Skip to content

Leveling the field: Ideas & Craft

As is the case often, the universe conspired to finally put my thoughts together for this blog post. Design is a demanding mistress at its best—demanding both great intellectual and craft capital. It is of course unfair and unrealistic to demand equal proficiency of every designer, and that I recognise as some sort of general human failing or attribute (along with no claws & tails). However the gradual increase in a polarisation of the ‘idea’ and ‘skill’ as two seemingly independent streams is what begins to confound me. It doesn’t end here. It gets worse, with a veneration of the ideas designer over the craft/skill designer. Three things happened to me across the last 10 days, and push came to shove, to this post.

The first was a visit to a fascinating exhibition called Fractures: Indian Textiles, New Conversations, at the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon. Curated by Mayank Mansingh Kaul, Sanjay Garg & Rahul Jain, the exhibition presented a new way of looking at textile craftsmanship, beyond its ritualistic and historical legacy and associations in India. A series of projects created specifically for the exhibition by a diverse group of creative practitioners—fashion designers, artists, graphic designers, film-makers—brought to life vivid new imaginations in tangible physical experiences. Particularly intriguing for me was textile & fashion designer Aneeth Arora’s installation Link/Interlink, an ethereal experience with the thread on thread technique. Aneeth’s piece drew from netted, lace-like, pulled thread seams found in North Indian garments as a decorative detail. By developing a new labour- and process- intensive technique for machine embroidery, Aneeth created architectural surfaces that cue the delicacy of her inspiration and present a singular recreation of the jalis or screens from traditional architecture.

Installation by Aneeth Arora

As I stood within the translucent enclosure of her installation, it struck me as familiar and new at the same time. What a rare thing to achieve—something new, but not alien. What a difficult thing to achieve, and seen not often in graphic design, where a majority of ‘good’ work still lies within the confines of a known aesthetic. For me what made Aneeth’s work stand apart was her head-on engagement and exploration of the technique/craft itself. There’s no denying the beauty of the underlying thought, but without the sublime realisation via craft, technique, process it may have stopped short.

The second thing, within an exact week of my visit to the exhibition, was an honest fifteen minute talk by product designer Mukul Goyal at the studio’s latest edition of show & tell.

Mukul Goyal. Photo by: Sijya Gupta

As much as Mukul will most certainly laugh at my mention of him as a brand, Mukul Goyal became a design brand as an individual, well before many others, with his humorous witty products finding their way into households of a varied nature. In the mid 2000s, I consider that no mean feat in India. Mukul spoke about what he was really passionate about, and I am glad that he chose to talk about the rigour of manufacturing that he was constantly trying to better, despite the leeway that handmade (or light engineered) products often get in the matter of imperfections. That, he said is what he was equally challenged by & determined to change. He could have, given the popularity and recognition of his works, chosen to talk of inspiration and imagination. But he chose to talk about making.

The third was this rather enjoyable article on Medium, that found its way into my social network feed. That did it. I had to write this post, reflecting on what I know a little better than textiles or product design—graphic design.

By denying craft and skills their due worth, we are reducing design to a incomplete, weaker product. Making things, is not merely the end of the creative process—instead it is a continuous learning and enriching of the idea, all the way to the end. In his interview in Dekho, Orijit Sen, founder People Tree, talks of the ‘intelligence of the hand’. The process of making, tests the mettle of a good idea and can make or break it. Sure content is critical, but delivery can orient and engage your audience with equal prowess.

Secondly, as content responds to the changing world around us, so must craftsmanship. I am never quite settled on which side of the fence I am on, when it comes to discussions on the lack of an Indian identity in graphic design. However what bothers me is sameness. India is waking to the importance of brand identity with heartening zeal. But final execution of often great ideas, seem to be suffering from an average effort to find craftsmanship that pushes the ball when it comes to uniqueness. Good is not going to cut it, new is imperative. But discovery of new aesthetics can only come from a sustained and conscious effort in the ‘making’. The same open field and aggression that higher-level brand strategies play on, need to be pushed in the craftsmanship of ideas.

In closing, expectations from and veneration of ideas & craftsmanship need to be at par. Otherwise the investment in design for businesses/brands/organisation will only lead an average yield, with the regret that this could have been bettered. If none of the above made sense, the diagram below should do it.

Illustration & Lettering by: Pragun Agarwal