From practical school furniture to tribal crafts to regional garments and fonts, Indian entrepreneurs are employing design for increasingly worthwhile causes.

Over centuries, our inherent ability to imagine and create has led to the evolution of design as a specialty. Whether it be age-old streams of design (architecture, sculpture) or those that contemporary society relates to (graphics, fashion, interior, furniture design), young people all over the world are taking innovation to all sorts of spaces.

In spite of a general inclination towards the sciences and the mania around management studies in recent decades, design has become relevant to almost every existing industry. It is how the term ‘creative economy’ has gained significance world over.

In countries like the United Kingdom and Singapore, the emphasis on novel ideas — as opposed to just new tools or machinery — has increased. The United States has traditionally been able to maintain the kind of environment that encourages creative entrepreneurial drive — creative economy is well-established there. In India, diverse design streams are now recognised and receive some impetus from the government and reputed businesses.

With an increase in opportunities for corporate tie-ups, government grants and scholarships, many design entrepreneurs can aspire to have thriving brands in the long run — think of how the Indian textile and garment industry, for example, enjoys considerable interest from the West because of our unique fabrics — and a new breed of young Indian entrepreneurs has set out to make a difference.

Social entrepreneurship is not new to our country. As a result of India’s diverse needs in the social arena, the prospects are many. Furthermore, design as a field of learning has evolved over the years. Premier design institutes across the country have produced some very talented and internationally renowned designers.

The market has allowed for dedicated customer bases and reliable avenues for profit-making. Social entrepreneurs and designers, now, can collaborate to make a difference in society, while running businesses that generate reasonable returns consistently. What could be better than designers who are also social entrepreneurs, addressing vital needs of the social sector?

Seats of learning

Achyutha Sharma is the founder of Sulochana Development Trust, which was set up to specifically support creative arts and design for social impact. One of its projects, Poorna Kaksha, develops and delivers innovative infrastructure to rural and urban schools in India. The second, Collaborative Community, offers design and strategic consultancy services to social sector organisations.

Barely 30, Achyutha is the India ambassador of Sandbox Network, a global community of young entrepreneurs and innovators. A 2012 Young Creative Entrepreneur Award (YCE) finalist and a design graduate himself, Achyutha says, “I wanted to use design as a tool for innovation and make it meaningful as well as relevant to developmental efforts in India. I believe there is much untapped potential and scope for collaboration in this space.”

Causes like education of disadvantaged children do attract monetary contributions and voluntary involvement of Indian and international philanthropists. But many developmental efforts overlook the impact an elementary facet like comfortable and practical school furniture can have on a child’s learning abilities. Besides, addressing this gap is not a lucrative proposition for reputed designers. Poorna Kaksha tackles this disparity by coming up with solutions that are affordable for rural schools.

Ryan J. Figuieredo, a senior consultant at KPMG, has extensive advisory experience in large reform projects both in rural and urban Indian contexts. A trustee of Sulochana, he comments on the success of such initiatives, “The value a project like this brings is that of low-cost innovation that does not compromise on quality and addresses the needs of rural children. Poor infrastructure is often a key reason why children drop out of schools. The right furniture becomes an equaliser among the children from diverse castes and sends out the right message to their communities.”

Collaborative Community was started to tackle the issue of NGOs unable to market themselves and the causes they promote due to limited financial resources. Achyutha and his team work with non-profit organisations as well as for-profit entities that are interested in creating positive social impact. A range of cost-effective services is made available to this untapped segment. Social impact organisations get help in the development of marketing strategy, branding, marketing campaigns running even into the social media space, and multi-disciplinary design. For instance, the team worked with the Government of Karnataka's Regional Resource Development Authority on a niche project with Lambani tribal craftswomen. The artisans went through a training workshop held by Achyutha and his team before going on to create a lifestyle product range commissioned by the government body. Such initiatives pave the way for artisans to generate unique products and earn their living. “Collaborative Community has grown to include defining impact in the social sector and collaborative engagement with other organisations addressing the sector, while also looking at new initiatives in training and the creation of jobs,” says Achyutha.

It takes all types

Take the case of Sarang Kulkarni, another 2012 YCE finalist. As a fresh graduate in 2002, Sarang followed his passion for Indian letterforms and type design and started WhiteCrow, a type foundry and a design studio, in Mumbai. For about four years, not much work came his way. One day, Vodafone India approached him to develop a range of regional fonts. Today, he is customising typefaces for a variety of regional branding requirements of market-leading businesses. WhiteCrow works on all Indic scripts: from Devanagari to Bengali and Gujarati, a host of South Indian and Northeastern languages, and even Urdu and Latin scripts.

With multi-language branding opportunities increasing, Sarang is confident that WhiteCrow’s strong calligraphic base will ensure sustained revenues in the years to come. He says, “I want to take Indian languages to the forefront in the design space. Customising typefaces is challenging work. Sometimes, issues of text portability crop up. So we are working at standardising typefaces and fonts so that they work seamlessly on any platform. Typing in regional languages must become more user-friendly.”

The dying art of street painting is being revived through a collaboration between WhiteCrow and Handpaintedtype.com, an online community that hosts fonts and showcases the culture of street painting across India. WhiteCrow digitises the creations of street painters, sells them online all over the world, and ensures the original artists get half the sales proceeds. Sarang says, “We’re trying to bring street painters together as a community and keep their craft alive.”

Rooted style statements

Paromita Banerjee, also one of this year’s YCE nominees, has featured regularly at Lakme Fashion Week, since 2009. A National Institute of Design (Ahmedabad) product, her brand’s ideology stems from a local approach to global aesthetics, rooted in India’s handloom sector. Every garment of her label is exclusive, reflecting regional distinctiveness. Ensembles created for every collection result from partnerships between her core team in Kolkata and different weaver clusters across West Bengal. Says Paromita, “As a label, we have tried to connect design with what is naturally and abundantly available to us. From the start, we have worked with a set group of weavers who produce hand-woven fabric. Our garments are expensive because we try to ensure the weavers get a good percentage of the profits. Expanding our textile vocabulary is an option, but we will always remain committed to local craft.”

While it is fashionable for many high end clothing labels to claim tie-ups with craftspeople at the grassroots, some younger designers have taken it upon themselves to make a difference through their individual ventures. “Fashion is always for the glamorous. There is no getting around that. But younger designers are fearless about being different in their approach, as we have no image to keep up. Ironically, our handwoven fabrics are better received outside India. Our grassroots designers enable us to take contemporary yet original garments to a global customer base,” says Paromita.

Paromita retails out of reputed boutiques across India and in the United States through an agent. The ensembles are a mix of various textiles, textures and techniques. Her clients include industrialists, those in the performing arts, and Members of Parliament. Unassuming textiles like khadi are often a rage, she says. As a designer, she is confident in her conviction that fashion that is strongly tied to local craft will always have a market.

Community craft

Over the last five years, a small but committed venture has successfully taken tribal craft to the mainstream. The Ants store in Bangalore is an offshoot of the Action North-East Trust (ANT), which is active in over 150 villages across five work clusters in Chirang District of Assam. The trust focuses on the empowerment of women and ensures sources of livelihood for them, besides helping village children and youth get a meaningful education experience in their schools. It also works with farmers and runs a mental health community programme. Smitha Murthy and Pradeep Krishnappa, husband and wife, runs Ants. The store showcases the designs and products of Bodo artisans. All the merchandise is handmade and not necessarily low-priced. “We wanted to change the perception of the Bodo tribe as ‘bomb-makers’ and ‘insurgents’. We have lived and worked among them and our experience of the place has been beautiful. Not only do we ensure that design graduates experience this for themselves over the period of a few months, we also connect direct wholesalers from other parts of the country to the artisans,” says Smitha.

The popular Ants Café subsidises the operational costs of the store. From home furnishing, clothing and accessories as well as handicrafts, the store has a variety of products that reflect the originality of the Bodo regions. Smitha is Head Designer for the Ants store and also consults with other NGOs who want to set up support and design centres in various parts of the Northeast. “It is a struggle to try and ensure the artisans get the most out of this. Established retailers like FabIndia and Mother Earth know the challenges and have some years of experience dealing with it. The only difference we bring is that we are not in the business of growing into a chain. The day we feel we are not making a difference to these communities, we will shut shop.”