Impact of colonialism on social design practices in India

By understanding the emerging arguments about the Western way of thinking dominating design practices, I have tried to highlight its impact on social design practices in India. Based on my experiences while conducting research in rural South India, I have outlined some of the shortcomings of applying pre-given theoretical design frameworks developed by the West in complex Indian social situations. Further, this article aims to highlight how, to carry out social design practices, it is necessary to develop a new framework of thinking that understands local culture and politics.

The effects of colonialism is visible across almost all genres of life such as literature, media, biology, philology, anthropology, and increasingly in the field of design. Western culture has long been defining ways of seeing and thinking and how the world works from its horizons. Drawing upon from Gramsci, Said argues that this dominant position of power has hegemonized others, with little attention being paid to other cultures and their experiences. [2] Instead of cultures being understood as knowledge forms and configurations of learning, they are being dismissed for not exhibiting the western way of orienting themselves to their environment. [1] This planet, shared and co-inhabited by a plurality of peoples, each inhabiting different worlds, each orienting themselves within and towards their environments in different ways, and with different civilisational histories, is being undermined by a globalised system of power that threatens to flatten and eradicate epistemological difference. [3]

Modern India, a reaction to colonialism, is today a mix of aspirants mimicking the West and traditionalists who retain the Indian way of thinking. Such marginalised countries of the East have politics and power structures within their setting, complexities that are lesser known and understood by the West. Although design as a discipline has existed in the country for centuries, the newly gained definition of the designer as a problem-solver has gained momentum over the last few years. The 5-step design process developed and propagated by Western scholars and practitioners has been widely accepted to fuel the growth of India’s capitalist market, such as the IT industry, driven by the former aspirants mimicking the West. But what is the credibility of these processes solving real problems embedded in the complex social structures of India? What happens when the universal design methods with its universally applicable forms of knowledge is translated and exported to other countries? [4]

Participatory Design (PD) is a Scandinavian design methodology that allows the users to co-design their solutions. Unlike conventional research, PD aims to involve the users throughout the design process to achieve practical and political improvements in the participants’ lives. [5] Many cultures such as India are not naturally democratic, a subaltern resistance exists in such oppressive societies due to existing politics in its social structures. Due to this coming together and solidarity, PD is increasingly gaining popularity as a democratic method of problem solving, that addresses power imbalances by empowering all stakeholders. [6] Participatory design, universally presumed to be desirable, poses itself as a useful approach for social innovation since this allows people with deep knowledge of their social setting to have a say in the design process. It has been used as a tool to empower people within a community as not just end consumers of a design solution, but as creators. [5] While this approach has benefits when adopted in the West, application of this approach in rural India has challenges.

Design research practice in South India: Methods, Impact of Colonisation & Politics

Our research was done in participation with MayaHealth, a non-governmental organisation that engages in preventive health care measures for the rural community of Channapatna. Their micro finance model empowers women entrepreneurs from the community, who work as Health Navigators, provide door-to-door health services. Our goal was to understand hidden needs of the community and identify systemic problems that affect health and livelihood of the community. Participatory Design method was adopted in an attempt to examine the tacit, invisible aspects of human activity; assuming that these aspects can be productively and ethically examined through design partnerships with participants through activities and artefacts. [5] These activities were carried out as part of a series of Focus Group Discussions involving the community and a coordinator from MAYA.

Identifying the right kind of participatory activity that the people of Channapatna would want to engage with was a challenge. A review on comic boarding used for participatory design stated: ‘Comic boarding is a participatory design method that uses specially created comic boards to generate engaging, productive brainstorming sessions with children. By leveraging known plot formats, interaction styles, and characters in comics, researchers can elicit ideas even from children who are not accustomed to brainstorming, such as those from schools were rote learning is the norm. We conducted an experiment using two variants of the comic boarding methodology with 17 children in China, where traditional participatory design may fail in the face of local cultural practices. The results suggest that comic boarding holds promise for co-design with children.’ [7]

Our first design activity was built around the idea of comic boarding with the aim to generate brainstorming sessions with people of Channapatna. Using comics, structure can be provided by placing the design problems, contexts of use, and product personas within a story and facilitating the people’s ideas to complete that story. We pre-filled the first panel of all comics with contexts from Channapatna and allowed the participants the freedom to express anything in the next few panels. We also created characters inspired by the Channapatna dolls, mimicking family hierarchies so that the community would find it easier to tell their stories through a third person.

As researchers conducting design practices conditioned by the Western ways of thinking, we easily fell prey to its politics. While applying comic boarding through participatory design, our natural approach was to flatten the cultural differences by failing to accommodate the different ways in which people of the culture orient themselves in their environment and learning. A linear and logical way of thought that dominated our activity was difficult for the people to engage with. It was assumed that the community would find it easy to brainstorm with our activity and artefacts, not realising that they too were designed through Eurocentric ways of thinking.

While designing the second round of activities, we tried to be more conscious about our privileged assumptions as designers. With a comparatively better understanding of the context, our next activity avoided a linear form of thinking to accommodate ways the community exchanged knowledge: through story-telling. We designed action cards as cultural probes, a means to gather data about people’s daily activities. During the activity, two groups were formed who were to pick commonly occurring scenarios in Channapatna with items they use in those specific scenario. The participants had to act out or narrate how they interacted with these objects. The failures of the second session was not a result of the way the activity was designed but due to the unaccounted complexities that exhibited itself in different ways throughout the course of the session. As a team, we faced a number of linguistic and socio-cultural barriers such as: power imbalances at a societal level between gender, class, age and caste & power imbalances within the family structure that exhibited evident patriarchy and hierarchy. Thus, what was designed to be a truly democratic session witnessed local politics that we were unprepared for. Additionally, procuring a homogenous target group for the research sessions and finding a community of willing participants was difficult.

Ahmed Ansari writes about a similar experience during a case study at Karachi’s Civil Hospital with a group of designers form Pakistan: ‘Far from the easy descriptions of social engagement and community-enabled design practice found in many of the key texts dealing with social design, they found considerable roadblocks and far from radically reframing the system, they found their work always at risk of being subsumed within the politics of the system itself’ [4]

A new framework of thought

Our experience at Channapatna brought to light the limitations of toolkits and methods designed with Eurocentric lens and applied across various cultures - a way of thinking that suppresses and marginalizes local knowledge, thought and expertise. [4] Having said that, completely eliminating methods of design thinking borrowed from the West would be injudicious. As per Balagangadhara, Indian culture is a learning culture that gains knowledge through mimesis. When such a culture comes in contact with other cultures such as the West, it gains new knowledge by partial exchange of authorities. [1] To decolonise design practice in India, what we need is an integration of new, diverse philosophies and frameworks that are tied to local knowledge and practice, informed by local politics and ethics [4] with existing methods of design thinking. Many Indian scholars from the field of Sociology, Anthropology and Philosophy have contributed to the Indian ways of thinking, learning and seeing. A.K. Ramanujam gives us tools to understand the ‘hypocrisy’ and duality of Indian behaviour by differentiating dominant ways of thinking in India, i.e. context-sensitive vs. dominant ways of thinking in the West, i.e. context-free. [8] S.N. Balagangadhara’s work on Comparative Anthropology and Action Sciences gives us ways to understand the dominant mode of learning in India, i.e. action-knowledge. He explains that how Indians have passed on its knowledge and culture through generations is through stories and mimesis. By rendering cultures as knowledge forms, he gives us a significant way of identifying and marking cultural differences as configurations of learning. [1] Both the scholars argue about how dominant ways of thinking by the West do not recognise other forms of knowledge (such as action-knowledge) and other ways of thinking (such as context-sensitive ways) due to its narrow lens.

To develop new frameworks and methodologies of design that uncover its complex social problems in India, one must first understand the dominant way of learning, forms of knowledge and ways of thinking that occur in India. Scholars such as Ramanujan and Balagangadhara give us starting points to understand nuances within the Indian context.


Asian countries, caught between modernity and tradition, orality and literacy, industrial and pre-industrial materiality, require a very different kind of designer [4]: one who does not completely eliminate methods of design thinking borrowed from the West but equips oneself to critically understand the impact of the politics behind it. Integrating this critical thinking with the diverse philosophies that helps one understand the Indian way of thinking, seeing and learning to be informed by local politics and ethics, gives one ways to uncover and understand the complexities of its social structure.

[1] Balagangadhara, S.N. 1987. Comparative Anthropology and Action Sciences: An Essay on Knowing to Act and Acting to Know. Philosophica. 40 (2): 77–107.

[2] Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. Introduction. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London.

[3] Decolonising Design. 2016. Editorial Statement by Decolonising Design. (June 2016). Retrieved November 1, 2018 from

[4] Medium. 2016. Politics & Method: Design thinking arrives in Pakistan. (Jan 2016). Retrieved November 1, 2018 from

[5] Spinuzzi, Clay. (2005). The Methodology of Participatory Design. Technical Communication. 52. 163–174.

[6] Medium. Decolonising Design. (Jan 23). Retrieved Nov 1, 2018 from

[7] Moraveji, Neema & Li, Jason & Ding, Jiarong & O’Kelley, Patrick & Woolf, Suze. (2007). Comicboarding: Using comics as proxies for participatory design with children. 1371–1374. 10.1145/1240624.1240832.

[8] Ramanujam, A.K. 1989. Is there an Indian Way of Thinking? An informal Essay. Contributions to Indian Sociology. Sage Publication. DOI: 10.1177/006996689023001004



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