself of the day-to-day of our adventure.
After reviewing many notes and creating post-it notes galore, I created some points that I take away from India and our design opportunity, which would continue to influence me and be a reminder in my future practice. For this final project, I decided to develop my product within my design field of Industrial Design with the goal that the product be useful.
When I arrived back home and engaged in the “how was your trip” questions with those that are either from India, visited, or never been before, the conversation often veered and brought up the “magic” of India. They commented on the colours, the charm, the snake charmers, the markets, the sky, etc. There is this mystery that often accompanies India, but many sadly don’t notice it anymore when you’re actually there. Maybe it’s the speed that we live at now, the overwhelming sensation caused by the chaos or just the dismissal of the old hippie stereotype. But to enjoy and experience India, you need to actually be able to sit back and watch, wait and relax to be able to see the “magic”. Take the time to absorb it. I’m glad that I still witness it when I go, and I’m extremely glad that on this trip I was made aware of details that I was otherwise beginning to become jaded to.
Because of these conversations and the giddiness of rediscovery of little things, I decided that being in a state of mind to be open and in-tune to be mindful of the “magic” was something that I need to be aware of and be constantly engaged in, something that is valuable to my own life and my future practice.
For this final project, I decided to capture the feeling of this state of mind and to create a product that would create a calm atmosphere. I played with the idea of making a candleholder or a product for incense, but due to material limitations (heat from the flame would limit material and thus production possibilities) I decided to play with light from an exposed light bulb.
India seems to have a motto of “make something out of nothing”, as they are very inventive and they take advantage of every entrepreneurial opportunity. This was witnessed constantly on the trip: the little girl on the train everyday, who was visiting her mother while on holiday and who took the opportunity to make an extra rupee riding the train and dancing or the kids who make inventive toys with whatsoever was around or the day-to-day products seen everywhere (you could go on and on). There was little waste – everything was used, considered precious and an opportunity, not just thrown away. This was also witnessed in Dharavi with the immense recycling processes for different materials. You hear about sustainability, read it, witness it but in India it was concentrated. They might have to do this due to economic reasons, morals or because the vast amount of people that live there means that they don’t have the space for so much waste. To add fuel to the fire, my mum used to constantly instill in us the importance and prospect as well as the beauty of “beautiful junk”. This has become a strong influence that I want to insure is instilled in my practice and work. My personal design brief is to limit any waste and to use what is already around – to create “beautiful non-junk”.
Old charger with a new life as a detail in the lamp!
As the studios are closed at school during the summer, I planned to approach this project with just what I had existing at home – just as we had when we were in India. There would be no 3D printer, no laser-cutter and no machines. Instead I just had my pinch-nose pliers and my utility knife. The material I found around my house included old cloth, some old cords from electronics now long gone, and leftover neoprene and veneer from past projects.
I ultimately decided to design a lamp as light represented to me a sense of calm and mindfulness with which to approach a situation. This allows you to be able to be open and observe and then hopefully allow you to become part of that rhythm of the place. The rhythm of India usually takes time to get used to – from the fast frenzied chaos to the slow pace of getting anything done. But this overall feeling of chaos is actually just a system, once you are able to decode it. The Indian city is created in layers and you just have to find one part to figure it out. But this seemingly chaos, with all its layers, is what makes it unexpected and fascinating and ultimately always beautiful. I had chosen a lamp to also play with light and create shadows – only when the lamp is on does it create unexpected changes with different shadows. I plan to design the lamp with various layers to represent the different layers of the city, each with its own unique detail and each in its own physical position to differentiate them. This element of design will influence my future practice as a reminder that chaos always has a system – you just need to decode it. The unexpected and the mindfulness necessary to discover its beauty is a philosophy that I embrace and want to add as an element of my future design philosophy.
Dealing with chaos and learning to keep a flexible and open mindset was key to getting anything done in India, especially with a tight schedule. We came across many unforeseen hurdles and we had to be patient to overcome them. Working with the communities, we were challenged by the unexpected difference in visual vocabulary where what was obvious to us was not at all recognized by them. An example was the imagery of a single puzzle piece. For us, it clearly symbolized to join and to come together but for them it was a foreign visual because they weren’t exposed to it. More surprising were similar vocabulary differences but with Indian icons. These challenges were solved by repeatedly going with adjustments in ones strategy. By being more patient, in-tune, and by finding rhythm and trust we could begin to create a shared understanding and vocabulary. Being out of sync also caused frustrations while buying supplies – it was often a wild goose chase or things were just not open. Rather than resisting, it was best to go with the flow and have back-up A, B, C. During this whole process I realized that the common Indian phrase, mentioned at the trip’s outset, “India time” was very much true and that you need to be flexible and patient. Personally I can become quite antsy, but here I learnt to keep reminding myself to let it go and figure out another plan because you can’t force it. An example of flexibility and working with the situation of chaotic India was the construction of some of the roads. In some areas the roads are constructed from bricks. They are convenient for repairing and allow for some give due to swelling of the land due to monsoons, but also they create freedom from shutting down roads for long periods of time in a very busy city.
Being in-tune assisted while working with Savita, the founder of Sadhana. As a founder she is very passionate about her work and thus has a strong vision for how things should be. Understanding her was an important element to ensure our designs were fulfilled to everyone’s satisfaction. It took time and shared understanding as well as sensitivity of how we approached and presented the ideas to get her buy-in. There had to be an ease of application and it had to be relevant but in addition there needed time for the idea to absorb. More importantly, not just for Savita but also the rest of the community, there had to be a sense of control and ownership so that the project was realized. At one point towards the end, Savita presented an alternative vision. After comparing our past collaboration results we made a decision that ours was more suitable and so then had to convince her to embrace our vision. To convince her we explained our rationale regarding community impact and existing context, to help her see the proposed logo come to life as it interacted with the community. With patience, logic and empathy we managed to get her to fully embrace it.
Another very strong influence was the incredible people in India – they have this incredible passion and strength despite all obstacles, which is really admirable. And most have an incredibly strong sense of pride in themselves and in what they do – small and big actions alike. They are generally open and very supportive for each other and communities. Of course I cannot generalize this for the entire country, but most of those who we met had this amazing energy. This was clearly visible in the women’s self-help micro-financing groups, where they have to trust and come together as a close group to find success together. It was apparent with Jyoti, the girl who was getting engaged, in her every reply to our many questions and in how where she treated everyone as if they were her family rather than as neighbors. Even competitors within the same marketplace displayed this deep sense of camaraderie where they would enthusiastically volunteer other competing stores as they would look to help you. Overall, the passion, strength and supportive of the community was observable from every angle and it was truly inspiring to see that innate spirit.