The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.
By: Annu Yadav
In October 2008, 8 weavers committed suicide in Sircilla, a small town in the state of Andhra Pradesh (India). This was preceded by another incident in 2006, when a destitute weaver of Sircilla sold his four-month-old son for Rs 500 (approx. $10) to keep the hearth burning. Talented craftsmen breathe in unremitting poverty even when hand-woven Indian textiles appear on the ramps in Paris. The vast, dispersed and highly unorganized Indian Craft sector further limits the share of the craft producer in the contemporary new markets to a bare minimum.
These uneducated craftsmen have no means of understanding, accessing and adapting their products to the new emerging markets. And thus, are at the mercy of the many middlemen and dealers through whose hands the product must pass before reaching the final consumer. Persistent policy measures by the Indian Government and efforts by NGOs have failed to reflect a substantial change in the bizarre conditions of the craftsmen and artisans. But a few organizations have shown some promise. These crafts sector models are both empathetic and sustainable. These organizations with innovative business practices, have attempted to bring in system design strategies, reinstating the craftsman at par with their product’s market valuation.
According to Thomas J. Watson Jr, second president of IBM, “Good design is Good business” which helps a good product succeed faster as well as a bad product fail faster. Today’s consumers favor well-designed brands, products and experiences, which are imaginative, meaningful and valuable – from Apple’s iPhone, to Starbuck’s in-store experience, to Disney’s entertainment venues.
Reinterpreting the term ‘Craft’
Design Thinking can be the much-needed impetus to monetize and scale the sustainability-led craft industry and generate equitable business opportunities. Various tools of design strategy like design research, system’s thinking, user-centered product design, segmentation and factor analysis, needs-finding, and holistic innovation strategy, can help increase the value of crafts in the minds of the modern glocal (global+ local) consumers. The reinterpretation of the term ‘craft’ along with re-strategizing the entire system in an effective but inexpensive way has yielded some favorable results.
Fabinida one of the most profitable retailers in India, is one such highly successful model that has seen the “middle man” in the handicrafts industry transmuted into an organization encouraging fellow craftsmen to become “design entrepreneurs”. Its a company which has artisans as its shareholders and it marked revenues of $325 million in 2008-09. Over the years, FabIndia has grown to employ around 40,000+ craftsmen across India producing handmade garments, furnishings, fabrics and ethnic products. On analysis, a sustainable, community-owned, consumer-centered design approach has been the key determinant.Continuous design research into the chic urban tastes of India fuels the quality expectations and product requirements for a particular season. Surface techniques like Appliqué have been nurtured and FabIndia is now popularly synonymous to quality ethnic wear in India. It spends extensive time informing the craftsmen of market trends, educating them through design inputs and providing easy access to funds and management skills.
FabIndia recently set up 17 centers throughout India and then incorporated them as Supplier Region Companies (SRCs), where the artisans collectively owned 26%. This mutually beneficial ownership structure ensures FabIndia all the supplies it needs, while the craftsmen and artisan are ensured of a steady income and growth, thus respecting and encouraging them to be entrepreneurs.
Aporv.com is another organization, which has uniquely harnessed the power of the internet platform to help grow the crafts ecosystem. Though the internet provides the largest platform for discovery and commerce, it fundamentally challenges the applicability of selling crafts online. Aporv.com offers their appreciators the story on how the product is made, where it is made and its history. This adds intrinsic value to the product and provides customers the tools to make an educated buy.
The most interesting part about Aporv is that the company doesn’t decide on the product price and leaves that for artisans themselves to judge. This is aimed towards making these individual artisans ‘entrepreneurs’. To counter the touch-and-feel factor that retail stores have, Aporv.com has a no-questions-asked return policy. By being a constant information-feedback-addition platform, Aporv.com is able to meet market demands and scale supply by directing more craftsmen towards what’s in demand.
There are lots of untapped opportunities in areas such as fashion, home furnishings and tourism by adapting traditional skills to new product opportunities in emerging markets. The involvement of contemporary Indian designers with crafts has, in general, been responsible for creating a new awareness and desirability, which has been beneficial for the artisans.
The above examples aid crafts producers in repositioning their skills and uplifting their quality of life. And perhaps, they can prove to be effective in protecting their traditions, their knowledge, and their self-worth.
Annu Yadav is living in San Francisco , studying MBA in Design Strategy at CCA. She is a designer and artist and has worked with craftsmen in India for various projects.