Crafting Economic Opportunity

Author:
Ann-Marie Conrado
Company/School:
University of Notre Dame

PILOTING DESIGN EDUCATION IN A DEVELOPING WORLD CONTEXT

Ann-Marie Conrado
University of Notre Dame

INTRODUCTION

Handicraft and small cottage industries in Nepal have taken an enormous beating over recent decades, predominantly due to stagnant product development. As just one example, at its height in the early 2000s, the pashmina industry in Nepal generated revenues topping $110 million a year, but within a decade that number had shrunk to $25.83 million in 2010. Although the Nepalese product was superior to global competitors, the lack of innovation in product and patterning commoditized pashmina, devastating the industry. Nascent efforts to encourage product development within the handicraft market have only been met with limited success, primarily due to the inability of companies to recruit and hire trained designers. Many handicraft companies rely on traditional craftsman to develop new products, a task they are ill equipped for. Other companies attempt to develop talent from within, hoping that experience working with overseas buyers will translate into the design skills needed to innovate, but it can take years to build those resources from within.

Currently, design education in Nepal consists of graphic design for advertising and brand identity along with a number of private fashion design institutes. There are no educational institutions in Nepal offering a product design curriculum. Even with a limited manufacturing base, that absence is felt across various industries, from small cooperatives to large manufacturing entities. The ability of companies to innovate and provide distinct value to domestic and international consumers through the development of meaningful and appealing products and services is a major factor limiting economic development in Nepal. But with no prior educational or industry imperative to cultivate product design as a vital component of economic growth, the education sector has not responded. For the last 15 years, our research has been engaged in product development for the handicraft industry, primarily with fair trade artisans. These efforts have shown the immense value that skilled designers can bring to this market and the positive economic impact on the often most disadvantaged in society, the traditional craftsman entrusted with the artistic heritage of a culture. With a burgeoning artistic scene and an excellent arts curriculum particularly appealing to students from traditional craft castes, a product development curriculum would be well situated to attract art students seeking job opportunities and career pathways. Rather than bringing designers from abroad, or relying on external buyer input, there is an urgent need to cultivate talent from within...read more.