De-sign: designs for anonymous social/public good


I recently realised a paradox in our thinking about designing frugal solutions for contemporary problems. I share it here  to reflect and get feedback. There has been a long tradition in our country and many other societies of artists, designers, architects not signing their creations. Unlike the European  tradition, where every creation is signed and attributed, more or less, for the last 500 years, in our country, anonymity was either preferred or imposed or considered a norm. But it was very pervasive.

Has the concept of de-sign which I define as making things anonymous compatible with our traditional  wisdom, “neki kar, kuyen mein daal” that let every good deed remain anonymous. So much so, it was said in our day to day norms of good behaviour that even right hand should not know when one gives away something by left hand. In a way, vedic mantras celebrated this in most magnificent manner by putting a reminder of ‘idanna mum” after every hymn or mantra. Idanna Mum implies, “ Oh God, it was not mine to begin with, who am I to give it to you then?” But is anonymity in giving away something to third party ( stranger or otherwise) different from giving away credit of one’s art, composition or design of a product or service?

There are three arguments  behind the concept of de-sign: first: we all borrow so much from society, crowd-created content on web, on streets, social media, and even conversations on the street, classes, corridors and elsewhere. Obviously we learn from every where, get inspired and develop thoughts. Second: public or community goods are better maintained when they are collectively owned rather than attributed individually. Third, without enriching public and community domain, public spaces and dialogues cannot be fertilized by those who wish to but are hesitant due to culture of privacy or private interest and goods. It does not mean that there should be no private art, or creation or design of products and services. Of course there should be.

These arguments can be critiqued easily. Without private attribution and appropriation, the creative people will not be able to build their identity, generate income through sale of their goods and services and will not be able to fulfill other social and personal aspirations. The younger people will hesitate in creating only public goods (though movement for free and open software-FOSS proves it otherwise). The role models will expect more generosity than moats ordinary people are perhaps capable of or are desirous of showing.

One can also argue that the whole edifice of the Honey Bee Network is based on creating voice, visibility and velocity for small unknown, unsung creative communities. Then why this call for anonymity, and creation of public knowledge, design and product/service good?

Let me reconcile this paradoxical situation by suggesting that one is not arguing doing away with authored work altogether. This column is after all authored. May be that is why these thoughts might get higher attention, rather than if these are mentioned anonymously on a blog or in this newspaper. But here lies the problem. Should ideas acquire importance because of who says them or their intrinsic worth determine their place in our consciousness?  If the latter is more desirable outcome, then we should create a culture of appraising public art, designs and services at their own terms rather than through the prism of creator’s identity, brand, or reputation. The social contribution towards management of such designs and cultural creativity is likely to be more voluntary, and sustained.

Further, we can have a balance of 5:3:2 among the private, community and public creations of all of us. Individuals can decide the ratio of such contributions for themselves. The culture of pro bono contributions by IPR lawyers, scientists, fabricators etc., has been highest so far towards the Honey Bee Network and NIF. Without such help, the Network could not have served the interests of so many individuals and communities. Can we start discussing the right ratio of such contributions in every family and corporation, design firm, lab, studio, art gallery and enrich our civic and community life? De-sign movement is waiting to happen, will you lend your shoulders.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place