Improvisation is the Future of Design: How Improvisation via the Informal Economy might Impact the way we Design

With the “Global North” crippled in an economic crisis that doesn’t seem to go away, will the business of design, that depends on the formal capitalist economy follow suit, or will it learn from the more vibrant informal economies in the “Global South”?

With Dharavi as a backdrop, I participated in a two-week workshop which was a part of Droog Lab: Here, There, Everywhere. Other collaborators on the project included, Rajeev Thakker (Studio X Mumbai), Renny Ramakers (Droog), Bas Princen, Quaid Doongerwala and Shilpa Ranade (DCOOP Architects), Eric Klarenbeek, Jorge Mañes, Rahul Srivastava (URBZ), Ranjana Dani, (MIT Institute of Design, Pune), Radhika Desai (Domus India), and Agata Jaworska (Droog).

As stated on the Droog website, “Initiated by Renny Ramakers, cofounder and director of Droog, ‘Here, there, everywhere’ offers a new vision on the future of design. In collaboration with designers, consulting experts and local partners, Droog speculates how people in daily situations worldwide can inspire new directions for design. Current and past project locations include Dubai, New York, the Canadian North, Moscow, Belgium and Mumbai.”

Designers are very clear about what they want, and thus the process of realizing their design tends to be predetermined. In this workshop, we were exploring how the unique qualities of improvisation or jugaad, in the informal economy might enable designers to work in new ways. This could then have a profound impact on the design process and methodology for designers in the future.

While the informal economy in India is ubiquitous and practiced throughout the country, we based the workshop in Dharavi for several reasons. With a million people living and working in Dharavi’s 1.7 square Kilometer area, it is the most densely populated place on Earth. Although, Dharavi is notorious for being called “Asia’s largest slum” — in truth, it is not even a slum — it is a massive industrial manufacturing center with over 5,000 types of industries and in some sense — anything from papads to high-end leather goods — can be made here. It is also highly probable that we all own something that was made, at least in part, in Dharavi.

The annual turnover runs into millions of dollars and the residents of Dharavi demonstrate a capacity to improvise and generate value, despite their circumstances. While Dharavi’s economy is ‘informal’, a high level of self-organization and community spirit is very evident.

In this workshop, we were side-stepping one of the traditional notions of modern design where “form follows function”. We decided to “ignore” the function of what we were creating and work with any form, and start “anywhere”, and then reach a conclusion through a process of improvisation. This could – perhaps, but not necessarily — be the function (or use) of the object created. The traditional notion of form follows function, is not in sync in the context of the informal economy and the Indian notion of jugaad.

We were also trying to break down traditional hierarchies between designers and makers. What happens when we designers, outsource not just the production but the design itself to the producer? Can we learn from such an exchange? Can it help us open our mind to new experiences and ideas? Will this “risk-taking” push the boundaries of the way we define design? Can this lead to a paradigm shift in the way design is understood and applied?

We started with an abstract mathematical diagram, found via a Google search on Indian Mathematics. A corollary to this formula was conceived by an Indian mathematician, which was partially the reason for the choice. The primary reason, however, was that this form doesn’t exist in the material or natural world — it had no context for us and the people of Dharavi. This would avoid any pre-conceived notions of its use. “The abstract diagram was a way of breaking routine for the designers and the producers,” says Bas Princen, who lead the workshop. “Production of ordinary goods was replaced by experiments in new ways of engaging, involving input both from the designers and the producers. As designers we had to adjust our attitudes to work within this system.”

As we began making things from the diagram, we adopted a few guidelines to take us forward. One, we encouraged the people we were working with, to tap into their network, and involve others in the process. For instance, Faisal Bhai, the sock-maker involved his friend, Anwar, a metal smith, to help us make a 3D object from the original 2D diagram. This helped us tap into more of the resources and processes available in Dharavi. Two, each object made could be used as a tool, or starting point, for the next iteration. Doing this would also enable us to better understand the diagram and the equation behind it. I call this process of — “re-looping” the same process and diagram but with slightly different results each time, that drive the next iteration — Recursive Design.

As we proceeded, we broke up into groups based on each of our professional expertise. So, as a graphic designer, I worked mainly with 2D objects while the product designers and architects worked on the 3D objects. After working with a sock maker, Bas and I went to a pattern illustrator to see how he could push the diagram by using constraints like repetition, scaling etc.

Then, with the “new language” of patterning, I decided to approach a jaalee (frame) maker and tried to push him to think in terms of patterns based on our diagram, which were to be made into a metal frame. I ended up working with two different jaalee makers. It was interesting to see how one of them understood what we were trying to achieve, and pushed their thinking to make a 3D jaalees from various perspectives of the diagram.

In the course of the two weeks, we went from a low-resolution jpeg file to representations of the diagram made by: an offset printer on three type colored pads (cyan, magenta and yellow), a screen printer on t-shirts, a photographer into an abstracted rendering, a metal smith into a 3D model, a frame (jaalee) maker into a twisted metal 3D form, a pattern designer into several patterns and repeats, another frame maker into a pattern in metal, an embroidered into an embroidery of the diagram, a metal box maker into several boxes, a leather goods maker into a 3D model made of leather and so forth We went from 2D to 3D, and from single object to a pattern in 2D and then 3D — where one iteration informs the next. The materials we used included paper, cloth, metal rods, metal sheets, vellum and leather.

What I learned from this workshop is that the notion of authorship in design is no longer valid and a new concept of co-creation has emerged – that is interdisciplinary in nature – transcending both the boundaries within the field of design and outside it. Such that an anthropologist, a carpenter and a designer can all be on equal footing when it comes to a design project. I call this phenomenon, “Democratising Design”. It frees us designers from the ‘burden’ of being ‘creative’ and opens us to new possibilities — of working in new media, using novel methods and with the help of people from various backgrounds. There are risks in this process, such as different expectations and levels of understanding, but the rewards are even greater: the possibility of creating a real impact for a wider audience and ultimately, the inclusion of design and design thinking in everyday life.

Additionally, while this project focuses on breaking down barriers between the designer and the maker, and teaches lessons on how new paradigms in design can potentially evolve out of this shift in thinking, there are bigger ramifications for us Indians especially in terms of how to break down existing social structures and create a more inclusive and compassionate society. A society where perhaps, one day the maker (low-class), designer (middle-class), and the consumer (upper-class) will all become one. Where, there would perhaps, be more empathy and understanding of how excessive consumption can harm others in the chain. A time where, we wouldn’t ‘need’ places like Dharavi, which, today has become the “purgatory” of all our design and consumerism, and where almost everything we consume ends up as ‘waste’.

The brunt of this is borne by the workers of Plot 13, who, in reincarnating “our junk” into diced, reusable plastic pellets, that are then China bound – unknowingly — breathe in noxious, cancer-causing fumes. The environmental damage is also palpable: The Koli fishermen don’t fish near Dharavi since all the fish are poisoned.

As Published in Take on Art magazine, Issue 7, January 2012

Project team
Director: Renny Ramakers (Droog)
Partner: Rajeev Thakker (Studio X Mumbai)
Media partner: Radhika Desai (Domus India)
Lead designer: Bas Princen
Design team: Quaid Doongerwala and Shilpa Ranade (DCOOP Architects), Ishan Khosla (Ishan Khosla Design), Eric Klarenbeek, Jorge Mañes
Consultants: Ranjana Dani, (MIT Institute of Design, Pune), Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava (URBZ), Rohan Shivkumar (architect), Lilet Breddels (Archis/Volume)
Content & project manager: Agata Jaworska (Droog)
Studio X team: Adrienne Thadani, Nicola Antaki, Soumya Raja
Supported by: Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and City of Amsterdam

Droog Lab: Here, there, everywhere
Initiated by Renny Ramakers (co-founder and director of Droog), ‘Here, there, everywhere’ offers a new vision on the future of design. In collaboration with designers, consulting experts and local partners, Droog speculates how people in daily situations worldwide can inspire new directions for design. Current and past project locations include Dubai, New York, the Canadian North, Moscow, Belgium and Mumbai. The design outcomes with accompanying essays and interviews will be published in a book in 2012. The initiative is funded by Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, City of Amsterdam and local partners.

4 thoughts on “Improvisation is the Future of Design: How Improvisation via the Informal Economy might Impact the way we Design

Add yours

  1. This kind of project helps on many levels
    1) bringing together people of different strata together
    2) creating new possibilities in design
    3) appreciation of otherwise neglected areas, giving them a chance to come out of routine work while exposing designer to a humble experience
    4)creating awareness about things that matter. Well done..
    very nice sir..
    thanks for sharing with us… let me know if i can be of any help.

    1. Thank you Varun. I think all your points are valid. There’s however, a risk also involved in this process and we have to see if it can work in commercial scenarios. Also, this was a massive team effort with anthropologists, sociologists, designers, architects and others involved, not to mention the people of Dharavi themselves

  2. what did you guys pay to utilize the intellectual property of the poor Dharavi, and how did you cataloged the ownership of those improvisational ideas, which is very evident have economic value to the global north, is that not exploitation by design.

    1. Hi Mark, thank you for your comments. This was actually a two week lab which was looking at Dharavi and other such informal markets not for exploitation but as a potential workshop for partnership in design projects. Since it was Droog Lab that initiated the project, they paid the artisans directly. As far as I know, they were paid as per what they wanted and usually charged for this work. They were all invited to be a part of a open discussion on this issue at the end of the two weeks. Some of them came and saw what all the others in Dharavi were working on. We worked in collaboration with URBZ which is a team of anthropologists who are embedded in Dharavi — their office is in the same space that they are studying. Their relationship with locals is mutually respectful. Going by this, I think exploitation is a harsh term. Whatever we made was for exhibition only not for sale. Thank you.

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