Connecting culture to design: Where is the “problem”?

In a very broad and generalized way if we see, this world has evolved looking for solutions in two different ways. I have heard this example from Dr. Kiran Seth, the founder of SPIC MACAY and I will narrate it here in my own way:

Lets say the problem is of feeling hot.
One group of curious people investigated and found the answer that the air around is the cause. Hence they found ways to resolve. Fan was invented.

Another group of people in another part of the world faced the same problem. They investigated the problem and found they are ultimately the receptors to these external changes. They worked on the technics to master themselves. Yoga was invented.

Slide 1
The problems were solved in both the cases. However, today one is known as “design” and the other did not quite find its place.

And this big difference, has caused design and culture which are otherwise so closely integrated to part their ways.

Why do we need culture?
It is a result of the trials and errors and a carry forward of what is thought to have worked, towards what could be better. We are already carrying it in us whether we like it or not, in our ways of thinking, our behaviour, our ways of living and acting and reacting to the surroundings and situations. Though we can change our behaviour, learn and relearn, feel one with some aspects and not feel in tune with some, there are still a lot we unconsciously soak and absorb from the surrounding as we grow up.

Hence, to have culture or not have culture is not the question. The problem lies when we have rationally picked up the behaviours from one group of thinkers and are still carrying the lineage of the other group whose influences are very much still part of us. And the amalgamation is not quite done well.

This is the reason why we are almost living a dual life. Our education in school has hardly any similarity with what is taught at home. Teacher has taught science, mother has taught God. Offices are being closed on festivals for occasions we ourselves don’t know we believe in or not. And the same individual after celebrating that fantasy-day returns to office in his rational suit to attend the meetings in a different avatar. Personal life and professional life. Are these two supposed to be so different? Shouldn’t work and life supposed to complement each other?

And because of this duality, “culture”, being left at home and not taken along to evolve through meetings along with us, is becoming orthodox and superstitious.

Slide 2

It is now like a pool which once was used everyday and was a great source of knowledge and nourishment for all. It is now left in the backyard to rot. And yet from time to time we have to draw water from there. Designers would take when they have to do a project and the context and background needs to be touched. Politicians would draw from it when for their purpose they require. But nobody really is taking care to clean the water, which when had life of its own was self-cleansing.

Personal and sidelined:
It is not acknowledged properly. All the years of work that have been left for us in different disciplines are not part of our mainstream studies, not even as a history of that subject in India. It is something to be followed through personal interest. Therefore the importance has been diminished.

Evolution is not conducted consciously: For something to get “evolved” it has to be “lived”. A dead entity cannot evolve. Therefore, it is in the rigid, orthodox and superstitious chamber we have locked it in. It is almost like a frozen waterfall now and should only be admired from a distance.
The moment a new step is taken, there is fear by the groups of people that the “culture” is now getting spoilt. Again, the same festivals are being conducted every year each time with more creativity on the surface. White-clothed Saraswati after getting bored with years of white sarees are trying a little make-up with red Benarasi sometimes.
But because the understanding is not from the root and is not being “lived”, it is not evolving through our lives moving from the core with definite purpose finding its way in the right direction.

Unidentified: If the different aspects of this culture would be nurtured under different disciplines, if sociologists studied and took ahead what was in the pool, if designers acknowledged its concerned aspects as design, if Ayurveda was understood and taken ahead in modern medicine, there would have been people with understanding that could guide us and take ownership.
Treating it as something to be left at home, without properly being identified, it now very dangerously belongs to the people with the least understanding, who with their violence and ignorance can distort.

Shouldn’t we rather move ahead and become “global”?
A student had once asked me, “If we keep talking about culture, won’t we be left behind? Shouldn’t we rather focus on the “global contribution”?
I asked him to focus carefully on the pictures that come to his mind when he thinks of the word “global”. It almost stands as an opposite word for “cultural”, as if that which comes from that region is not part of the globe. As if the globe is somewhere else and we all have to become that to become global or its part.

Slide 3

It is almost like there is now a standardized contribution that one could make. Almost like, the rule of the game has now changed and contribution in only one selected colour is qualified. Different regions naturally were evolving in their own ways, solving problems of different aspects through the experiments that as learnings accumulated in them. Now with the new colour code, its not only that their years of experiments are being seen as useless but also this new attempt of re-colouring is taking its own price on making us foreighners to our own concepts.

Wouldn’t culture divide us?
With the same colour pallet, we do however feel more united. There are lesser visible differences. Wouldn’t there be more clashes with more differences?

I was once having dinner with a group of people from Germany. They had come to India and were talking about various things that surprised them during their stay. While I was listening to them I was myself getting surprised to know that something that I grew so used to could actually be something so surprising to somebody else. I was just telling myself how blind one can get seeing the same thing everyday that one requires someone else from outside to show, in a different way what we indeed see everyday.

And that is when one lady from the dinner table decided to leave and along with her another man too left. Just when this happened I looked at the expression of another man across the table. It felt like a light went off his face and it darkened. I knew exactly what he was thinking and feeling just by looking at his face.

Slide 4a

And I realized, all these differences we are talking of are on the surface.
We are like the different variations on the surface of the earth but drawing from the same source underneath, from the same water-table of emotions and feelings, sadness and happiness.

And the more we can ourselves get closer to our own source, the more we can feel the oneness. And Indian philosophy is occupied with discovering this unity. And a culture that is so obsessed by this goal cannot divide, if only understood well.

“A Stanford professor explains how ‘design thinking’ can help you lose weight, stop worrying, and change your life.”
That was the title of an article I had come across. It said, “Design thinking was invented by Roth and other Stanford engineers, and it’s typically used to improve on a specific product or experience, like a light bulb or online dating. Yet in “The Achievement Habit,” Roth explains how the very same process can be turned inward, helping individuals become happier and more successful.”

And then it goes on to explain in terms of the design process…

“1. Empathize: Learn what the issues are.
2. Define the problem: Which question are you going to answer?
3. Ideate: Generate possible solutions.
4. Prototype: Abandon perfection and either build your project or develop a plan.
5. Test and get feedback from others.”
(Read the full article here.)

Slide 5a

I felt happy that finally our habits and lives and our inner-environment is being focused on. And I sighed thinking, what was all along with us, we could not recognize…

When to identify a problem?
I was traveling in the train once and a young man’s seat was in the lower berth and mine was on the upper one. And each time I got down the metal staircase, he shrunk himself in disgust. Each time I passed that passage he would with so much hatred look away.
This behaviour was so stark, it could shake you through your self-respect.

Slide 6a

Here is a man who has not learnt how to be at ease with the opposite sex. His expression showed that my purpose on this earth was to divert him from his path, to make him become a person he does not want to become. I was the evil one and my very existence was the evidence.

Later, while climbing the same staircase, I looked down. He was watching a porn in his cellphone.


I had a friend who I met after 4 years. He was a creative individual. When I met him later, he was almost like a diseased man. He was plotting and planning to hunt on women, made strategies to put up the show and was obsessed. I could then see how it was working on him. It started as an honest affair. Multiple partners, casual affairs are common these days with honesty between the people involved.

Then the greed took him a step further. He was then hunting for two and pretending with both while the honesty was no more there. But there was a struggle also to not be that man. But the force of greed and lust is such, the man becomes weak to his will and keeps taking one step further and further away.

A criminal does not become a criminal suddenly or is born that way. It is a story of victory and failure, against the “asuras” within us. If a culture focuses on the inner development, these people can be helped and solutions in the right stage can be found. Else as “design solutions” we can only build better prisons and stronger handcuffs once these people have murdered someone or committed a rape.

(Watch the interview of Swami Sanjay Bharti speak on a tantra vision of life here.)

What is “living” design?
It is when design is not only something that we create but also that what creates us. It is problem-solving within ourselves to make us better individuals and create that environment where everyone is encouraged to pursue it with the understanding of its immense impact.
Slide 8a

What is a wholesome design solution?
It is the output of a design problem which has looked into and taken care of both inner and outer solutions.
Slide 9aWhat would be the ideal picture?
If we could set the equations right, instead of the stagnant pool, we could have a strong tree standing upright, with a cyclic process of giving and taking, strong root and a living culture. All that is not needed, would be shed off with time when new leaves replace the older ones. When new pollens from other trees come around, it would also find its own place for newer outcomes.

Slide 10

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