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Sharmila Wood

New Delhi, India


Member since August 10, 2010

  • Thinking through Design Interventions

    Poverty, Industrial Design


    Designing is not a profession but an attitude. Design has many connotations. It is the organization of materials and processes in the most productive way, in a harmonious balance of all elements necessary for a certain function. It is the integration of technological, social, and economical requirements, biological necessities, and the psychological effects of materials, shape, colour, volume and space. - Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Bauhaus School.

    What should be the role of a designer? How can interventions mediate between tradition and change? Should they be attempting to do so? What are the kinds of markets that have opened up to artisans through the medium of design intervention? Is design intervention a short-term intrusion into an artisan’s design sensibility and life, or does it have a long-lasting impact on his or her artisanal creativity and work? Is it a process that adds value to the artisan’s work, economically and in terms of creative inputs? Should all forms of intervention aim at a holistic approach, including craft regeneration and self-sustainability, or is it meaningful to intervene with restricted aims, in which case the artisan is effectively treated as the equivalent of skilled labour, executing the designer’s vision. Should we instead be teaching artisans the formalized design process as set forth in design institutes?

    Photograph taken at Abhushan: Design Dialogues in Jewellery, Skills Development Workshop, New Delhi 2011

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    Love, Freedom, Flow, New Caribbean Design is a marketing and design initiative that aims to create awareness about Caribbean hand made products. The project, initiated by Patty Johnson of the North South Project, is a collective of companies, producers and communities in the Caribbean. There are a core group of six designers from the region – Hansie Duvivier (Haiti), Stella Hackett (Barbados), Andy Manley (Dominica), Philip Marshall (Barbados), Cassandre Mehu (Haiti), and Lesley-Ann Noel (Trinidad and Tobago) who are involved in the development of products.

    Objectives: Cooperation between partners, enterprises, manufacturers, communities, governments and designers Develop a distinctive brand for Caribbean crafts Focus on the strengths of the product, by focusing on the upper end of the market through high quality materials, detailing, production and design Produce innovative, high quality products based on traditional techniques and made from indigenous materials Revive crafts in the Caribbean region Celebrate Caribbean history and culture by promoting artisans and craftwork Challenge the concept that Caribbean craft is souvenirs and kitsch Re-imagine the way that Caribbean handicraft traditions are presented Bring Caribbean handicraft tradition to the forefront Methodology The designers worked closely with artisan producers, communities and cra...

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    At a time when globalization is linking areas spatially but disconnecting pasts and presents everywhere, the designer is an important mediator between discontinuous realities. Designers are thus an interface between tradition and modernity, helping match craft production to the needs of modern living. Crafts in the developing world remain, dominantly, an activity cast in a predominantly rural matrix, whereas the market is increasingly urban, if not global. The designer must work in a deep collaborative format, negotiating relationships with end users in urban centres, consumers, and artisans- in a careful and systematic process of consultation, research, co design, testing, and evaluation. The designer is facilitator, mentor, interpreter, preserver, and protector of culture. They must be able to implement professional design discourses, negotiate complex collaborations with co designers, and undertake visualisation, adapt and transform.

    Photo courtesy of North South Project: Estha Baskets

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    A key element of the handbook that I am working on, is the importance of transferring skills so that artisans can design their own products. Within this framework, there are a number of different approaches, which, I'll blog about. There are several new innovations in teaching creative thinking, problem solving, reflection and planning. There is a broad knowledge and expertise required to undertake a design intervention. In order to to move along the continuum from daily wage labourer to an independent designer/entrepreneur, requires the transmission of skills over a continued period. Kerry Ann Wilson from Zardozi, Markets for Afghan Artisans, recommends: ‘Nurture and develop those who have design skills, develop what design capacity there is and recognise that not all artisans can design. For those artisans who have a passion for design provide a comprehensive training course.’

    Photo: Anwesha Dhokra Necklaces, India

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    When planning for the design-craft interaction, it is important to evaluate the most relevant methodological approach to the project. A designer identifies the best format for an intervention by asking questions about needs—of the craft, of the artisan, and of the market. Whilst the characteristics and identities of crafts may differ across regions, countries, and communities, there are methods to evaluating the most relevant kind of intervention. For instance, if the aim is to preserve cultural values, and crafts as a cultural symbol, then the most appropriate intervention would be aimed at retaining the traditions, and skills unique to that craft.

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    The discussion on the importance of design and the necessity of business skills in sustaining crafts, is articulated by Zoe Dean Smith from Vital Voices. She has worked primarily with Gone Rural, an enterprise based in Swaziland producing,and exporting woven products. She states: 'Design is crucial to the viability of a craft enterprise. There are many handcrafted organizations that start as income generation programs for refugee organizations, women’s empowerment, and human survivor groups, and they think because of their compelling story that this will sell the product. However, this is not enough, consumers want a product that is either useful or beautiful, and it has to be the right price. Having worked across the world, there are similarities in the kind of issues facing craft enterprises, these are: access to markets; product development, and lack of capacity. A case in point: a rural woman from the village has been trained to do embroidery and is having some success selling at the local market, but she has problems growing her business, as she doesn’t know about exporting, or how to deal with large distributors.'

    Photo: Baskets from Uttar Pradesh, India

  • Market led design

    Arts & Culture


    Design interventions are closely linked to business development, and hence, the sustainability of craft when it is seen as a livelihood option. As John Ballyn states:

    'I believe that artisans are in business to survive and exist as any other business. Making products that don’t sell leads to the collapse of the business. Some artisans continue to trade solely in artefacts of great cultural heritage and survive, which is a wonderful thing both for the artisan and the cultural heritage of the world. Others will make anything people ask for, surviving and thriving in business. Market led design assists both artisan and customer by incorporating within the design process the identification o a market together with the concept for new or adapted products.'

    Image: Malkha Quilts from a product development workshop assisted by Crafts Council of India

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    I have recently begun work on a project for UNESCO and Craft Revival Trust. I am researching, and writing about designer and artisan interactions, with the aim of providing a set of ethical guidelines to promote a more equitable exchange. Design is a business development strategy, critical to the survival of a sustainable craft sector, and plays a critical role in the sector. I am using the 2005 guidelines section of Designer Meets Artisans, a publication that you can view here: Please visit this link for more information:

    I am looking at expanding and adding on issues and complexities that are now part of the craft and intangible cultural heritage landscape to make the document relevant and usable by students, practitioners, marketers and others. I've been speaking with artisans and designers from around the world, who, have been sharing their experiences of what has worked, and what has not. This has been revealing- as challenges, obstacles, and problems appear universal.

    I hope to bring in a global perspective, so that the guidelines address the current context. This is an interesting project for me, as I've worked at a grass roots level with Aboriginal artists, and most recently, with artisans in India through Craftmark-Handmade in India, and seen on the ground level the difficulties and challenges that organizations who are marginalized by social, economic, and cul...

Market Access, Livelihoods, Social and Economic Justice, Rights & Responsibilities

Contact Sharmila Wood

My Interests

  • Industrial Design
  • Environmental Design
  • Communication Design
  • Fashion Design
  • Audio/Visual Design