A Note on Tradition and Design

Traditions are a cultural mechanism. The basic underlying rule is: we do or make things in a particular way because we have always done it this way. This mechanism serves to safeguard the values and identity of a community. It can also strengthen the bonds within the community because of collaboration involved.

There is room for change in a tradition, but only gradual change. If a traditional way of doing things changes too fast, then by definition it is not traditional anymore (or not the same tradition). Traditions can be beautiful, but there is some danger in romanticizing them too much. Human memory is not very reliable. If a tradition lasts more than three generations it is perceived as “always”.

Traditions are invented all the time – it seems contradictory, but it is not. Communities have to adapt to new circumstances and a community that doesn’t innovate will grow stale. An invented tradition will become a “real” tradition if it is embraced by a community. An example is the Balinese kecak dance, based on traditional Balinese dances but choregraphed by two German filmmakers in the 1930s. Some aspects of a tradition can be quite alien, like the patterns characteristic for batik from Cirebon, which have a Chinese origin. Another example, less defined and culturally elevated, is Car Free Day. This new tradition actually creates a new urban community around the modern and abstract value of “we care for the environment”.

A tradition, invented or not, is not owned by anyone and it shouldn’t be forced upon anyone. Otherwise, it will not perform its social function of strengthening the identity and values of the community; it will only enforce someone else’s values.

It is a reality that some traditions or traditional skills will not survive when they are outdated and don’t serve a social purpose anymore. To a certain extent this is a normal process. However, modernization and globalization may speed up this process to an abnormal level. Economic value (the power of money) takes precedence over any other value. Sometimes traditional skills are still preserved by individuals who perform them as a hobby (as happens in Western countries, where modern technology has all but erased traditional craft), and sometimes they are documented by research institutions. This means there can still be hope for reviving such a skill, but it is by no means a secure way of preserving it.

Designers basically say: let’s forget about the way we have always been making things and rethink it completely – make a fresh start and come up with something new. Therefore, compared to a traditional way of making things, design is at the other end of the scale. Designers generally want to optimize the product and the production process. They do this for the sake of novelty and optimization, and not (necessarily) for the benefit of a community. A designer can ask people with traditional skills to make his design for him, or he can use traditional materials, but this has nothing to do with the mechanism of tradition. In so doing the designer uses a tradition, but does not become part of it. The community does not own the design, he does.

It is possible to invent a new tradition by introducing a design in a community of people with traditional skills. But this can only happen if they embrace it, and if the designer is willing to give away his design.

In a tradition change is evolutionary: small and slow, with many iterations. Designers want to achieve as much improvement as possible in one iteration. They want to leap forward, but the discontinuity this causes can destroy a tradition. Although it is possible that a community will benefit from an optimization process by design, again, this has nothing to do with tradition. It is a different mechanism, with a different, even opposite goal, i.e. change and not continuity.

If a designer wants to help a community of people with traditional skills, he has to be careful not to break their tradition’s mechanism. If the goal is to help them economically – a fair enough goal – there is a risk that the “new ways” that are introduced will destroy not only the tradition but with it also the community. For example, some people who catch on fast will make a lot of money (relatively), while others, maybe because they are less smart or “purists”, will remain poor.

Having people with tradional skills execute designs that are owned by a designer is basically providing them with work. In itself it is a good thing that they are still able to use those skills, but they sold them, in a manner of speaking; they don’t own them anymore. If they don’t have a sense of ownership and control towards their skills, there is a risk that they feel no pride for them anymore, will not care for them anymore, will not develop them anymore, and will not necessarily want to hand them over to the next generation anymore – all of which is the opposite of what you want.

One economical problem with many traditional skills is their low value. Realistically speaking, only because they are traditional doesn’t mean they are exceptionally refined skills. Many were developed to provide poor people with cheap utensils (or, poor people could provide themselves with cheap utensils). Nowadays, mass-produced alternatives are available in the market that offer better quality or durability for a good price. Theoretically, it should be possible to “upgrade” traditional skills, i.e. raise quality levels or add client customization, in order to be able to ask a higher price for the product. This is a big change from the perspective of the makers, who are not used to addressing the issues of durability and quality, and have no social connection with the new market they would be aiming at.

You could offer people with traditional skills potentially helpful information about marketing, materials, techniques, finishing, treatments, etc. Show them examples, and very carefully guide them in making their decisions, if at all. Recognize other skills they have besides their making skills (they are more than a production tool). On an economical level, you could try to provide them with access to new market opportunities. Direct selling would be the preferred situation, although in a society dominated by consumerism (the supermarket model) the buying process tends to deteriorate into a mere transaction of money for goods everywhere, which does not “feed” the mechanism of traditional production. Ideally, the makers should never be disconnected from the buyers, and local selling can still cover quite a large area (think what a handphone can do).

It is a good thing to examine if an endangered tradition or skill can be revived or redirected by design, but I think it is a very delicate matter. To begin with, the designer and the craftsperson should be equal partners in this process, but it is not certain that this is possible. The design method is based on rationalized technological conditions, and as such it is a natural enemy of traditional ways of making things. No amount of good intentions can change that.

Cultural preservation and economic development are not exactly good friends, so you have to think of a really clever way of combining both, or you could end up doing neither, or even the opposite.

Sybrand Zijlstra, December 2012

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