Design Thinking Through Intentional Co-Design: Culturally Inspired Creation in the Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery

By Dr. Sarah Anne Carter, CDMC Executive Director and Associate Professor in Design Studies

This spring the Center for Design and Material Culture is hosting an exhibition in the Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery that connects to two of the CDMC’s three pillars: The Study of Textiles and Design Thinking. Coming Together: Culturally Inspired Creation (April 20-May 27, 2022) is a collaboration between artisan designers in the Kutch district in northwest India and students at the University of WisconsinMadison. Meeting in the Dorothy O’Brien Innovation Lab, students learned about Indian textile traditions from their artisan designer partners and through objects in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Choosing an object in the Collection as inspiration, student and artisan collaborators co-designed scarves for the contemporary market. The exhibition features these final works, along with their inspiration objects. The project developed from a class taught by Judy Frater, the University of Wisconsin–Madison Division of the Arts’ interdisciplinary artist-in-residence. Judy Frater is a curator, author, and school director who lived in the Kutch region in Northwest India for 30 years. She was hosted by Design Studies Professor and noted artist Jenny Angus.

This exhibition is presented in co-sponsorship with the Division of the Arts and the Design Studies Department.

The textile part of this story is clear. 15 UW students worked closely with four co-faculty in Kutch who are experts in the crafts of weaving, block printing and natural dyes, bandhani (Shibori), and Suf embroidery. Joined by 11 additional collaborators, each of the 15 UW students partnered with a craftsperson from Kutch. They studied traditional textiles from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, and other sources as inspiration. Each pair designed a six-piece collection of accessories. The textiles are front and center, featuring beautiful historic textiles as well as creative new designs fabricated by artisans in India on view in the Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery.

The design thinking part of this story comes into focus when we consider the ways in which this work was designed and the project’s reliance on an intentional co-design process. The class met in the Dorothy O’Brien Innovation Lab, a space designed to support the kind of collaborative, design thinking approaches necessary for this work.  The design thinking approach of the class shines through in its focus on listening, empathy, problem identification, and co-creation, as well as attention to power dynamics and reciprocity between UW students and the designers in Kutch.  Using the messaging platform WhatsApp, communication and a collaboration unfolded between the co-designers at UW and in Kutch. Even with language barriers, differing backgrounds, and time restraints, there was reciprocal understanding and creation.

Students in the Design Studies 527: Global Artisans class working in the Dorothy O’Brien Innovation Lab.

Prof Angus, who was trained in design thinking methods as an alumna of the Teaching and Learning Studio at the Stanford explained more about the intentional co-design structure of the class, “the WhatsApp platform is a safe space without the power dynamics that might exist with an in-person collaboration in which sex, age, and a dominating personality might influence the team direction. In fact, the interface creates unlikely pairings that would not have typically occurred. Most of the communication is through drawings and photos, with text used mainly to confirm materials and dimensions. The virtual creative space provides an opportunity for each team member to be wildly creative and build spectacular synergy together.”  

Sam Eklund, an Engineering student in the class who is pursuing a Design Strategy Certificate explained, “When creating, [each] duo is not solving but really improvising upon each other’s ideas and designs, all through a binding of each other’s thoughts into a prototypical piece. In these stages, the holistic process of co-design starts to come to fruition.” Zakiya Adil Khatri, one of the Bandhani artists for Kutch partnering on the project elaborated, “If you are working by yourself you have only one mind.  But in co-design there are 2 minds and 2 different personalities working to create something new.  It is always interesting how your partner creates different ideas from the same inspiration.” 

Engineering student Sam Eklund and their co-designed textiles in the Coming Together: Culturally Inspired Creation exhibit.

Founded on this intentional co-design relationship, the resulting collection of textiles offers as much about reimagining traditional textile techniques as it does about the possibilities of collaboration and co-design. The project highlights how the Dorothy O’Brien Innovation Lab, the Helen Lousie Allen Textile Collection, and the Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery can all be employed to foster meaningful and transformative design thinking experiences for UW students. See the exhibition on display through May 27, 2022 and learn more on our website