Virginia Tech design professor brings students to India to help, learn

As industrial design students in the School of Architecture + Design at Virginia Tech, members of Akshay Sharma’s class were used to being handed tough design challenges. But none of them had seen anything like this one: Design a bookkeeping system for illiterate women on the other side of the globe so they can effectively track the few dollars they save every two weeks.

Students from Virginia Tech try their hand at the traditional Indian art of handblock printing. Students from Virginia Tech try their hand at the traditional Indian art of handblock printing during their visit around the country.

During the 2010-11 winter break, Sharma brought eight industrial design and architecture students on an 18-day trip to India to allow them a glimpse into life for the estimated 4 billion people worldwide who live below the poverty line.

The goal, according to Sharma, was not only to see what design insights the students could gather from the communities they visited, but also “to see what the students could learn from these designers and artists who create impressive solutions in the middle of extreme poverty.”

The students traveled across India, seeing the way design works in very poor communities. 

One of the places they visited was the Social Work and Research Centre in Rajasthan, better known as Barefoot College, where illiterate women learn skills in medicine, design, engineering, and other fields. The Virginia Tech students interacted with their “barefoot” counterparts and shared ideas about design. The students also visited a dental clinic run by two of the college’s graduates, who despite being illiterate, perform root canals, extractions, and other dental services every day.

The students also visited traditional artists working in fields such as hand block printing, metal inlay in wood, ceramics, and miniature painting, which requires the artist to paint with a paintbrush consisting of a single hair. For students used to computer-aided drawing and drafting, lessons in these ancient crafts were a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.


Indian women await their first look at the new accounting system that Virginia Tech students developed for them. Indian women await their first look at the new accounting system that Virginia Tech students developed for them.

“After seeing with world-renowned craftsmanship, you see that time and hard work pay off,” said Lina Garada, a second-year industrial design student from Richmond, Va.. “There’s no substitute for time and practice.”

Garada said the experience also changed her outlook on the world. “After India,” she said, “I came to appreciate things a lot more. Make the most out of what you have. You’re alive and healthy, that’s plenty to be thankful for.”

The trip complemented a five-week class module in what Sharma describes as “Designing for Empowerment,” a new design science that focuses on the technical and social factors that define life for the world’s poorest and attempts to create practical tools to assist them in their everyday lives.  

“Design has the power to change the world, but only if we start addressing some of the most critical issues being faced by our society,” Sharma said. “Design should be a tool for empowerment, especially for women.”

Sharma had asked the class to consider ways to help women participating in a micro-lending collective, where they women are loaned small amounts of money to divide among themselves for basic entrepreneurial ventures, such as purchasing a sewing machine to become a seamstress. Because they are illiterate, they must depend on a bookkeeper to manage their money for a hefty fee, sometimes as high as 20 percent.


Assistant Professor Akshay Sharma, at center, works with women participating in a micro lending collective. Assistant Professor Akshay Sharma, at center, works with women participating in a micro lending collective, which pays for basic entrepreneurial ventures.

The students created the Bahikhaata, a system that allows the women to track their money and make financial planning decisions. Inspired by a traditional Indian floor game, it uses pockets to help organize different aspects of the financial transactions. The system also uses a software application to help a facilitator conduct financial literacy training sessions.

While in India, they tested their system, which is made of sewn fabric, with the type of women who might use it. It received good reviews, and based on the feedback, the students improved the design and sent it on to be used in the real world. The system, which also has a digital component to help train people to use it properly, is being adopted by a non-governmental organization in the microfinancing sector in India.

The bookkeeping system has been nominated by the Designers Society of America for the prestigious World Design Impact Prize. Sharma recently learned that the project is a finalist for the prize and will be on hand for the award ceremony in Helsinki, Finland, in February 2012.

Sharma is preparing to take the next A+D+India program group to India for a longer time during the winter break 2011-12, where they will examine new design challenges.

Learning how to design for people with few resources makes people better designers no matter what they end up focusing on in their later career, he said. “How do you design an experience for a user that cannot read or write?” Sharma asked. “You create similar situations for yourself and keep exploring ways till you find a solution that works.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Dana Cruikshank at 540-231-2108.

Designing for Empowerment

Designing for Empowerment has grown from a five-week experimental course for students in the School of Architecture + Design into an interdisciplinary program involving students and faculty from other Virginia Tech departments working with their counterparts in India and Kenya.

Akshay Sharma, assistant professor of architecture at Virginia Tech, said the ethos behind the initiative is simple. “If design is about creative problem-solving, then we must address some of the biggest issues facing the world, especially those at the bottom of the pyramid.”

To this end, students and faculty from the College of Engineering, the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, and the Center for Human Computer Interaction are tackling some of the obstacles facing the poor in the developing world. Their efforts include:

  • Creating a cellphone charging system for areas with an irregular supply of electricity that would give people in those areas a reliable connection to the rest of the world.
  • Developing a program that uses cellphones to increase the vaccination rate of children in developing countries by empowering community health-care workers and families.
  • Building better prosthetics for amputees in India by creating an anthropometric data collection system to be used by the Jaipur Foot Organization to collect accurate measurements of Indian feet.

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