Innate Design Skills

Design, Designers

Innate Design Skills: Looking for Origins

Ballyn, John

There is something very intriguing about the innate creativity expressed by some artisans but not others. I have a great interest and some experience in developing training materials for use by enterprises in cultural sector, but have been working from the other end – the demands of the market. Why? That is how and where my experiences have led me. I too, believe in implementing ecologically sound and sustainable design, combined with the use of sustainable raw materials, non-toxic chemical products, low-energy tools and equipment, replacing consumer whim with real need. But I find that I can only truly implement such ideas where it can be achieved without inflicting substantial additional risks to the producer group than they have already.

Unfortunately unless makers know that the ideas for products that one wishes to make are wanted, or indeed needed, by society, there is no safe way to proceed with their production, without risking a level of existence which most artisans find precarious. While I agree there are there are extraordinary designer/makers and artisans who have exceptional innate design skills combined with an astuteness in reading customers, based on a long tradition and sense of craft as a spiritual calling, the majority of the people practising as artisans rely heavily for product ideas on middlemen, as well those “designers (who) ‘intervene’ as honest brokers between traditional craft and modern markets” which you mention. Sadly, the transition from high-volume global economy to sustainable Fair Trade purchasing is taking far longer than activists would like. In the meantime artisans everywhere have to continue to work within the parameters of the globalised economy, in both domestic and export markets.

While not forgetting the negative aspects of market-led design interventions, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this particular design process historically produced results which have benefited maker and vendor alike. There is reason to believe that the artisan was not the sole shaper of the products he or she made. Is the history of innate design ability concealed within the way artisans worked originally.

Product Function and Customer Participation in Design
Early artisans made items of daily use: tools, clothing, furniture, utensils etc., which they either bartered for other products or for money. Many of these products were developed as commissions to individual customers’ specifications. Other customers saw the item being used and wanted some of the same artefact. As artisanship developed, some products became a standard design in a particular local or district market, leading to the batch production system; artisans pre-empting customer requirement by manufacturing small quantities in advance for sale in their markets.

Further down the timeline, artisans experimented with product design and development. Products which customers found both beautiful and functional stayed in the range. Products which nobody found useful were consigned to the community refuse heap. But product development was always collaborative between artisan and customer until the industrial revolution generated factories, and further industrialisation generated marketing organisations as intermediaries between artisans and customers, leading to wholesaling, retailing, importing and exporting on mass scale as we know it today.

Industry needed customer requirements if they were to develop compatible products. Somewhere in this period of change market research was devised for obtaining customer need/feedback as a practical aid to product development. But market research is no substitute for the direct relationship between artisan and customer. Perhaps this break in contact is more significant than we may realise.

Some key artisans in UK made the transition from artisan to factory successfully: Josiah Wedgwood in ceramics: the engineer/maker John Newcomen designed and made steam powered deep lift water pumps to drain coal and tin mines. Shyam Ahuja became a great success in the Indian durry industry, while using hand manufacturing to maintain supply. Whether Shyam Ahuja designs can be classified as innately inspired depends on the observer, but there is no doubt that his business is successful because of the changes his company made in design of durries, offering a diversity of product to suit a wide range of taste evolving with market situations.

By the early 20th Century artisans were already suffering the loss of direct contact with customers’ individual design requirements and input. The wealthy still commissioned products from the finest artisans, providing the makers with product ideas that somehow evolved to suit the changing times. As the wealthy were generally better travelled and possibly better educated, they knew about emerging changes in living environments, and could afford to invest in the new products. The interaction between client and maker was a delicately balanced one, where the client wanted a new item, while the artisan tempered the client’s enthusiasm with practical constraints of material and available technology to achieve the client’s dream. The results were often masterpieces of creativity in both function and aesthetic terms, but the product was still a product, not regarded as a work of art.

The more average artisan was possibly drifting further out of touch with customers as industrialisation encouraged customers to buy the cheaper yet worse made factory products. Most customers can only buy what they can afford, even now.

As an aside: in UK today a considerable proportion of artisan production is of beautifully made non-functional pieces, having no purpose other than decoration. Some crafts persons in UK are critical of this move away from the functional product towards “Craft as Art”, seeing functionality as the key definer of craft activity. There is also a marked expansion in the development of “decorabilia”, very expensive items, designed as amusing and entertaining trivia.

By the 18th Century many of the finest makers in Europe were intensely aware of their competitors; every new product being studied closely for technological advances or novel design solutions in structure, function and aesthetic. The aesthetic was quite considerably determined by the demand by those “leaders of fashion” high in the market, each artisan hoped to catch a rich customer’s eye with a new ‘design’, hoping for commissions from clients and their friends. Even today, products advertised as being bought by the Rich and Famous fins sales customers swayed by the behaviour patterns of their idols.

By the mid-20th century many artisans globally suffered from lack of direct contact with customers, as well as a diminished interest in crafts by local customers, whose eyes were being attracted by machine made items on ground of cost. The brass “Lotha” water pot of India has almost been replaced by the cheaper blow moulded plastic version. There is also much evidence of design stagnating, from “traditional” inlay woodwork in Saharanpur still being sold today, to embroidered and woven textiles, developed in Imperial China, remaining strong in the market even now, long after the PRC government denounced the “Four Olds” and ordered the destruction of Imperial crafts products during the cultural revolution.

Reinforcing the Break
There were many national and foreign agencies providing marketing and order processing, consignment packing and shipping services to artisan groups during the mid to latter part of the 20th Century. Many of them commenced their activity by offering the market whatever products the artisan presented to them, regardless of lack in market interest. In many cases some of these products did not even find markets in their country of origin. Some ATOs suffered severe difficulties as they learned that ordinary people will not buy what they do not want.

So the majority of artisan groups appeared to have no understanding that product design is based upon research and study of market need, as well as the capacity to develop new and interesting products, even though they could have used market research methodologies in any market they chose. Products could be developed on the artisans’ own initiative without reference to the customers’ ideas, a considerable number of which were brilliant innovations, derivations or evolutions of traditional design rationale. Other makers were reduced to making variations of competitors’ goods, in the wrong materials and of variable quality.

So local and export ATOs and major commercial organisations used hired local and imported designers to develop new and adapted products which addressed customer needs in each specific market. Many of these agencies built strong and vibrant relationships with their artisan groups, providing the services that artisans were either unable or unwilling to learn. Fabindia in Delhi was a very early participant in such schemes with Habitat in the UK. The founder of Fabindia also built a very close relationship with producers who supplied Fabindia’s merchandise.

One example of the need for artisans to have good market information was Hidesign in Pondicherry. Hidesign’s leatherworkers told me that Dilip Kapur, their company chief executive, could do things they could never do, travelling easily around the world, seeking information, discussing sales and shipments with importers in Manhattan. He, they said, had absolutely no ability in cutting and working leather. But he could come back to them from his talks with customers with ideas for new and stimulating products. Both manager/owner and worker alike each worked as best as they could for their mutual benefit; a symbiotic relationship which is still a strong company in the international travel goods market sector around the world. There are many examples of healthy relationships of this kind around the world.

From my perspective, the current situation is that, given the slow emergence of Fair Trade as the most popular and mutually advantageous form of trading, it is still necessary to train artisans in developing essential business management skills or assist artisans by providing marketing services for them. The word “Middleman” in many countries is a term of abuse for entrepreneurs who exploit their workforce with low wages and atrocious working conditions, dropping them when the fashion for one craft skill declines in favour of another. This situation has an ancient a history, where one group of persons takes advantage of another. This can only be changed by people learning the need to respect every kind of individual on the planet.

Artisan Training
Training for artisans was traditionally apprenticeship based in just about any country you can name, where the master craftsman was regarded almost as a deity whose every word was treated with reverence.

Apprenticeship seems to commence with learning how to clean workshops, fetch and carry, making inevitable cups of tea for master and customer. This led to being allowed to try one’s hand under supervision at various tasks with different tools on scrap materials, then on simple products. In one Burmese woodcarving shop in Mandalay, I watched the artisans sitting in rows all facing the same direction. The front row sitting facing me were the most junior, undertaking timber preparation and rough carving of decorative motifs. The second row made finer detailed carving and some joinery, while the finishing carving, assembly and polishing were the task of the owner of the workshop and his most skilled workers.

All over the world there are countless artisans who have no need to market their products. Their reputation for products of excellence in manufacture and social or aesthetic criteria of the national culture is spread by word of mouth. Is there a clue? Not really, many artisans of the world are famous because the good news spreads.

Japanese bow makers could conceal their signature within the laminations of their compound bows. Their customers knew their work by the quality of function and making, durability and special features of the bows they made.

In Germany today there are still Crafts Guilds, whose members wear uniform, follow strict apprenticeship training and still walk round Europe to find work as day journeymen according to very old traditions.

Why are these master artisans so successful? A master crafts person’s sense of quality extends into a broad spectrum of respect for, and seeking for perfection in:

  • Form:
    in relation to the raw material, production processes and a harmonic relationship with –
  • Function:
    the operation, ergonomic and environmental aspects of the item concerned, allied with –
  • Aesthetics:
    influenced by both long standing and latest trends, as well as emerging foreign influences arriving in the artisan community through trade contacts.
  • Raw materials:
    traditional and new, available, of finest quality and hopefully sustainable, though when material became unavailable, artisans either moved, changed materials, used inferior materials or closed down.
  • Tools and equipment:
    Purchased or self-made, of the best quality they could afford, were necessary as an adjunct to fine quality work. Well-ordered work space contributes to quality production. Health, safety and environmental issues must be given the same attention to quality as to the products’ qualities.
  • Working skills:
    Making skills of very high level are essential for the production of finely finished work.
  • Service to customers, their needs and ideas:
    This is not the interaction of the current marketplace, a vague knowledge of customer needs or desires. This is the ability to engage with the customer so that total service becomes part of the entire product quality, yet does not compromise the values of either customer or artisan.
  • Price and value:
    Two different qualities are involved. Firstly, a fair wage to the artisan reflecting a respect for their skill and integrity. Secondly, a price which reflects whatever values the customer has for the product. In the current situation this is known as “What the market will bear”. Some European artisans actually have no sense of any give and take in prices. Many of their customers have no understanding of the true value of the artisan made product when compared with mass production products.
  • Packaging and delivery, after sales service:
    The quality of provision of such ancillary activities must be as intense as those given to the design and development of products.

All these combine into an essence of a classic design process. These skills and attributes are absorbed by good apprentices, and maintained by dedicated makers. By paying due attention to detail of all the above, is not a good design result quite likely?

But apprenticeship is a waning activity. In NE Thailand no one wants to work as a silk weaver when there is a uniform to be had and good regular money to be had at a multinational factory across the river. Many artisans do not want their children to follow them. Yet there are dynasties of master craft persons. What are the differences between the master and the average?

Some UK artisans say that they can no longer find people willing to become apprentices; wages are poor, hours are long, and skills acquired over time have limited interest to young persons living in a social environment with many distractions. Apprenticeship in reputable workshops allowed apprentices to witness transactions, customer relations, and the politics of trading, all without having to risk their own money or reputation. They can learn frugality, prudence and caution in business dealings through observation. They also observe their master craftsperson making design decisions in all aspects of product development and design. They learn the technical nature and working of materials through trial and error and observation over time.

The apprentice working in the woodblock printing industry in the “Floating World” of Edo in Japan was able to witness the creative skills of such masters as Hokusai and Hiroshige at first hand. Surely this should count for something as an impact on a young mind? If society recognises that young persons in slums run the risk of being contaminated by negative and criminal influences, then the opposite should apply; apprentices who associate with masters should absorb some of the less visible influences that make a master or mistress artisan.

Perhaps creativity and design principle or processes are transmitted by osmosis from master to pupil, in the same manner as the qualities of honesty, openness, equality and fairness can be transmitted from parent to child, through both example and instruction.

Today in many countries people can study crafts in college, and immediately after graduation set up in business to sink or swim. Many practicing UK artisans with very high skills have told me that their colleges or institutions taught them the most difficult task of any artisan:

Finding and convincing a customer that the product they are examining is the finest aesthetic and manufactured quality, technically functional, and best value for money – Market Research, Promotion and Marketing.

The UK Crafts Council now runs courses in enterprise management, which includes intense study of these subjects.

So perhaps we come back to a situation where the nurturing of creativity in an environment wholly dedicated to quality is one of the answers we seek.
Teaching quality?Should there be a holistic relationship of the artisan to the society in which they work? Teaching open-mindedness, humility, social responsibility and accountability and dedication as a holistic activity?

Does an artisan need a mind that enquires beyond the boundaries of their workplace? Can one teach curiosity?

A fourth aspect of master artisanship is a sense of spiritual worth, making products which are not necessarily of high financial value, but which present in their substance a sense of perfection. Teaching perfection and some form of spiritual quality?

This puts me in mind of reading Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. The author admits that the book has precious little to do with Zen, and not much to do with motorcycling. But there was a great struggle with quality. Also evident was a considerable struggle with perfection and spiritual meaning.

At this point I am not sure that I am any nearer to answering the question of innate design skills in artisans.




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